Archive for the ‘liberalism’ Category
I’m currently on a research trip in Kenya, so have been following the news of the debt crisis from afar. In a country, and a region, currently facing a real crisis of famine, in part caused by the inability or unwillingness of various regional governments to prepare for the third drought season in a row, the fake crisis manufactured by extremist politicians in the US does seem a bit silly (silly, but still with wide ramifications, as an article in the Kenya Daily Nation argues). But in both cases, the unwillingness of governments to put governance before politics is marked, as this political cartoon reveals.
Not long ago, a blog I follow posted this video, a tourism video for a ‘libertarian paradise.’
When travelling or working in Africa, Asia, South America, and other parts of the so-called ‘developing’ world, the things that mark countries as ‘more’ or ‘less’ Read the rest of this entry »
Humanitarian rhetoric has ramped up recently. Do we have a moral duty to intervene on the behalf of those civilian populations in Libya being targeted by Qaddafi (or in Bahrain, or Yemen, or Egypt, or Cote d’Ivoire)? Is it our responsibility to respond to the ‘humanitarian’ disaster following the earthquake in Japan (or New Zealand, or Haiti, or Chile)?
Accompanying this increased (over)use of ‘humanitarianism’ has been a growing reaction against it. Pundits from Fox News to the Guardian who pointed to a humanitarian crisis before the intervention are now questioning its relevance – do we need to intervene because it is a humanitarian crisis? Or is it a humanitarian ‘crisis’ because we need to intervene? And once we’ve intervened, what comes next? State-building? Humanitarian relief? Regime change?
I was going post a comment to Nemo’s post about Tony Judt and the need for a language of morality in left politics, but I realized I had a lot to say, and so its worth writing a whole post. I think as historians we have some special insight into this issue, which should push us to articulate ideas about moral language rooted in solidarity, not abstract notions of right.
On one hand it’s hard, as a historian, not to be skeptical of universalistic claims of morality and ethics which Judt’s argument seems premised on. If there is one enduring lesson of history it is the degree to which values and belief systems which seem so natural to historical actors are in fact embedded within social, ideological, and political forces—in a word, history—that individuals are unaware of. This is what makes us, as intellectual historians, different, from say, philosophers; we study the deep historical roots of ideas and thought. If ethical judgments are also embedded within these historical forces, and I see no reason why they aren’t, then shouldn’t we be reluctant to base our politics on them?
Let me give an example. Lyman Beecher was this fellow, and he is known for, among other things, co-founding the American Temperance Society, as well as the Society for the Suppression of Vice. It doesn’t take a genius to see how his crusades against alcohol were situated within the demands of the emerging marketplace. As Paul Johnson, among others, has pointed out, the type of evangelical moralism that Beecher promulgated in the 1820s was appealing to the emerging middle class which saw alcohol as inefficient and a detriment to the type of self-discipline the market required. It’s not that Beecher didn’t believe sincerely that he was doing right—he did—but his moral judgment was the product of the particular historical place he inhabited. I think a lot of us are rightfully worried that using a stark language of morality will get us in similar trouble.
On the other hand, though, I absolutely agree with Nemo and Tony Judt about the need for a robust ethical vision in left-wing politics. As commentators to Nemo’s post pointed out, Judt is hardly the only voice out there making this argument. From Matthew Yglasias, in an insider Washingtonian sense, to Terry Eagleton in an Lacanian/Marxist/Aristolean sense, to Jim Wallis, in a Protestant social gospel sense, a number of prominent voices have been calling on the left to return to a language rooted strongly in a moral perspective. Until we articulate clearly that things like war, torture, racism, sexism, economic inequality, etc… are morally wrong—not just inefficient, or unwise, or against our preferences—but morally wrong, even evil, we strip ourselves of our greatest rhetorical tool. Moreover, we fail in our single most important duty as intellectuals: to call things by their right name. Racism and torture, for example, are evil, and to call them anything else is to misrepresent them.
