Friday, November 20, 2015

The Campus and the Hope

Yale University students demonstrate for racial inclusion

“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.” – Mark Twain

Is it possible to rid America of racism?  To make African-Americans completely and comprehensively included in our national life?  To make them feel completely included?  And if that’s seems an impossible dream, then what about eliminating racism from a college campus?  Is that more modest goal conceivable?  And if it is, what tactics are justified in reaching it?  How should we approach that dream?  What do we owe each other?  Because that’s what the controversies at Yale University and Missouri University and other colleges are really all about.

Consider the Yale Halloween costume controversy.  In previous years some students wore racially and culturally provocative costumes, some even including blackface and redface.  This year, a few days before Halloween, a Yale administrative committee distributed suggestions for avoiding costumes that “disrespect, alienate or ridicule segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.”  A few students in Silliman College (the largest Yale dormitory residence) privately complained to their resident administrators, known as “masters”, that the university was trying to control their free expression in the choice of costumes.  Those masters, Nicholas and Ericka Christakis, Yale faculty members, were sympathetic, and Ericka subsequently sent out an email of her own, urging students to be less sensitive about Halloween costumes, to ignore or rationally engage with those wearing costumes they found offensive.  She argued that there is value in breaking these kinds of social taboos, and denied it was her job to enforce them. 

But a sizeable number of students strongly disagreed.  A large group confronted Nicholas in the campus yard and demanded he repudiate his wife’s position.  When he refused, on the grounds that a college should provide an open “intellectual space”, a few of the students became belligerent, quite upset that these administrators were refusing to enforce their program of racial inclusion.  To them, Ericka’s email condoned behavior that made them feel excluded, second-class, lesser members of their community.  One unhappy student’s letter to the school paper (since removed) reprimanded the masters for subordinating the real pain of that exclusion to the merely abstract principle of free speech; in her memorable line, “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”

The students are arguing, in effect, that their residence is a home, and the job of the administrators is to make sure it’s a “safe space” where no one feels excluded.  But an administrator is not a parent, a student is not a child, and – most importantly – a college is not a home.  The purpose of a college is to increase and transmit human knowledge and wisdom, and censorship and coercion are its deadly enemies.  If a college is not an open intellectual space then it has undermined its own reason for being.  But really, how have we come to the point where this needs to be said?

Some students, it seems, want much more than just to talk about their pain.  They angrily demand that official institutional power be employed to control Halloween costumes and opinions about costumes, and that dissenting administrators and students be punished.  The students of Amherst College have gone so far as to explicitly state they “do not tolerate” certain dissenting opinions on racial issues.  They’ve demanded that their college suppress those opinions through official proclamation, and that it force stubbornly dissident students to “go through the Disciplinary Process” and “attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.”  They even demand that the college try to suppress alumni dissent!  Official orthodoxy promulgated, maintained and enforced through firings, denunciations and re-education; behold the new dispensation.  They do not tolerate!

Sadly, the world is full of the intolerable: poverty, disease, war, economic exploitation, sexism, and yes, of course, racism.  The eradication of racism – in the world, in America, on a college campus, in a single dorm – is a goal to be devoutly hoped for, and ardently fought for.  But that ardor must be tempered by practicality, by recognition of reality.  Indeed, part of the radical black analysis of modern America is that it is essentially racist.  Ta-Nehisi Coates, probably today’s pre-eminent African-American intellectual, has written that, “in America, the notion that black people are lacking in virtue is ambient.”  Last year Coates and liberal writer Jonathan Chait argued back and forth on the causes of black poverty, with Coates explicitly arguing that there was little or no hope of ending racism in America.  Damnably, American racism does seem incurable!  It pollutes our cultural bloodstream like alcohol, distorting our perceptions, impairing our judgment, quickening our anger, and eroding our trust.  We drank it so long ago, but it wreaks its havoc even now, and we never sober up.

