Tag Archives: liberalism

30 Hours in Vermont

23 Sep

Airports are normally among the more placeless places in existence, but upon my arrival in Burlington, Vermont, I know I’m in a different sort of place. Wooden reliefs with maps and quotes cover the walls, and a row of rocking chairs runs down the center of the concourse. Most stunningly, a series of quotes on the state’s opioid crisis lines the glass skywalk to the parking garage, a raw admission of a glaring issue and a call for redemption all at once. I develop an immediate appreciation for Vermont’s willingness to confront reality and be itself. If jetting in and out in 30 hours can really give one a true appreciation for a state, I got one in my two quick nights in the state last week.

I make the 40-mile drive from Burlington to Montpelier beneath a giant moon just past its full stage, gently coasting down I-89 through the Winooski River Valley. The Vermont State House is lit up for the night, but the town is silent, and half a block away I find my resting place at the Capitol Plaza Hotel, a grand old thing with rich red carpeting and textured wallpaper and some intricate woodwork here and there. It also shows its age at times, with its questionable elevator and inconsistent updates to some of fixtures in its bathrooms, but I decide this slightly-past-its-prime grandeur is exactly my style. The night desk attendant, a middle-aged man in a sweater and suit coat one might mistake for an English professor, sets me on my way, and after a lengthy but successful struggle with an iron, I turn in for the night.

I wake to find Montpelier blanketed in fog, but get out for a quick run so I can see the town before I confine myself to a conference and then bid it farewell. The downtown is picture book New England quaint cuteness, a couple of main streets lined with restaurants and bookstores and a few church steeples rising above it all. The side streets are lined with more slightly shabby grandeur, old Victorians and Federalist homes, many of them with peeling paint or carved up into separate apartment units. I struggle up a hill to the Vermont College of the Arts and make my way back down around town before an aggressive climb up a steep hill in Hubbard Park, which lords over the city and offers a few vistas through the mist.

I’m in Montpelier to speak at conference on opportunity zones, a federal tax incentive that tries to make everyone happy by giving rich people a tax break for investing in projects in designated low-income or high-poverty zones. The incentive, a product of the 2017 tax cut bill, certainly can be abused, as recent accounts highlight all too clearly. But with up-front community planning we can also drive conversations to focus these funds on projects with a social impact, and in Minnesota, a couple of colleagues and I have worked to do just that. Our grassroots effort is, to my pleasant surprise, one my new Vermont friends would like to emulate.

While I don’t know if anyone explicitly planned it this way, a northern Minnesotan is a good fit for a conference on economic development in Vermont. The state’s chief metropolitan area, Burlington, is roughly the size of Duluth, and both cities are regional centers for some old towns tucked away in the hills. Despite its cool vibe, some of the figures wandering downtown Burlington wouldn’t look out of place in downtown Duluth. Outside of those two outdoorsy metros, the poverty isn’t extreme, but not much is growing, either. The opioid crisis afflicts them all, but they also have rich histories and a promise of renewal. I find no shortage of common ground with the conference attendees, even though the visit is brief.

After the conference I take the scenic route back to Burlington. It follows U.S. Highway 2, the same road that works its way through Superior and Duluth, and it weaves around the interstate and the Winooski and through a few more classic New England downtowns before it heads into suburban Burlington. I head downtown after checking in to my hotel, and after an initial rush of envy over the Church Street pedestrian mall and a molten gold Lake Champlain at sunset, I start to do some calculus on how Burlington stacks up to my hometown. Duluth wins on stunning natural environment: its lake is superior, its ridgeline more prominent, its parks full of more hidden gems. It seems to have more prominent neighborhoods, while Burlington devolves into more of a series of urban strips out toward its airport and beyond. Burlington, meanwhile, wins for its compact urban form: a walkable downtown, a college campus with immediate access to said downtown, a planning regime that has figured out that bike lanes are not some great menace to urban commerce. Church Street is a gem, its food and beer scenes are superb, and the attractions are all in one general area instead of sprawled out across and segregated between a tourist-heavy Canal Park and a dead-after-five downtown and up-and-coming Lincoln Park. Duluth’s leaders should spend some times comparing notes with their brethren on Lake Champlain.

