Because It’s Not About God Anymore

Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative asks the following:

What is the point of going to seminary if you don’t believe in God? What is the point of having a seminary that trains clergy who don’t know if they believe in God, but do know that they believe in destroying the tradition?

Well, being a graduate of a mainline seminary — The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago — and a candidate for ministry in a liberal Christian confession — The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — I think I can answer this question.

The first has to do with doubt. Sometime in the mid-20th century, you could not be an intellectually serious theologian or cleric without doubting. You weren’t thoughtful if you didn’t doubt. This was true of Protestants as well as Catholics (the Orthodox never got with the program in this). Doubt was essential because certainty had given us Auschwitz and Hiroshima, Stalin and Hitler. Certainty had given us the H-Bomb and the willingness to use it (and the film Atomic Cafe has more than its fair share of clips of confident and certain clergymen encouraging the use of the H-Bomb to annihilate communism — and communists).

But part of this was also the limits of humanist theology that had so dominated Christian thinking since at least the 17th century. It was a theology that had embraced modernity on modernity’s terms, looking more to philosophers than to biblical story to answer broad questions about human nature, good, evil, salvation, and the whole point of human existence. Such theology had begun breaking down during the First World War, but it had no idea whatsoever how to answer the methodical and industrialized mass killing and destruction of the Second World War. Where was God in all this? It seemed that God had abandoned the world, that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were right about the silence and the abyss.

The God of the Liberal Christians, a God of comfort and order — and this included many confessions and denominations that call themselves socially and politically conservative — simply had nothing to say. Why believe in such a God? Doubt was a logical, natural, and even reasonable response.

(And yet such a God was still taught. The very God we doubt is the only God we know how to deal with…)

There’s a scene in the BBC comedy Rev. — I forget which episode — in which Nigel is going before the bishops board to seek approval for ordination. He’s told, by Rev. Smallbone I think, to doubt. “But not too much.” It goes badly, largely because the character of Nigel is incapable of really doubting anything. But the point is — a thoughtful cleric is also a cleric who doubts. At least a little.

Now, this isn’t anywhere near as true as it once was. However, we live in the long shadow of mid-20th century doubt. I’ve met few doubters myself, but I understand they are out there. But the presence of doubt was so central to the established churches of the mainline that its acceptance is part of the landscape now.

The second has to do with the professionalization of the clergy beginning in the late 19th century. Professionals are people who are have specialized education or training, apply some amount of scientific rigor to the work they do, and are somewhat (at least outwardly) emotionally detached from their work. Professionalism is the ethos by which mass industrialized civilization is administered. The clergy, in this arrangement, became responsible for managing the souls and morals of society, and were somewhere between social workers and teachers as members of a “helping profession.” The whole point of this management was to make society run better, more smoothly.

Well, this arrangement has broken down — who need clergy anymore to manage souls and morals? But we’re still expected to be members of the “helping professions,” only now we’re all somewhere between social workers and community organizers. And who needs God to organize people? Or to agitate for “social justice”?

At the root of this is the loss of the biblical story as our story, as the story of God’s called and redeemed people. The Bible usually gets lost in systematic theology, and that was as true of the Protestant systematizers in the 17th century as it was of the Aquinas and the Catholic systematizers of the 12th and 13th centuries. Faith gets reduced to a series of abstract propositions. But God is not an abstraction. Israel encountered a very real God, a God who yanked them out of Egypt in terror and mass death, a God who appeared in cloud and fire at Sinai, a God who redeemed God’s people time and again in the midst of their suffering. The disciples met a very real God, a God present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who called fishermen and tax collectors “follow me” and who knew, in that moment, God had reached into their lives and nothing about those lives would be the same again.

I am a biblical theologian. I have little use for systematic theology, for scholastic theology, for the edifice of natural law (I find most of it unbiblical anyway), for the impressive but incredibly lifeless cathedral that is the intellectual heritage of the church. It’s one thing for Christians to talk to each other in terms of philosophy — whether that philosophy is Aristotle or Immanuel Kant — but to think we have anything to say to the world that it doesn’t already know using that language is plain foolishness.

We’re wasting our time and our energy doing anything but telling the story of God’s love for God’s people Israel, especially as made known to us in the person — in the life, death and resurrection — of Jesus Christ.

