Liberal to a Fault

What is little recognized about liberalism in America, among the illiberal, is its toughness in resisting homogeneity. It is little known and understood because conservatives and identity-conflicted centrists choose to ignore context and history when composing their self-congratulatory political narratives – narratives that describe their own views as wholly realistic and doggedly principled while ignoring the evolving ideals and labored mechanics essential to pragmatism. Recently, Nathan Heller wrote an article entitled “Northern Lights” for The New Yorker. [1] In it he examines the effectiveness and sensibleness of the welfare state in Scandinavian countries. He also contrasts that with criticism of the Scandinavian system offered in a current book on the topic. The juxtaposition of Scandinavian and American solutions to individual and social issues leads him to a interesting conclusion: that where Scandinavians have achieved saneness with an underpinning of sameness, America, particularly because of the strength of liberal ideals, pursues better solutions while preferring cultural diversity. As Heller sees it, this is not exactly unqualified praise of the American approach in general or American liberals in particular.

Here is how Heller states it:

“What Nordic life tells us…is how steep and ambitious the path of American liberalism is. Conservative social ideals are notorious for their mercenary spirit and wishful self-justifications…. Yet a certain hardness of heart rests in the practice of modern American liberalism, too. We have registered our willingness to make the Faustian deal that the Swedes have not. The possibility of having a truly Iranian-American life, or enjoying deep-Appalachian bluegrass, is important to our national variety. And, to let these cultures thrive on their own, we’ve agreed to let some of our people, by our withheld intervention, be thrown under the bus.

“Because this is America, we hope for better. But we aren’t hung up on our tendencies to fall short. …Like many Enlightenment-born nations, we declared our principles at the start – liberty, equality, the pursuit of happiness – and trusted that any friction among these ideas would be sorted out, eventually, in the churn of civic life. The trust continues. Progress is slow. While Nordic people have made the best of what they have, Americans persist in gambling on something better, and yet settling for something worse.”

Heller, having it both ways, as is the wont of journalists and critics alike, seems to be lightly criticizing American liberalism for not demanding the level of purity that would force submission to a tighter state in order to achieve a more amenable lifestyle – if not a more equitable and interesting society.

But his essay offers a valuable lesson to conservatives about liberalism. Liberalism is not more aggressive in opposing gun ownership, or the advancement of willful denial of fact in our society, because liberals see such aberrations as a part of our culture that somehow augment American life and prospects – as if to say, we will not force you to give up your diverse ways because we have no intention of giving up ours – and we find all the differences to be, at least a little, enriching.

Liberals in fact think there may yet be something useful and enlightening to emerge from conservative expressions – though there is often every reason to doubt that proposition. That, my friends, is truly entrenched optimism and determination. Liberals won’t go hard on guns in general because of fondness for grandpa’s beautiful gun rack and his colorful hunting stories. Radicals of every stripe should remember that liberals have firepower, too – sporting and defensive weapons, factories, technology, demographics, and diversity – shared culture and work. And liberals have an impressively successful track record of consistently crushing jackboots when they goose-step too high and too close to home. Diversity does indeed have its usefulness, lest conservatives think it is all about meditation, yoga, and sushi. Allies are a wonderful complement in war.

I am not so sure that American liberals are throwing anyone under the bus. But, by Heller’s lights, they are liberal to a fault for not going out of their way to crush differences of opinion and living styles. All this is not to criticize Scandinavia – even without bluegrass. Heller’s spear is meant for us alone, even though he would not wish us Scandinavian. We are too gloriously searching and messy for that.

Therefore, any assertions by conservatives regarding concealed or elite liberal designs to build a totalitarian state are pure projection and fancy on the part of the real schemers. Liberal America prefers flavorful variety over monotonous universal perfection.

FOOTNOTE:

1. Nathan Heller’s article “Northern Lights” in The New Yorker on February 16, 2015.

The Two-Thirds Party

A couple of easy-going Princeton grads put forward the idea that a new political coalition is in order. Seeing as two-thirds of Americans agree on solutions to several key political problems in the United States, they wonder if there ought to be a third party with a platform that concentrates on accomplishing only those agreed-upon goals. At least then something significant gets done. And the two main parties can be left to their perpetual food fight in the media about everything else.