In many ways, Vermont exemplifies northeastern liberalism at its best: tight-knit democratic communities, a sense of history and order and progress, a belief in education and knowledge for its own sake, connections to the natural world. The downsides: arcane state-level zoning limits that stifle any development or drive it further outward, part of a broader struggle to reconcile a wish for personal freedom with that puritan sense of order; an abstract commitment to humanity that upholds laudable principles but sometimes forgets that societies must meet their constituents at both their best and worst, and also sometimes forgets that leaving a better world for future generations means actually cultivating said next generations. All of those traits, the good and the bad, are all too familiar from my own circles back in Duluth.

My early flight the next day gives me one last glimpse of beauty, with a bank of morning fog spilled like a river of milk down the valley of the Winooski. Vermont and I, I realize, have much to learn from one another. Yes, I want to measure my Minnesota work against the efforts of a comparable place, and I also hope to explore some Green Mountain hamlets, cruise Champlain, strap on some skis at Stowe, meander Middlebury, and eat more food like that incredible burger with foie gras and drink more beer from its many excellent breweries. Vermont, I shall return.

My Professor and My Prose

12 Jan

I’m compelled to write a quick post to acknowledge the publication of a new book by Patrick Deneen, a college-era professor of mine now at Notre Dame. I’ve written approvingly of his take on human nature in the past on here. He was certainly a contributor to the philosophical framework that now roughly guides my worldview, and when he told an uncertain Georgetown senior that Duluth needed people like him, he also may have given a dithering kid a necessary kick in the butt.

His book, which effectively distills many of the topics we covered in a Georgetown seminar named “A Humane Economy,” comes with the provocative title Why Liberalism Failed. (Note here that he is not talking about Democratic Party liberalism, but rather the broader definition that includes not only those liberals, but also most of what we in the United States call conservatives.) Not that it’s failing, or might fail in the future: he thinks it is dead. The thrust of Deneen’s argument, as summarized in a recent interview with Rod Dreher, suggests that liberal society is slowly devouring itself as it chips away at the moral and ethical foundations that propped up early modern societies. The left claims that stronger state support will guide people toward freedom while the right believes open markets will do the same, but those two narrow ideologies only tend to reinforce one another, and leave people with less and less control over their own lives. The Trump administration is merely a late stage symptom of a decline set in motion long ago. The solution, though it will not be easy, lies in a return to local cultures; his overarching philosophical framework will help, but is useless without the necessary work on the ground to cultivate something that can last.

Like Dreher, his interviewer here, Deneen is a religious conservative, and that comes out in places in the interview. They’re both following the same strain of political thought as they try to imagine a post-liberal society, but Deneen, I think, may be a better vessel for that message. He acknowledges the remarkable successes of liberal society, and is not about to pine for some lost past era. Dreher’s Benedict Option had very little to say to people who are not already members of committed religious communities, but Deneen, having spent most of his days trying to impart his worldview to skeptical children of the winners of the liberal system at Princeton, Georgetown, and Notre Dame, understands what he’s up against in the broader culture. Of course, he’s also an academic, not a prolific journalist, so we’ll see if this book gets the exposure it deserves beyond a certain corner of the intelligentsia. While I do not share Deneen’s religious views, I think recent events only confirm that he and his fellow travelers have been on to something all along. If people who are honestly trying to grapple with the direction of this country aren’t entertaining this sort of argument in good faith, they’re missing the boat.

The questions Deneen asks are also, believe it or not, the motivating themes behind the collection of short stories that I’m chipping away at on this blog. Sometimes fiction seems a more effective way of making points about the reality we inhabit than writing a philosophical treatise ever could. Ideally, it can also be much more accessible, and much more fun. Grand theory falls away, and we are left only with people, trying to make do. With my characters, who are often gifted but flawed, I seek to give an all-too-human face to the questions that people like Deneen have forced me to ask. They negotiate tensions between self and community, ambition and rootedness, faith and reason, agency and destiny. I tend to write about adolescents and young adults because they, more than anyone, have to confront these questions before they inevitably settle in to the selves they become. My recent arrival into undisputed adulthood has only confirmed this sentiment.

If we’re going to find a guide for how to live in this world, whether we accept Deneen’s post-liberal diagnosis of our current condition or not, we need ways to explore different approaches. Telling people’s stories, real or imagined, is the most effective way to do this. The people in our lives can be superb guides, but humanity’s more impressive achievements often come through imagining an alternate reality, or telling stories of how things could be. These stories can be dangerous; the stakes are higher than we might think. But unless we are perfectly satisfied with what we’ve got, failure to explore different options is a defeat. This is why I write.

