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April 12, 2008

More on the Progressive Creed

By: Bernard Chazelle

Work and travel have gotten in the way of blogging. I could tell you some nifty new developments about "natural algorithms" but I suspect that's not why you come here. You come here to read witty, pithy, blood-curdling prose. Not this post. I'll give a collective reply to the comments readers kindly posted about my essay.

First, let's not get hung up about the words progressive, fraternity, citizenship, and patriotism.
I don't like them much either. They are ambiguous and codewords for things I loathe. But one can interpret them in ways that convey important ideas.

Progressive is condescending (presumably the opposite of a progressive is someone who wants to go back to dentistry without novocaine). Liberal is confusing -- in Europe it means the exact opposite.

Fraternity answers the question "Why should I bother?" It has to do with meaning.
Liberty, equality, fraternity might grate on postmodern ears but the mouths connected to those ears have yet to offer 3 words that better describe what political philosophy is all about.

Citizenship is the link between participating and belonging: you're not on a team if you don't get to play. How you define community is where you deal with exclusivity. Citizenship, as understood here, is not about drawing boundaries: it's about empowerment within the community.

Patriotism addresses the issue of collective self-respect. It explains why people will seek a decent society even if they don't derive any direct benefits from it. You may remember the Greeks in 1999 glowing with pride when they dispatched their rescue units to Turkey (the arch-enemy) after the earthquake there. Flag-waving patriotism is looking out and saying "mine is bigger than yours"; the patriotism I am talking about is the satisfaction of this one fleeting moment when the larger community you identify with aligns with your self-respect. (Sports victories -- and I include wars in that category -- are hollow simulacrum of self-respect if you will.)

90% of the posts on this blog address the issue of patriotism. The outrage of John Yoo is not simply that he's a scumbag. It's that I paid his salary. He spoke in my name. He worked for my government. If I go to Sweden and the locals scream "John Yoo" in my face, I cannot pretend I am not related. I am. Although I never voted for Bush and I never missed a chance to trash his name, I have to answer for Bush's and John Yoo's actions in the same way all Germans had to answer for Hitler's. Self-respect is one side of the coin. The other side is shame.

Some will say, shouldn't we be more ambitious and consider being citizens of the world as the only patriotism worth examining? We could, but this wouldn't be ambitious: it would be a cop-out.
I feel little responsibility for a mad dictator in a country I've never heard of. I might feel bad as a fellow human being for the depravity of my kind. But if I hear the CIA propped him up, then I become responsible. People who refused to connect the CIA's actions to their patriotism are simply deluding themselves about the meaning of words.

Re. the essay, I hope people will want to go through a similar exercise and try to answer for themselves: What do I believe in? What are my priorities? What tradeoffs am I willing to make? One benefit of the exercise is to realize that the answers are not self-evident. Much of the right's success since Buckley graduated from Stutts is owed to the fact that those jerks never took the answers and
their justifications for granted. People on the left believe they agree on the most important issues: they don't. They think they do because the proposition is never put to the test.
My point is that it's not enough to know what you don't want (and outrage is good for that),
but you must also know what you want, which is much tougher.

I'll take 2 examples from the essay. One is the unconditionality of welfare. I bet I am in the minority among lefties in my view that Clinton-style welfare reform is unacceptable on philosophical grounds: ie, I reject any policy that limits state help to those who help themselves. I do so because (1) it's none of the state's business to pass moral judgments; (2) it's the job of citizens to ask if the state is good enough for them: it's not the job of the state to ask if its citizens are good enough for it.

Another controversial item in the essay is the issue of justice vs security. This country has always privileged security over justice (some will say that, as a result, it got neither).
The argument against the death penalty or against excessive prison sentencing should not be
whether these are ineffective measures to protect innocent people.
Progressives should be against them even if they could be proven to save innocent lives. Again, I bet that a majority of people "on the left" would disagree with me. Why aren't these issues ever discussed on the left? These are the issues that define societies.