I have often ridiculed (without regret) the dumb and dumber business of the radical right. However, occasionally I am reminded that there is a tincture of wacky libertarianism, a sniff of lazy rot, in both the left and right among us – and in all their most pernicious political posturings. A recent article in The New Yorker is one such reminder. The writer begins with a recitation of a long list of accolades bestowed on a particular ecology activist; then he presents her positions and tactics in a raw and condensed manner. The longest part of his essay is spent ripping her positions to shreds, exposing the dangers behind radical speech, and examining the distorted thinking such illiberal obsessions too breezily propagate.

In my mind, that wacky other fraction of this country is a faction whose adherents are de facto members of the paranoia and conspiracy party. It is the educated among them who are chiefly to blame for the failings of the two main parties. Were they to seek balance and reason, there would be little need for the two-thirds party.

But please do not take my word for it. Perhaps I am sometimes in error. Please read it and judge for yourself.

Click here to read the story for yourself. [1]

FOOTNOTE:

1. Michael Specter’s article “Seeds of Doubt” in The New Yorker on August 25, 2014.

Guilt by Association

Click here to read a long review of related books.

“That the New South advocates perpetuated the Old South standard of an inexpensive and tractable labor force stands out as most harmful to the economy in that it forestalled the emergence of a vigorous worker-consumer society.”

* * *

Anger swells as I re-read my summations, drawn from the scholarship of excellent historians. The tale of Old South and New South, of populist Tom Watson of Georgia, is a modern-day screenplay. Elizabeth Warren is exhibit A.

Nation, read it and weep, for once again the experience of the South is a culture in a petri dish in which the illogic of a nation festers. Going back over one hundred years, we clearly hear the same calls for economic justice, the case against less government regulation – counterarguments to seedy, pernicious manipulations overwhelmingly aimed at forwarding the interests of concentrated capital at the expense of the public interest.

A student of history need not rush to publish in response to every detail in the daily press. The response is sometimes better voiced by authoritative, quiet history, for the truth is embedded there.

* * *

“The cotton mills, much as the cotton fields, became entangled in a financial and marketing system deleterious to self-sufficiency and growth, and without governmental or industry devices for correction. The earning and purchasing power of the Southern laborer was held low and inert for Southern and Northern enterprises alike – as a matter of Southern business and political policy. The laborer’s immovable wage was his contribution to regional development – his memorial to the original cotton mill uplift of poor whites.”

* * *

Weeks ago, I read a story in The New Yorker about West Virginia and have been out of sorts since. [1] I experienced the urge to cry with shame and fury over the insanity in our midst, about a people crushed by calculated deceit and their own self-deception. My family’s biography embraces people in those hills. Where did they, we, go wrong?

One bright spot about living in the politics of Tennessee today is that at least I don’t live in West Virginia, or Texas, or a half dozen other states that are led by worse misanthropes. For some reason, now when I think of the electorate of West Virginia, I think of the misguided, benighted people of Russia. Though not strictly of the Confederacy, West Virginia today, in its worst characteristics, seems Southern, too. What makes a people screw themselves right into the ground and contaminate it for generations to come on their way down?

The issues stay with us, particularly in the South. Nationwide we confront loud voices and maneuvers to lower standards of education and health, to neglect the environment and public safety, to proliferate and protect tax shelters, to suppress wages, to debilitate organized labor, to bait race, religion and sexual orientation, to promote wholesale exclusion and vigilante violence. We look away, but these issues never go away in Dixie.

* * *

This story goes way back, but we can start at the period following the end of the American Civil War. When I first read C. Vann Woodward’s account of the history of political economy in the South after the Civil War, I was both enraged and saddened beyond easy, scholarly recovery. The buying (or selling) of the South was the United States’ first foray into colonialization on steroidal dollars. I reacted mostly to the selling, but the two-faced buying was galling as well.

We have our green patches and charming ways in the South, but when we lift up the old full-grained oak boards lying on our sacred ground, they are riddled with worm holes and rot. If we don’t look underneath, we do not see the disintegration until it is too late. We can go our relaxed, pretending way, waltzing with our precious manners, but we harbor guilt by association with the cheerful neglect that is the gigantic mayonnaise blob, a cancer of the mind, that is Southern political style and anti-husbandry still eating at the core of our wallets, our health, and our valued earth.