History Is Still Over (For Now)

28 Apr

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual care taking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.

So ends The End of History, a 1989 essay by Francis Fukuyama that later evolved into the seminal work on what the end of the Cold War meant for the world. Due to his grandiose phrasing, Fukuyama has spent most of the past three decades being misunderstood by most people who try to comment on his theory.

This isn’t to say his article was right about everything—no one ever is—but it got a lot right in its explanation of how alternatives to liberal (meaning capitalist, relatively free) democracy have basically been exhausted. The original article accounts for basically every counterpoint people have tried to raise since. Countries that don’t fit that liberal democratic title are still very much in history, fighting and struggling in ugly ways. Fukuyama accurately diagnoses the explosive potential but limited appeal of radical Islam, and also China’s rise as a powerful authoritarian state ultimately more interested in commercial power than some violent takeover. While he shows some hope for a different path, he also recognizes that a fascist-nationalist cause in the then-Soviet Union “has not played itself out entirely there.” (And, despite Putin’s recent maneuvering, present-day Russia is still a long way from taking serious steps down that road.) Fukuyama’s later works worry about the dangers of genetic engineering, suggesting a world in which Silicon Valley manipulates humanity enough that it upsets the balance. That still may be a valid concern.

No doubt others who don’t really know what Fukuyama was saying will say the rise of Donald Trump and various European anti-establishment movements will upset the liberal order, but the paragraph at the top of this post shows that Fukuyama was all over this, too. “Make America Great Again” just screams “powerful nostalgia,” and that sentiment is even more palpable in better-defined movements like Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France. His diagnosis of our ills rings true: bourgeois societies replaced philosophers with data-crunching policy wonks, back-to-nature pushes with spurts of carefully managed ecotourism, and the consumer standards created by old gatekeepers for shopping and even news-gathering with curation by an algorithm. Too much contemporary art is vapid self-expression or thinly disguised political sloganeering, instead of an aspiration to perfection or wonder; too much of “philosophy” is just a negation of previously constructed philosophy without aspiring to a genuine alternative. No wonder that, as someone drawn to philosophy as an ordering project for human life, I’ve found the somewhat fringy right—and occasionally the left, when it stops trying to fight last century’s wars—a far more fertile ground for serious philosophical debate than anything mainstream for some time now.

So are we all going to lapse back into history? Possible, I suppose, but I’m not convinced. We may or may not like the form it takes, but some fusion of democracy (however thinly ritualistic it may be) and capitalism still seems like the only realistic way of ordering an advanced society. Revolt may simmer, but for now, revolution is dead as an agent of dramatic social change. If the 20th century taught us anything, it was that the proletariat never really coalesces into a unified popular force; there are too many things dividing it. While Bernie Bros and Deplorables may have enough shared hatred of The System to collaborate on occasion, their worldviews are too diametrically opposed to ever form a lasting alliance. I expect most of the rebels who attain power (including Donald Trump) to be more or less co-opted by the mainstream, and if they don’t, the revolt by the bourgeois—the still large, still politically powerful middle and upper middle classes—will be swift.

Like Fukuyama, I’m rather ambivalent about all of this. I won’t pretend not to enjoy the creature comforts of life in a liberal democracy, and will readily admit that, more often than not, I’ve been a winner in its meritocratic system. It gives a lot of people an effective ladder to comfortable, happy lives, and that is the source of its ability to outlast other ideologies, and by and large a win for humanity. Its allure will endure for the foreseeable future. But it all goes back to the Answer to Everything: thinking that this way of life is all there is amounts to a dangerous misreading of human nature, and that push for more—for greatness, for glory, for God in whatever form that might take—will forever loom beneath, looking to stake out a distinctive identity or even a soul. Anyone who fails to take that seriously, as an awful lot of mainstream commentators have lately, will reap what they sew.