Some will say: "we're fucked anyway, so why bother?" (No one reading this blog, of course...)
My problem with this is, Who is "we" ? Only the least fucked have the luxury of negativity.
The more fucked, well, you know, they have to eat. Also, I find it a peculiar form of arrogance to
precondition one's actions on the assurance that they will be effective. I'd go even further. Hope should not even be a prerequisite for action. For example, everyone called the antiwar demos in '03 a failure. Yes, they failed to stop the war but they galvanized the world against Bush and what he represents, and they may turn out to have been one more nail in the coffin of imperialism. No one knows for sure. Social movements are not ping pong matches with some ref keeping score.

I like Rawls, too. The man was a giant of 20th c political philosophy, but his impact in the real world has been negligible. Even in the judicial realm, the guy who wrote the book on Justice has had
virtually no influence on American jurisprudence. (Does this contradict my previous paragraph? No.) But it didn't need to be so. Rawls was more interested in solving puzzles against Nozick than to be influential in the world at large. That's a pity but that was his choice. On the other hand, Foucault (a deeply original thinker, despite the caricature and some of the idiotic pronouncements he made about Iran) can be credited as much as anyone for the end of capital punishment in France. Not bad for a philosopher who died of AIDS when he was only 57. In this country, if the death penalty is ever abolished, the credit will go to Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun.

And if the world is saved, the credit will go to me. But there I go again, stating the obvious.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at April 12, 2008 10:38 AM

Mr. Chazelle, re your "unconditionality of welfare" argument above. It reminds me of McCain's recent statement that "well-meaning and deserving" homeowners who are in over their heads must be helped to renegotiate their mortgages. So, this presumes many of the people in trouble are not "well-meaning and deserving." Who, one asks, is to make that determination, and based upon what criteria? Who, one might further ask, has the f--king right to make that determination? (Well, the richies who took on one extra mansion -those folks can go pound sand, but you know what I mean.)

Thanks for your writing. It's always welcome, always. Catherine

Posted by: catherine at April 12, 2008 01:40 PM

"Hope," typically, results when the individual feels her/himself in the grip of events or conditions which limit or eliminate their own possibilities for agency.

I hope no big fucking semi swerves uncontrollably across the pathetically narrow gap between the lanes of speeding, on-coming traffic...i don't 'hope' it every moment; only when i am reminded of it. Cuz there's no fucking thing I could do about it if it happened.

...I don't hope I'm gonna have another drink...That's within my control. I have scotch, ice, a glass, and a thirst. ipso facto...

I don't 'hope' I'm gonna draw another breath... (unless i'm caught inside, without my board, with 20' clean-out sets rolling through every three minutes--which happened to me at Rincon one time).

I don't hope I won't be the only target on the barricades. I just won't go unless I'm not gonna be the only one the cops can shoot at. i doubt i have the courage to be the guy in the white shirt standing in front of the file of tanks.

I am a big fan of Rawls' Theory of Justice. It probably effected my long-term thinking on 'active' ethics more than any other book except, probably, Foucault's Discipline & Punish, and Kincaid's A Small Place. (Aside: Did you ever listen to the conversations between Foucault and Chomsky. They're on YouTube, and they're fascinating.)

The most important point you make is that BECAUSE we USers make such a public display of our 'democracy,' every one of us is equally complicit in the deeds of the people who do get 'elected' to act in our names. "I didn't vote for X, so it's not my responsibility" is equally false and self-serving as a White male claiming because his ancestors didn't have slaves, he bears no responsibility for consequences of the racial oppression of people of color.

Posted by: konopelli/wgg at April 12, 2008 01:54 PM

One of the things I liked about your previous essay is that it rejected the Typical White Male Leftie obsession with blaming identity politics for the fragmentation of the left, where identity politics is defined as paying attention to the problems of people who are not white male able-bodied leftists.

Posted by: Sajia Kabir at April 12, 2008 02:34 PM

Your complete rejection of the Clinton-era welfare "reform" on philosophical as well as practical grounds may not be as much of a minority position among lefties as you think. I share it.

The collapsing economy is bringing the practical effects of the "reform" home to such an extent that some of your fellow left-wingers who opposed it in the '90s on pragmatic rather than philosophical grounds may be more open to your p.o.v. now.