And it’s not that the students have forgotten their racial pessimism.  Indeed, it only heightens their desire to see racism ended!  The pathologies of their movement – over-sensitivity, incivility, intolerance – flow from the intense desire to make the pain stop while knowing that it cannot stop.  If the pain can intrude into even the leftish-liberal-controlled college campus, then there is no respite, no haven, no safe space.  For years, liberal college administrators have – somewhat disingenuously – told black students that not only could they have such a safe space, they had a right to it.  Then Ericka Christakis – somewhat disingenuously – told them to stop wanting it.  And that reminded them it isn’t really achievable.  Thus, anger.  It is the profound and earnest disappointment that the impossible has not arrived that explains why this movement has come so far off its hinges.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s an 60’s had definite, objective goals in mind: the end of legal segregation, the restoration of political rights, equal treatment in public places.  To a large extent those procedural goals were reached; thankfully, they were reachable.  But the fight for substantive equality foundered, partly because changing minds and culture is much harder than changing laws, and much more subtle.  But the understanding that minds cannot be changed by force is the bedrock of the historical liberal project, and the comprehensive inclusion the students desire requires a degree of control over thought, expression and action that is itself intolerable.  Painfully, American racial pessimism is a perfectly defensible position, but it’s one that should remind anti-racists to tread more lightly, not more heavily.

As a white man – who, despite my best attempts, ultimately knows so little of lived black experience – it’s easy for me to urge caution and prudence in the fight against racism.  But part of what’s gone wrong with the racial inclusion movement is its insistence that the content of an opinion is not as relevant as the background of the person holding it.  In this view, the pain of racial exclusion cannot truly be understood or appreciated except by those who have lived it; therefore, the analysis and actions of those victims should not be questioned. But this is a reasonable premise taken to an unreasonable conclusion.  Even though whites can’t fully understand the black experience they can still make genuine contributions to the racial conversation; they can still make cogent judgments about the state of race relations.  It is possible for a black person to be mistaken about race.

But leftist thought has been heavily influenced by post-modernism, particularly by the doctrine that there are no universal truths, only limited, parochial, and self-serving ones.  Truth with a capital “T” is merely an instrument for settling arguments in favor of the powerful.  That is, discourse which fails to account for cultural presumptions in favor of traditionally dominant groups only appears to give minority arguments their due, in reality it merely perpetuates the domination.  The post-modernist solution is to allow each group its own unimpeachable narrative; since there is no honest objective truth, let all the subjective truths flourish, none with a greater claim on our credence than any other.

Once again, this is a healthy idea taken to an unhealthy extreme.  Being white, male, heterosexual, etc. obviously can make one oblivious to the concerns of those who are not, and that distortion must be guarded against, partly by appealing to minority subjective experience.  But that doesn’t negate the need for objective analysis as well.  It’s reasonable to worry whether black students feel unsafe, but it’s just as reasonable to consider if they’re justified in feeling so.  It’s possible to feel unsafe and simply be mistaken.  We should be more open to minority views on what is or isn’t offensive, but we should also consider whether those arguments are in themselves convincing.  Being a victim of racial injustice obviously can give one special insight into the nature of that injustice, but it does not exempt one’s arguments from fair scrutiny.

But many liberal whites, in effect, believe otherwise.  At root, the post-modern elevation of previously marginalized groups is an attempt to spread social power to those groups.  In other words, this is ultimately about white guilt.  Liberals work so hard to appreciate the staggering horror of America’s racial sins, and rightly so; but they’re so afraid of blaming the victim that they bend over backwards to avoid condemning any black sins.  So liberals earnestly sacrifice their intellectual independence on the altar of racial atonement, hoping as fervently as their black allies that the American soul can be washed clean.  They make themselves scapegoats, vessels for America’s bad conscience on race.  Post-modern rejection of objective judgment simply provides the perfect alibi for rejecting one’s own judgment in deference to the greater racial good.  And it inoculates white liberals against the creeping suspicion that any bits of racism are still lurking within their own souls.  After all, isn’t every American at least a little racist?  Clearly, their hearts are in the right place; their greatest wish is to end racism.  But this post-modern extremism is really disguised penance, white liberal ritual for purifying their own dirty white souls.

There is no longer any white racial politics that’s actually reasonable and constructive; it consists of either masochistic self-denunciation or angry denial.  By the latter, of course, I mean conservatives, the term of art for that group that finds the reality of American guilt too painful to accept.  If white liberals hold that blacks can do no wrong, white conservatives hold that racism is only a quaint historical artifact, an unfortunate detour on the noble road to American greatness, an unimportant detail of our past best forgotten lest it stir up racial problems we’ve happily solved.  In effect, both liberal and conservative whites concede the enormity of American racial criminality and both consequently suffer crippling racial shame, which they’re frantic to escape.  Liberals do so by purging their own souls and projecting all sin onto conservatives, who in turn protect themselves from the tiniest possibility of racial introspection by generously wrapping themselves in the American flag.  The point, of course, is that both are left pure.