As Nemo points out, one recurring fear is that a normative language of universalism will be used to conceal hierarchies or exclude marginalized voices. This argument is particularly common among gender theorists, like Judith Butler, who are well aware of the ways that ideas about, for instance, the uplift of women have been used as justification for imperialism, or to construct women who wear burkas as passive victims who need charity and compassion.
This is not a critique to take lightly but I find it ultimately unconvincing. First of all, to the degree that people have misused universal claims, all this proves is the need for vigilance and humility to insure we don’t fall into that same trap. Most ideas, like tools, can be used for good or ill, but we don’t give up on them just because some people have used them poorly. As historians we’re well aware of the messy nature of ideological discourse, how so often seemingly emancipatory rhetoric also contains, encoded within it, new hierarchies. But that doesn’t mean we give up on emancipation. As Zizek loves to say: “Try again, fail again, fail better.”
More importantly though, the very critiques of universalism made by people like Foucault and Butler contain within them the implicit acceptance of other universal ethical values: values like autonomy, equality, and dignity. I just finished Charles Taylor’s epic Sources of the Self, and this is one of his main themes: the inability for people to operate, or even understand the world around them, without resort to a language of value and morality. What seems so strange, then, about the modern left (especially the academic left) is to see thinkers clearly articulating a righteous sense of the injustice of capitalism, racism, sexism, and imperialism, and then also passionately disavow any claim to a normative ethical stand. The obvious question is: why, then, do they oppose capitalism, racism, sexism, and imperialism? As a wise man once sang, “ if you swear that there’s no truth and who cares, why do you say it like you’re right?”
Finally, I’ve written before that I think one of the main problems with liberalism is its lack of a backbone, its inability –because of its own elevation of proceduralism, tolerance, and indifference to any claims of the Good — to motivate people to engage in the political struggles necessary to realize its own utopian ideals. As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote of liberalism: “ it lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say, fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks.” Thus you see over and over again in American history, liberalism relying on non-liberal movements or worldviews to actually spearhead the fight for liberal values. Thus you have the Communist Party, avowedly non-liberals, acting heroically on Civil Rights (as liberal a value as you can get) when liberals were too scared to do so themselves.
In other words, it may be true that history proves that moral claims are always the products of their society, and never transcendent truths, but it also proves that there is a clear pragmatic value in using ethical language for the purpose of political struggle. French Revolutionaries, abolitionists, striking workers, soldiers defending the Spanish Republic, etc… didn’t go around arguing that their position was simply their preference, or their contingent moral position, but rather were inspired by a fiery sense of their own righteousness. It’s unlikely they could have sustained the type of sacrifice necessary without that vision.
So I’m left with a quandary. I believe ethical values to be human creations, inevitably embedded within historical forces. I don’t think I could really be a historian if I believed otherwise. But I also believe we need a language of ethical value for our current political struggles. What I see as probably philosophically troublesome, I also see as necessary to the creation of a good society. The question, then, is how to frame an ethical language so that we don’t end up like Lyman Beecher, unwitting apologists for forces beyond our control, and yet also remain effective political activists.
I doubt I can offer anything other than my own personal solution to this problem. But for me, I’ve found the language of solidarity to be the key to these issues. The idea of solidarity combines the descriptive with the normative; it simultaneously reminds us that it is in my interest, and is morally right, to ensure that others achieve justice. It avoids the worst of the problems with universalistic argument, because it starts from the premise that you side with actually existing political struggles, and not try to force people into the type of justice you’d prefer. Rather than worry about whether, say, Muslim women support or dislike burkas, you say “we will stand with whatever political struggle they throw up.” It is a language fundamentally at odds with our individualistic consumer culture. It discourages parochialism, by constantly asking people to expand the group they feel they belong to. My understanding of Richard Rorty is that he advocated something similar (if assuredly better thought out) in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.
Moreover, solidarity is about supporting and feeling part of the political struggles of others, so it challenges those aspects of the left which have degenerated into spectatorism. Again Rorty: “Insofar as a Left becomes spectatorial and retrospective, it ceases to be a Left.” It is only in a struggle that the Left becomes meaningful.