The Roberts Court sees no problem with buying political influence, thinking it one of the honorable traditions of American history. It is a part no doubt – but not one to be esteemed or prolonged. Collusion between cash and public policy has had a comfortable rocker on the front porch of state and local government in the South for a very long time; it still sits there, smiling and rocking and getting fat.

We have seen this before and we are seeing it again: low-wage debates, rapacious mineral extractions, political skulduggery for personal gain, people not seeing the trees of their personal interests for the forest of moral and cultural hocus-pocus, for the thicket of junk, cultural distraction and social intimidation. Even so, one can hardly say that things are worse today. That is except for the growing sinkhole of willful unawareness – and the speed of negative change. We have a high-school- and college-educated citizenry who has the past record and expert analysis at its fingertips. We know that things we do are harmful to our long-term economy and to our planet, but we continue to do them.

This introduces ethical dilemmas of a whole new magnitude. Degradation of the planet and the future are no longer merely aesthetic or Biblically moral concerns, or former constitutional concerns of the Founding Fathers: they are concerns of survival – not just of ways of life or peoples, but of a habitable planet and everything of human value on it – far more complex than the problems that the old holy lands and wild frontiers once presented – though I am fairly sure that water-poisoning was a more grievous offense way back then than it is today.

Pollution, corruption, what difference do they make? In isolation these crimes injure but we struggle through. However, when connected and magnified as in modern day, destructive influences are more rapid and fundamental and can do irreparable harm to our social fabric and earth. Though difficult to imagine, over a few centuries, damage to our world could move beyond even human adaptability.

* * *

“The Farmers’ Alliance platform of 1889, formulated in St. Louis and endorsed by the Knights of Labor, highlights agrarian and labor grievances. Beyond a doubt it was a program containing radical elements: the end of national banks, the prevention of futures speculation, ‘the free and unlimited coinage of silver, reclamation of excessive lands granted or sold to corporations or aliens[,] decrease of the tax burden on the masses, fractional paper currency, and government ownership and operation of means of transportation and communication.’ One essential point worthy of special note is that while these allied individualists were engaged in unprecedented cooperative and organizational activities for self-help, they saw ultimate relief as depending on an expansion of government activism. They were not opposed to private property; theirs was a critique of raw capitalism, offering the corrective of a regulated capitalism compatible with democracy and workable on a broad, open front rather than on an exclusive one. As was proven in subsequent progressive legislation, it was a corrective that strengthened capitalism for agrarian and urbanite alike by bolstering consumer purchasing power and public confidence, and by building public management skills and local markets.”

* * *

Perhaps the widespread success of consumerism is our environmental problem. But I don’t think that is entirely true. Economic justice is implied in the growth of a middle class and a rising standard of living – to a point. That does not absolve leaders, Southern or Northern, from better management for public good. Nor does it absolve individual consumers and voters from their responsibility to not only see but to care for the trees of self-interest and public interest in tandem.

I will not spell out further how the South’s experience pertains, in part because that ruins the intellectual fun and in part because I have spelled it out in a long monologue, disguised as a glorified review of books, that I composed in 1990. It is like a long comparative review found in a famous New York publication, except that it is longer and less polished – and it conspicuously lacks niceties. (Links are included at the top and bottom of this much shorter screed, though I do not expect any takers. The bits of the cycle about Tom Watson might, however, induce some to take a look at that enlightening book.) [2]

FOOTNOTES:

1. Evan Osnos, Letter from West Virginia, “Chemical Valley,” The New Yorker, April 7, 2014.

2. WARNING: As a precaution, I advise students to refrain from quoting or referencing anything from the linked essay (above and below) without returning to the source material; be particularly cautious about recycling my summarizing and paraphrasing statements which are outside of quotation marks. (NOTE: The extracts above between double quotation marks are my statements and not quoted source material.)

The elaboration of a reading assignment presented in the linked essay goes the extra mile and is spot on in melding key sources. The resulting product could point determined seekers in the right direction. But for the advent of Google Books searches, however, the facts and opinions embedded and commingled therein would be lost to curiosity beyond service as a passing journalistic synthesis and a tedious entertainment.

