Sunday, April 22, 2007

Helping Libertarians

My colleague, Carol Lancaster, writes a column for "The Hoya." I admire faculty who write for their college newspapers, but a recent column prompted me to write a response. The column was entitled, "Somebody Help Me, I think I'm becoming a Libertarian." She wrote of her youthful attraction to liberalism, that is, the belief that government could be a force for good in the world; as she's seen more of the foibles of government, however, she has become more inclined to adopt libertarianism as her political worldview. I thought it important to write in defense of a form of political "realism" - the realism that stretches back to Aristotle and Augustine, through Aquinas and the development of constitutionalism, and more recently Reinhold Niebuhr and my friend Lawler - especially so that students wouldn't conclude that the range of political choices "stretched" between liberalism and libertarianism. My brief response, edited by "The Hoya," follows:

Helpful Advice for Libertarian Lancaster

Friday, April 20, 2007
To the Editor:

I write in an effort to offer my colleague, Professor Carol Lancaster, the help she called for in avoiding a descent into libertarianism (“Somebody Help Me, I Think I’m Becoming a Libertarian,” The Hoya, March 27, 2007, A3).

She wrote that she was, in her youth, an “optimistic liberal” who believed in the power of government to realize good in the world, and that she thought libertarians were “anarchists in camouflage.” Yet, seeing the many mistakes and abuses that governments are prone to make, she has become more “conservative” and has begun to sympathize with libertarian sentiments.

First, it might be thought odd to conclude, as she does, that to become more “anarchist” is to become more “conservative.” Secondly, it should be noticed that, in spite of the implicit claim to the contrary, she never abandoned her youthful optimism. Libertarians, if anything, are more optimistic than the liberals with whom she affiliated in her youth. Libertarianism, by this account, holds that human society is wholly self-regulating and that government is the cause of human problems, not part of any solution.

Libertarians believe that, absent government in most forms, humans will enter a near paradisiacal condition.

It seems to me that some form of realism might offer an actual alternative to the pitfalls of her disappointed optimism. “If men were angels,” wrote James Madison in “Federalist” 51, “no government would be necessary.” Because men are not angels, he argued, government is an inescapable necessity — not to perfect us, but to restrain our worst proclivities as well as to cultivate the better.

Recognizing the reality of human sinfulness and our proneness to partiality and unreason, we come to recognize government neither as the means nor the obstacle to our individual and social perfection, but as a necessary set of institutions that restrain and chasten as much as they enable and liberate.

To suggest that the only political options that lie before us are the liberalism that seeks government transformation of the world, and the “conservatism” of anti-government anarchist libertarianism, is really to offer no choice at all. Both are species of optimistic liberalism in which the means are disputed, but the ends are not.

So, Professor Lancaster, I hope this helps.

Patrick J. Deneen

Associate Professor of Government

Friday, April 13, 2007

Vonnegut, Anti-Nihilist

Peter Lawler has noted that I "heart" Vonnegut, and has raised the serious question over whether Vonnegut - while certainly a great articulator of modern loneliness - was at base a nihilist who couldn't articulate what made us "lonely" and wasn't able to speak about what was to be done.

Peter raises a legitimate question, and there is much in Vonnegut that might lead one to conclude he was a nihilist (his experience in Dresden - a prisoner of war during the firebombing - was certainly as defining for him as Oliver Wendell Holmes's experience of the Civil War). Yet, I would contend not only was Vonnegut not a nihilist, but that he was remarkably Lawlerian in his outlook and conclusions.

Let me refer to an address he delivered to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1971, and which is collected in the volume "Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons" (173-181). In that address he speaks of his brief period of graduate work at the University of Chicago, and of his encounter with the cultural anthropologist Robert Redfield. One of Redfield's articles - "The Folk Society," published in the "American Journal of Sociology," 52 (1947): 293-308 - was formative in Vonnegut's thought. This is how Vonnegut summarized Redfield's article:

"[Redfield] acknowledged that primitive societies were bewilderingly various. He begged us to admit, though, that all of them had certain characteristics in common. For instance: they were so small that everybody knew everyone well, and associations lasted for a lifetime. The members communicated intimately with one another, and very little with anyone else....

"I say to you we are full of chemicals which require us to belong to folk socieites, or, failing that, to feel lousy all the time. We are chemically engineered to live in folk societies, just as fish are chemically engineered to live in clean water - and there aren't any folk societies for us any more.