We stopped telling that story, instead focusing on tiny bits to support that impressive but cathedral of “doctrine,” thinking that somehow right doctrine would save us. (Which is why we built that cathedral in the first place.) We only tell it anymore to either get rules or moral inspiration. (I’m always shocked at just how poorly many conservative Christians know the actual story.) But that story is no longer who we are. It no longer gives us meaning. Instead, our theologians resort to pointless abstraction and philosophizing, too many people wallow in sentimentality, and not enough people know, really know, Jesus rose from the dead. When I say we surrendered to modernity, we did — our story is now taken from the social sciences, from literature, from media, from the civic faith, from high-falutin’ ideas bounced around by philosophers. Everywhere but from the Bible, the only place where the story of God’s love for God’s people, for the redemption of Israel, for the coming into the world of Jesus of Nazareth to live, and die, and rise again among us, who calls us to follow can be found.

So why is it necessary for clergy to believe in God? It’s a nice fringe benefit, really, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Jesus stopped being important long, long ago.

Businessmen and Entrepreneurs

A confession: I have not actually been listening to the GOP convention live. And I won’t be listening to the Democrat convention either. I am not a partisan politics junkie.

So I get all my stuff second hand, usually filtered through NPR (and knowing that NPR is as annoying as Harry Shearer’s “Continental Public Radio” parodies) or, increasingly from, The American Conservative, and occasionally (which can be more annoying and self-righteous, though not quite as vacuous, than even NPR). Which leaves me commenting on comments — blogging on blogs. And I always feel slightly fraudulent when I do that.

But *sigh*, today I cannot help myself. Scott Galupo over at The American Conservative was critical of what he saw as the content of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s speech:

In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there are job creators and entrepreneurs on one side and parasites on the other. There is no account of the vast gray expanse of janitors, waitresses, hotel front-desk clerks, nurses, highway maintenance workers, airport baggage handlers, and taxi drivers. They work hard, but at the end of the day, what can they be said to have “built”?

And this is true. In the way I think Ryan means it — probably in the Randian, lone über-hero against the mediocre world of parasites — your typical laborer is most definitely not a entrepreneur. Samuel Goldman, in his comments on Galupo’s posting (I am blogging about someone’s comment on a blog — what have I come to?), notes that Republicans no longer have room in their understanding of the American dream for “those who don’t reach the towering heights of achievement” so that they “can hope for stable lives that include a reasonable measure of comfort.”

But I also remember reading this from the acceptance speech from the 1896 Democrat convention given by party nominee William Jennings Bryan:

We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.

Part of me finds little difference between Galupo’s estimation of Ryan thought and Bryan’s words. What, after all, is the difference between and “entrepreneur” and a “businessman”?
Except there is a great deal of difference here. Bryan is defending the dignity of labor — something I’m not sure Democrat or Republican elites know how to really do anymore. It’s certainly nothing either party would stoop to doing at this point. The man who works only with his muscles is still doing business — leasing his labor to someone who can pay. He still has property he trades on the open market, and deserves as much dignity and respect as any speculator or financier. Bryan is also defending the dignity of smallness in the face of bigness. 
Also, the sense I have is that missing from the Randian admiration of the heroic businessman is context. The reality is, most entrepreneurialism takes places within social networks, in communities, and does so in ways that makes sense to entrepreneur, investor and customer alike. And that seeks to minimize risk. (Because most entrepreneurs cannot get government to hedge risk and cover losses the way investment bankers have.) Entrepreneurialism almost entirely takes place within a web of cooperation and within a community. Bryan’s speech understands that. In effect, Bryan is defending a “property right” where those who most staunchly defended private property saw none to begin with. (It has always been interesting to me that labor is only viewed as property once it is paid for, and then it becomes the property of the one buying it, never the one selling it. I think our default moral model for employment is slavery.)
I suspect if pushed on the matter, Ryan would clearly get that. But the GOP has so bought into the language of heroic individuals — especially heroic capitalists battling the evil forces of predatory, regulatory government — that attempting to acknowledge the social grounding of entrepreneurialism is a form of socialism. Or perhaps even communism. Who ends up buying the goods and services provided by the heroic individual capitalist is then something of a mystery. 

