Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Friday, September 7th, 2007.


George Carlin Delivers

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entertainment and popular culture

You have to see this George Carlin video. I was never a big Carlin fan (and I remember him from the 60s), but in this monologue, he concisely, pointedly delivers everything the left has been saying for years.

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Religion and Liberalism

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liberalism and progressivism, Religion

I’ve been struggling with an essay by Stanley Fish in the behind-the-firewall New York Times. Fish seems to be arguing that liberalism and religion are incompatible and that liberal society requires the diminution of religion.

Liberalism is in no way incompatible with my religion. However, I’m not going to dismiss Fish’s argument out of hand, even though I think he has several blind spots.

First, I want to repeat the point made by Mark Lilla in his recent New York Times essay, “The Politics of God,” that I blogged about here: Separating political authority from religious revelation made modern liberal society possible.

I cannot emphasize this enough: Separating political authority from religious revelation made modern liberal society possible. Lilla provides a long and thoughtful analysis of western civilization going back to the Reformation, and he makes a solid argument that joining religious and political authority, even when done in a reasonably progressive and benevolent way, leads either to totalitarianism or ongoing violent conflict, or both. As Lilla puts it, “Messianic theology eventually breeds messianic politics.” Lilla continues,

So we are heirs to the Great Separation only if we wish to be, if we make a conscious effort to separate basic principles of political legitimacy from divine revelation. Yet more is required still. Since the challenge of political theology is enduring, we need to remain aware of its logic and the threat it poses. This means vigilance, but even more it means self-awareness. We must never forget that there was nothing historically inevitable about our Great Separation, that it was and remains an experiment. In Europe, the political ambiguities of one religion, Christianity, happened to set off a political crisis that might have been avoided but wasn’t, triggering the Wars of Religion; the resulting carnage made European thinkers more receptive to Hobbes’s heretical ideas about religious psychology and the political implications he drew from them; and over time those political ideas were liberalized. Even then, it was only after the Second World War that the principles of modern liberal democracy became fully rooted in continental Europe.

As for the American experience, it is utterly exceptional: there is no other fully developed industrial society with a population so committed to its faiths (and such exotic ones), while being equally committed to the Great Separation. Our political rhetoric, which owes much to the Protestant sectarians of the 17th century, vibrates with messianic energy, and it is only thanks to a strong constitutional structure and various lucky breaks that political theology has never seriously challenged the basic legitimacy of our institutions. Americans have potentially explosive religious differences over abortion, prayer in schools, censorship, euthanasia, biological research and countless other issues, yet they generally settle them within the bounds of the Constitution. It’s a miracle.

It’s a miracle we’re maintaining by the skin of our teeth, of course, and several items Lilla lists above are far from settled. But I want to digress one more time, to a wonderful blog series written by John McGowan and posted on Michael Bérubé’s blog in June 2005. It’s called “The Republican Assault on Democracy,” and it’s in three parts — Part I, Part II, Part III. The following extract is taken from all three parts.

My point is that liberalism, first and foremost, is a set of expedients (mostly institutional and legal) for minimizing tyranny by setting limits to government power. It also tries to prevent the consolidation of power by fostering the multiplication of power. Democracy, in my view, is not worth a damn if it is not partnered with liberalism. Democracy and liberalism are a squabbling pair; they each locate power in a different place—democracy in the people, liberalism in the law—and they aim for different goods: democracy (in its most ideal form) for something like the “general will,” liberalism for a modus vivendi in a world characterized by intractable conflicts among people with different beliefs, goals, ambitions, and values. Neither one trumps the other; both, in my view, are essential ingredients of a legitimate polity. …

… Not only the Republicans, but the American nation as a whole, seem to have lost any sense whatsoever of what liberalism means and what it strives to insure. Even at the best of times, the liberal check upon power is a tenuous bulwark that fights against the odds. There is nothing that underwrites the rule of law except the continued practice of upholding it. The law must be reaffirmed anew each and every time it is enunciated and enforced. And the temptation to circumvent the law, to rewrite it to accommodate one’s current beliefs and practices, is also ever present. To pay the law heed is to accept that one’s own virtue is doubtful—or that one’s own beliefs are, in every sense of that word, “partial.” It is their assurance in their own virtue that renders the Republicans most dangerous, most prone to set the law aside when it gets in the way of doing when they know in their hearts is right. Impatience with the law is endemic—and it is the harbinger of extreme politics of either the right or the left. (It is here, of course, that the leftist will leap. But why should we think leftist self-righteousness any more attractive or less dangerous than the rightist variety?)

