I was going to post something on the latest dreadful new census commercial, but this will serve us all pretty nicely.
And now, my conclusion about where Obamacare falls into the law-versus-politics schema I mentioned, below, in the context of marriage and divorce. There was one real highlight and moment of clarity for me in Obama’s now-infamous Baier interview: the sequence where the President insisted that, because making the bill law was the right thing to do, he — and, presumably, the rest of us — could, in perfectly good conscience, dispense with the chore of considering whether whichever legislative process wound up making the bill law was wrong in any way. There was simply no remorse and no discomfort on this point. Because making law what the President wanted to make law was the right thing to do.
Now, it is clear that the moral force of mere health care reform is inadequate to power this sort of fixation. The system is broken, to be sure; but at least some honest commentators on both sides know and agree that this bill breaks the system further, by way of entrenching and extending its worst features, with one exception: a significant number of Americans without health insurance will get coverage. Nobody believes we would, or should, be unhappier if more Americans were able to pay their medical expenses. To pretend that this is the issue is to perpetrate a fraud. The practical issue is whether the experiences of our uninsured, once summed, constitute a moral problem so grave that all Americans face, and America itself faces, a non-negotiable moral obligation to insure them now, with this bill. Only if that is true will it be true that passing this bill is the right thing to do.
But we didn’t get from the President the kind of fervent moral passion on this point that a regular person, or even a pundit, might be forgiven for associating with one of the habitual or characteristic emotional states of Americans past and present. In some areas of governance — say, foreign policy — I actually believe this no-drama dispassion has served the President, and the rest of us, extraordinarily well, especially under the circumstances. And I suppose I’m relieved to an extent that Obama is not playing John Brown on health care reform.
But I’m distressed, to a more immediate and perhaps larger extent, by the way that the only possible moral justification for viewing the law of health care as utterly more significant than the politics of health care amounts to an intellectual footnote for the President. It seems to me that the President is actually operating on a much higher, grander, and, yes, troublesome level of moral abstraction. The central moral commitment or conviction that seems to be shining through Obama’s remarks on the supremacy of legal outcomes over political process is that legislating itself is a moral act — one which legislatures like ours seem incapable of performing properly. Precisely because our Congress is a complex representative system driven by actual political practice, it is too deformed and crippled to achieve legislative excellence. When we, or the President, places a demand upon our Congress to do so, things get — in the President’s word — “ugly.” By contrast, we are led to believe, fiat is beautiful.
I’m not going to bother with the radioactive trope of un-Americanism here. Long before Obama, fiat was hardwired at searing times into our national consciousness. Anyone who likes to trace our American political philosophy back to classical roots has got to admit that Plato leaves us uncertain at best about when legislative fiat is worse than the alternative. And there must be little doubt that the abstract ideal of legislation, in the western tradition, is the work of a single Lawgiver.
Charges of un-Americanism are beside the point, which is that a legal philosophy that views the power of the Lawgiver as a beautiful ideal and the authority of political practice as an ugly clutch of impediments to this ideal is a troublesome one. It is troublesome, perhaps most of all, because the beautiful ideal of the powerful Lawgiver is ill-suited to being realized in a country like ours — no matter whether that’s true because of ‘something in our collective DNA’ or because of ‘a concatenation of contingent circumstances’ or because of ‘our path-determined political history’ or anything else. In the United States of America, and real or imaginary countries like it, Obama’s moral philosophy of law can manifest only through an unwieldy, unaccountable, unmanageable, and often incompetent bureaucratic administrative apparatus — one which makes the unwieldy, unaccountable, unmanageable, and often incompetent legislative apparatus of our actual legislatures look, by comparison, like a model of administrative excellence.
In America, paradoxically, our messy political process of legislation, warts and all, loses to the Great Lawgiver in the legislative-excellence competition — while trouncing the agents upon which the Lawgiver must depend in the competition for excellence in governance.