The Intolerance of Egalitarianism

Noah Millman, a blogger over at The American Conservative, made this brilliant observation the other day in response to Rod Dreher’s rediscovery of tolerance and acceptance in the small Louisiana town where he grew up and recently moved back to:

Not being a Southerner, I can’t comment on Rod Dreher’s post on freak-toleration from direct personal experience. But I suspect part of what he’s seeing is the difference between a hierarchical society and a conformist egalitarian one, the difference between hierarchical Louisiana and conformist Iowa being somewhat similar to the difference between hierarchical (and famously eccentric-tolerating) England and conformist Sweden. A hierarchical society depends for its stability not on the notion of everybody being the same but on the notion of everybody knowing his or her place. And you can make some kind of a place for just about everyone. The question then is whether people will tolerate being kept in their place by others when it starts to chafe. 

My own hometown, New York, follows neither of these models, but is dynamically heterogeneous. We pride ourselves on being “diverse” and “tolerant” but what that winds up meaning in practice is that the overall society is a negotiated coalition among smaller sub-cultures, each of which tends to figure a surprisingly high degree of internal conformity. When a group is struggling with other groups for a relative share of power, dissent is harder to tolerate. On the other hand, when no group actually dominates local society, disaffiliation – to join another group, or none – without physically leaving becomes a much more realistic option.

Millman puts his finger on something very, very important, something I noticed not long after I arrived at this midwestern Lutheran seminary. The American Midwest is very egalitarian. And very conformist. In fact, that intolerant conformism is because of its egalitarianism, and not in spite of it.

Some years ago, when I Jennifer and I were living and working in Logan, Utah (I was a reporter for the Herald Journal), I had a conversation with her (ELCA) pastor (I was not Christian at the time, and worshiped with the small group of Muslims at the Logan Islamic Center) about what it was like to live as a member of a tiny religious minority among the Mormons. The pastor did not like it. I asked him why? (What I really I wanted to ask was: Do they forbid our worship services and arrest us? Make us wear distinctive marks on our clothing? Force us to convert upon pain of death?) His response was interesting — they do not accept us as fellow Christians.

(Well, of course the Mormons don’t, I replied, since they have a very different understanding of what it means to be church then Lutherans do, and Lutherans are not part of that understanding of church.)

But I also contemplated his essential angst: They do not accept us. This, I think, is the core of liberal understanding of tolerance. Mere tolerance is not enough — acceptance is what is needed. (Another ELCA pastor in another circumstance used basically those words.) The pastor in Logan lived at the intersection of the Midwestern Lutheranism’s political and cultural piety (his background was Norwegian). It is not enough to merely tolerate people — they must be accepted as well. They must be equals in the community and in society.

I know, this sounds really good on the face of it. And in many ways, it is. But it is also has a long, dark, cold shadow. The main problem I have experienced with this notion of “tolerance as acceptance” is that it isn’t tolerance at all. It doesn’t tolerate real difference or non-comformity. It merely seeks the expansion of conformity. And it has been my experience that actually makes life harder for non-comformists. Not easier.

I see the ELCA’s struggle with homosexuality and in particular the ordination of clergy in open homosexual relationships. (Please note, I am generally supportive of what the ELCA is doing in this regard, since I believe it means we are open to God’s call.) Liberals call this diversity, and maybe it is, but what it really means is that grounds of acceptable conformity have been expanded. You can be gay, and married, and still conform to the expected social norms since gay and married has been added to social norms. For the liberal (in general), since no one should be discriminated against for things they cannot control — race, gender, and now sexual orientation — certain expressions of these things are now part of allowable conformity. (So long as they are phlegmatic and bourgeois.)

But in a conformist society like Millman’s Midwest, if we are all more or less the same, then we must all be more or less the same. Expanding the ground of allowable conformity actually makes things more difficult for non-conformists (of whatever kind, and this usually means people who are simply different) because in saying the society will now accept you for the things you cannot change, it will become less accepting of things you can (or should be able to) change: aesthetic choices, interests, outlook on life, so on. So, fail to conform to the expanded norm — a big deal in a society that is averse to obvious hierarchy (midwesterners are extremely uncomfortable with me when I use sir and ma’am) — is the fault of the one who fails to conform, and not of the society or community in which they find themselves.

Because this model of acceptance is not of individuals but of abstract groups of people into which individuals can be slotted. Midwesterners in general, and ELCA Lutherans in particular, love stereotyping. (“Tagging” as one pastor put it.) In fact, prior to being in this culture, I’d never been among people for whom stereotyping was such a virtue.