“The sterility of the bourgeois world will end in suicide or a new form of creative participation,” Octavio Paz writes in the closing lines of The Labyrinth of Solitude. Lately, I’ve been telling myself to try to make sure the tasks I do are acts of creation, such as they can be. We are all world-builders, not mere consumers, and every step we take to use the knowledge we accumulate toward productive ends will help ensure that something healthy emerges from those inescapable desires for greatness and achievement. Sterile conformity will eventually dissolve into something far uglier, and many critics of the system probably won’t realize what horror they’ve unleashed until it’s far too late. Without some healthy renewal, history may end in a much more definitive way.

Confronting Baltimore: David Simon at Georgetown, 2012

1 May

Baltimore is in the news this week, and any mention of Baltimore seems to make anyone in my very narrow circle make excited references to The Wire, that pinnacle of twenty-first century television. The Wire, in turn, makes me think of David Simon, the producer and brains behind the whole operation. Three years ago, on a sunny morning in Washington D.C., he gave the Georgetown College Class of 2012 commencement address. It will surprise no one who knows his work that it was a thoroughly depressing speech. Here is the text, coming from his blog named (you can’t make this stuff up) “The Audacity of Despair”:


Alright, that’s misreading Simon’s words. He’s making a deeply existentialist appeal, one that calls on people to continue the good fight in spite of the impossibility. He builds a case for national unity in the face of apparent divergence, and the events in Baltimore only underscore that concern. His diagnosis of Baltimore’s miseries in The Wire proved all too prescient, and it may indeed take a dose of Camus for anyone who has confronted this disorder to believe in any chance of improvement.

Unfortunately, Simon isn’t reading Camus quite right. Camus doesn’t confront the question of suicide because he thinks political change is impossible; he confronts it because he knows that all knowledge is impossible, and because there is always another way to look at things, no single political platform will do. There is no answer, and the world is incoherent. This, and not the possibility or impossibility of progress, is what leads Camus to call life absurd, and to suggest we soldier ahead along the one path that offers dignity, imagining Sisyphus as happy.

Very well; onward we go. Simon certainly offers a worldview; a plan of attack of sorts. He offers one lens that purports to make sense of it all. It uses nihilism, the cheapest of philosophical absolutes, as an attempt to come off as a world-wise sage. Who knows where we’re supposed to reconcile that nihilism with the genuine care for humanity that comes out of his lens. It’s a Western liberal lens concerned primarily with the rights of one’s countrymen. It sees humans in isolation, unequal, struggling for these abstractions we call rights. The policy prescription is liberal boilerplate. Halting steps might be realistic, though the end goal, as Simon readily admits, is impossible.

Yes, impossibility can inspire; I begrudge no one for chasing it. We talk a good game, say we can achieve it, and some people out there really do. But it sets an absurdly high bar, and it’s no wonder the platform faces such long odds. Many people spend most of their lives without daring to contemplate that shadow of doubt, focused relentlessly on what is before them, for good or ill. Many who do recognize it fold before it, unwilling to make Simon’s “absurd” leap. A belief of impossibility, after all, is what drives a teenager in Baltimore to throw a rock through a window. If the call to service requires either naïveté or this high a level of philosophical belief, perhaps the lens shouldn’t be our primary entry to the situation.

This doesn’t mean one who wants to “fix” Baltimore can’t have many of the same end goals or employ some of the same analytical tools as Simon; it’s just that one has to understand their place. They are means to approximate reality, not reality itself. No one lens, nor even any number of lenses deployed at once, can see that. Modern liberalism likes to think it can, and while it may come closer than many others, it still fails. Take it away, Octavio Paz:

Today a universal relativism reigns triumphant. The term is contradictory: no relativism can be universal without losing its relativity. We live in a logical and moral contradiction. Relativism has given us many good things, and the best of these is tolerance, the recognition of the other. Although I have no nostalgia for the old religious and philosophical absolutes, I’m aware that relativism–apart from its intrinsic philosophical weakness–is an attenuated form and in certain ways hypocritical of nihilism. Our nihilism is surreptitious and is coated in a false universal benevolence. It’s a nihilism that doesn’t dare say what it is. I prefer cynics, I prefer Diogenes in his barrel. A relativist society doesn’t admit what it is: a society poisoned by the lie, a slow but certain venom. The remedy, perhaps, requires a return to classical thinkers.