The problem, of course, is that in this competition it is possible for nobody to win the gold medal. It is possible, in fact, for nobody to win at all. One side will simply lose more, and lose harder, than the other. That is the condition we seem to be plunging deeper and deeper into today. It is, in part, what David Brooks is getting at in talking about ‘the broken society’. What is most troublesome about Obama’s legal vision is that it strongly suggests the President does not understand this. “Something is better than nothing” — unless you think this is true because insuring uninsured Americans is so important as to be worth doing even through a bill as wretched, misbegotten, and irresponsible as this, it is not true. I’m concerned that President Obama thinks not only that it is true as a rule that something is better than nothing, but that it is a fundamental principle of legal philosophy, one that converges with morality itself, because bending the arc of history even a little bit toward the Lawgiver’s beautiful ideal is oftentimes the most, and the most heroic thing, we can do. This is incrementalism in the service of all too immodest ends, and in the case of this health care bill, it is a recipe from top to bottom for more governance, worse governance, and lots of it.
Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. — Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry. I’d be plenty happy to see more Wendell Berrys in the world. But, sometimes, apparently slam-dunk comments like these wend their way up from Berry’s Gutenberg printing press to approving corners of the internet, and I have to pause for a moment. Because, as is the case here, I feel a bit of a reflex to be vigilant — the big picture seems so right so fast that the temptation is to stipulate the seemingly little things.
The marriage-as-politics bit, here, for instance, seems like a little thing — a ready-made analogy to ring around the neck of a longtime cultural corruption indicator that many of us still haven’t tired of bemoaning, and for good enough reason. But, actually, treating contemporary marriage in the manifestation Berry wants to critique as a “sort of private political system” does quite a bit, on closer inspection, to send us down what I think is a very false critical path — one that might even play into the hands of the forces we wish to array ourselves sharply against.
The assertion and defense of rights and interests, I have to venture to say, isn’t politics — not necessarily. You can find it, for instance, in one of the least political places on earth, the room where contractually required arbitrations are performed. Divorce court, perhaps above all, stands as a living monument to how tirelessly (and at what cost) we’ve worked to export the assertion and defense of rights and interests out of politics and into law. Increasingly, I think, law is being set up as an opposite to politics, an antipolitics — again, not because people don’t fight over what they think they are entitled to want and what they think they need, but because the way in which they do is supervised and managed by a system of rules and regulations promulgated in a way that itself is divorced from actual political practice.
The contestations over relational power that Berry sees as characterizing marriage today must not be confused, I think, with the kinds of contestations you get under conditions of actual political practice. This sort of conflation seems to me roughly similar to that involved in calling gladiators warriors, and gladiator matches war.
UPDATE: Peter Suderman reminds me that I should link to this depressing item. “The Marriage Ref” is, as far as I can tell, pretty final proof that our model of acrimonial marital arbitrage is far from political.
“Nothing that the Buzz team did was technologically wrong,” Ms. Boyd said. “Yet the service resulted in complete disaster.”
Google got into trouble, she said, by linking something that people associate with being inherently private — their e-mail accounts — with something that is very public — status updates on a social network. The result was “a series of social disruptions,” Ms. Boyd said.
The blunder, she said, reflected a broader muddying of the line between what is private and public online. The idea that information exists in a binary world — public or private — no longer applies, she said.
“Google assumed people wanted different parts of their contacts converging and collapsing,” she said. “But just because people put different parts of their lives online doesn’t mean they want them in one place.”
More troubling, she said, is what Google’s flub may portend for the future.
“I can’t help noticing that more and more technology companies are exposing people’s information publicly and then backpedaling a few weeks out,” she said.
The results could be harmful and damaging if they were to expose people’s information in ways they were not expecting, she said, and these issues are only likely to get more convoluted in the future.
“Neither privacy nor publicity is dead, but technology will continue to make a mess of both,” she said.
Let’s be clear about the reason we are experiencing this convolution the way that we are: leading tech companies have a colossal financial interest in making people convolute public and private. Any interest in persuading people that it’s a good idea to deconstruct the public/private divide in their personal lives — or, really, to let them be deconstructed — is ancillary at best to that larger financial interest, and at worst antagonistic.
Excuses like those Boyd’s ominous remark seems to portend — “nothing we did was technologically wrong” — are easy enough of targets to aim at and hit. And I’m not one to pretend that a few big corporations are singlehandedly responsible for taking our precious public/private distinction and shattering it at the feet of a golden idol. The fact is, we democratic individuals have come to recognize that cultivating, maintaining, managing, and policing liberalism’s essential public/private distinction is a lot more and harder work than we might be willing to allocate our precious resources (time, energy) toward. What it requires in particular — at the porous frontier between what’s personal and what’s not — is, I think, a rather robust, regular, and adult form of citizen politics.