I will continue on this line of thought in my next post. Here I just want to end by noting how “unnatural” liberalism seems. It involves self-abnegation, accepting the frustration of my will. It involves, as I will detail in my next post, compromise in almost every instance, and thus can seem akin to having no strong convictions, no principles. Yet its benefits are enormous; it provides, I am convinced, the only possible way humans can live in peace together in a pluralistic world. Given how distasteful liberal expedients are in experience, it is a miracle that they ever get established and maintained. But the benefits of that miracle are multiple—and we, as a nation, will sorely regret it if we trash our liberal edifice out of impatience, frustration, or, even worse, sheer forgetfulness of why that edifice was put in place, how it works, and what it accomplishes. …

… Because liberalism aims to insure peace and prevent tyranny in pluralistic societies, it often works to establish zones of mutual indifference. Liberalism strives to place lots of individual actions outside the pale of politics, beyond interference from the state or other powers. And, culturally, it strives to promote tolerance, where tolerance is, at a minimum, indifference to the choices and actions of others and, at best, a recognition that diversity yields some social benefits. (A social benefit, as opposed to an individual benefit, is a good that can only be produced as the result of the aggregate of many individual actions, not by any individual acting on his or her own. And, ideally, social benefits would accrue to all of the individuals who contribute to its creation, although that is hardly always the case.)

Except for what are generally weak claims for the benefits of diversity (weak not in the sense of being unconvincing, but weak in the sense that no very major social benefit is claimed and some costs are acknowledged), the liberal argument for non-political interference, for privacy and individual autonomy, is primarily negative. Conflict is the result of trying to tell people what to believe and what to do, so we are better off cultivating a talent for resisting our inclinations to insist that others see the world and run their lives the way I do.

But liberalism also provides a positive response to pluralism. It guarantees—through freedoms of speech, the press, and association, and through the institutional mechanisms of election, jury trials, and legislative deliberations—the active engagement of citizens with one another. Liberals should, I believe, promote in every way possible the existence of a vibrant, accessible, and uncensored public sphere (or, to use another term for it, civil society). In short, liberalism proliferates the occasions where citizens of different opinions, backgrounds, creeds etc. mingle with one another, express their views, and argue about specific issues. And, in some but not all cases, these settings have to move to a decision that is then accepted, even when not very satisfying, by all the parties involved. …

… I think we have lost any sense of how our democracy functions—or that it may be much more fragile than we assume. … We are assuming an immunity from civil strife that is hardly guaranteed.

It’s interesting to me that Lilla and McGowan both call liberal democracy a “miracle.” Particularly in a country as large and diverse as ours, we ought to be a roiling mass of warring factions. Ironically, I believe one of the reasons we’ve managed to keep the great experiment going this long is our almost religious devotion to the Constitution.

McGowan wasn’t writing about religion specifically, but I wanted to get his points about liberalism in front of you before wading into the Stanley Fish essay. Fish begins by citing the crusading atheists, i.e. Richard Dawkins.

The authors of these tracts are characterized by professor Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University as “the soccer hooligans of reasoned discourse.” He asks (rhetorically), “Can an atheist or agnostic commentator discuss any aspect of religion for more than thirty seconds without referring to religious peoples as imbeciles, extremists, mental deficients, fascists, enemies of the public good, crypto-Nazis, conjure men, irrationalists … authoritarian despots and so forth?”

In a similar vein, Tom Krattenmaker, who studies religion in public life, wonders why, given their celebration of open-mindedness and critical thinking, secularists “so frequently leave their critical thinking at the door” when it “comes to matters of religion?” Why are they closed-minded on this one subject?

An answer to these questions can be found, I think, in another publishing phenomenon: the growing number of books and articles dedicated to the rehabilitation of liberalism both as a political vision and as a self-identification of which one needn’t be ashamed.