There is an alternative. An alternative that avoids the knee-jerk turn to the failed dreams of a narrow worldview. One that dispenses with the grand sociological theory and anger at systems, and turns attention to the immediate. One that sees history not as a blind arc from darkness to light, but caught up in a tumult of connections and feedback loops. Full understanding is impossible, but we can approximate it, and that calls for the full arsenal of perspectives we can imagine, and the humility to never claim complete knowledge. When we admit our own limitations, wonder at the void we do not know can return, and suddenly everything is a bit less bleak, a bit less doomed to failure. It is a happier, healthier place to reside.

It was at Georgetown that I came to see that different lens for what it was, and, haltingly, embrace it, though I have some fear the latest curriculum decision there will only push Georgetown further toward the vogue lens. The rush to see everything through the lens of “diversity,” I fear, will neglect any attention to a moral language that underlies the most basic human relationships, the ones that go deeper than identity-driven labels and thought constructs and settle on reality. People will settle on the established battle lines and war away, without stopping to take a closer look. Camus, for one, never lost sight of this: when while the rest of the French intelligentsia embraced the anti-colonial revolt in Algeria, Camus, an Algerian of French origin, saw more nuance. “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” He was able to strip away all the rhetoric of the age and see the human drama beneath, entranced by the little details that no one has time for.

To his credit, I think David Simon realizes this on some level. His analysis of the state of the Baltimore Police Department, right or wrong, shows keen insight. Beneath all the sociological sharpness of this and The Wire, though, are a lot of paper-thin characters. Simon’s attempt to study deeper human workings just aren’t there. But that, I suppose, would require an audacity far greater than cheap despair.

On Diversity

9 Apr

At times, I’ve complained that words like “liberal” and “conservative” have been so overused to mean so many different things that they’ve been drained of all meaning. Another such word is, without a doubt, diversity. It’s a very delicate topic, as it addresses identities that people sometimes take to be the core of their very existence, and is broad enough to encompass so many different spheres of life. Race is the most commonly mentioned aspect of diversity, but faith, regional identities, socioeconomics, and sexual orientation all come into play.

Just in the past week and a half, it’s been everywhere. From Stephen Colbert to Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, from the grandiose debates of bloggers like Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates to a scuffle over the owners of a market in Portland, all the way down to anti-bullying legislation and a Condoleeza Rice speech here in Minnesota, this sort of thing fascinates a segment of our population. (Another, probably larger segment could care less, though those who care will point out, not without some reason, that this is a large part of the issue.)

The debate is especially ubiquitous in the academy, and from there, it tends to flow easily into journalism and the arts. There are endless debates about affirmative action, of course, and questions about the diversity being brought in. Most every university has what might be called a diversity lobby, constantly pressuring the administration to recognize the unique plight of groups that do not constitute the majority. Core curricula have collapsed under the push to recognize voices from every corner, and the humanities are now filled with a vast array of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender-focused departments. For the voices within those departments, it’s a golden age of recognition; the trade-offs come in the cacophony of voices from different corners that are now fighting for attention, and in the struggles faced by those who do not fall easily into one of those categories, or who would prefer to transcend it all.

This much is true: diversity does not yield harmony. Social science even backs this up: much to his displeasure, Harvard Scholar Robert Putnam found a correlation between diversity and lower levels of social trust and civic participation. Diversity is challenging. Frankly, it should be, if we’re going to give different backgrounds in life the respect they deserve. Diversity makes the world rich and interesting, but it is also at the root of so many conflicts.

Diversity should also not be confused with tolerance. Consider this paradox: “to have a tolerant society, we cannot tolerate racism.” I’m not saying that’s wrong; extreme tolerance leads itself to an empty form of moral relativism, and moral standards are probably necessary to protect diversity.  But in setting up those standards, we do need to recognize that we are indeed abandoning some measure of tolerance. Liberalism (in the broad sense of the word) aspires to neutrality because its adherents recognize it’s the most sensible way to live in a diverse world, but it is not perfect, and it is not and never will be fully neutral. Liberals are often guilty of failing to make that distinction, and their commitment to diversity and their commitment to freedom of speech and expression is in ongoing tension. Some of the least tolerant people I have ever met, people who wage eternal war against anything and anyone who disagrees with them, are self-professed fighters for equality and inclusion. It’s almost funny. Almost.