But as liberal guilt forgives the worst black transgressions, conservative guilt can’t forgive the smallest.  This is the real danger, that the bullying mob on the left may be met by the vengeful mob on the right; worse, a vengeful mob in the guise of a repressive state.  Blacks are a minority after all, and a mobilized angry white majority can do far more damage than the racial radicals are doing now.  And nothing can bring forth latent conservative impulses in otherwise reasonable people as quickly as an angry black crowd.  Conservative over-reaction to the present campus excess is visibly boiling up.  Even a generally calm-headed conservative like Rod Dreher is eager for a reckoning, oblivious to the danger that it could all-to-easily become violent.  And there’s a lot of unreconstructed hate out there on the farther right; it’s not even that far.  We’re not sobering up; we’re becoming more drunk.

That’s why I urge caution; but by the same token I don’t remotely urge complacency.  We’re all obligated as Americans to resist and overcome racial exclusion.  But the current leftist program is much more likely to cause more damage.  Real progress can happen only if we respect differing opinions and the people who hold them; if we stop dismissing all opposing views as bad faith; if we consider thought and action on the basis of its content and not just the color of its author; if we remember the terrible fallibility of all people, ourselves and our opponents alike; and if we squarely face both the necessity and the impossibly of our fight.  American racism will probably never be eradicated.  It is a sobering thought.  But it is sobriety which we most need at this moment.  There are no safe spaces, nor should we work so hard to procure any.  We can make our country better, we can make our colleges better, we can make ourselves better.  But we can’t do so by silencing, or denouncing, or purifying, or demonizing.  Four hundred years of racial bitterness must be fought, but not with more bitterness.  It must be fought inside each one of us, freely, candidly, and with humility and charity.  The safe spaces that need to be nurtured are those inside our own heads.  And we do that by renouncing false hope, and embracing the real thing. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Socialist Who Saved Liberalism

“I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”  – William Morris

Bernie Sanders says he’s a socialist, but he’s not.  It’s true that the misapplication of political labels is a venerable tradition in American politics – consider the Puritan Social Darwinists who call themselves conservatives, the multiculturalist particularists who call themselves liberals, the Old Rightist Neo-Confederates who call themselves libertarians.  But let’s not add to that confusion.  Sanders’ program advocates using activist government to rebuild infrastructure; raise the minimum wage; make college free; increase regulations on Wall Street; institute single payer healthcare; make taxes more progressive; empower unions and worker co-ops.  He rails against “the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little”, and hopes for “a society where all people do well, not just a handful of billionaires” and a “government that represents all of us, not just the wealthiest people in the country.”  That is, present-day capitalism has come off the leash; it isn’t working for most working people and the excess concentration of wealth corrupts democracy.  His analysis is spot-on and his program is full of good practical ideas, but is this socialism?

The essential doctrine of socialism is that capitalism is irredeemably exploitive in that it forces workers to sell their labor to produce goods whose value is stolen by the investors who control that production.  Individualist liberal theory – like that of John Locke and Adam Smith – is used to justify capitalism, but it’s just an alibi excusing the concentration of economic and political power (which is really just economic power) in capitalist hands.  This view reached its most sophisticated and influential theoretical exposition, of course, in the work of 19th century political philosopher Karl Marx.

Classical Marxism holds that the essential contradiction of capitalism – that production is broadly socialized, but profit goes to a small ruling class – would inevitably lead to its downfall, once workers realized their objective condition and their true class interests.  Most early socialists organized workers in the hopes of increasing their economic power, either through explicitly pro-labor electoral politics, or trade unions, or both.  But the ultimate goal was a society where communal control of production – via unions or worker cooperatives or the state – spelled the end of capitalism and its system of forced, alienated and exploited labor.

But then, in early 20th century Russia the young intellectual firebrand, Vladimir Lenin, created a new version of socialism.  According to Lenin and his followers, the working class would never achieve true class-consciousness on its own; only a small vanguard party of intellectuals in possession of true theory could work the magic needed to replace capitalist hell with socialist heaven.  The workers would be herded and directed and controlled, all in their own true interests.  Once in power, of course, Marxism-Leninism became horribly totalitarian: the leaders controlled the party, which controlled the state, which controlled everything and everyone else.  This is classic Communism, as espoused and practiced by Stalin, Trotsky, Mao, Ho, Che, Castro, Kim Il-Sung, etc.  Hardly workers paradise.

