Thursday, May 04, 2006

Sliding Towards Absolutism

There were a couple of posts I wanted to point out, one at Mahablog and the other, a review of David Sirota's new book at TPM Cafe by Nathan Newman. While each has its own value, I didn't at first realize their connection.

The first by
Mahablog is a discussion of an article in this past Sunday's NYT magazine basically on Freud, the fascist mind, and current political developments. I'm glad she pointed the article out because although I get the Sunday Times I didn't look at the magazine. I won't attempt to summarize either the whole article or Mahablog's comments, but I think it would suffice to say that a key element of both is the tendency towards absolutism and intolerance in today's conservatism, a vitriolic dislike for ambiguity.

The other post at TPM Cafe by
Nathan Newman wonders who, or what, exactly, liberals think our "enemy" is. Who is the enemy of the Common Good that folks like Tomasky want us to be concerned with? If there is a Common Good, it would stand to reason that there is a force, or array of forces or processes acting in opposition to that Common Good which progressives must oppose. Newman argues that part of the conservatives' electoral successes over the past several decades has been just this quality--the ability to conjure up a class of enemies of which people of good will and proper morals should be afraid and opposed to.

I suspect this talk of "enemies" is uncomfortable for many liberals including myself. Politically it's often difficult in practice to single out any particular entity for condemnation on account of the fact that the target--some polluting corporation for example--is more than likely an employer of large numbers of people and maybe even your brother. Who votes. Likewise with religions, church leaders or denominations. We may think Pat Robertson a loon, but we likely have at least one friend or relative who watches The 700 Club, and for that reason, we might want to err on the side of politeness and ambiguity when determining a political campaign message or strategy.

On a more philosophical level, however, I think liberals by and large don't tend to think in terms of enemies, particularly at least enemies as being people, any of our fellow citizens. We may complain about Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly, but most liberals don't object to the existence and participation of those different from themselves. One of the underlying features of liberalism is its pluralism--the belief that the aim of society is to somehow ensure that people of varying beliefs, practices, tempraments, etc, can live together peacefully and all more or less equally contribute to and participate in the body politic and generally be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor and the community of their fellows without undue interference by others.

Let me give you an example. It's growing convention wisdom that there exists a secular-religious divide in American, with large majorities of devout Christians voting for Republicans and secular or atheistic people voting for Democrats. But these two groups are not diametrically opposite. Atheists may not like religious expression in the public square and not want to have someone else's religious beliefs imposed on them, even if it is a belief held by the majority, but most atheists don't have a political program or philosophical belief that assumes religious believers should be excluded from society or punished for their beliefs, either in the present or in the "age to come".

Unfortunately, this is not what most Christians believe at a fundamental level. Most Christians believe in some form of eternal life and future age of utopia in which only they and fellow adherents will share Heaven with God. Unbelievers, heretics, those who have "rejected" God's love, will, after some form of judgment, either die and remain in the grave, or suffer through an eternity of torment. Although many Christians in the West tend not to highlight this dimension of their faith, or choose to believe in a form of universalism in which almost everyone on the earth is eventually "saved", there are a not insubstantial share of Christians who are taught to regard non-believers, sinners, as deserving of eternal punishing or punishment. Not all of this class advocates that that punishment be administered by civil governments. But some do, or at least could conceivably be convinced to give passive acceptance of it should a goverment or society wish it. In any event, an orthodox Christian belief system includes a philosophy that essentially makes certain people, even large numbers of people, expendable (and makes a book like The Party of Death so misleading--the argument that liberal Democrats are the "party of death" turns each party's philisophical underpinnings upside down).

In a nutshell, this is the Absolutism that more and more pundits, elected leaders, religious elites, and opinion-shapers want to urge on the country. There is a certain right way to think and act. Deviations from this order will and should at least at some point, be punished. It is reflected in a variety of lingo, the most common perhaps being "moral relativism", a particularly attractive straw man. The use of phrases such as moral relativism also carries with it the belief that there are certain, maybe even many issues that should not be issues at all, should not be matters of social or political conflict, matters on which the mass public should be concerned or engaged with. The message behind complaints about moral relativism is that certain grievances, needs, wants, or rights should not be given a forum in our democratic institutions. It is a philosophy that is inherently undemocratic. It's quest for conformity and unity and demands for absolutism are an "unhealthy" attempt to reduce conflict and eliminate the uncomfortable but inherent tension in everyday life. Consider
these paragraphs from the NYT magazine article"

Freud's implicit morality is counterintuitive. Though Freud acknowledged the uses of mild intoxicants like love and art, he was nonetheless extremely suspicious of any doctrine or activity that promised to unify the psyche--or to unify the nation, the people--without remainder and to do so forever. Freud believed that the inner tensions that we experience are by and large necessary tensions, not because they are so enjoyable in themselves--they are not--but because the alternatives to them are so much worse. For Freud, a healthy psyche is not always a psyche that feels good. For Herbert Marcuse, author of a brilliant meditation on Freud, "Eros and Civilization," Freud's politics are potentially the politics of ecstasy. We can collectively undo our repressions and regress toward collective erotic bliss. For Philip Rieff, author of the equally perceptive and original "Freud: The Mind of the Moralist," Freud appears to be a deep political pessimist who thinks that the healthiest individuals will probably be those who turn completely away from politics. But another way to look at Freud is to see him as someone who suggests that a considerable measure of freedom and even relative happiness can come from following a self-aware middle way. If we are willing to live with some inner tension, political as well as personal, we need never be overwhelmed by tyranny or fall into the anarchy that giving into the unconscious completely can bring.