This is all compounded by modern discourse, which is filled with what I rather inelegantly like to call “outrage porn.” You can find this on any issue, of course, and every cause has its provocative radicals, but it is especially ironic when the anger is brought on by proponents of “diversity.” Social media gets much of the blame for its trolling, inane debates, and like-minded echo chambers of affirmation, though in many respects the traditional media, trying to fill a 24-hour news cycle with lots of things that are not newsworthy, is by far the biggest culprit. The emphasis is on calling out the offender, and rarely on actually doing anything to rectify the problem (if it is indeed a problem), save maybe a vague call for “dialogue” on one’s own terms. Everyone yells about what a horrible or misguided person so-and-so (whom they have probably never met, and never will) must be, complaining on and on until they reach the climax, go through a bit of catharsis, feel the pleasure of release, and then it’s over. Vicarious righteousness. Rinse and repeat ad nauseam.

It’s tiresome, and it strains people and relationships without ever attacking the roots of whatever malaise might be at play. I’m not saying there aren’t some things worth decrying at the top of our lungs, but the amount of noise makes it nearly impossible to separate the worthwhile causes from the rest of the din. Not only that, the emphasis on hearing many different voices means that no one really agrees on the things that are worth decrying. The trouble is not the sentiment but the instrument used to achieve it, and too often that instrument is a crude bludgeon that just leaves destruction and deeper misunderstanding in its wake.

A recent graduate school application asked me to write an essay on how I might contribute to the diversity of the campus. Not necessarily the easiest task for a straight white guy with college-educated parents from the very white and comfortable side of a town in northern Minnesota. This essay was primarily for a series of diversity-based fellowships (none of which I qualified for, nor expected to), but I still had a point to make to the admissions committee. In short, diversity isn’t found by checking boxes. It’s found in observing life, and in living it. Go stand at the Holiday Center in downtown Duluth, the heart of this supposedly homogenous city, and try to wrap your head around the variety you see, and imagine what must lie behind it all. If you can, you’re probably cheating. It’s too complicated. And that complication deserves respect: recognition that there is a story behind everything, no matter how tortured the logic behind it may be, and while they may be important constituent parts, chopping those stories up and making them all about race or faith or a single key life event is an impoverished view of humanity.

I’m running the risk of turning this into a “we’re all special in our own little way” essay, which irks my inner cynic. Those stories mean we humans are never blank slates, and that will naturally include plenty of prejudices, along with a bunch of other things, good or bad or both or neither. Diversity is messy; diversity is hard. It takes time, and no one who believes in diversity for its own sake should be in any rush to impose a purity test. And then, when we do decide a battle is worth fighting, we might be able to generate a response worthy of the task at hand.

In Which I Wade into the Trayvon Martin Affair

25 Jul

I realize the George Zimmerman trial has been beaten to death in the media over the past few weeks, and that I am rather late to the party. But this blog is, after all, a patient cycle, so I think that gives me some liberty to weigh things over the course of time. So, here are a few bullet points on the whole affair. They are complicated and will probably not satisfy anyone who has a set opinion on the Trayvon Martin saga. I offer them in the spirit of further healthy debate.

-I see no great injustice in the jury’s verdict. They had more evidence at their hands than any of us do, and from what I have seen, we have very little idea of what happened in the few minutes leading up to Martin’s death. I would not be shocked to learn that Zimmerman erred in his conduct, or even to learn that he acted on a racial bias, whether conscious or unconscious. But there seems to be too much ambiguity here to render a guilty verdict, and he is innocent until proven guilty of second-degree murder beyond reasonable doubt. There is plenty of reasonable doubt here. Much as we may want to turn Zimmerman into a cause celébre to highlight the very real ongoing racial tensions in the United States, this case isn’t that black-and-white. (Pun intended. Sorry.)

-I also do not support trying to launch a civil suit against Zimmerman. That strikes me as a vindictive show trial that would give both sides in this debate another opportunity for a lot of shrill self-righteousness while still ignoring the more important underlying debates. Martin’s supporters need to ask themselves this simple question: is their cause best served by an effort to lock up a single man, or is there perhaps some better way to make sure some good comes out of this whole sad affair?

-All of that said, President Obama’s remarks on the whole affair were well-measured and on target, and did constitute a real effort to focus on those more important underlying debates. A few critics tried to attack the President for making such remarks when he had a rather privileged upbringing. This completely misses the point: he has encountered some prejudice—not of a seriously life-limiting sort, clearly, but prejudice nonetheless. Obama lays out an agenda that deserves to be questioned and further explored in future debate, but I also think his words were sincere, and I do not think he did much (in this particular address) to further politicize a tragedy that has already been politicized to the point of excess.

