Struggling to See the Way

The Triumph of Death
 There is a mess of confused categories afflicting our politics. Words like “conservative” and “liberal,” and even “political,” have been so distorted that they conceal more than they disclose. The problem is not just that the meanings of words change over time. Meanings do change. The problem is that meanings do not always change at the same rate, or in the same ways, within the different minds of the people who seem to be speaking the same language. And sometimes it is worth taking the trouble of either resisting the change or doing the hard work of checking to see what we really mean to be talking about.

This recent headline from the New York Times suggests the problem: “Mike Pence: A Conservative Proudly Out of Sync With His Times.” What does it mean to be a “conservative” that is “out of sync with his times”?

Politically, to be “conservative” is to believe that the established order represents the accumulation of collective wisdom over generations of incremental change, and for that reason is too precious to be sacrificed to the whims of the masses. To be “liberal,” however, is to believe that no one has a greater stake in current policies than the people who are alive today, and for that reason those people should have priority, through democratic processes, over established institutions and unitary institutional leaders like monarchs.

Those are both reasonable views. And the constitution of our federal government here in the United States represents a compromise of both views, in the form of republicanism. Elections by citizens and the House of Representatives are both liberal ideas. The Senate (whose members were not elected directly until 1913 when the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified), the Electoral College, and a judiciary that is appointed not elected are all conservative ideas. That is, the institutions of our federal government were designed to accommodate change according to the will of the people, but not too quickly.

Because the conservative outlook prizes the current order as a representation of past lessons learned, many people think of conservatism as fundamentally backward looking. And because liberalism, when politically empowered, tends to result in more rapid change, many people think of it as fundamentally forward looking. But those characterizations place too much emphasis in the wrong places. Both conservative and liberal views, as political views, are focused on the present, because that is where and why political decisions are made. If conservatives seem to see the past as a guide, it is because they are searching for a ground that lends confidence to their decisions. Liberals are searching for a similar ground, but they find it in the collective voice of the people, expressed through democratic procedures. And if they seem to be oriented primarily to the future, that is only a byproduct of their focus on the present, which, because it changes constantly, seems more like the unknown future than the apparently solid past.

Mike Pence is neither conservative nor liberal. And the modern Republican Party is neither conservative nor liberal. Pence and his party represent radicalism, which is a movement to change the current order quickly, and with violence if necessary. Unlike conservatism and liberalism, radicalism is not a political outlook, or a process of sharing power through participation, but a movement to disrupt and seize power.

There are at least two kinds of radicalism. One kind of radicalism looks to the past, sees a Golden Age, and moves to disrupt the powers of the current order so that it can seize power to reestablish that Age. Another kind of radicalism looks to the future, sees the possibility of a Utopian Paradise, and moves to disrupt the powers of the current order so that it can seize power to usher in that Paradise. But those kinds of radicalism are not really looking to the past or the future; they are rooted in fantasy. There never was a Golden Age, and there never will be a Utopian Paradise. Both are illusions. (Other varieties of radicalism might include Christian Dominionism and radical Islam, neither of which is strictly about establishing a prior Golden Age or ushering in a Utopian Paradise. They might better be characterized as movements to establish the future glory of a past promise, something that never was, but ought to be.)

But because Golden Age radicalism seems to be backward looking, we tend to align it with conservatives. And because Utopian Paradise radicalism seems to be forward looking, we tend to align it with liberals. So we talk about “right-wing radicals” and “left-wing radicals.” Those are terms are misleading, though, because right-wing radicalism has very little in common with conservatism, and left-wing radicalism has very little in common with liberalism. (I have sometimes used the term “retrograde radicalism” to describe the Golden Age radicals in the modern Republican Party. The comparable term, by strict opposite, would be “anterograde radicalism.” But even fewer people still use “anterograde” than still use “retrograde.”)

