This piece in the Guardian explains the rise and dominance of Neoliberalism, how the failures of the philosophy are to blame for many current problems (including the rise of Trump), and how the left has developed no coherent alternative.
So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.
Catching up on my blogging after a weekend away. Here was David Brooks's column last week in which he discussed the failure that already is the Trump administration and his worries that no one will bring it to a quick end. He writes:
The likelihood is this: We’re going to have an administration that has morally and politically collapsed, without actually going away.
A very good article in the Omaha World-Herald explores why the small town of DeWitt, Nebraska, an area that has traditionally leaned more Democratic than the rest of the state, went for Trump 2-1. Also revealed are the complex reactions to his first month in office, including worried thoughts from some who voted for him.
I also found this section revealing:
Yet like a lot of people in DeWitt, Kracke said he was totally turned off by politics. And news.
“I don’t watch TV, I don’t read newspapers. If it has anything to do with politics, on Facebook, I don’t even look at it. If you email me something on politics, I will not read it,” Kracke said.
Instead, he prefers the company of his barbershop quartet and his cattle.
“That’s what keeps me sane,” he said. “Life is too short to be arguing with people.”
That’s also how Gibbs feels. The CEO of Waldo Genetics, a storied hog operation founded by her great-grandfather, said she treasures relationships in her local community. And as a self-described “nonpolitical person,” she laments the harsh debates. If only people could hash out their political differences politely, she said, they might come to understand opposing points of view.
I generally aim to be a well-informed person and to read much about politics and current affairs, including differing perspectives. I'm bothered by people who pride themselves in being uninformed but still taking strong positions.
To sin by silence, when we should protest, Makes cowards out of men. The human race Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised Against injustice, ignorance, and lust, The inquisition yet would serve the law, And guillotines decide our least disputes. The few who dare, must speak and speak again To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God, No vested power in this great day and land Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry Loud disapproval of existing ills; May criticise oppression and condemn The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws That let the children and childbearers toil To purchase ease for idle millionaires.
Therefore I do protest against the boast Of independence in this mighty land. Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link. Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave. Until the manacled slim wrists of babes Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee, Until the mother bears no burden, save The precious one beneath her heart, until God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed And given back to labor, let no man Call this the land of freedom.
[George] Marshall lived in the world of airplanes and the nuclear bomb, but in many ways he was formed by the moral traditions of classical Greece and Rome. His moral make-up owed something to Homer, to the classical emphasis on courage and honor. It owed something to the Stoics, with their emphasis on moral discipline. But particularly later in life it also owed something to the ancient Athenian Pericles, who embodied the style of leadership that we call magnanimity, or great-souled.
The magnanimous leader is called upon by his very nature to perform some great benefit to his people. He holds himself to a higher standard and makes himself into a public institution. Magnanimity can only really be expressed in public or political life.
But George Marshall didn't start out that way, he achieve magnanimity over a lifetime of self-mastery, as Brooks narrates it. He was not particularly brilliant as a child but exerted great effort to achieve his success. He writes, "His rise in the ranks of life would not come from his natural talent. It would come from grinding, the dogged plod, and self-discipline."
Marshall's character was formed in the military, first at the Virginia Military Institute and then in the U. S. Army. Brooks writes that VMI was not a great academic institution but that it existed in a "moral culture that brought together several ancient traditions: a chivalric devotion to service and courtesy, a stoic commitment to emotional self-control, and a classical devotion to honor."
In the Army, Marshall became an Organization Man, sublimating his own ego and ambition to the institution. His career was not stellar, often being passed over for promotions. Some of that may have come from his aloofness, an inability to form close friendships being the downside of his devotion to duty.
But he was admired for his administrative abilities and finally was in the right place at the right time and became Army Chief of Staff who then successfully led the Army through the Second World War, though he never had a battlefield command. When he became Chief of Staff he purged the officer ranks of incompetent men and radically reformed the institution, as only an institutional man could have, which prepared the Army for the coming war.
After his retirement he was routinely called upon to serve in new capacities, including two posts in the Cabinet at Secretary of State and then Defense. He was, of course, the architect of the Marshall Plan. Brooks writes that all his post-Army service was out of his sense of duty and obligation to the nation, when what he really desired was to finally have a private life.
The previous post in this series, one on Dorothy Day, is here.
My response to this memoir written by the great Israeli novelist is complicated. Huge sections of this very long book are five stars in quality, while other sections, not so much. 538 pages to cover mostly childhood and adolescence is simply too much. The book could have used some good editing, particularly because it often repeats a detail, sometimes more than once.
Oz's writing is rich with detail, beautiful descriptions of physical objects and scenes and compelling characters fully drawn. Here is a brief snippet:
"The bird sang with wonderment, awe, gratitude, exaltation, as though no night had ever ended before, as if this morning was the very first morning in the universe and its light was a wondrous light the like of which had never before burst forth and traversed the wide expanse of darkness."
The setting is dramatic--his childhood in Jerusalem before statehood, growing up among people who fled pogroms and the Holocaust, with cultural roots in both European peasantry and European intellectual life. He lives through the War of Independence when the family's basement apartment was filled with a dozen other people taking refuge from the shelling. His family and their friends are a who's-who of Israeli literary and political life. Included are amazing snapshots of, among others, Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin, in memorable scenes. Prime Minister Ben Gurion calls an adolescent Amos into his office and lectures him on the interpretation of Spinoza. As a child, Amos bursts into laughter during a speech of Begin's, embarrassing his grandfather.