As the original Democratic Socialism was confronted on its left by Communism, a new ideology, Social Democracy, arose on its immediate right.  Social Democracy is still socialist in analysis – it considers capitalism fundamentally exploitive – but it has a much more moderate and pragmatic program.  Informed by both the failure of capitalism to self-destruct – despite war, depression and decades of socialist agitation – and the failure of socialism to become established other than in its nightmarish Leninist form, social democrats accepted capitalism as a social reality, but tried to bring about socialist ends within the capitalist system.  After coming to power in northern Europe, they heavily regulated capitalism, redistributed its bounty, and provided a safety net for its downtrodden.  That is, they established the welfare state.  But since this is socialism that has made its peace with capitalism (even if only programmatically) it’s no longer really socialism.  Real socialists – Communists and Democratic Socialists – consider capitalism organically incapable of justice, and so view Social Democracy as a sellout and a sham.  To Social Democrats, socialism is a nice idea that has proven historically impossible.

These are the three main groupings of socialist-inspired thought (there’s also Anarchism, which is socialist ends through thoroughly libertarian means).  Clearly Bernie Sanders is neither a Communist nor a Democratic Socialist, since there’s nothing in his rhetoric or his program indicating he yearns to end capitalism, merely regulate it and redistribute its riches a little more equitably.  So is he a social democrat?  Should we label anyone who supports a welfare state (as opposed to the actual socialist destruction of capitalism) as a social democrat?

Lyndon Johnson, also not a socialist.
No.  Consider American liberals and the welfare state they created.  Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers used the federal government to promote labor unions; regulate banking and finance and labor markets; provide economic relief to the poor, the elderly, farmers, and workers.  In his 1944 State of the Union address, FDR proposed his “Economic Bill of Rights”, which would have (if not blocked by a conservative Congress) guaranteed to every American a good job, a decent home, healthcare, old-age security, a good education, etc.  Harry Truman pushed for increased unemployment and Social Security benefits, full employment, increased worker safety protections, universal healthcare, public housing, public works, aid to veterans.  Lyndon Johnson ended racial segregation and provided medical care for seniors and the very poor.  And in the first real expansion of the welfare state since LBJ, Obama finally instituted (near) universal healthcare.  This all sounds a lot like social democracy.

But it’s not; it’s modern liberalism.  Both social democracy and modern liberalism support a robust welfare state, but for very different reasons.  Classical liberalism, as defined and expressed by thinkers like Locke, Smith and John Stuart Mill, held that individuals and their rights are logically and morally prior to society.  So no one has any natural claim of authority over anyone else and political power is legitimate only when individuals consent to it.  Classical liberal theory arose during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, as the creaking feudal structure was replaced by the free market, nationalism, individual rights and representative democracy; all of these being instituted to allow individuals greater control over their own lives.  By the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries full-spectrum classical liberalism had become the established way of life in most advanced Western countries.

But once dominant its downsides became apparent.  Specifically, capitalism was generating enormous wealth, but that wealth was mostly going to the capitalists, not the workers, who were forced to work in terrible conditions for meager pay.  Also, capitalist economy went through dramatic boom-and-bust cycles, causing widespread hardship and social instability.  Socialism arose to explain these symptoms as manifestations of capitalism’s fundamental irrationality.  But liberalism’s critique of capitalism is based upon support for individual freedom and democracy and the desire for social stability.  That is, the completely free market leaves most workers with very little bargaining power, it constricts their options and their lives, it concentrates too much power in the hands of the rich, it corrupts the democratic process, and it opens the door to dangerous radical change.

Thus liberals tried to rescue workers from economic bondage, and save capitalism – their invention! – from its own excesses.  Hence, the liberal welfare state (which is generally a little milder than the social democratic version).  This new liberalism – using the state for the prudential amelioration of capitalism in order to increase individual freedom – was quite different from classical liberalism; it’s been called welfare state liberalism, welfarism, progressivism, social liberalism, modern liberalism.  That is, through a sort of convergent evolution, some socialists moved right and some liberals moved left and they met in the welfare state middle.  Their programs became very similar, but their respective ideological motivations remained unchanged, and therefore quite divergent.  Social democrats still considered capitalism exploitive at its heart; modern liberals still supported it in theory while wishing only to mitigate its most pernicious assaults on freedom and democracy.  But both gave up their utopian dreams – of pure socialist justice, and pure capitalist freedom, respectively – and accepted the good and bad in capitalism, once tamed by the welfare state.  To social democrats welfare-state capitalism is the least bad economic system that’s practically possible; to modern liberals it’s an improved version of an imperfect but essentially beneficial system.  A social democrat is a socialist who knows socialism is impossible; a modern liberal is liberal who knows that capitalism must be made better.

