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A Wider, International Morality


"Democracy like any other of the living faiths of men is so essentially mystical that it continually demands new formulation," said Jane Addams, the final focal character in Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy.  She writes that Addams is "the most exemplary product of the American Reformation to shape the twentieth century."  Reading this chapter I realize I have underestimated Addams' importance as a political and ethical thinker and that I should add her works to the list of reading I need to accomplish.

Addams advocated a "social morality" that "emerges through real, daily, lived contact with 'diversified human experience.'"  Addams believed that modern cities, which mixed people together of diverse national, racial, and religious backgrounds taught citizens how to live together and offered lessons for the rest of the world.  

She offered "a conception of Democracy not merely as a sentiment which desires the well-being of all men, nor yet as a creed which believes in the essential dignity and equality of all men, but as that which affords a rule of living as well as a test of faith."

All of us forget how very early we are in the experiment of founding self-government and that we are making the experiment in the most materialistic period of all history, having as our court of last appeal against that materialism only the wonderful and inexplicable instinct for justice which resides in the hearts of men.

She was deeply concerned by the corporate commercialism of her day and the threat it posed to the development of democracy.  This wasn't just an issue of systems, but the way the commercialization of pleasures would lead citizens away from the cultivation of the democratic virtues.  Kittelstrom writes:

Addams saw that the only modern force catering to the primitive human needs of pleasure, stimulation, and communal joy was the commercial force driven by the motive of profit and therefore unbound by any sense of duty or conscience beyond the dollar.

One imagines what she would have thought of a reality TV star winning the presidency.

She believed that government, "the collective will of the people," must counter the iniquitous influence of commercialism by cultivating, especially among the young, the wholesome and adventurous drive for justice and progress.  

The ethic which should be promoted was that which had developed out of American religion in the 18th century:

a practical idealism that holds as its supreme ethic the living out of natural human equality, a progressive goal involving the use of reason as a common denominator of human thought that is secular, as in inclusive of all perspectives, including those informed by supernatural beliefs.

Addams was raised by her widowed father in Illinois.  He was a founding member of the Republican Party.  "He harbored a fugitive slave en route to Canada, sponsored a combat unit of the Union army, funded a subscription library, and worked to reform prisons, asylums, and schools while steadily serving their village church."  And he taught Addams to think for herself.

Kittelstrom writes that Addams was no ideological purist.  She was an admirer of Tolstoy, but when she met him, he criticized her for her lack of ethical purity in that she was dressed too well.  Addams immediately knew that impulse was false.  She needed to dress well to interact with the well-to-do and powerful in order to fundraise and lobby them for change.  Tolstoy also told her that she should spend time every day baking bread in the Hull House kitchen.  She rejected that advise as well, for her time was better spent in "the demand of actual and pressing human wants."    According to Kittelstrom, "The search for personal righteousness, she had discovered in her agonized twenties, was ineffectual and even selfish in a suffering world that needed saving even by the impure."

Her moderation and pragmatism are good witnesses for our own time.  One aspect of last year's Democratic primary which greatly annoyed me was the insistence of some on ideological purity, which has little hope of accomplishing anything in a pluralistic democracy.

Addams not only worked to alleviate poverty, but for the rights of women, immigrants, Native Americans, and African-Americans.  Kittelstrom writes, "Addams thought the concept of Americanism made sense only insofar as it referred to a commitment to universal human moral agency, which made racial prejudice 'the gravest situation in our American life.'  Discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity or any other involuntary circumstance corrupted the instincts essential to democracy."  Yes, this is the essential language of virtue which we must continue to use in defending the progressive civil rights agenda.

Addams greatest innovation to the tradition of the religion of democracy was to globalize it.  What had begun in the 18th century defense of liberty against ne0-Calvinism in the church and British tyranny became in the 20th century advocacy on behalf of international peace.  Addams worked to develop international organizations that would end war and meet the needs the people around the world.  She was not concerned with the abstractions of international law but the practical solving of global problems.  He work helped to lay the groundwork for the League of Nations and later the United Nations.  Addams believed in a "wider, international morality."

Here is the previous post in this series.

Ferguson on a new Trump world order

Historian Niall Ferguson has written a provocative piece for American Interest on what we imagines could be a new world order led by the Trump administration developing some ideas of Henry Kissinger's.  Central to this new order would be America developing closer ties with Russia and China.  What Ferguson presents is a plausible idea of how the country and the globe could move forward with a new international policy and order.  It is, in some ways, less frightening than what one imagines could come from a Trump administration.  But even Ferguson's possible future repulses me.  I am deeply shaped by a perspective of the international order developed in the first Bush administration by George H. W. Bush and his closest advisors James Baker and Brent Scowcroft.  Ferguson's proposal is a repudiation of that worldview.  However, I also know that maybe my worldview is dates and that there is merit to this proposal?

Some recent pieces on the election and more

I've not been keeping up with my blogging the last few weeks as I've been otherwise quite busy, but here two recent pieces which I found noteworthy.  

Conservative economist Robert Samuelson's declaration that Trump's trade policies would lead to a worldwide recession.

Peter Beinart's article in the Atlantic contrasting Trump with the traditional GOP candidates who emphasize moral citizenship and personal sacrifice.  Trump seems to abdicate personal responsibility.

Maybe the long-term damage of the 9/11 sue the Saudis bill is that the U. S. Congress caved to conspiracy theorists and thereby undermined the pursuit of truth, reason, and order. 

And an article raising the question why Obama doesn't do more to counter Russia.  I have no sense of what we should do about Russia, but I am glad that Obama seems to be rejecting getting drawn into a 21st century Great Game, which contributed to the collapse of the British Empire when they played with Russia in the 19th century.