Chris Hayes once wrote a beautiful essay on solidarity. Crucially, he distinguished between mundane and sublime solidarity, maintaining of the latter:
Sublime solidarity…embodies a powerful moral aspiration to realize the fundamental fellowship of humankind. The human subject imbued with full solidarity would treat each person the same way she would treat the interests of her closest kin. My father, a community organizer and one-time Jesuit seminarian, explains why solidarity is his favorite word by sketching a continuum that ranges from pearl-clutching pity through sympathy and empathy to arrive finally at solidarity, wherein you are propelled to do something for your fellow human beings, to act as if their interests were your own. It is this solidarity Jane Addams described as “not philanthropy nor benevolence, but a thing fuller and wider than either of these,” and what Gandhi referred to when he spoke of the “essential unity of all people.”
Someone like Lyman Beecher was not practicing solidarity, he did not go into immigrant communities, or the emerging working class, and ask to assist their struggles, but rather assumed he knew what was in their best interest. He sincerely believed temperance was the solution, honestly thought he was acting morally, but was not listening to the people he was trying to help, not joining their fight.
I guess the point is, if the Left is going to reclaim a moral language, and I hope they do, they have to do it in terms that start from a position of humble trust and solidarity with oppressed people, and not from abstract ideas of ethics that they try to impose on them.
Every Jew and their mother has emailed me this article by Peter Beinart from The New York Review of Books. Matt Yglesias has posted about it here and here. I implore readers of this blog to read the whole piece. It’s well worth it. I’ll give a bit of summary and some quotes below.
Beinart’s piece presents in crisp, moving prose what many Jews on the Left have known for a long time. The “American Jewish Establishment” has moved to the Right. Most Jews are liberal. Young Jews don’t really care much about Israel anymore. If they do have opinions on Israel, they are mostly dovish, sympathetic to both Israelis and Palestinians, supportive of territorial compromise and to the left of the “American Jewish Establishment.” The Establishment is filling its ranks with right-leaning, often religiously Orthodox Jews. And all this is very bad.
Here are the key paragraphs:
Most of the students, in other words, were liberals, broadly defined. They had imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights. And in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs. Luntz did not grasp the irony. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was the kind that the American Jewish establishment has been working against for most of their lives.
Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.
And these putting the situation in some historical perspective:
In the American Jewish establishment today, the language of liberal Zionism—with its idioms of human rights, equal citizenship, and territorial compromise—has been drained of meaning. It remains the lingua franca in part for generational reasons, because many older American Zionists still see themselves as liberals of a sort. They vote Democratic; they are unmoved by biblical claims to the West Bank; they see average Palestinians as decent people betrayed by bad leaders; and they are secular. They don’t want Jewish organizations to criticize Israel from the left, but neither do they want them to be agents of the Israeli right.
These American Zionists are largely the product of a particular era. Many were shaped by the terrifying days leading up to the Six-Day War, when it appeared that Israel might be overrun, and by the bitter aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, when much of the world seemed to turn against the Jewish state. In that crucible, Israel became their Jewish identity, often in conjunction with the Holocaust, which the 1967 and 1973 wars helped make central to American Jewish life. These Jews embraced Zionism before the settler movement became a major force in Israeli politics, before the 1982 Lebanon war, before the first intifada. They fell in love with an Israel that was more secular, less divided, and less shaped by the culture, politics, and theology of occupation. And by downplaying the significance of Avigdor Lieberman, the settlers, and Shas, American Jewish groups allow these older Zionists to continue to identify with that more internally cohesive, more innocent Israel of their youth, an Israel that now only exists in their memories.
But these secular Zionists aren’t reproducing themselves. Their children have no memory of Arab armies massed on Israel’s border and of Israel surviving in part thanks to urgent military assistance from the United States. Instead, they have grown up viewing Israel as a regional hegemon and an occupying power. As a result, they are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates liberal ideals, and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because its survival seems in peril. Because they have inherited their parents’ liberalism, they cannot embrace their uncritical Zionism. Because their liberalism is real, they can see that the liberalism of the American Jewish establishment is fake.