Posted by: Nell at April 12, 2008 04:21 PM

Well said, Sajia. Those pesky minorities, always whining, when instead the left could be united in providing every middle class family with that third car they so richly deserve. I guess the black man should apologize to the white man, too, for making him feel bad about himself for enslaving his ancestors. Remember Golda Meir wondering if Israelis will ever be able to "forgive the Arabs for forcing them to kill their children."
The victim is always guilty.

Or rather, as Catherine alluded to, the losers always deserve their fate. The underlying logic is that the game is fair, so losers deserve to lose and society needs only to make sure that it rewards winners.
And to tell you how fair the game is, if you lose your house because of poor judgment then it's off to tent city for you, but if you lose one of the world's largest investment banks then you're punished with a 100-million dollar booby prize.
That's how fair it is.

Yes I caught the C-F debate on YouTube a while ago. Fascinating and the language is so accessible. What a contrast with the nasty Chomsky-Buckley encounter.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at April 12, 2008 05:20 PM

I view IMPEACHMENT in a favorably pragmatic light, radically progressive yet conservative to the point of being reactionary, completely patriotic, addressing liberty, freedom, and equality along the lines of AMERICAN Citizenship while embracing the fraternity of man in these postmodern times. (1-202-225-0100)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at April 12, 2008 05:33 PM

One of the ways we could address the above-mentioned fragmentation is by emphasizing how fluid our little subgroups' boundaries are. Anybody, given enough alcohol, is in danger of being mentally disabled. Favored races and cultures go in and out of fashion; as soon as the white French kill enough brown French they'll redeem themselves in the eyes of Bushites. The question is not whether we (polyamorous bisexuals, hijab-wearing Muslim women, congenitally deaf people, aboriginal traditionalists) can assimilate, the question is why the folkways of Middle America get defined as mainstream. You raise me FGM and I'll raise you rape porn.

Posted by: Sajia Kabir at April 12, 2008 06:32 PM

And while we're on the subject of invading countries to save their women - the Netherlands has legalized the sex trade, with mixed results. Sweden has criminalized the buying but not the selling of sex. I don't see Swedish politicians and media people calling for an invasion of the Netherlands on the grounds that their way of dealing with the oppression of a significant portion of women is so much superior and needs to be spread via machine gun ASAP.

Posted by: Sajia Kabir at April 12, 2008 06:38 PM

Maybe this is a bit off topic, but I think some of the above mischaracterizes some of the critique of identity politics.

For my part, I tire of people telling me that Obama and Hillary Clinton represent historically significant milestones for race and gender when the actual policies they stand for are the usual corporatist, centrist fodder. But I'm expected by many in the democratic party to suspend critical thought and stare at both of them with drooling wonderment. I realize that neither Bernard Chazelle nor Sajia have said this, but you seem to suggest that being put off by identity politics is inherently narrow-minded.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at April 12, 2008 08:32 PM

Jonathan V: I am put off by politicians who use identity politics as a ploy to attract votes. Clinton, our first "black" president, was also one of the worst presidents for African-Americans.

I am also quite leery of the word multiculturalism from the mouths of politicians, since it is often codeword for neglect.

In my essay I didn't refer to identity politics but to the preferential treatment that victimized groups should get. I was responding to Tomasky's well-received injunction that victimized minorities should not be listened to until they can prove that their special interests fit within the common good. This is quite an amazing statement. So perhaps Rosa Parks should have had to explain why the white majority would benefit from her right to sit at the front of the bus.

The white majority did benefit from that, and in fact justice is universal and I cannot think of a single worthy group interest that would not benefit society as a whole. However, it was not incumbent upon Rosa Parks to make the case.

I also believe that racism is the root of social dysfunction in this country.
White flight is not a figment of a scholar's fertile imagination. Local school funding is still the biggest engine of segregation in America.

Do blacks have a special claim on the collectivity for the harm they've received? Absolutely.

Now I had to say that, but I realize I am not addressing your point.