(I grew up in the 1970s — stereotyping people was wrong. THAT’S what lead to discrimination and racism.)

At this point, I have to admit that I am not so interested in acceptance. I like tolerance. Can we build a community here and generally be left alone, to do what we have been called to do? Or leave people alone who want to be left alone? That to me is the high water mark of life in society. I am not so interested in equality as I am in liberty (both individual and collective), and I am perfectly okay with significantly more inequality and social unfairness than a lot of people in the ELCA simply because I focus on how much freedom there is for those who choose or feel called to not conform. And building community among like-minded non-conformists. (Which, yes, is itself a type of conformity. But this is why I really like Millman’s city.)

My theological model for church is exile. I realize that is a difficult model for the ELCA to wrap it’s heart around because it is a confession of settled people who don’t see themselves as exiles and who don’t think exile is a desirable or normative human condition. Which is funny, given that once, so many of them packed up and migrated — Abraham-like — to a land far away.  Most human beings wish to belong to a community of other human beings. I know I do. And I also know that here I’ve found a community that actually seems to want me in its midst. (Which, to be fair, was also true of the Saudi Muslims in knew in Columbus, Ohio.) But I also know the brutal and fiery result of the community’s demand for conformity. No matter how egalitarian and accepting a community or society will be, someone will always find themselves on the wrong side of the demand to conform, who will be thrown underneath its wheels, who will always be wounded by it. Because it will be experienced as brutality. Or it will actually be brutal. (It was both for me.) I don’t necessarily want to be accepted, or rather, I do not want to be made to fit into some great broad category that has been predetermined as “acceptable.” I merely want the space to do what God has called me to do among the people God has called me.

Frankly, I want to be tolerated. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Some Observations on Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street reminds me an awful lot of the anti-globalization movement that arose in the 1990s. The people are roughly the same, much of their critique of the world is the same (though more deeply rooted this time), and I’m afraid much of what they want is the same too.

My closest encounter with the anti-globalization folks was in 2000, when I was working for BridgeNews in Washington covering one of the annual World Bank-IMF summits. (Such are the privileges of being a financial journalist.) I was Bridge’s “outside” man, covering the demonstrators, who had stated they wanted to blockade the summit and shut it down. In response, the DC police — who seemed to recruit several legions of auxiliaries out of nowhere — showed up in their armed and armored finest. It was a week of continuing stand-offs, the entire center of the District of Columbia shut down. I got pepper sprayed several times by the police (because as a reporter, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time) and because I was a reporter with IMF credentials, none of the protestors would talk to me. I have a bunch of photos from the demonstration. 
As I think about that time, I am reminded of something John Payne wrote recently in The American Conservative about Occupy Wall Street:

As I interviewed some of the protesters that night, I discovered that many of them were not driven by a blind rage against capitalism but were simply trying to assert some modicum of control over institutions they believe are running over them roughshod.

A lot of what the anti-globalization movement was trying to do, I think, was to take the international institutions central to the “world order” — the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization — make them somehow accountable to people other than the global elites who run them. And to better serve the needs of the world’s poor. And it’s not that I think either of these things are on their face bad ideas, but they are impossible ones. The only thing worse than sclerotic, pretend nation-state democracy would be sclerotic, pretend global democracy. There is simply no way to create global institutions that would in any form be accountable to people other than those who run them. The Left’s idea of democracy — deliberations that lead to consensus — combined with the ideological desire to achieve certain kinds of outcomes is a recipe for endless committee meetings (trust me, I’ve been there) combined with a bullying of those who refuse to agree with the “desired” outcome. This can barely get done by a dozen people. (Seen that too.) You cannot do this in a world of (now) 7 billion people. Nothing else would ever get done.

But the protestors weren’t wrong about the global institutions that were the focus of their ire. When I worked in DC, the World Bank had just acquired a brand new headquarters, a building of steel and glass that would have looked wonderful after a thorough pelting by rocks and bricks. (Though I do fondly remember the Bank as the place where I actually ran into Yasser Arafat!) The most I can say for the IMF is that it has an amazing cafeteria in the basement. And don’t get me started on the folly of trade managed by treaty and international regulation….

That week of protests, NPR ran a piece about some of the protestors in DC, and what they sought. One bit of audio included a young man rather sloppily strumming a guitar singing

Why do we have to pay for food?
Why do we have to pay for rent?