-It is true that a disproportionate amount of crime in this country is committed by African-Americans, and I certainly do not believe their higher incarceration rate is simply the result of white racism. There are very real pathologies of crime and violence and poverty and broken families that afflict many African-American communities in this country, and until they are resolved, the statistics are going to be skewed. However, telling “black people” to go clean up their act isn’t going to do anyone any good. There is no one “black community,” except to the extent that it has been manufactured by people with political agendas (both with the intent to help and hurt the prospects of African-Americans in the United States). Instead, there are many, many communities, some of which happen to include lots of black people. We never hear public cries for wealthy white people to clean up the trailer parks of Appalachia out of racial solidarity, and it is no less absurd to expect middle-class African-Americans to do the same for inner-city ghettoes. Sure, people with certain cultural traits share certain bonds, as our President noted in his remarks, and many people do admirable things for the disadvantaged with whom they share a cultural affinity. But the vast majority of people do not feel the need to act on these identities on a day-to-day basis, and try to get on with their lives, few of which involve heaps of free time to go “save” people one has never met.

Thinking about these things strictly as “black problems” is an impoverished view, and only gets at a tiny bit of the problem. We can argue about whether the solution is economic or moral or some combination of the two, but it is not just racial. Without getting into an argument over causes and effects, the economic destitution of inner cities and the collapse of marriage within those communities are the most powerful forces behind the racial achievement and well-being gaps. And while racism is still a problem, I do wonder if invoking it in all but the most blatant cases really serves a constructive purpose. There is no more charged topic in the U.S. today than race, and nothing is more likely to bring out predictable responses. We all argue for a while, call people racists or counter-racists, and demand more “dialogue,” as if there weren’t already a lot of yelling going on. And then the issue fades from the news, and we go back to the old normal. Perhaps combatting the vestiges of racism requires a little more subtlety; a different mode of dialogue.

-There may not be a single black community, but there is a shared black legacy dating back to slavery. This remains America’s original sin, and I have my doubts about any salvation from it on this earth. By in the large, white Americans (and most non-black minorities as well) do not have a history, so to speak; their identities as Americans are founded upon some version of the American Dream, an embrace of the U.S. for its supposed opportunity while discarding the past. For African-Americans, being an American means something much more complicated, and has given rise to a culture that cannot forget the past. That culture need not be determinative, and I do not doubt that some people invoke this culture for cynical purposes. But it exists, and can’t be wished away. Nor should it: history is a valuable thing, and while it can chain people to the past, it brings with it a wealthy cultural inheritance. Hence, in part, the outsize contributions of African-Americans in a number of artistic realms, from high art to pop culture.

-I haven’t agreed with everything Rod Dreher has written about the case, but this piece on how we all profile raises some worthwhile questions. I am guilty of this. For all my belief that I am a fair-minded person, I’ve reacted to the way some people look, especially when I lived in Washington DC. While I did not cross the street to avoid anyone, I would certainly cast a wary eye on people who dressed in certain ways, and perhaps reach for my keys in my pocket. I don’t think this is necessarily racial, mind you; I do the same thing when I walk past the horde of almost entirely white people lined up outside of the synthetic marijuana-dealing Last Place on Earth here in Duluth. Presentation matters, and it is rather naïve to claim people can dress however they would like while at the same time expecting that dress should not provoke reactions. Obviously, this is no defense for Zimmerman if he did indeed take the initiative and hunt down Martin. But while I think we should fight it when we can, a certain degree of prejudice is probably inevitable.

-Somewhere at the root of American liberalism there is a fascinating contradiction between the desire to respect all cultures and the wish that everyone be treated equally. One strand demands that we take notice of the things that separate us and remain in constant dialogue about these differences, while another tries to flatten all differences between people and claim they are only superficial accessories to a shared humanity. I don’t say this in a nasty way to point out some horrible hypocrisy; I think it simply reflects those wonderfully contradictory realities of human nature that make it impossible to boil us down to a static essence. They aren’t always in tension, and it certainly makes more sense to build a legal system in a modern state around the second strain of thought. But culture will always divide us, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. 