"How lucky you are to be here today, for I can explain everything. Sigmund Freud admitted that he did not know what women wanted. I know what they want. Cosmopolitan magazine says that they want orgasms, which can only be a partial answer at best. Here is what women really want: they want to live in folk societies, wherein everyone is a friendly relative, and no act or object is without holiness. Chemicals make them want that. Chemicals make us all want that.

"Chemicals make us furious when we are treated as things rather than persons. When anything happens to us which would not happen to us in a folk society, our chemicals make us feel like fish out of water. Our chemicals demand that we get back into the water again. If we become increasingly wild and preposterous in modern times - well, so do fish on river banks, for awhile.

"If we become increasingly apathetic in modern times - well, so do fish on river banks, after awhile. Our children often come to resemble apathetic fish - except that fish can't play guitars. And what do many of our children attempt to do? They attempt to form folk societies, which they call "communes." They fail. The generation gap is an argument between those who belive folk societies are still possible and those who know they aren't" (178-179).

Vonnegut argues that we moderns are lonely and restless because of nature: it is our nature to live in certain kinds of societies, and our modern loneliness stems from the fact that modernity has extirpated those societies (in Player Piano, Vonnegut turned to the American extermination of Indian culture as an example of this - an argument that has been recently revisited by Jonathan Lear in his book "Radical Hope," which itself received a noteworthy review by Charles Taylor in the most recent issue of "The New York Review of Books"). Vonnegut's understanding of the human creature possessing a nature that inclines it to live best in certain kinds of settings resembles Aristotle, not Nietzsche.

Now, some of this is not much different than many romantic fantasies about our lost golden past - Rousseau comes to mind - but Vonnegut, notice, recognizes that grown-ups must acknowledge that there is no going back. Much of what he writes seeks to resist the romantic urge either to withdraw into isolation, on the one hand, or to seek to remake the world in its own image, on the other (i.e., Vonnegut disagrees with Rousseau, and many communitarians). Vonnegut commends "granfalloons" - artificial and otherwise meaningless groups that help give us a sense of belonging, and inculcate a spirit of community - rather than any kind of effort to make the world anew. My favorite example of this is described in "Slapstick": in order to make us "Lonesome no More," the President assigns every American a new middle name and subsequently every American receives a phone book with every other American who shares that new middle name. Presto - instant extended family. Yes, the recommendation is absurd. But, our homelessness can't be addressed "logically": it was the logic of modernity that made us particularly lonely. And, when I was suggeting a few weeks ago that "guvment" will need to be part of the cure, it was in part with Vonnegut's kind of piecemeal "policy" in mind, not the wholesale remaking of the modern project.


Vonnegut doesn't allow us easy answers. His fiction and essays suggest that it is also our nature to supercede our nature. In his novel Galapagos, he wrote that it was because of our big brain and our opposable thumb that we humans have made ourselves so miserable. Technology is a big part of the problem - especially technology that seeks to get us out of our misery by making ourselves completely equal ("Harrison Bergeron") or completely free of our bodies ("Unready to Wear") or immortal ("Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" - all short stories in "Welcome to the Monkey House"). It's our nature to want to live in folk societies, and our nature to devise ways to get out of them. Perhaps Vonnegut's was always a basic teaching, but an important one, one that we have a tendency to forget or ignore (especially because we believe our opposable thumb and big brain will get us out of whatever mess they get us into), and above all, one that resists any easy dismissal as fundamentally nihilist.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, R.I.P.

One of my intellectual heroes, the great Kurt Vonnegut, has passed away. Vonnegut's was a humane, sad and funny voice who revealed many of the absurdities of our age. He believed especially that the modern age was one of rootlessness and loneliness. He wrote, "Human beings have almost always been supported and comforted and disciplined and amused by stable lattices of many relatives and friends until the Great American Experiment, which is an experiment not only with liberty but with rootlessness, mobility, and impossibly tough-minded loneliness." His was one of the preeminent voices in the "alternative" American tradition.

His fiction and lectures spoke of ways we could attempt to overcome the terrible loneliness of our age (the Presidential candidate in his novel "Slapstick" runs and wins office on the slogan "Lonesome No More!" It's a slogan - and ambition - that our current candidates should consider). He recognized the tremendous, even insurmountable obstacles that the modern age presented to a simple return to what he admiringly called "folk societies" (based on a course he took with Robert Redfield during a brief stint of graduate work at the University of Chicago). He urged young people not to mindlessly pursue rewards so central to modern life, but to set their sights on truly challenging and difficult goals, above all, the creation of community in our most uncommunal time. As he said to a group of college graduates,

"What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured. Young people should also identify and expound theories about life in which sane human beings almost everywhere can believe."