I will now. Glenn Loury, as you may know, worries about an Obama presidency because it will snuff out the legitimacy of black grievances: "Hey, you've got one of your guys in the White House, leave me alone: obviously racism is a thing of the past." I couldn't quite wrap my head around Loury's weakly-argued support for Hillary but now it makes sense.

Loury's point, however, is counterbalanced by the fact that, for black kids growing up in America, knowing that the guy in the WH is on your team is a big deal. I know it may sound patronizing to say that but it's also the reality.

The symbolism of a female president with Hillary is, for me, a joke. Hillary is competent enough to be president (Big deal! It's not that hard to be president). However, her symbolism would be that a woman cannot make it on her own. She'd be Bhutto, not Merkel or Thatcher or Bachelet. She would set the worst example for women.

Policy-wise, the womanhood of Hillary or skin color of Obama would almost certainly be irrelevant. As you say, their campaigns make it clear.

Since presidents don't do much good, anyway, people turn to symbols and I agree with you that it can get quickly tiresome.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at April 12, 2008 09:49 PM

I tire of people telling me that Obama and Hillary Clinton represent historically significant milestones for race and gender when the actual policies they stand for are the usual corporatist, centrist fodder.

aye there's the irony, innit? Two avatars of traditionally disempowered constituencies squabbling over Massa's (apparent) leavings, and neither of 'em actively advocates of the 'identity politics' to which their 'identity' assigns them.

Who says neo-colonialism can't be fun?

Posted by: konopelli/wgg at April 12, 2008 10:48 PM

Hello, Bernard.

You say:
...racism is the root of social dysfunction in this country.

I see racism as more of a mask for classism.

As for:'s none of the state's business to pass moral judgments
Indeed it is. We do it all the time, in both civil and criminal law.

As for justice vs. security, what security can there be when there is no justice?

Still, I'm wondering about the emphasis on patriotism. This appears to be the defining characteristic of your paper.
To approach the issue from another angle, we can say that, perhaps, this sense of civic duty and pride is being held in check by ... ? What?
Could it be that Americans are overly competive with one another? Untrusting of each other, perhaps? Disenfranchisement?
Having identified the lack, it follows that some reason (good or bad) must necessarily exist for such a thing.

Posted by: Progressive Traditionalist at April 13, 2008 04:25 AM

PT: You're right. I meant to say it's none of the state's business to pass moral judgments in order to grant citizenship. Another example is the disenfranchisement of felons.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at April 13, 2008 09:57 AM

Sajia writes: The question is not whether we (polyamorous bisexuals, hijab-wearing Muslim women, congenitally deaf people, aboriginal traditionalists) can assimilate, the question is why the folkways of Middle America get defined as mainstream. You raise me FGM and I'll raise you rape porn.

Hmm. But is that really the question? I mean, it might become the question if the subject is a prospective 'humanitarian' invasion, but is that the real central issue of what gets called "identity politics"?

I don't think identity politics is necessarily about what gets defined as mainstream; it seems obvious to me that the majority will get defined as mainstream in a just society. If I had to define "identity politics" I'd say it's the struggle to get equal rights for people who have physical attributes/personal behaviors/beliefs that mark them as non-mainstream.

I think the "unconditionality of welfare" argument needs to be made MUCH more often, and much more loudly: whenever I start saying anything like that to people in real life, they give me this blank stare like I'm saying something they've never even heard of. I don't think it's occurred to most Americans that basic survival isn't something you should have to work for in civilized society.

Posted by: LadyVetinari at April 13, 2008 10:45 AM

Going back to the original essay, this sentence struck a chord with me:

As the reality of a multipolar world sinks in, America has a golden opportunity to shed its exceptionalism and become a normal, decent society.

"Normal, decent society" seems like such a modest goal, and yet also seems completely unattainable in America today. And why? If "normal decent society" isn't beyond the reach of European countries, why is it beyond our reach?

The answer to that question isn't found in the lack of a progressive creed, however necessary that is, but in the power structures of our society.

Take health care as an example. In 1940's Britain, a country bankrupted by war, with a health care system teetering on the brink of total collapse, simply elucidating the goal of health care for all took you a good part of the way towards achieving that goal.