Unfortunately, we have a longing to escape from that sort of politics, even at the cost of a robust, regular, and paternalist form of state-administered law. The journey there, as I see it, is characterized by the awkward-turtle sort of line-drawing generated by decisions like Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Lawrence v. Texas – where concepts of publicity and privacy become increasingly meaningless under the pressure of putting the stamp of authoritative law upon a much different divide — between what I’ve called official and unofficial life.
The divide between official and unofficial puts some private and some public things in one basket, and others in another. Regardless of what a particular American citizen thinks about homosexuality, abortion, or exes lingering in electronic address books, this is a significant shift in our social and political order, and it ought to attract more attention, as such, than it has. The implications of a shift toward official/unofficial life, and away from public/private life, are profound. And they throw into stark relief, I think, some of the ways in which a more progressive life may quickly become less and less liberal.
I would point out that the essentially erotic interest Americans seem to have in abandoning the public/private distinction is a lot different from the essentially monetary interest some American corporations have in getting as many of us to do that as possible. Neither our changing mores nor our developing technology are making a mess of public and private so much as moving to replace them with new categories that leave the public/private distinction looking quaint, arbitrary, and incoherent. The trouble is that the Googles and Facebooks of the world are pushing in this direction without a clear enough understanding of how the ‘progressive’ aspect of our mores represents a contingent vanguard and not a historically destined popular movement.
Yet at the same time, our innovative geeks seem genuinely blindsided by the severity of the residual relationship problems that they have caused to come back and haunt Americans uncomfortably and improvisationally negotiating the space between disrupted public and private realms. This emotional tone-deafness seems to me all too typical of geekdom, a world in which the self-evident inherent goodness of new features blinds us to the disruptions they inflict on the human realities they depend on. As the least socially awkward among us have always already known, the ultimate stomping ground for those seeking the experience of new features is society itself, with its potential of endless relational couplings and decouplings. Historically, those of us looking to max out those kinds of experiences have been the bugs, not the features, of liberal society. Tech companies geeking out on the profitable possibilities of ever-more-social transactions, official and unofficial, fail to realize that they are working to crash liberal society. And because of this, backlash against their efforts to do so are met with an awkwardness and confusion almost as poignant as those of their customers who have suddenly been plunged back into relationships they thought had been safely quarantined, online no less than off, in the past.
UPDATE: For a sane debate among tech-education enthusiasts that might go at least one step outside the rut, see here (h/t PEG).
UPDATE 2: And for some further thoughts at a hopefully not too vertigo-inducing level of abstraction, see here.
Some policy controversies are wearying. Not because they have worn their importance down over decades spent in the argumentative rock tumbler, of course. High-stakes issues tend actually to get more portentous, over time, as we sink greater and greater emotional and intellectual investments into them. But this very fact promotes an unfortunate style of argument that comes to dominate and dictate the substance. It’s a familiar story: for too long, we have ignored xxxx, which has now amounted to a national crisis in xxxx — one which can only be solved by immediate, decisive action, and if you still want to talk it over you’re either irresponsible, willfully stupid, or (most recently) a nihilist.
I’m bothered by the way in which this moral narrative has managed to swallow up the health care debate without actually accomplishing the kind of political change it demands. Still, I’m not terribly concerned that the intelligent versions of the opposing sides of this debate aren’t getting a fair hearing. It’s a testament to the importance of the health care debate that we, Stupak’s defectors aside, haven’t exhausted our own interest in the big issues at stake. There are other debates, however, where the side opposing the universalist view of problems and solutions seems to have lost the will to coherent opposition. In general, our ability to articulate the wisdom of rejecting policy universalism is waning. On some occasions this matters more than others. One case that’s too important to let slide, no matter how wearying it is to struggle against the universalist mantra, is education.
The universalist take on education has been whipped into the public consciousness for so long that many of us, if gently prompted, could mutter its talking points in our sleep. It has become a brooding omnipresence of conventional wisdom, a veritable creed. Its tenets are simple:
* The only education that really matters is in math and science.
* Math and science education really matters because globalization is irreversible and irreversibly accelerating.
* In a world globalizing like this, the only way to ensure a thriving economy is to beat other economies at filling jobs that require competence in math and science at the lower end and expertise at the higher end.