And then, there's the inimitable advice he put in the mouth of Mr. Rosewater, who addressed a room full of newborns:

"Hello Babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule I know of, babies – 'God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'"

Extra: Following the death of Wilson Carey McWilliams, I delivered the planned lecture on Vonnegut that Carey had assigned on the syllabus. An enterprising Haverford student recorded most of the lectures during the course of that semester, including my lecture on Vonnegut, which is preserved for posterity here. (Lecture #23, April 20, 2005. Listen to Carey's and Susan McWilliams' lectures while you're at it...)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Chillingly Chilling Effect

One of the great men of our profession, and a near-former colleague, Professor Walter Murphy, emeritus of Princeton University, recently posted this email to a law and courts list-serv to which I subscribe. I relay here his comments:

Even tho' I'm the person who was immediately affected,the problem does pertain to basic constitutional issues with which all of us, of whatever political persuasion, are concerned in our teachiong and scholarship. What follows are excerpts for a narrative I prepared for Sen Jeff Bingaman (D, NM).

On 1 March 07, I was scheduled to fly on American Airlines to Newark, NJ, to attend an academic conference at Princeton University, designed to focus on my latest scholarly book, Constitutional Democracy, published by Johns Hopkins University Press this past Thanksgiving.

When I tried to use the curb-side check in at the Sunport, I was denied a boarding pass because I was on the Terrorist Watch list. I was instructed to go inside and talk to a clerk. At this point, I should note that I am not only the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence (emeritus) but also a retired Marine colonel. I fought in the Korean War as a young lieutenant, was wounded, and decorated for heroism. I remained a professional soldier for more than five years and then accepted a commission as a reserve office, serving for an additional 19 years.

I presented my credentials from the Marine Corps to a very polite clerk for American Airlines. One of the two people to whom I talked asked a question and offered a frightening comment: "Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that." I explained that I had not so marched but had, in September, 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the Web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the Constitution. "That'll do it," the man said.

After carefully examining my credentials, the clerk asked if he could take them to TSA officials. I agreed. He returned about ten minutes later and said I could have a boarding pass, but added: "I must warn you, they're going to ransack your luggage." On my return flight, I had no problem with obtaining a boarding pass, but my luggage was "lost." Airlines do lose a lot of luggage and this "loss" could have been a mere coincidence. In light of previous events, however, I'm a tad skeptical.

I confess to having been furious that any American citizen would be singled out for governmental harassment because he or she criticized any elected official, Democrat or Republican. That harassment is, in and of itself, a flagrant violation not only of the First Amendment but also of our entire scheme of constitutional government. This effort to punish a critic states my lecture's argument far more eloquently -- and forcefully -- than I ever could. Further, that an administration headed by two men who had "had other priorities" than to risk their own lives when their turn to fight for their country came up, should brand as a threat to the United States a person who did not run away but stood up and fought for his country and was wounded in battle, goes beyond the outrageous. Although less lethal, it is of the same evil ilk as punishing Ambassador Joseph Wilson for criticizing Bush's false claims by "outing" his wife, Valerie Plaime, thereby putting at risk her life as well as the lives of many people with whom she had had contact as an agent of the CIA. ...

I have a personal stake here, but so do all Americans who take their political system seriously. Thus I hope you and your colleagues will take some positive action to bring the Administration's conduct to the attention of a far larger, and more influential, audience than I could hope to reach. I am ready to help in any such endeavor. ...

So there we are, as the Irish would say. I wonder what would have happened had I been a citizen of Arab descent.

Peace,

W

Monday, April 9, 2007

Just Don't Say "Peak Oil"

Here's a recent discussion of collapsing energy production around the globe - courtesy of yet another mainstream source, the "Motley Fool," which itself draws on a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. They are looking for an investment angle on worldwide peak oil production (their advice - invest in drilling companies. Probably a good idea. A bit of gold probably isn't a bad idea either, as some Americans who have travelled abroad in recent weeks may have discovered). They make several mentions of Matthew Simmons, whom I've discussed briefly here.