The Republican Party is transforming into a movement of Golden Age radicalism because its adherents are seeking to disrupt established institutions (for example by shutting down the government or abolishing a bevy of agencies), to seize power from others (including women, people of color, people who are not a particular kind of Christian, and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender), and to do so quickly by violence if necessary (for example by deporting people, building a border wall, increasing police militarization, and advocating for open and concealed carry of firearms by citizens who are sympathetic to their aims). These are not political movements because they are not about a process of sharing power through participation, either in conservative institutions or in liberal democracy.

We have no significant radical movement in the United States based on a Utopian Paradise. The people who march mostly peacefully and cluster on trendy social media hashtags might seem radical, but they are generally just demanding that the people who control established institutions use them differently, and measure the popular will through more effective democratic procedures. Those people are still just liberals who feel desperate and disenfranchised. But if they continue feeling that way for too long, they will radicalize, too. It has happened before, for example with the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, the socialist movement of the early 20th century, and the civil rights movement of the middle 20th century.

The Golden Age radicals of the Republican Party would probably disagree. They appear to believe that they are not radicals, but late conservative defenders of a political order only recently overcome by Utopian Paradise radicals. A study of history should disabuse them of that view. The struggle to bring people of color into the circle of our politics is now centuries old. The struggle for women is about 175 years old. Even the gains of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are not just a recent arrival, but the results of almost half a century of open efforts now—and they have tracked with popular approval. Our strong federal government dates back 150 years to the end of the Civil War. Social Security is more than 75 years old. Medicare is more than 50 years old. We have experienced many, many waves of immigration coupled with violence—going all the way back to English colonists. None of these things is new.

Mike Pence is not a “conservative proudly out of sync with his times,” because being out of sync with your times is not compatible with being conservative. Only radicals are out of sync with their times. Being conservative means living deliberately in your times, as you received them from your predecessors, moving cautiously with attention to the wisdom of the past, and leaving the world a better place by whatever increment you can ethically and morally manage. The Republican Party has given up on that conservatism. The only conservative running for president in 2016 is Hillary Clinton, because she is the only one that explicitly advocates conserving the progress we have made while rejecting radical change. If you were looking for a liberal candidate, it was Bernie Sanders, who, although he advocated polices that might be characterized as “socialist,” was really just expressing the complaint that our government institutions are not sufficiently democratic by highlighting the disjunction between popular opinion and actual governmental outcomes.

Donald Trump, however, is just a power-hungry demagogue who is putting on as a Golden Age radical. He recognizes that there is an enormous part of our population that feels desperate and disenfranchised, but is either unwilling to channel those feelings into political processes or recognizes that they are popularly outnumbered and will not have their way unless they exit politics and radicalize.

But even after trying to cut through that mess of categories, and recognizing that the mess might be mostly a byproduct of language change, there are still real problems. Those problems are fueling the feelings of desperation and disenfranchisement that lots of different people are feeling.

I think we can identify the root causes of those problems pretty easily: globalization and climate change, which are not disconnected phenomena. Globalization has accelerated climate change, even as it suggests, for the first time in the history of our planet, the possibility that there might be truly global problems that demand truly global solutions—and we might not be up to the task.

Interestingly, the Golden Age radicals of the Republican Party deny both globalization and climate change, although in slightly different ways. They deny that climate change is happening at all, but their denial in connection with globalization subtler. What they deny is that a globalized economy should have any noticeable effect on our local—that is, national—economy. They want the benefits of “growth” through greater consumption by imperializing resources and outsourcing labor, but without the burdens of thinking about what that might mean for a domestic economy, or about how it affects climate change. The result is a domestic economy where a few control the movement of labor and resources in and out of the country to their own enormous financial benefit, but many, many people are left behind by disappearing jobs.

What we need are new ideas, new metaphors, new narratives, new categories, and new institutions to sustain us into a more humane globalized world where we can address all of our problems, including climate change, peacefully and effectively together. That is not a call for a Utopian Paradise, but a call to live deliberately in the world that we actually have, with all its problems, without slipping into radicalism, by learning from the past while listening to the voices of the present. Each of us needs to remain political, by whatever disposition, and work to maintain the participatory circle with eyes to the present, eyes to the past, and eyes to the future.