What do I make of all this? Well for one I think Yglesias is right that if American Jewish Zionist numbers are dwindling, there are plenty of Christian Zionists ready to take over. But that interests me less than the broader implications of these divisions in the Jewish community, between a conservative, hawkish Zionist establishment and a liberal apathetic-on-Israel majority. American Jewish affluence and assimilation, more than Israeli power, is the cause of this division. But I have no real answers.
In his concluding words, Beinart hopes that young Jews establish “an uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and in love with what it still could be. Let’s hope they care enough to try.”
Even a liberal Zionist movement of the J-Street type only appeals to those who care. So many Jews go on Birthright, some will tell you the love Israel if you ask them, but do they really think or care about it? Some do, but I bet most don’t.
Maybe things are a bit different in Canada. I don’t know. In 1997, at age 15, I went a on 7-week summer trip with my high school, Bialik. There were probably about 75 of us on the trip out of a class of 125. Everyone had a great time (this was during the relatively quiet Oslo years, though a July 30 suicide bombing in a Jerusalem mall killed 16). But I venture a guess that many of them would have had just as good a time touring Europe, or the West Coast of the United States. And in fact, some students opted to go on those kinds of trips, rather than go to Israel. And many that did go to Israel, I think, saw this simply as an opportunity to party, to be with friends, go to the beach and see some tourist sites without appreciating the meaning of it all, without feeling any special connection to the land.
I’ll never forget one day in high school when I discovered that a fellow student, a relatively bright student, didn’t know who Yassir Arafat was. At the time, I was furious. Now, I don’t really care as much. I mean, she should have known Arafat like any person following current events should have, but why, in Montreal, should Arafat have mattered to her? How did he affect her life? He probably didn’t. That was in the 1990s. The Middle East situation may be worse, but the apathy has grown since then.
Some young Jews get turned on to Zionist activism in college. That certainly happened to after rioters forced the cancellation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at Concordia University. But I think many just tune out. And that’s not because of Zionism’s lack of liberalism. It’s because they don’t care.
Kevin Baker has a great essay contextualizing the current weakness of American Liberalism in this month’s Harper’s Magazine.
As you might imagine if you’ve already read his piece on “Barack Hoover Obama,” he doesn’t have very many nice things to say about the current administration. This new article, however, is much more ambitious in scope, surveying American reform movements from the 1870s to today. While Baker’s analysis paints the history in strokes a little too broad for my liking, and probably overstates things when he writes that, “there is no longer any meaningful reformist impulse left in our politics,” it is nonetheless a compelling and provocative little work. Check it out here.
Plugging away at the Horace Kallen papers here at the American Jewish Archives, I’ve uncovered some fascinating correspondence (Box 32, folder 20) between Kallen and Sir Alfred Zimmern, the British Zionist of some Jewish extraction who became a famous internationalist and Labour party member.
In a letter dated April 27, probably 1913, Zimmern describes another Zionist who “said that wherever he had been (Rome, Paris, etc) except in London the Jewish national question was regarded as an amiable fad, on a line with Esperanto and Vegetarianism.”
I’m grateful Zionism wasn’t a fad; though I wish that vegetarianism was one.
More interestingly, however, was a letter Zimmern sent to Kallen on March 21, 1912, from Los Angeles. Here Zimmern compared the United States to England, with specific reference to that year’s textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts and the harsh government response:
America makes one both a conservative and a revolutionary. In England I am a liberal. But liberalism is too high a thing for this country. Nobody knows what it is. Liberalism is the creed of men who need no platforms because they have the stars to steer by. Massachusetts must have had liberals in it once: but there can’t be many left in a state which allows what went on at Lawrence. It is useful for an Englishman to be shown how little liberalism and laissez-faire have to do with one another. They just happened to coincide in Victorian England.
The term liberalism had already been shifting from its classical usage to its more modern one. I’m not really sure what it means anymore. Liberals, lost today, might have to start looking to the stars again. And I don’t necessarily mean Barack Obama.