But the US missed that moment of opportunity, and in the intervening 60 years, health care has become the most profitable sector of our economy, and powerful insurance, pharmaceutical and for-profit hospital interests have grown, and now have an effective veto on any health care reform plan.

My point is that Americans need to be more radical in our outlook than Europeans, simply to achieve the same things that they already take for granted. What could be done in Britain 60 years ago with a well-written white paper requires a revolution here in the US.

So a progressive creed is a start, but we need to go far beyond what we believe and want, to an understanding of who prevents us from getting what we want. This seems like almost an obvious point, but how many candidates for office have you seen take this obvious step?

Posted by: SteveB at April 13, 2008 11:16 AM

I remember reading somewhere that the farming population (or the rural population, even) forms a relatively low percentage of the US population, yet so much political action is taken in its name. And considering the globalized nature of the world, it seems inequitable to have universal standards of human rights defer to Middle American sensibilities - not in the sense that it's ok to stone sexual transgressors, but precisely in the sense that abortion, queer unions, outfits that don't come from the American Apparel catalogue, all these are at least tolerated, whether or not they fit into the next consumer craze.

Posted by: Sajia Kabir at April 13, 2008 12:17 PM

It's none of the state's business to decide if its citizens are allowed the resources necessary to belong on the basis of morality. But it's so entrenched here that even Democrats go along with disenfranchising felons (even though it might assure them a permanent majority in Congress).

The state is there to implement a democratically accepted notion of justice, not to impose its parochial view of what an individual's moral actions ought to be.

Sajia's brings up the contingency of such thinking. A Chinese dissident spends two years in jail for publishing an anti-government newspaper; an American anti-war activist spends two years in jail for climbing over the fence of a military nuclear facility.
The first action is that of a totalitarian state; the second is that of a democracy protecting its laws. That's how most Americans would look at it, anyway. Good luck to anyone trying to spot a universal principle of justice in that position.

Re the antiwar demo, I was not thinking about Americans. This country loves wars and its military -- almost, but not quite, as much as its pocketbooks. This is the titanic battle unfolding one: ass-kicking vs pocketbooks.

I was thinking about the rest of the world. Iraq has given war a very bad name and antiwar voices played a role. Maybe one day America will leave the 19th c, skip over the 20th, and join the rest of the world in the 21st.

But judging from the fact that the more firmly entrenched in the 19th century US commentators are the faster they get promoted I am not hopeful.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at April 13, 2008 03:29 PM

>> they knew of no specific crimes

Brings back memories of the immortal Dr Strangelove:
"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here, this is the war room!"

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at April 13, 2008 04:22 PM

To play devil's advocate: an American might respond that the American antiwar activist has an open political process that she can use to change the laws she disagrees with, if she manages to convince enough of her neighbors, whereas the Chinese dissident does not.

That's why I think any attempt to make real change in America must involve showing people how hollow our "democracy" really is--the gap between theory and practice is very wide, but most people don't know just how wide, and this ignorance leads them to excuse a lot.

Though, actually, I don't think universal human rights standards are based on Middle American sensibilities. People who articulate those standards will usually include things like a right to birth control, equal rights for gays, prohibition of the death penalty, standards for humane prisons, and rights for children to protect them against child abuse--all of which the U.S. refuses to accept precisely because Middle America wouldn't like it. The problem is that we in the States don't engage in critical self-examination when we hear about these discrepancies between American law and global human rights standards, which we seldom hear about anyway.

Posted by: LadyVetinari at April 13, 2008 04:54 PM

Brings back memories of the immortal Dr Strangelove:
"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here, this is the war room!"

I believe that was President Muffley, not Dr. Strangelove.

Unless by 'Dr Strangelove' you meant the movie itself, in which case the nitpicking doesn't apply.

Posted by: Nell at April 13, 2008 10:05 PM

The more I read this discussion, the more I realize the need for anarchy(not chaos, for you smart-assed conservatives posing on this site as progressives). We have all of us, failed and there is NO "do-over". Period. Grow up and face it, for the love of science.

Good Night ;)

Posted by: at April 15, 2008 12:55 AM