Donald Trump would not get us there. Hillary Clinton would probably help to prevent us from losing ground. But the only way for things to get better is for all of us to decide to live right here, right now, in sync with our times and all their troubles, without being tempted by the fantasies of the Golden Age or the Utopian Paradise.

(The picture at the top is the painting “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Bruegal the Elder.)

On the Passing of Justice Scalia

Portrait of Justice Scalia
Antonin Scalia possessed a muscular mind, a brilliant style, and, from what I can tell at a distance through his opinions and the news media, a fearsomely big personality. But especially in the last few years he deployed those qualities to code and conceal a retrograde morality with a brittle legal philosophy. The disjunctions revealed in that maneuver were stunning. As he insisted more and more fervently that his views were rooted in reason and principle, the cogency of his reason gave way to embarrassing outbursts of emotion, and the inconsistency of his principles betrayed the troublesome ideology that animated his work.

I am skeptical that the Supreme Court of the United States is a purely legal or purely political institution. As a constitutional court, it stands the uncertain ground between the two and mediates, much as the Legislature occupies its own liminal zone and mediates between war and politics. But while it is relatively easy to understand how the mediation of war and politics, or the sublimation of war into politics, might produce law, it is difficult to understand that the mediation of law and politics by a constitutional court can also produce more law. Maybe that is a moral mystery, or maybe it is just a misnomer. Either way, the justices are political persons—a unique, platypus-like species of the political genus, but political persons nonetheless—whether Antonin Scalia believed it or not.

And that means the deaths of these unique political persons are not just biological, familial, and social events, but political ones, too.

The death of Antonin Scalia is distinct from the passing of Justice Scalia. Mourn the death of the man and feel sorrow for those around him. (And I am sure the sorrowful include his fellow Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who could hardly be more different, politically.) But I cannot begrudge anyone exulting the passing of the Justice, because the political consequences of that event are real, and belong to us all.

Sunday Morning Thoughts


Here in a civilization that gives so much lip service to the presumption of innocence, it is surprising how often the word “criminal” is applied to supposed members of a vague class of people that have not been convicted of, or even committed, the crimes with which they are identified. (Why should more citizens carry guns? To deter “criminals” from invading their person or property, of course. Except the people that are deterred, by definition, have not committed those crimes. Something else is lurking in the recommendation to arm.)


It ought to be significant that our Declaration of Independence names a right to pursue happiness, and not a right to retreat from fear.


Most people are just trying to get through life to a place of belonging. Nobody should be surprised that people outside of—or excluded from—our systems of mutual benefit feel compelled to scratch their way through by means that those of us within those systems happen to find—or cannot help but find—offensive.

Space, Time & Appearances 

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by J.M.D. Meiklejohn (Prometheus Books 1990), page 42.

That is, and perhaps counterintutively, if space and time are real in themselves, despite being unobservable except through other things, and necessary for those other things to exist, then of course we would slip into idealism and say that everything is a “mere” appearance. Which means, of course, that if things are real, then space and time must only be relations between those things.

Undisguised Interests

“It is only a very vulgar historical materialism that denies the power of ideas, and says that ideals are mere material interests in disguise,” says Isaiah Berlin, in “Two Concepts of Liberty.”

Yes, but some purported ideals really are just material interests in disguise; they are “ideals” or “worldviews” deployed to capture the attention of critics while unexamined values slip silently through a side door. The better ideas are the ones that present with values in full view, so that nobody is able to forget what they are discussing—which is almost always the extent to which we are responsible for the good lives of others.
Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Numbers Only Measure What You Count

In all the tussle over the minimum wage and how it will affect the employment rate, there’s a surfeit of theory and a dearth of data. Maybe the new minimum wage laws in various cities will fix that problem.