I think that more or less encapsulates the economics of what calls itself “The Left” (for lack of a better term) in the West, or at least North America, these days. To call it Marxist would be unfair, because there’s almost no intellectual substance to their economic aspirations. I suspect real Marxists — and I know there have to be a few out there, somewhere in San Francisco and Berkeley and New York — would on the one hand consider this a teachable moment and on the other deride all this as tawdry sentimentality. It’s the sort of primitive communism that animated the likes of the Diggers (look it up). John Derbyshire put it this way in a review of Corey Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind when he describes the economic and social outlook of the Left as:

a shallow and jejune utopianism. Corey Robin wants to cast down the mighty from their seats of power and exalt the meek and humble. He seems to think that the meek and humble, thus exalted, will conduct themselves with heroic restraint. History offers whole Himalayas of corpses as evidence to the contrary.

This is the whole of the Left that I have experienced since sometime in the mid-1990s. No one reads Capital anymore. No one even bothers to read Horkheimer, Adorno and Gramsci anymore (with the exception of Matt Frost). They have read third- and fourth-hand distillations of cultural Marxism penned by third-rate intellects, they’ve read about Derrida and Foucault, and they’ve absorbed the pointlessness of identity politics, and seem to think that the reason the world is the way it is is because cruel and greedy people are in charge instead of kind, decent, compassionate and selfless ones. That fairness and kindness and sharing — their understanding of socialism — would just work if it’s actually tried.

Like so many people educated in the West anymore, they have a critique of power without any real understanding of power because they aren’t really educated in the ideas and methods of power. No one, not even young white men from prominent families, are formally educated in the ways and ideas of power unless they pick those books up themselves. Because universities in the West no longer teach about power (and its too-often tragic outcomes), about the nature of power and the character of those who wield it, they simply teach the critique of power. And learning a critique without learning the thing itself is building a house without a foundation. It will crumble at some point. (I got this foundation-less education at both Georgetown and LSTC.)

And so they critique a world they don’t really understand, and believe their sheer earnestness will fix things.

That, I think, is the whole of this movement. It does reflect an honest frustration with the world — there is moral hazard for those who borrow thousands to go to school but not for those who leverage billions trillions in speculative credit default swaps. The rules are rigged in favor of those with more against those who have less. That allegedly liberal or progressive politicians do little to further real progressive goals once in power. To the extent that Occupy Wall Street (and the anti-globalization movement that came before) shine a light and ask some good questions, then I support them. I won’t join them, but I can sort-of support them.

But to the extent that they want to enact sentimental and unrealistic goals, that they want to attempt to rearrange the world toward utopia, well, the 20th century tells us how that ends. Thankfully, they are so muddled in their thinking that action — real action — will likely not be possible. Since they will all be too busy in meetings trying to find consensus to act.

The Real Class Struggle

Anthony Gregory does yoeman’s work in a recent piece for The American Conservative about the Tea Party and class consciousness in America:

The Tea Party’s rhetoric of defending the little guy against the powerful has always seemed discordant to the left, which regards such class consciousness as its own domain. The left has long identified itself with the idea of two classes in society—the common people and the power elite—each with its own, usually conflicting, interests. When left-wingers speak this way, conservatives like Limbaugh accuse them of “class warfare.” But neither side grasps the full picture: in fact, it was the classical liberal tradition that first employed the class analysis that has survived to this day in altered forms.

The piece got me to thinking. One of the reasons class arguments no longer really resonate with the American Left (or with the Western Left, for that matter) is that class no longer really matters. The Left no longer talks about class, and hasn’t done so since the 1960s, when the New Left was ascendant in at least the English-speaking world. Today, the Left speaks of identities — race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation.

I think most of this can be laid at the feet of the Frankfurt School and their Italian friend Antonio Gramsci. These Marxist thinkers focused on the “social discourse,” on language and how language is used by ruling elites to maintain social control and perpetuate certain ideas. This notion of “hegemony,” as I understand it, was Gramsci’s answer in the 1920s to the “persistence of capitalism” (!!!) at a time when, by all rights, at least according to good Marxists, capitalism should have disappeared in a puff of revolutionary smoke. Capture the tools of hegemony — the institutions that control the “social discourse” — and you can change the language of hegemony, and thus change how a society thinks.