* America isn’t an economy like this.
* The only way to make America this kind of economy is from the top down.
* Only a universalist view of the problem lets us see that the only way to accomplish top-down change is through a universalist solution.
And so we get, in today’s New York Times, this editorial:
The countries that have left the United States behind in math and science education have one thing in common: They offer the same high education standards — often the same curriculum — from one end of the nation to the other. [...]
The standards, based on intensive research, reflect what students must know to succeed at college and to find good jobs in the 21st century. They are internationally benchmarked, which means that they emulate the expectations of high-performing school systems abroad.
This is not a call for a national curriculum. [...]
As recently as the early 1990s, national standards were viewed with suspicion in much of the country. Attitudes began to change as governors saw that poor schooling had crippled a significant part of the work force, turned state colleges into remedial institutions and disadvantaged the states in the global market.
The proposed standards were developed in a collaboration among 48 states and the District of Columbia, suggesting that national opinion, once bitterly divided on this question, has begun to coalesce.
It seems so difficult to get a hearing in opposition to this kind of pitch — who could dare be against greater success? — that I am tempted not to bother. But on the other hand, so few people are making a concerted effort to do so that there may be a point after all. What is particularly galling is that the universalist standards used to generate the supposed necessity of universalist, education-nationalizing solutions are applied with a rank inconsistency that rises past the level of whim to that of blatant selectivity. When a comparison between the US and some other country isn’t relevant to universalist projects, it’s discounted as nondata or statistically insignificant. But when a comparison is relevant, look out! We rank x places behind South Korea in Aptitude Y, as demonstrated conclusively by Study Z, we are scolded, without any sort of reference to why this fact, and not an infinitude of others, matters in the totality of the circumstances, and, worse, without any sort of explanation as to why our trailing ranking matters.
This problem is particularly embarrassing when it comes to India. At least with China, the claim that we must stop at nothing to compete at a comparative qualitative and quantitative disadvantage in math and science with the statist behemoth is silently reinforced by our fear of losing global hegemony to a power with interests and ideas in competition with our own. Why on earth would we want to put the screws to ourselves in this regard with India, a friendly English-speaking democracy? Because a nationwide push for standardized math and science performance will keep customer service call centers in America, where they belong?
It is hard not to slip into snark, because the tenets of the universalist creed on education are founded on such weak assumptions. The same basic errors in thinking you see among global-warming crisis-mongers reappear in giant form when it comes to globalization crisis-mongers. Fear of the future leads to a dramatically blinkered and filtered view of the present. The ‘major industrialized nations’ we are supposed to measure ourselves against face serious problems that are simply edited out of their appealing competitive profiles. The hugely idiosyncratic paths that have determined appealing features of those countries’ profiles are ignored or mentally suppressed. And the misfortunes that befall industrialized nations which obsess over scientific excellence at the expense of cultural and political competence at the level of the individual citizen are forgotten, if ever they were learned.
I cannot emphasize enough that none of this means that challenging global trends are not real, or that obtuse self-satisfaction is the answer. Conservatives have not done a good enough job of proving this out. But they are at a disadvantage: too few audiences, popular or elite, seem to have the time or the patience even to hear them out. Nonetheless: if the top-down, universalist view of a crisis of global warming is deeply misguided, a prudent consciousness of the unpredictable calamities that are likely to result from climate change more generally is a fine idea — and one that generates a completely different approach to policy, in style and substance. Similarly, the universalist view of our education problem distorts and masks its true character and extent. Our obsession with producing competent/low-skilled technocrats at the bottom of our workforce and expert/high-skilled technocrats at the top has caused us to deepen and accelerate the destruction of the local conditions that make possible, in a broad-based way, the general education into American culture and American citizenship that we really need to flourish, in this century or any other.
Can we have it more or less both ways — better math and science education and better education in the humanities, with one eye on international challenges and one eye on our domestic health? Certainly. But not if we give in to the universalist temptation. If ever there were a place to level the critique, advanced most recently around here by Ivan, that the ideology of technocracy relies upon commitments or convictions which themselves have no grounding in science and cannot be justified by instrumental reason, this would be it. The consequence of this sleight of hand is the impression that it cannot be a coincidence that technocratic ideologues wind up being the main beneficiaries, in prestige, power, and wealth, of the policies they push and the rhetoric of crisis they rely on.