Three large themes connect the disparate stories--Amos' love of books inherited from his father (the descriptions of books and libraries are the most beautiful passages in the memoir) and how literature shapes his life, Amos' disenchantment with his family's conservative politics which leads him to join the Left, and the complex relationships of family, particularly the relationships between Amos, his depressed mother, and his frustrated father.
A few weeks ago as I wrote my church column about Our Times and how we don't get to choose them, this memoir was resonating with me. The members of his family had good lives in Europe which they had to leave. They suffered. The endured war and poverty and loss of status. The memoir was a powerful reminder of how little is in our control and how much we in America have taken for granted of the tranquility of our lives.
A compelling volume, filled with delights, which I shall enjoy and return to for years to come.
In an excellent essay in The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch writes about how civil society can prevent the worst potential abuses of a Trump administration. He writes that institutions will push back on unconstitutional acts, like they've already done this week. The bigger worry is that Trump flaunts the norms of civil society and so all of us must push back against that coarsening of culture. He writes:
To help the body politic resist de-norming, you need to make an argument for the kind of government and society that the norms support. You have to explain why lying, bullying, and coarsening are the enemies of the kinds of lives people aspire to. Instead of pointing to Trump with shock and disgust—tactics that seem to help more than hurt him—you need to offer something better. In other words, you need to emulate what the Founders did so many years ago, when they offered, and then built, a more perfect union.
This resonated with what I believe is the most essential task for me to engage in at the current time, and is one reason I think that some of the opposition is misguided, as it is participating in coarsening of discourse and social norms. Let's be better than that.
Here is a very thorough, measured, conservative analysis of the executive order against refugees. It is still critical. But it is the most thorough and should guide critics in what specifically to be critical of.
While we sadly spend the early days of 2017 battling an effort by our new national leadership to put America First and close off our society, we should be reminded that global community is nothing new (nor is the reaction against it). Reading today in The Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson, the British historian who is also a conservative, I encountered this description of the world in the early 19th century, which description arose out of a discussion of Western European trade relations with China:
Such cultural confrontations were inevitable as trade spread across the world and increasingly rapid and reliable forms of transport annihilated distance. Perhaps the most important single aspect of modernity was the way in which, almost imperceptibly, mankind was transforming itself into a single global community, in which different races and civilizations, now touching at all points, simply had to come to terms with each other. These frictions were usually solved by debate and agreement, with both sides recognizing the mutual advantage of peaceful conduct.
He does go on to point out that war did erupt and an unfortunate East-West divide was created which persists.
But I'm drawn to this idea of the global community as "the most important single aspect of modernity." Should we then conclude that Trump is an anti-modernist? A reversion to a more primitive pre-modern worldview?
Even as a child, Dorothy Day was "filled with a natural striving, a thrilling recognition of the possibilities of spiritual adventure" (her own words). She is the next person discussed in David Brook's exploration of character. Despite her childhood spirituality, the saintly Day emerged from a life of struggle and a very bohemian young adulthood. Brooks uses her as an example of how character emerges from struggle and suffering.
Brooks uses the opportunity of recounting Day's life to explore the impact of suffering on building character. He makes an important point near the beginning of that discussion, "When it is not connected to some larger purpose beyond itself, suffering shrinks or annihilates people."
How do we grow from suffering? Brooks makes three points. First that it "drags you deeper into yourself." Suffering compels you to face your sins and weaknesses and won't let you get away with the easy answers. Second, it teaches us our limitations, what we can and cannot control. Finally, it teaches gratitude for the thinks we take for granted in good times.
Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don't come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that often lead to suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability and become available to healing love. They hurl themselves deeper and more gratefully into their art, loved ones, and commitments.
Three other points I want to comment on in this chapter.
It's hard now to recapture how seriously people took novel reading then, or at least how seriously Day and others took it--reading important works as wisdom literature, believing that supreme artists possessed insights that could be handed down as revelation, trying to mold one's life around the heroic and deep souls one found in books. Day read as if her whole life depended upon it.
I think I read like this, or at least something similar.
Second. He writes about Day's choice to live among the poor and experience their suffering and poverty. I was once drawn to such a Christian conviction , though I never acted on it. In the mid-Aughts I was reading much theology and Wendell Berry. I was influenced by Day indirectly and others. At the time I was coming out and worried about losing my calling as a pastor, I considered that if everything went south, then I'd choose some commitment to poverty. But, life didn't lead in that direction, and my calling was clearly different.
I contrasted Brooks' discussion of Day in this chapter with Kittlestrom's discussion of Jane Addams and her relationship with Hull House in The Religion of Democracy. In my blogpost on that chapter, I wrote about Addams's encounter with Tolstoy and how she ultimately rejected his ethical purity for a pragmatism she thought was more likely to solve problems. These days I tend in the Addams direction.
Finally. In this chapter I began to feel the constraints of Brooks' presentation and further admiration for Kittelstrom's figures. Brooks has yet to explore any figure who advocated for personal liberation. All of his characters are dominated by restraint. I know that is one of the themes of the book, but it's beginning to feel a little stifling. Consider the discussion of Thomas Davidson in Kittelstrom. In contrast to the submission of Day is this idea: " to grow their moral agency through nonconformity, resisting conventional authority and traditional standards and fixed ideas in several ways: by cultivating their individual understandings as active forces capable of shaping practice; by accepting uncertainty and partial truths as inevitable features of an unfinished, infinite, pluralistic universe."
Again, my coming out experience has emphasized the important of authenticity, liberation, and self-expression. Maybe a book on the important virtues from the queer perspective?
And, here was my last post in this particular series, on the virtue of moderation as expressed by Dwight Eisenhower.