This is why it’s not fair to call Sanders a socialist; he’s clearly a fairly typical welfare state liberal, in the historically popular mold of the great 20th century New Deal liberals.  So why does he call himself a socialist?  Because liberalism has changed so much since Lyndon Johnson.  The success of modern conservatism and its electoral dominance, particularly since the rise of Ronald Reagan, subdued liberals.  Many, such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore, became New Democrats, largely giving up the liberal critique of capitalism and promoting privatization and deregulation.  In technical terms they became neo-liberals, trying to achieve welfare-state ends through private means.  They partnered with conservatives to expand free trade, end the federal guarantee of social assistance to poor families, and deregulate banking and investment.  Old-fashioned welfare state liberalism lost its political leaders to conservative polices, its white working class constituency to racially charged right-wing populism, and its intellectual and cultural elite to libertine, cosmopolitan multiculturalism.

That is, post 60’s liberalism became much less focused on economic struggles and much more focused on issues of cultural emancipation: social equality for racial minorities, women, gays, etc.  This was partly the influence of countercultural movements like the hippies, feminists, black nationalists, etc., and also the influence of the New Left, that baby boomer, student movement against conformity, white supremacy and militarism.  New Leftists started the 60’s as reformist liberals hoping to cure then-dominant technocratic liberalism of its bureaucratic and paternalistic excesses, and create a racially healed, individually fulfilling and humane liberalism.  As liberalism was the conscience of capitalism, they aimed to be the conscience of liberalism.  But as that fateful decade proceeded and they felt the stinging disappointment of liberalism’s failure to end racial injustice and Cold War extremism, they came to see liberalism as the enemy of its putative humanitarian goals.  They became convinced that America was fundamentally compromised by racism, militarism and capitalism.  Most of them became social democrats; but many moved farther left, in fits and starts; some slid all the way to Communism; a small number even embraced Communism’s farther extremes, idealizing horrible tyrants like Mao, Kim and Hoxha.  Thus modern welfare-state liberalism lost its intellectual support to both its right and its left, though it still commanded a large, orphaned constituency among actual working people.

When he was a socialist, sort of.
Bernie Sanders is a child of the New Left.  Born in 1941, he’s a little bit older than the typical baby-boom New Leftist, but he was very much part of the counterculture, the sexual revolution, the anti-war movement, and the ideological opposition to capitalism.  That is, he once was an actual socialist, albeit something of a libertarian hippie one.  But as he became involved in electoral politics – mayor of the very liberal city of Burlington, Vermont, then independent Congressman from Vermont, and now Senator – his natural personal pragmatism moved him on both economic and cultural issues further to the right, that is, toward the old welfare-state liberal center.  As the rise of Reaganism moved welfare-state liberals over to neo-liberalism, it moved Bernie from vague socialism over to welfare-state liberalism. He was a New Leftist who came to understand the necessity of defending the welfare state against the conservative and neo-liberal onslaught of the last 40 years.  Now he’s a liberal who calls himself a socialist, but mostly because respectable establishment liberals as a whole abandoned real liberalism decades ago.  And that nicely explains why the primary defender of real liberalism is such an eccentric.

It has fallen to a New Leftist to rescue liberalism.  That someone came out of that starkly anti-liberal tradition to save liberalism is an irony too exquisite, but the justice is poetic, and the lesson is clear.  Just as socialism was an overreaction to the flaws of capitalism, New Leftist abandonment of the traditional welfare state was an overreaction to the compromises and half-broken promises of 20th century liberalism.  Socialism was never a real possibility in America – thank God! – and it still isn’t – thank God!  Even if Sanders were elected and somehow managed to institute his entire program, and even if the entire world came to call it socialism, it would still really just be modern liberalism, the most popular, successful, broadly prosperous, and humanitarian ideology since feudalism went sloughing off to its happy demise.  Bernie, welcome home.