The further impression is created that ideological technocracy will, paradoxically, never deliver us from the mode of crisis manifest in whichever particular panic has seized the day. By stipulating a permanent state of exception from which we can never truly escape, the only option available to us is a therapeutic one — technocracy as an endless coping mechanism. This therapeutic logic transcends merely political or partisan divisions of right and left. The real attack against the kind of ideological technocracy favored by the left is grounded in a deeper philosophical insight than even conservative political theory can provide. Critics of modernity are inclined to state the architectonic opposition as between philosophy and science. But the decisive issue, I am going to venture to suggest, is that at this level of abstraction it becomes more and more impossible to distinguish science as such from politics as such. Which again, for those readers with long memories, brings us back to Strauss’s closing words on Machiavelli, and, hopefully, another round of reflection from our Dr. Hancock.
David Brooks thinks so. But to link the tea parties to the ’60s left by way of Rousseau, he has to draw our attention away from the nationally disaggregate and locally-rooted character of lots and lots of the tea partiers. The recent tea party convention does underscore how the tea parties have been able to leverage themselves into prominence by giving a preexisting minor national movement a bigger stage. But the tea party convention must not be mistaken for the tea party phenomenon itself, even setting aside the internal and external debate over how organic or authentic the convention and its organizers may be. If anything is tempting tea partiers to coalesce around a handful of leaders stars, it’s not the emancipatory psychology of mass revolution — it’s a near-instinctive understanding that, now more than ever, celebrity equals publicity and publicity equals power.
That said, there really are serious overlaps between the Rube Power campaign of the tea partiers and, say, the Freak Power campaign of 1969-70 Colorado immortalized by Hunter Thompson. And Thompson distinguished himself from the rest of the radical left most spectacularly by being a romantic pessimist like Benjamin Constant, not a romantic optimist like Rousseau.
Whatever you want to call the doctrine that America must continue indefinitely to use its ideology as a tool in proactively working to shape world order, the key point is that such an effort may today be desirable and essential on the one hand and self-destructive and unsustainable on the other. There is nothing preventing such a paradox from being true, and much working in its favor. In particular, the paradox could be true if the alternative to Americanist interventionism was so risky, unmanageable, and dangerous that American leaders would be derelict to permit it. Indeed this is the root argument of the National Review and Weekly Standard wings of the Republican Party.
To compel and justify their approach, it is not enough — and I think Lowry and Ponnuru recognize this — for the United States to be possessed of a unique character in the world, or a uniquely salutary character, or for the United States to possess those things at a moment when we enjoy a particular kind of opportunity to spread it about the world. It must also be true that the fate of the world, including the US itself, is inescapably bound, right now, to the conviction among America’s leaders that these things are true and must be acted upon in comprehensive, unwavering fashion. Any leader who fails to have, and enact, those convictions is, on these facts, un-American, no matter how sharp, well-meaning, or even patriotic.
Arguing the merits of this case is important, but I’m more interested in whether thinking harder about the future than the present might shift the terms of the current argument in decisive ways. Specifically, I want to make the following claim: the fate of the world and the US does now demand something broadly similar to what Lowry and Ponnuru describe, but, a fortiori, it demands the re-creation of an international system in which the US stops playing the role Lowry and Ponnuru advocate, and ceases to require from its leaders the matrix of conviction and action they advocate as a matter of duty.
This re-creative project is apparently a challenge that daunts even the steeliest neocon. Yet it also offends the most principled paleocon. For international policy thinking on the right, this is a serious, perhaps fatal, problem, and it explains the relative sanity but also the limits of the realist approach many smart friends and colleagues put forth. I like realism a lot, but I am unconvinced that it can reconstruct an international geostrategic order that will free the US from an unsustainable, poorly borne burden on terms finally acceptable to us. Unfortunately, most idealists on the right seem convinced that no such project is possible because the rest of the world is not, in any combination, able to make up an order acceptable on our terms. I believe that such a conclusion, though perhaps all too valid now, must be made to change starting now: the most fateful task set before American policymakers since the height of the Cold War.
This is the frame in which our foreign policy debates should be taking place. As yet, we’ve utterly failed to adopt it — at great cost in resources and, even more important, time. Any takers?