A real nerd could fault this linked essay for not going further in terms of academic notations that would have given it more utility and weight as a reference for others. But on the other hand, it goes well beyond what was asked for and required. At any rate, the professor who received it offered no such Pecksniffery in return.

Click here to read a long review of related books.

Gray Claws

No thing reveals the fate of a nation more than the plight of its old. In America, at the dawn of the 21st century, people who sought expansion of personal horizons and independence are suddenly finding themselves confined and utterly dependent.

Doubling the trouble is the tendency of the utterly feeble to rely on the decrepit twin highwaymen of our political system – to wit, the Republican Party and its bastard sibling, the Tea Party – to cling to privilege and to restore a lost golden age that never was. This is not to say that the Democratic Party lacks its own deficiencies. But at least the Democratic Party contains the diversity of microbes necessary to digest change and excrete failure through the natural family processes of internal bickering, back-stabbing, inheritance hunting, and deathbed watching.

Through all the bitterness over the Affordable Care Act, I was guilty of not being sufficiently livid at the obstructionists who spent untold effort trying to prevent, overturn, repeal, slander, and otherwise block implementation of health reform. That is until I witnessed first-hand the desperation of the old and uninsured who need good information and more rational and fair health insurance coverage. To the dimwits who fought the Affordable Care Act tooth and nail with every underhanded deceit known to man, I say thank you from the bottom of my heart for calling it Obamacare. You have insured that one of the most significant advancements in health services in this country will be forever linked with the president whom you refused to give a chance and the Democratic Party, which sacrificed much to hold the tiller firmly during a gale of lies, whining, privilege-seeking, and self-indulgence. May you not suffer in your old age as you would have others suffer.

The old – and that bracket includes baby boomers – don’t have much to fall back on in terms of the children next in line: many of our children are lost in cyberspace and consumed by their own selfish concerns and presumptions of superiority. And, too, progeny in every developed country are but one Internet or electrical-grid failure away from complete helplessness themselves.

It is assumed by those who wish it so that the old will whimper, rollover, and die. An alternative plan on the political right and left is for the old to claw back in elder rage and irrationality that further dooms the long view and the arduous climb out of the hole we have dug for ourselves.

There is another way, as usual. The old can accept their duty to mentor and pass the baton responsibly to another generation. They might delay retirement but be ready to step aside and let jobs go to the young who need to start their overdue careers. They might vote and speak as if they acquired common sense over their many years of prosperous existence. The young can accept greater responsibility and maintain sensible engagement in politics and the lives of the old.

Never has it been so apparent how maturing Americans have inched themselves, and our society, out on a flimsy limb far away from practical community. It is not the fault of this generation of elderly or the past one. It is not the fault of evolving youth culture, either. That is except where the habits and culture of each generation have fused seamlessly and energetically with the unbridled consumerism of the past century and a half and neglected the future.

The most giving and creative society can indeed simultaneously be the most selfish and shortsighted. Too tired to try, the old fall back on bitching and recliners. Though high time for generational change, few new friends of mankind stand out: no figure, no group, no ideology, no method leaps to mind to make our evolutionary path easier or surer.

One cannot hear the sounds of the environment with embedded ear buds. One cannot see one’s surroundings in the illumination of a hand-held device. One cannot connect when constantly plugged in and tuned out. Neither can the old hear, see, or connect from the cave of their dens, strangers to the Internet, immobile, and steeped in denial until it is too late.

No external solutions exist, only the basic everyday ones. The momentum is with each household and tribe pursuing its daily survival. That is how we have gotten by for centuries. That is how we will rise or fail together – one by one.

Precipitously, our old fall off the playing field. Nothing changes – except that the wisdom of the ages is diminished in a steady dribble. Forgetting is what we do best. It is what we do worst. The brittle gray claws of the old crumble and break. And the spaces left when they decamp are beyond filling.

The White City: Choosing the Route to Consumerism, Paving the Way with Capitalism

by Jackson N. H. Murley

(A historical paper written in fall 2000)

New Faces, New Voices: A Greater Treasure

Collaboration is a sweet, rare experience. Often, for me at least, it is much more appealing than going it alone. Please note this very special feature. I appreciate labors of love – and very hard work – contributed to this tiny island of escape and deliberate recollection.

Read it here.