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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Can Love Restore Civility?

Stanley Fish, writing in the New York Times (10.15.12) hopes it can, and cites the work Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice by Martha Nussbaum:

A key role will [have to] be played by government; by the rhetoric of political leaders who call their countrymen to sacrifice and the pursuit of noble ideals (Winston Churchill is her chief example), and by state-sponsoring and -financing of artifacts and entertainments that promote the desired political emotions: “public artworks, monuments and parks … festivals and celebrations … songs, symbols, official films and photographs” and even sporting events (the World Series, the Final Four, the U.S. Open) that can, she reminds us, be shaped by government to play a “public role.”

We must, in other words, put civility back into our national discourse and rediscover rationality and respect as elements of our national character.  We have gone far astray, says Fish, but if we follow the advice of Nussbaum, there may be a way back.

This is all ‘progressive’ hokum. The world has changed, as it always does, and there is no evidence that we are regressing back to a dog-eat-dog world.  Ours has always been and will always be a brutal and selfish one.  It may seem that progress has been reversed with the acrimony, bile, and intemperance that characterize Washington today; and we long for great leaders like Churchill or Roosevelt to reunite us, but the current expression of hostile incivility is a simple result of a reconfiguration of social groupings and a reconsideration of social norms. The Tea Party has figured out how to game democracy and flex political muscles never used before.  It has used gerrymandering, safe districts, a radical vision shared by many in an increasingly conservative country, and a weak President to promote its own agenda. Nothing new here.

There is nothing tame and conciliatory in the American character and never has been; and although Europeans may resort to negotiations and diplomacy because of their 1000 years of  palace intrigues and international power politics;; war and conflict are as much in their blood as it is in ours.  The Hundred Years War, The War of The Roses, the Franco-Prussian War, and the perpetual English wars against the Irish and the Scots are just a few testaments to this ineluctably violent and universal human nature.

Conservatives know this and understand that human nature will never change; that the laws of competitive self-interest always apply; and that perfectibility is a pipe dream. No matter how many ‘progressive’ attempts have been made to change the course of history to make the world a more peaceful and congruent place – the deposition of kings, Communism, Henry Wallace, the Oneida Utopians, Oliver Cromwell, or the Sixties -  it will always be a brutish, violent place. Today’s current battle between the West and Islam is but one example.  In the past hundred years there have been more outrageously brutal acts by nations and individuals since the days of Genghis Khan.

Since there is no way to alter human nature, the only hope for a peaceful world is equilibrium; i.e. all competing forces are equal, and none have an economic, political, or economic advantage, a social version of scientific entropy or perfect equilibrium. This, however, is as utopian a vision as that of ‘progressives’ who hope that Man, via Government, can alter the course of human history for the better.  It will never happen.

Yet ‘progressives’ continue to try and resort in a tiresome and predictable way to government to right the ship:

Political emotions, then, are the emotions evoked and provoked by the state’s effort to educate its citizens into a culture of enhanced empathy. Nussbaum rejects the “Romantic idea that emotion is not worthy unless it comes unbidden,” and insists that “a decent public culture cannot survive and flourish without its cultivation in some suitable form.” The form she highlights -- and it is one that has, she knows, been put to bad purposes — is patriotism. Nussbaum notes that many distrust invocations of patriotism, which can be at once jingoistic and militaristic, and prefer a public rhetoric that emphasizes “critical reason,” the ability of citizens to “think for themselves” rather than in herds.

There are two problems with this approach.  First, governments which have tried to exert their influence to create an ideal, egalitarian society have failed miserably. The Soviet Union is the most recent and extreme example.  Communism failed because people have been individualistic, self-interested, and entrepreneurial since caveman days, and the imposition of an arbitrary government authority on them was doomed from the very beginning. Second, governments are either more corrupt or just as corrupt as the people the govern.  They are never less corrupt or more noble.  The wheels came off the Communist bus because Soviet leaders – like all human beings in power – got arrogant, greedy, and distant.  Communism was the absolute inversion of natural human society; and with or without Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev, sooner or later it would have collapsed.

There is no doubt that government can occasionally play a role in social change.  Without the civil rights legislation of the 60s, unions would have continued their all-white policy for years; but the real changes in American society came from within the electorate. Gradually Americans realized that it was self-defeating and far from their own self-interest to deny political and economic rights.  The Democrats have benefitted mightily from the black vote; and at least in principle Free Labor has once again been restored.  As minorities become equal to whites – that is, when their academic achievement, economic success, and subscription to majority norms approaches that of whites - discrimination based on race will disappear.

Most other government interventions in society to promote social equality, harmony, and universal justice have failed.  Affirmative action is perhaps the best example.  ‘Progressive’ attempts to distort the social marketplace have produced exactly the opposite result from their objective.  There is even more stereotyping of blacks than ever before because they have been catapulted unfairly into an academic world for which many are sorely unprepared.  Similar attempts to reconfigure the elementary classroom and eliminate natural distinctions in intelligence, intellect, and ability have so gone against the grain, that the flight from public schools has accelerated.

Yet, both Fish and Nussbaum never give up. We should build on our innate rationality and ability to understand the value of a more conciliatory and respectful world; but we should release and embrace the more emotional patriotism which will provide the glue to bind us together:

Patriotic love urged abstractly can, perhaps, “cultivate an impartial altruism, by asking people to love the nation as a whole, and thus all of its people,” but “it had better do so by getting people to love something that is [already] all their own,” lest the altruism remain entirely in their heads and they feel “nothing in their hearts.” Reading Kant and Rawls may bring some of us some of the way, but if we want a general contagion of patriotic love to break out, it might be better to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, celebrate the Fourth of July, go to the Grand Canyon, look at the paintings of Norman Rockwell, attend a Tony Bennett concert, listen to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, read “To Kill a Mockingbird” (as the entire city of Chicago was invited to do), see “South Pacific,” watch “Rocky.”

Fish admits that this can appear hokey and lowbrow, but the essence of a kind of spiritual nationalism that he and Nussbaum wish for should not be lost in the corn and treacle.

This is mostly but not completely nonsense.  This is the 70th anniversary of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, and that there is no doubt that his depiction of commonly-held, almost innate American values, helped to provide an understandable and immediately recognizable rationale for joining an unpopular war. 

Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” speech referring to the Depression, and Churchill’s magnificent speech showing English resolve and conviction is unparalleled in unifying a nation.

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,

However looking back on the good ol’ days of the 40s is nothing but nostalgic reverie.  America was a simple, rustic, rural, pious, and homogeneous society; and was nothing like the diverse, electronic, and highly disaggregated society of today.  It was relatively easy for a simple nation with shared beliefs to come together against a dangerous enemy.  It is next to impossible to expect a such coalescence today.  It is not that we have lost the values of the past.  There are no such things as universal values; and what was true in 1943 cannot be true now.

We are witnessing a political and social paroxysm that reflects the structural changes in American society.  While the principles of democracy may survive, its characteristics will soon become unrecognizable.  Who said that American Democracy is God-given, immutable, and permanent? No one.  We cannot turn back the clock or stop the wheels of history. 

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