No doubt some useful ways of thinking about and critiquing power came out of the Frankfurt School. But mostly, in taking the command to engage in a “long march through the institutions” (Gramsci’s words), the world-be Marxist revolutionaries of the West became convinced — or deluded, depending on how you want to look at things — that the revolution was indeed a dinner party. That capital could be challenged, and defeated, by clever semiotics.

Whether the New Leftists of the 1960s actively believed this or not I do not know. They did, however, live like this. They wrote and published and taught and organized within the institutions they found, hoping to change them. And change them they did.

But you simply cannot be a real revolutionary if you have a mortgage. Of if you have tenure and a pension to protect. Real revolutionaries don’t have health insurance either.

And so something very interesting happened. These cultural revolutionaries, who took up teaching jobs in universities and seminaries (especially Roman Catholic and Liberal Protestant seminaries), who worked in government, think tanks, to a lesser extent in the media, and founded consultancies to help corporations learn another “discourse,” became an incredibly conservative group of revolutionaries. They were not truly challenging power. Instead, they demanded its expansion and the inclusion of the formerly excluded, just as they broadened the “social discourse” to include discussion of many people who had formerly not been talked about in polite on intellectual company (save as the subjects of medical or sociological investigation). And in many ways, I suppose this is a good thing, since it allows people to be honest and true to themselves and yet participate meaningfully in communal life.

But at the same time, the focus on discourse ignored many real things, such as war, economic policies (in particular the deliberate deindustrialization of the United States, a process begun in the early 1950s) and even the elite and popular self-conception of the United States. Eventually (I think sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s), the only question the thing that had once been the Left in the US could ask of a social act, process or institution is “does it discriminate?” or “is it properly inclusive?” That became the breadth and width of its moral judgments. It was as if the actual organization of working people, the actually changing of the state and society became an icky thing, an untouchable thing, something that belonged to another era. Bygone days. Old promises.

(Thankfully, this also means, for the most part, America’s cultural revolutionaries aren’t busy shooting people and setting up internment camps to eradicate class enemies. They may wish to deprive opponents of social space in which to speak and even language in which to think, but that is nowhere near the same thing as organizing firing squads. And yes, organizing firing squads is what real revolutionaries do.)

More importantly, the Left overestimated the power of language. All capital cares much about is profitability, and if it can profit from “diversity” and “inclusion,” if it can produce an acceptable rate of return on a new discourse (and all the ways consumer capitalism markets goods and services), then capital does not ideologically care how it’s bread is buttered. So long as there is always more, or the chance for more. So, in many ways, these dinner party revolutionaries not only failed to challenge capital, they enabled it. This “social discourse” of diversity is so embedded in our culture now that there’s nothing really subversive about it. The long march through the institutions is mostly done, and the marchers have mostly won. Now, they have become a clique of elderly politburo gerontocrats defending their “revolution.” Champaign for everyone!

So back to Gregory’s piece on the Tea Party. In many ways, the cultural conservatism that has, in part, fed the Tea Party is an intellectually hollow mirror-image of this “leftish” cultural marxism. If social discourse and identity matter, then opponents would create their own social discourse and identity politics! And so the ache felt across the country because of industrial and trade policies deeply embedded in elite governance cannot be adequately spoken of anymore because the Left no longer speaks the language of economics and the Right can no longer do so coherently. The Tea Party’s rage in inchoate, like the rioters in the UK several weeks ago. The people who are the Tea Party know something is wrong but they cannot think their way into seeing clearly, and there are almost no elites in the US capable of leading or organizing them well. The Tea Party knows elites when it sees them (looking at the people who successfully long marched through institutions to effectively control them), but it also fails to see the economic elites whose policies continue to contribute to the intense insecurity and unease they feel.

I’m not sure there are answers. I have become increasingly convinced that we are living in a post-ideological and perhaps even post-political age. Politics in Modernity made some huge promise about the ultimate meaning of human existence, promises made most fervently around a century ago and to a great extent promises renewed and somewhat expanded upon in the decade or so following the Second World War. What people seemed to realize, though, is that while the state might promise something akin to earthly salvation, what it delivers best is suffering, deprivation and death. The state might promise to be the ultimate meaning to human existence, but what it delivers best is meaninglessness. I think people seem to realize this. It doesn’t stop conflict, nor does it end trust in government or the state.