Rice, Obama, & the Long View

According to this article on Vox, Susan Rice believes that the world has never been better.  This is indicative of the long view that the Obama foreign policy team takes and which it struggles to communicate to the general public.  This paragraph is a good summary of the article:

The result is a sharp tension at the heart of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Team Obama tries to take the long view, and occasionally succeeds — see the Paris climate change agreement or the Iran nuclear deal. But the issues that command attention from both the American public and American allies often are more immediate, and require the Obama administration to divert resources toward daily crises that they would prefer to mostly ignore. These issues, like Syria, have come to define Team Obama’s time in office in the public eye.

Beginning Niebuhr

I have finally begun reading Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society.  I've read secondary treatments of Niebuhr,  but never this major work.  Because of my theological influences, I've been skeptical of Niebuhr as a Christian theologian, particularly his realism.  As a public intellectual he has been cited as an influence by folks as diverse as Barack Obama and some neo-cons.  His major influence on me has been his thinking about institutional evil and the structures of sin, which I learned about in my undergraduate theology class.  That is the subject of this book.

Reading the opening pages has already deeply affected me.  Niebuhr was critical of liberal thinking which believed the education and enlightenment would lead to virtuous people, overcoming the ills of human society.  Niebuhr believed that conflict was inevitable in human history, could not be eradicated, and that during conflict power must be challenged by power.  These views, of course, are one reason the pacificsts in the vein of Yoder and Hauerwas have rejected Niebuhr.  Though they may share his pessimism about the world, they don't think that the church, as a group of faithful people, should accomodate themselves to the world, rather they should live as "resident aliens" that testifies to how God desires us to live.  I don't see myself changing my theological positions, but the Neibuhr is making me re-think some of my public policy views.  Here is the opening chapter of the book:

Though human society has roots which lie deeper in history than the beginning of human life, men have made comparatively but little progress in solving the problem of their aggregate existence.  Each century originates a new complexity and each new generation faces a new vexation in it.  For all the centuries of experience, men have not yet learned how to live together without compounding their vices and covering each other "with mud and with blood."  The society in which each man lives is at once the basis for, and the nemesis of, that fulness of life which each man seeks.  However much human ingenuity may increase the treasures which nature provides for the satisfaction of human needs, they can never be sufficient to satisfy all human wants; for man, unlike other creatures, is gifted and cursed with an imagination which extends his appetites beyond the requirements of subsistence.  Human society will never escape the problem of the equitable distribution of the physical and cultural goods which provide for the preservation and fulfillment of human life.

I'm, of course, reading this at a point when the world is going to hell and articles are appearing almost daily asking what are the similarities between today's world crises and 1914.  Yesterday I read an article on how the new caliphate is torturing young people.  It, combined with reading Niebuhr, is causing me to rethink some of my assumptions of the last decade.

In 2002 I was initially opposed to the idea of the Iraq War because it seemed to be a bad idea.  It would distract from the misson in Afghanistan, it would destabilize the region (as Bush, Sr. and Brent Scowcroft had written in their book a few years before), and it seemed more than we could and should handle at the time.  As things progressed, my opposition became more centered on morality and theology, and one of the lasting results of the war and my opposition to it was me becoming overall more liberal, partly because of the new people I was interacting with.  Even as late as 2004, I voted for John Kerry because I thought he was more genuinely conservative than George W. (as even The Economist and Andrew Sullivan also wrote).  

But the recent news about the caliphate is making me consider whether war is something we should consider.  This is largely our fault, for destabilizing the region in the first place.  We should have left well enough alone to begin with.  We should never have tried to re-make the Middle East.  Around 2007 I was advocating for withdrawing  even if that meant the region erupted in civil or regional war, because I felt like the Middle Easterners themselves needed to work out their conflicts and problems and if violence was the way they chose, then that wasn't really our business.

So, I don't fully understand my current thoughts, especially since I've been an advocate for non-violence myself this past decade.  But I'm unsure what other solution exists to stop this current nightmare.  I'm also fully aware that another war wouldn't solve the problem, and we might end up back in the same place again a few years after it was over.  What feels weird is questioning some of my basic assumptions and being so unsure about what we should do.

Another World War?

With the centennial remembrance of the beginning of the First World War falling in the midst of the world going to hell--Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, the Chinese Seas, etc.--there seems to be a cottage industry of essays comparing our time with 1914 and considering the question, "Could it happen again?"  In the simplest answer, yes, it could.  Catastrophic war is always at least a possibility, even if a minor one.

Roger Cohen writes a smart essay on the topic.  It's opening line is good for us to remember, "Pessimism is a useful prism through which to view the affairs of states."  We Americans are generally optimists, so we bumble into things with good intentions and very little thought of the consequences.

Less smart, but still interesting, is a piece for the Atlantic by Graham Allison noting seven similarities and seven differences with 1914.  The focus of this essay is Chinese aims on the South and East China Seas and America's treaty obligations to Japan.  Could a series of event, much like 1914, cascade too quickly into war?  The author's conclusion: "For myself, this exercise in historical analysis leads me to conclude that the probability of war between the U.S. and China in the decade ahead is higher than I imagined before examining the analogy—but still unlikely. If statesmen in both the U.S. and China reflect on what happened a century ago, perspective and insights from this past can be applied now to make risks of war even lower."

More on Gaza

Great breakfast conversation this morning on Israel/Palestine with a rabbi, a chaplain, and a Unitarian minister.  In our conversation, these two opinion pieces were recommended.

One by David Brooks discussing this conflict as part of a larger "Thirty Years War" underway in the Middle East.

And this one by Roger Cohen arguing that the current policies of the Netanyahu government are a betrayal of Zionism.