The Elephant in Every Room

14 Apr

I ended my last post by suggesting that individual freedom is the driving force in just about every social change. Today, I’ll flesh out that argument a bit more.

First, the evidence: personal liberation has been at the heart of nearly every liberal or leftist achievement since the 1960s. The civil rights and feminist movements, while not necessarily complete, made great strides. Likewise, sexual autonomy has taken off dramatically. Yet when it comes to collective action, the left has stalled. Despite the efforts of many politicians and community activists, poverty remains entrenched in many American communities, and inequality has only grown. Unions have gradually lost their power. The environmental movement records most of its victories on an individual level, with consumers embracing green shopping but minimal political action on such issues as climate change. Universal health care came about only through appeals that every person deserved the right to some level of care, and remains far less centralized than Europe’s single-payer systems.

On the right, it hasn’t been any different. The past half century has seen decreases in tax rates, deregulation, and the proliferation of free-market economic theories that rally against state intervention. Most liberal social issues have done well over the past half-century, yet gun control legislation rarely goes anywhere, with the Second Amendment as the guiding light. The conservative ideals under duress are far more communal in nature: traditional family structures, church attendance, and perhaps the predominance of “traditional” American culture generally associated with white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

There are some issues that don’t line up so evenly. On abortion, for example, both sides can play the freedom card: the left demands rights for women to control their bodies, while the right demands rights for the unborn. National security—that paradoxical enterprise by which we take away freedoms so as to protect freedoms—doesn’t line up very nicely, either. On that front, the politicians in power almost always favor the collective definition of freedom, despite complaints from both ends of the spectrum. Still, I think this is the exception that proves the rule: collective action only seem to advance when the populace feels sufficiently threatened by some outside force, and enthusiasm for more rigid national security has faded away now that Islamic terrorism is not perceived to be the existential threat it was decade ago. Clearly, there are times when public opinion rallies against the steady march of individualism, and slows the tide for a spell. But the fact remains that the side that can best monopolize arguments for individual freedom just about always wins.

Appeals to individual rights resound with voters on a level that vague appeals to the greater good cannot, just as photos of a single starving child tend to move more people to action than a ream of statistics on child poverty. Self-interest tends to take priority, and in a society where the majority of people are relatively secure from outside threats, collective action often seems needless. On an individual level, this makes an awful lot of sense; the problems arise when we dare to ask what might be lost by such a narrow focus.

It’s important to note that this does not necessarily mean the advancement of individual liberties at the expense of state power. In some cases, government policy is seen as the best means to drive individual liberation, and the state sure hasn’t gotten any smaller over the past few decades, even with “conservatives” in control in Washington. Some even argue that individualism and growing state power feed off of one another in a vicious cycle. What have suffered, on the other hand, are voluntary associations that make up civil society—groups that citizens join to affect the communal good. In my opinion, the greatest threat this country faces is not its debt load, nor some external foe, nor an immediate lack of social justice. It is its failing social fabric, and without it, none of the other issues really matter.

My point here certainly isn’t to say that the government needs to control more things, or that we need to subsume all our individual desires to the collective. If I lived in a different country and in a different era, I might have lamented the opposite trend. My point is that our basic ways of thinking about politics—as a battle between the individual and the state—is fundamentally flawed.

Instead, we ought to recognize that humans, for all the unique traits of each one of us, are forever doomed to live within communities, and have to find some way to make them work as a collective. Certain problems can only be solved via collective action, and we also tend to be happier when we have our most fundamental beliefs validated by groups of people with similar interests or concerns. Conceiving of the human being as an autonomous individual who is forced into living with others is an impoverished view of human nature, to the extent that we can define such a thing. We have our moments when we operate alone, yes, but we also have moments where we must operate in concert, and we can’t ignore either one and expect to come out with a sensible philosophy about life.

At this moment in history, individualism has the upper hand, and while individual liberation has brought us many very good things, it isn’t without its dark side, and we must acknowledge it. This, of course, leads to the question of what can be done to counteract these trends; unfortunately, I don’t have a whole lot of great answers on this front yet, beyond the basic suggestion that we should all get out a little bit more. It may, in fact, be hard to do much of anything until a lot more people become aware of the trends driving modern American life.

To that end, I suppose, this blog post is a start. We’ll see where we go next.