Here's some investment advice of my own, for what it's worth - overlay the chart of the U.S. Stock Market from 1900 until 2007 with a chart of worldwide oil production (any good chart discussing Hubbert's peak will do). Funny how they both rise upward at about the same trajectory, ever higher with a few bumps along the way. If we're at the peak of oil production, you can draw your own conclusions where the stock market might be and where it's heading. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Of course, too bad that the entire world is planning on it continuing as it has anyway.

Update:
While there's no shortage of "peak oil" articles online, here's a good introductory primer.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Faith and Doubt

Happy Easter - Alleluia!

I came across the following passage that captures something of the deep "ignorance" that a person of faith must acknowledge. At once Socratic and Augustinian, these words of Saint Hilary of Poitiers refute the commonly held view (e.g., of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins) that faith is a form of infantile self-certainty.

"There are many instances from everyday life where the cause itself is unknown, but the effect decidedly not so. And there is need for faith truly in the religious, supernatural sense wherever there is the ignorance due to my nature itself. For when I raise to your heaven those weak eyes that are my light I believe myself to see nothing other than your heaven. When surveying those circles and spheres carrying the stars, the yearly returns and vigils, the north star, the morning star, all these being given their differing tasks to perform, I perceive you to be at work in matters which my perception is even so very incomplete. When I see the wonderful rise and fall of the sea, it is not the origin of waters alone nor yet the motion of this vast swirling mass that I pursue and ponder, but rather, on apprehending the ground for belief in the cause which I cannot even so observe, that I am mindful, in things my mind does not grasp, of you also.

"When I turn my mind's eye to the earth, what is sown by hidden forces breaks free of what it had received, springs to life, multiplies and flourishes. There is really nothing here that I can understand properly by the light of nature; but then my ignorance itself contributes to my dim understanding of you, as long as I understand clearly that, being unfamiliar and baffled by the nature that serves me, I understand, as I say, that you alone can properly be of advantage or benefit to me. Not knowing or understanding myself either, I feel that all the more for that I am in awe of the fact that I am even a mystery to myself. For aware of, yet not comprehending, the movement of my mind in the act of passing judgment, or its way of functioning, or its life, I am in your debt for the awareness, for your communicating that awareness of nature delighting me, beyond the perception of natural origins. And when I come to understand you, albeit in ignorance of myself, may I respect you with my understanding and not lose my faith in your omnipotence at the thought of my ignorance of your ways: that my mind may be taken up with the origin of your only-begotten and so have something left over of itself, that I may further strive after my Creator and my God."

--Saint Hilary of Poitiers, "A Word In Season, Readings for the Liturgy of the Hours," VII, Ordinary Time, Year II

Friday, April 6, 2007

All or Nothing

Since I've just disavowed purveying links, let me call attention to an interesting story in today's "Inside Higher Ed" that touches on my own institution. According to this article, the Georgetown Law Center has now set a "new precedent" by refusing to fund a Law student internship with an abortion advocacy group (it should be noted that it subsequently helped the student find another source of funding, so its position is hardly as heroic or oppressive as appears at first blush). I found the response of the student - Jenny Woodson - to be particularly interesting:

"Woodson is upset with what she calls Georgetown’s inconsistencies. She said it is intellectually dishonest for the Law Center to claim its action is motivated by a desire to follow Catholic teachings.

"Woodson said further 'If Georgetown wants to be a Catholic University it has the freedom to identify as such,' she said. 'If the school wants to abide by Catholic doctrine it should do so consistently and prevent all activities the Church disagrees with. This includes prosecutors’ offices that impose the death penalty, gay rights organizations, political candidates and judges that hold positions that disagree with the Catholic church, military law organizations and human rights organizations (the majority of which support reproductive rights, as well).'"

While one can easily imagine that this decision will be pleasing to no one, it's not so much the disingenousness of Woodson's complaint that irks as much as the implicit argument at its core: be the fanatic institution we expect you to be, better for us to beat you with our secularist club. To be anything less is to be hypocritical. This is a common complaint by those who believe the Church's emphasis in opposing abortion overshadows its commitment to other "social justice" issues.