But human beings want meaning, as individuals and as a community. We sense the state does a horrible job of that, but we also remember the promises. And they are enticing and beguiling promises. We don’t trust ideologies anymore because we know what they are capable of prompting human beings to do, but without those same ideologies, human beings cannot coherently organize the state in any positive way to accomplish any good. And so, people rage.

This is a dangerous place to put people. They want to state to work to secure their lives, livelihoods and the shot at a decent wellbeing for their children, but people no longer know how to do this. They no longer know how to organize, or even think about organizing, any any models or ideas we have of mass politics can always be logically linked to mass murder at worst, and exactly where we are at best. The liberal democratic state, for its part, is no longer up to the task, and barring a renewal I don’t expect will come, will only get worse at this. Elites in the West increasingly are incapable of governing because they cannot think very well anymore, and they certainly cannot challenge the economic power that is diminishing the lives of so many (but enriching theirs). And I think the people they govern know that. But the governed have no idea what to do either.

I have no answers. I have no proposal for a program. I only have observations. Something is happening. There is no telling what people will do when they hold on to the promises of Modernity in the face of their slow but constant evaporation. God help us all if they suddenly get a language to articulate their real fears and desires.

It’s 2011, Not 1989 or 1848

Leon Hadar has an interesting piece at The American Conservative comparing the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt to the revolutions that rocked Europe in 1848:

The lessons of the democratic revolutions of 1848 may be instructive. The uprisings in Paris, Milan, Venice, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Krakow, Munich, and Berlin, led by members of the middle classes and the intelligentsia, failed to transform the existing order and replace it with democratic and liberal institutions. In fact, the political upheaval helped expose the conflicting interests and values of the intellectuals and professionals who led the revolts and the workers and the peasants whose support they had failed to win. The result was a successful counter-revolution launched by the ruling elites in France, the Austrian Empire, and Prussia. Conservative forces were able to consolidate their power for many years to come and at the same time initiated limited and gradual reforms to placate the restive population.

This is actually an interesting comparison, and may have some merit, but not in the way Hadar thinks.

First, I believe Hadar way over-estimates the influence of Islamist ideology in the Arab world. Second, he misses a greater point about how successful the Revolutions of 1848 actually were: the Orleans monarchy was toppled in France and the Second Republic was (briefly) created before Louis Napoleon seized power and proclaimed himself emperor; the Austrian empire had to redraw how it was governed; Italian and German unity really begins in this period. Europe was radically altered by the revolution, even if it was in ways no one expected at the time. We also don’t think of the Crimean War, or the various wars of Prussia and France in the 1850s and 1860s leading up to the Franco-Prussian War and the Battle of Sedan, as consequences of the Revolutions of 1848. And the operating ideology of the social democratic welfare state is grounded in many of the demands of this period, for good or for ill, and while conservatives reformed, they are reforms grounded solidly on the demands of the revolutionaries. Otto von Bismark may not have been one of the ’48ers, but he delivered much of what they fought for in Germany. That conservative order built the relatively liberal centralized nation-states the revolutionaries wanted.

Because of that, the Revolutions of 1848 are probably the most successful failed revolutions in human history.

The Middle East could do worse than failed revolutions that create a liberal heritage. Hadar is right to note that the Revolutions of 1848 were also very nationalistic, but that had been building in Europe since Hegel fell in love with Napoleon as an idea and turned him into the World Spirit. Much of the Middle East has already had its bout of nationalism in the aggressive sense with Nasserism and Ba’athism, and while it is possible this could re-emerge, I don’t see it (I could be wrong). There was no room for the ancien regime to really reassert itself after 1848*, and the conservative response of centralization, nationalization, industrialization and the creation of basic welfare states was probably correct given alternatives — poverty and revolution. Yes, the end of proper aristocracy in Europe did give way to many of the horrors of the 20th century, but the Middle East ceased having that aristocracy long ago.

In the end, the decision as to how Arabs govern themselves is not and should not be made in Washington, Tel Aviv, London or Paris, but should — to the extent that it can — be made by Egyptians and Tunisians and Palestinians and Iraqis (&etc) themselves. There will be days when, from our perspective, they won’t get it right. And they certainly won’t govern themselves largely for our benefit. But that is as it should be.


* Even had the Bourbons returned to rule France in the 1870s after the fall of Louis Napoleon, restored France would most certainly have looked more like the Third Republic than the France of Charles X.