For Freud, we might infer, a healthy body politic is one that allows for a good deal of continuing tension. A healthy polis is one that it doesn't always feel good to be a part of. There's too much argument, controversy, difference. But in that difference, annoying and difficult as it may be, lies the community's well-being. When a relatively free nation is threatened by terrorists with totalitarian goals, as ours is now, there is, of course, an urge to come together and to fight back by any means necessary. But the danger is that in fighting back we will become just as fierce, monolithic and, in the worst sense, as unified as our foes. We will seek our own great man; we will be blind to his foibles; we will stop questioning, stop arguing. When that happens, a war of fundamentalisms has begun, and of that war there can be no victor.

There is an inherent puritanical, Final Solution-ish fetish in the frequent calls for "moral clarity" and purges of "moral relativism" (or moral relativists) by many leaders on the political "right". If everything or near everything can be characterized as "right" or "wrong" than inherently, these are matters that legislation, constitutional parameters, or court rulings cannot respond to or address. Essentially, if most matters are either/or, black or white, right or wrong, there's no need for people to elect leaders to decide most issues critical to the community. Of course, if there is a right or wrong belief or action for everything, than there must be someone or something that makes this determination. And if the people, through a constitution, or branch of government are largely not allowed to make that decision, than another entity, say the Church, must. Consequently, this form of political absolutism demands a hierarchy, an authoritarian, non-participatory form of government.

Needless to say, this is a radically different notion of citizenship and humanity than that shared by liberal Christians and non-religious people, and one that potentially presents the greatest threat to a democratic society.

Now, it's important to point out that not all Christians are political absolutists and not all political absolutists who find their home in the Republican Party are Christians. But voting trends as well as the political posturing by many recognizable religious elites do serve to highlight the relationship and conflict between a politicial absolutism, rationalized on religious grounds, and political pluralism, the social arrangement believed in by small 'd' democrats.

Confronting this challenge will not be easy for the progressively-minded. I fear that appeals to economic populism or the Common Good will not adequately defeat the more malicious designs of political absolutists, at least not for any extended period of time. And even though many of us who share an opposition to political and moral absolutism are Christians ourselves, mitigating the reach and effect of the religious right will be difficult. Our institutions and books are not generally conducive to moderation. Our religion has been tempered by tradition. A tradition of democracy, freedom, and yes, humanism. All religions are a fusion of book-based theology and historical and human tradition. In other words, our beliefs are shaped by both orthodox theologies and culture. Unfortunately, the tradition that colors many conservative religions is an older tradition based on misogymy, patriarchalism and hierarchy. It's a tradition largely hostile to the Other in community life, a tradition hostile to the values of political pluralists and democrats.

So what are progressives to do? One, I believe is we need to elevate the ideological to our campaigning (and our bloggering). Conservatives have skillfully used the instrument of language to set the parameters of political debates, chiefly by demonizing liberalism, humanism, secularism and even in some cases, pluralism itself. Liberals need to rehabilitate these words and defend their contribution and importance to American democracy. The liberal blogosphere is getting more attention these days, not all of it positive or accurate, but it does provide an opportunity to insert new words, symbols, and ideas into the political debate.

Two, to the extent that Democrats rally around an agenda based on the Common Good, it must be a Common Good that celebrates and safeguards our diversity, not one that demonizes particular groups of people or one-issue interest groups (as some on the left seem to be demanding). In debates and campaign ads, Democrats should recognize that while "some people say" that liberals, women, the poor, environmentalists, or university professors are hurting America, we say that we can't risk attacking ourselves and that we need to allow everyone the right to play a part in shaping and improving our world. It's a bit lofty and idealistic, but hey, maybe that'll work for a change.

Third, by all means we should continue to push for a fairer economy, a more just and moral economy that promotes the consumer and worker above the interests of the financial centers of power. Specifically, I don't see why any Democrats campaigning in 2006 or those hoping to run in 2008 should not make a repeal of last year's bankruptcy "reform" legislation a very public item on their will-do list. We don't need to promise a cure for every economic inconvenience or to pledge absolute equality of outcomes. But we do need to demand that individuals be protected from forces more powerful than themselves.

In short, in order for progressives to increase their electoral share and hope to influence policy, we must identify and target the main problem facing the country and having done that, articulate the nature of the problem to the public. And that problem, from my point of view, is the risks of Political Absolutism. If I'm close to being right about this, Democrats will realize their other political aims--campaign clarity, authenticity, and the like by honestly, plainly and firmly making their concerns and aspirations for the country known.

1 comment:

beepbeepitsme said...

Theists want absolute answers to changing questions.