Velazquez - The LunchBut speaking of theory, the employment rate isn’t the only number in play. For example, there’s also the income distribution curve, and the curve representing the propensity to spend or consume. If you’re at the low end of the income distribution, you almost certainly have a propensity—a need, really—to spend almost everything you earn, maybe more. If you’re at the high end of the income distribution, you probably have a propensity to spend a much lower proportion of your earnings; instead you’ll save or invest most of what you earn. Is there anybody left in the middle? You could have full employment with a few people earning almost everything and most people earning almost nothing. But what good is that? Odds are you’ll just end up with a revolt and exodus, or maybe a civil war, right? At the other extreme, you’d probably get the same result if you completely untethered effort and reward.

Prices are another number. They depend partly on what people are willing to pay and partly on what people are willing to receive. They also depend on things like the disparity of information between buyer and seller (whether voluntary or not), the raw fear of uncertainty if a deal isn’t done, built-in cognitive biases that distort perceptions of gains and losses, and the willingness to make economic demands on other people without assuming corresponding moral obligations for yourself.

You could say that all of those numbers affect each other in complex ways. But that’s not really true. The numbers aren’t interacting; people are. The numbers and equations are just tools to help people think about the consequences of their actions. (Too bad most of us are terrible at thinking in numbers and equations.) And that shouldn’t be surprising, given that economics grew up out of moral philosophy. The problem is not what we can do to ensure that our economy is humming along with the best possible numbers—because there is no guarantee that the economy with the best numbers will necessarily coincide with the happiest group of people—the problem is how to live well together.

I doubt that changing a single numerical parameter of our economy, like the minimum wage, is going to fix many problems all by itself. That seems to me like telling people not to use racial epithets, and then just hoping that racism will go away. There’s probably more work to do, if that’s the goal. But I also doubt that using economic ideas to atomize human society into a cloud of rational, self-interested actors is going to yield a just and happy world where morality is offloaded into mathematical constructs so that nobody has to worry about anybody else. The purpose of experimenting, gathering data, and formulating theories is to enable us to amplify our concern for each other, not to eliminate that concern.

So I hope that, if nothing else, the minimum wage experiments around the country will prompt people to think about each other as people, instead of just competitors, or costs, or consumers. Numbers are helpful, but they only measure the things we bother to count.

On Making and Perpetuating Our Own Problems

“[N]obody feels as much like a nobody as an immigrant does. And you can engage with a great power like the United States simply by throwing a bomb. You can declare war on the United States. And the amazing thing about it is that the United States will accept the declaration of war. We respond to terrorism by treating it not as a crime, but by treating it as war. So someone like Tamerlan [Tsarnaev], who feels small and insignificant, can suddenly claim a sense of belonging to a great, big effort—and a place in history.”

Masha Gessen, Interview with David Greene on NPR.

On Exemptions to Laws for “Religious” Reasons

If everybody were allowed conscience exemptions from ordinary general laws, then exemptions would make sense—but we might as well give up any pretense to the rule of law.

When people are only allowed exemptions to ordinary general laws for “religious” reasons, then either we’re already halfway down the road to giving up the pretense of the rule of law, or we are nakedly giving some people special privileges because they present their moral judgments, and express their moral sentiments, in “religious” terms.

Maybe giving some people that special privilege of exemption is a way of ensuring that only “religious” people have the full array of choices as citizens, while people whose moral sentiment and judgment operate on other terms have some lesser standing within the law.

Or maybe allowing the special privilege of exemption from ordinary general laws disincentivizes the holders of that privilege from engaging, in their capacity as citizens, with the process of shaping public policy. Why bother to express your preferences in the public sphere when you have the privilege of enacting them individually, and without legal consequence, on your own?

There might be some middle ground, by which reasonable exemptions may be granted for reasons that do not require classifying people according to the terms and methods of their morality, and so that exemptions are rare enough that nobody worries about how they affect the integrity of the rule of law. But I have never heard an argument for such a system. Until I do, my lot stays with the opponents of exemptions.


“The activity of thinking is as relentless and repetitive as life itself, and the question whether thought has any meaning at all constitutes the same unanswerable riddle as the question for the meaning of life; its processes permeate the whole of human experience so intimately that its beginning and end coincide with the beginning and end of human life itself.”

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1998) page 171.