Typically, this complaint takes no cognizance of the prudential aspect of the Church's teaching (reflected accurately in the somewhat ham-handed but ultimately praiseworthy effort to protect life by the Law Center) and even the hierarchy of goals that can and should be achieved politically. I actually agree with Woodson that it would be good to see some more consistency, though some of that can be achieved by the Law Center making a moral argument that shows the deeper consistency of the Church's teaching in all these areas. After all, much potential good could be done by a serious Catholic working in a prosecutor's office, where opposition to the death penalty may prevent or at least discourage the practice. To make the moral argument, then, does not mean that funding must be cut off in every area where there is a potential conflict with the Church's teaching, but that the Law Center should make it evident what the Church's teaching is and encourage its students to embrace it (something one suspects doesn't happen often in the daily business of the Law Center). However, in the instance of abortion advocacy, where the victim is helpless, even voiceless (unlike, say, a condemned criminal), it is obvious that Church commends special efforts to protect life, which the Law Center has attempted to do in this instance. Not to see that this represents a "consistent" if prudential application of the Church's teaching is to reveal one's own fanaticism, not the purported fanaticism of the Church.

FURTHER REFLECTION:

Thinking about this more, I have to concede that Woodson has a point in her following statement:

“When we apply to Georgetown Law, the most you hear about the Jesuit tradition is that [the school] supports students doing work in the public interest,” she added.

This rings true to me. Since joining the faculty at Georgetown, I've heard endless iterations of the way Georgetown's "Jesuit and Catholic identity" contribute to anodyne goals of social harmony and dialogue. Not once have I heard an administrator speak specifically of the way the that the University's Catholic "identity" should inspire students and faculty to strive to follow Church teachings. So, Woodson is undoubtedly correct in experiencing surprise that, quite suddenly it would seem, Georgetown would define its identity in such a specifically and identifiably Catholic manner. Should Georgetown wish act in accordance with specific Catholic teachings in the future, it would be well served to speak more directly and consistently about its commitment to those teachings in its daily life.

Uh Oh

Peter Lawler has found me out, and next the world. My guilty little secret - scrawlings posted to the internet - was linked by Peter on "No Left Turns," one of my more frequented blog destinations.

I'm ambivalent about this whole blogging enterprise. Obviously I see its value: our medium is words and argument, and this is only the latest and in many ways most accessible and immediate medium that has ever been created. Therein lies many of its virtues, and many of its failings. Indeed, there has been debate at "No Left Turns" about the lack of civility evidenced in many of the comments in recent weeks. The combination of immediacy and anonymity, in addition to our ever harsher politics (itself in part a result of ever-increasing immediacy), certainly contributes to the coarsened discourse that seems to pervade this medium. I have hoped to contribute in some small way to this medium by avoiding much of the form that blogs tend to take - often immediate and sometimes incendiary commentary on front page news, or an endless cycle of links from one blog to another along with ever-shriller comments. I have hoped to provide longer and less frequent disquisitions (with an occasional shorter post) that draw on recent work or post recent lectures. In a way, I hope that this can be something of an anti- or contra-blog, at least to the extent that it tries not to speak too much or too explicitly about our apparently most immediate concerns. I take it that this is one of the singular contributions that political theorists can contribute to our 24-hour news cycle mentality.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Robot Mental Health

It must be a comfort to our therapeutic age that General Motors has revised a recent ad spot which portrayed a robot committing suicide after making a mistake on the automobile assembly line. I happened to be reading a New York Times article about the terrible dislocation that continues to unfold among workers in Detroit and environs due to the collapse of the American automotive industry, preceded by an article on the imploding housing and sub-prime mortgage market around Detroit, when I heard the near-ubiquitous strains of Eric Carmen's "All By Myself" signalling that the revised advertisement was once again being run. The ad now portrays the robot being fired from GM and briefly holding a series of odd jobs, such as holding an advertising mortarboard for a retail store to passing cars.

Is this advertisement supposed to divert our attention from the actual impact and dislocation being suffered by automobile workers and America's blue collar labor force? One of the ironies, surely intentional, is that the robot is fired for a mistake while human workers return to the plant. The robot awakens from its nightmare and we're told that GM is obsessed with quality, but the commercial is a deeply cynical portrayal that cleaves closely to reality, except for the fact that it's not the robots who are suffering from the loss of jobs and taking on increasingly meaningless and low-paid jobs, and it's not a nightmare from which the human workers awaken. The advertisement is an insult to the workers who have and continue to lose their jobs, and would be an insult to the intelligence of the viewers but for the fact that decades of advertising and now years of "reality television" leaves us increasingly unable to distinguish reality from the flickering images on our screens.