I object to the equation of liberalism with atheism, intolerant or otherwise. A liberal may be religious, or not, but so may be a conservative. But let’s go on —

An answer to these questions can be found, I think, in another publishing phenomenon: the growing number of books and articles dedicated to the rehabilitation of liberalism both as a political vision and as a self-identification of which one needn’t be ashamed.

A recent example is Paul Starr’s “Freedom’s Power: The True Force of Liberalism” (2007). Starr, a professor of sociology at Princeton, claims that what unites liberals are political principles rather than agreement “on the ultimate grounds on which these principles rest.” This is the familiar (and suspect) claim that liberalism is not a substantive ideology but a political device that allows many ideologies to flourish and compete in the marketplace of ideas. Liberalism, says Starr, “is only a framework – that is, it provides a space for free development.” Where there are deep “divisions over the meaning of the good life,” he continues, the “neutrality” of the liberal state “furthers mutual forbearance.”

But right there, in the invocation of “free development” and “mutual forbearance,” Starr gives the lie to liberal neutrality. Free development (the right of individuals to frame and follow their own life plans) and mutual forbearance (a live-and-let-live attitude toward the beliefs of others as long as they do you no harm) are not values everyone endorses.

Remember what McGowan said — “Because liberalism aims to insure peace and prevent tyranny in pluralistic societies, it often works to establish zones of mutual indifference. Liberalism strives to place lots of individual actions outside the pale of politics, beyond interference from the state or other powers. And, culturally, it strives to promote tolerance, where tolerance is, at a minimum, indifference to the choices and actions of others and, at best, a recognition that diversity yields some social benefits.”

Fish is, in effect, arguing that democratic society must honor anti-democratic views, even if those views threaten civil peace and promote tyranny, because to do otherwise violates the principles of tolerance that liberalism claims to value. However, I argue that it is perfectly consistent for a liberal to be intolerant of intolerance and to stand against anything that threatens civil liberty.

And I’ve also argued in the past that being liberal doesn’t mean being a patsy.

Anyway, finally we get to the meat of Fish’s essay:

And neither are the other values Starr identifies as distinctively liberal – individualism, egalitarianism, self-realization, free expression, modernity, innovation. These values, as many have pointed out, are part and parcel of an ideology, one that rejects a form of government organized around a single compelling principle or faith and insists instead on a form of government that is, in legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s words, “independent of any particular conception of the good life.” Individual citizens are free to have their own conception of what the good life is, but the state, liberal orthodoxy insists, should neither endorse nor condemn any one of them (unless of course its adherents would seek to impose their vision on others).

It follows then that the liberal state can not espouse a particular religion or require its citizens to profess it. Instead, the liberal state is committed to tolerating all religions while allying itself with none. Indeed, Starr declares, “the logic of liberalism” is “exemplified” by religious toleration. For if the idea is to facilitate the flourishing of many points of view while forestalling “internecine… conflicts” between them, religion, the most volatile and divisive of issues, must be removed from the give and take of political debate and confined to the private realm of the spirit, where it can be tolerated because it has been quarantined.

Thus the toleration of religion goes hand in hand with – is the same thing as – the diminishing of its role in the society. It is a quid pro quo. What the state gets by “excluding religion from any binding social consensus” (Starr) is a religion made safe for democracy. What religion gets is the state’s protection. The result, Starr concludes approvingly, is “a political order that does not threaten to extinguish any of the various theological doctrines” it contains.

That’s right. The liberal order does not extinguish religions; it just eviscerates them, unless they are the religions that display the same respect for the public-private distinction that liberalism depends on and enforces. A religion that accepts the partitioning of the secular and the sacred and puts at its center the private transaction between the individual and his God fits the liberal bill perfectly. John Locke and his followers, of whom Starr is one, would bar civic authorities from imposing religious beliefs and would also bar religious establishments from meddling in the civic sphere. Everyone stays in place; no one gets out of line.

What Fish doesn’t address is Lilla’s contention that the kind of democratic republic we have enjoyed since the Constitution took effect in 1789 is not possible without separation of church and state. Without strict limits on the power of sectarian religion, liberal democracy cannot survive. Either religious strife will pull it apart, or else a dominant religious faction will take over and render government more authoritarian and intolerant of diversity. And that includes religious diversity.

