Politics Feed

On Liberty

On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other EssaysOn Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays by John Stuart Mill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was reading On Liberty from this collection, the first time I've read this classic work. I'm surprised I didn't read it in high school or college, when it's message about individualism would have been more inspiring. At my current phase in life, I have a more community-based approach to ethics.

Mill's views seem naive in retrospect. His ideal of individual liberty does not address systemic problems of poverty, racism, etc. So many of his ideas, on the left when written, would resonate with some members of the right at the moment.

Mill also possesses the naivete so common in post-Enlightenment liberalism that education would solve most problems by teaching people to be rational and pursue their best interests. He believes that over time as the truth of things is revealed, people will come to more agreement. Clearly this has not happened. He underestimates brute forces and ignorance. He underestimates the power of the majority to undo the progressive politics he advocates. He does not foresee Trump.

I've never been a big fan of Mill. He was clearly influential in his time and is important to the history of liberal democracy, but I believe there are more sophisticated thinkers in that history. I don't care for his book Utilitarianism and chafe whenever I have to teach it. His Metaphysics is a joke, in my opinion. I don't think that Mill's work will remain in the canon long term.

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Church's loss of influence

One of my responses  after the election of Trump was that his election signified the loss of influence of the Christian church, particularly if someone so immoral and whose views were antithetical to the faith could get elected, then we had lost our influence even more than we realized.

In the most recent Atlantic, an article by Peter Beinart gives support to that thesis, while also showing wider cultural trends.

Whereas it has long been claimed that a more secular society will be more tolerant and liberal and will avoid the culture wars, that does not seem to be true.  People who aren't active in church are more likely to hold extreme, polarizing political views.  Beinart writes, "As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways."

He discusses how non-church going religious conservatives were the core of Trump's supporters, that non-church going liberals split with church-going liberals over Hillary and Bernie, and that Black Lives Matter doesn't work within the traditional church as previous civil rights movements have.  Beinart concludes:

Maybe it’s the values of hierarchy, authority, and tradition that churches instill. Maybe religion builds habits and networks that help people better weather national traumas, and thus retain their faith that the system works. For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict. It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.

Immigration Policy

When I was a Republican, one thing I was proud of was that we were the party of free trade and open borders.  Ronald Reagan had granted legal status to undocumented immigrants living here.  And one of the main reasons I voted for George W. Bush in 2000 was his goal of reforming immigration.  In fact, the guest worker program he and Vincente Fox negotiated in the summer of 2001 is still the policy which I support.  It would have made it legal for people to move freely back and forth across the border in order to find work.  This should be our policy.  A border wall smacks of Soviet policy.  I thought Obama didn't go far enough with his immigration policy, that his deportations were excessive, and the detainment camps for children were morally repugnant. These ICE raids of recent days look like an authoritarian state.  I reject the immorality of our national laws on immigration and the worsening moral corruption of this administration.



"Moderation is a generally misunderstood virtue," writes David Brooks in his discussion of the moral character of Dwight Eisenhower (a previous blog post explored some other elements of this discussion).  "Moderation is not just finding the mid-point between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there."  

"On the contrary," he writes, "moderation is based on an awareness of the inevitability of conflict."  Moderates don't think the world can be fit neatly together.  Brooks adds, "If you think all moral values point in the same direction, or all political goals can be realized all at once by a straightforward march along one course, you don't need to be moderate, either. . . Moderation is based on the idea that things do not fit neatly together."

So, a moderate must accept "that you will never get to live a pure and perfect life," because there will always be compromises between competing values.

Brooks uses the opportunity of discussing this virtue in relationship to Ike to give a warning to political leaders.  Be careful what you do because "the damage leaders do when they get things wrong is greater than the benefits they create when they get things right."  Ike is often criticized for what he didn't do.  Maybe there was a good reason?

Brooks also contrasts Ike's farewell with Kennedy's inaugural.  Ike spoke with humility about finding balance, while Kennedy challenged the nation to move forward with confidence.  Brooks concludes with something that sounds like a dire warning at this particular moment,

Like the nation's founders, [Ike] built his politics on distrust of what people might do if they have unchecked power.  He communicated the sense that in most times, leaders have more to gain from being stewards of what they inherited than by being destroyers of what is there and creators of something new.

Defeating Trump

I have been energized by the strong opposition to Trump from the Right, even the Far Right.  I've watched Republican college and high school friends--Southern Baptist pastors, mothers, Army guys--daily post their opposition to Trump

Which is one reason I'm worried that so much of the organized opposition is taking on a Leftward bent.  Now is the time to build grand coalitions that cross traditional ideological divides.  After twenty years of bitter partisan division, I actually hopeful for a new bipartisan consensus to develop in opposition to Trump.  At the current moment John McCain looks willing to lead.  Which, of course, may create a new partisanship and a new political alignment.  Or it may simply signal the civil war that is clearly underway in both parties between their centers and their extremes.

David Frum gives some advice for the opposition of how they need to be more effective.  I hope people will read his article.  One thing that has bothered me the last dozen years I've been on the Left is how often ineffective things are done.  The Right generally does think more strategically.  I, for one, am a pragmatist.

Moral Psychology

I'm fascinated by studies in moral psychology, how some of us are temperamentally focused on different core values, which then lead to our political disagreements.  One reason these things fascinate me, is that I don't think I fit the research.  One on-line study I took once revealed me to be very conservative based upon my answers to the psychological questions, which compelled me to celebrate that my rational brain had succeeded in overcoming its basic wiring (a goal of all philosophy since Plato).

Here's a new article, which has some good advice for how political discussions ought to be framed in order to find more common ground.  This is one of my goals, of course. 

I do believe being a Christian minister and from the Heartland gives me a basic moral language that is more traditional.  I am currently working on launching a podcast that I intend to call The Prairie Citizen, which will explore basic moral principles of a good society.  Stay tuned.

The Prince

The PrinceThe Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I found this book to be a rather useless pile of shit.

But I did find some bits of advice that Trump should learn, and further criteria by which to judge him poorly.

"A prince must also show himself a lover of merit, give preferment to the able, and honour those who excel in every art."

"The choice of a prince's ministers is a matter of no little importance; they are either good or not according to the prudence of the prince. The first impression that one gets of a ruler and of his brains is from seeing the men that he has about him. When they are competent and faithful one can always consider him wise, as he has been able to recognise their ability and keep them faithful. But when they are the reverse, one can always form an unfavourable opinion of him, because the first mistake that he makes is in making this choice."

"he ought to be a great asker, and a patient hearer of the truth about those things of which he has inquired"

"It is an infallible rule that a prince who is not wise himself cannot be well advised."

"Nothing does so much honour to a newly-risen man than the new laws and measures which he introduces. These things, when they are well based and have greatness in them, render him revered and admired."

"The prince must avoid those things which will make him hated or despised . . . and so contrive that his actions show grandeur, spirit, gravity, and fortitude."

So, Trump's even already utterly failed at being an autocrat.

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