Fish continues,

But what of religions that will not stay in place, but claim the right, and indeed the duty, to order and control the affairs of the world so that the tenets of the true faith are reflected in every aspect of civic life? Liberalism’s answer is unequivocal. Such religions are the home of “extremists … fascists … enemies of the public good … authoritarian despots and so forth.”

Lilla’s essay makes a good argument that the name-callers are correct. And I would like to point out to Stanley Fish that, were the U.S. given over to “religions that will not stay in place, but claim the right, and indeed the duty, to order and control the affairs of the world so that the tenets of the true faith are reflected in every aspect of civic life,” those people inevitably will turn around and oppress religious minorities. Liberalism may be “intolerant” of some religion, but so is theocracy.

Closed-mindedness with respect to religions that do not honor the line between the secular and the sacred is not a defect of liberalism; it is its very definition. …

… At first glance, this makes perfect sense. After all, why should we tolerate the unreasonable? But the sense it makes depends on “reasonable” having been defined as congruent with the liberal values of pluralism and moderation, and “unreasonable” having been defined as any viewpoint that refuses to respect and tolerate its competitors, but seeks to defeat them. In liberal thought, “reasonable” is a partisan, not a normative notion. It means “reasonable” from our perspective.

I’d say “reasonable” means “reasonably unlikely to destroy the fabric of society.” For a democratic republic, toleration of religious totalitarianism amounts to a suicide pact.

In saying this, I am not criticizing liberalism, just explaining what it is. It is a form of political organization that is militantly secular and incapable, by definition, of seeing the strong claim of religion – the claim to be in possession of a truth all should acknowledge – as anything but an expression of unreasonableness and irrationality.

Yet many liberals are deeply religious. Fish lazily equates “liberal” and “secular” with “non-religious” and “atheist,” but these are not synonymous. “Religious” and “secular” are not necessarily opposites. I call myself a “religious secularist,” for example, because I believe a religion-neutral society is one that allows a free and healthy personal exploration of religion, without coercion, intimidation, or forced indoctrination. On the other hand, when religionists are given governmental power, generally the first thing they do is squelch other religion.

Berlinerblau and Krattenmaker hold out the hope that secularists and strong religionists might come to an accommodation if they would listen to each other rather than just condemn each other. That hope is illusory, for each is defined by what it sees as the other’s errors.

I’m glad Fish used the word religionist here. The plain truth is that religionism is incompatible with democracy and with civil society that does not permit religious majorities to oppress and discriminate against religious minorities. Complain all you want, but if you want to live in a true democracy, religious neutrality is a necessary condition. Allowing any religious faction to use government “to order and control the affairs of the world so that the tenets of the true faith are reflected in every aspect of civic life” would mean the end of religious freedom for the rest of us.

However, I’m troubled by Fish’s claim that “The liberal order does not extinguish religions; it just eviscerates them, unless they are the religions that display the same respect for the public-private distinction that liberalism depends on and enforces.” What do we do about religions that simply don’t respect the liberal social compact? That consider it their duty to take over government and rule all of us according to their religious beliefs? What should be the liberal response?

For reasons I’ve ranted about in the past I am as offended as Stanley Fish by the Dawkin-Hitchens school of broad-gauge shotgun, “demonize ’em all” criticism of religion. A big part of my argument with Stanley Fish is that he equates this school of criticism with “liberalism,” and I say it is just the opposite. Remember what John McGowan wrote —

I just want to end by noting how “unnatural” liberalism seems. It involves self-abnegation, accepting the frustration of my will. It involves, as I will detail in my next post, compromise in almost every instance, and thus can seem akin to having no strong convictions, no principles.

Can we say, liberalism appreciates the wisdom of doubt?

Right now great vistas of argument are opening up in front of me, so I’m going to stop here and save much of what’s rattling around in my head for future posts.

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Taking a Stand

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Bush Administration, Iraq War

Be sure to read today’s Paul Krugman column, outside the NYT firewall here. And if you missed last night’s Countdown, be sure to listen to the audio at Crooks and Liars of Keith’s commentary on the “surge,” plus his interview of Larry Wilkerson.

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