These things have nothing in common. Yet I talked about each of them in a single Bloggingheads episode with Conor Friedersdorf.
These things have nothing in common. Yet I talked about each of them in a single Bloggingheads episode with Conor Friedersdorf.
The week’s column at The Daily Caller:
The awkward choices confronting many American denominations help reveal the same thing as do our nationwide struggles for adequate teaching and learning. Americans have formed an unintentional cultural conspiracy against healthy bodily discipline — a skillful practice that, if popularized and made habitual at an early age, can revolutionize the way we educate ourselves and our children.
In just a generation or two — a blip on the timeline of civilizations — such an approach would reap big benefits at the level of our entire civilization. We have known for years that physical exertion has positive emotional consequences. We also now know, thanks to researchers at the University of Illinois, that children’s physical exercise contributes significantly to increasing the size and interactivity of the parts of their brain that facilitate complex thinking. Our current attitude toward physical education, however, expresses some of the same cultural defeatism which constantly reinforces our sense that strict discipline of kids is bad, impossible or both. There’s nothing wrong with running, jumping and playing sports, but there’s plenty wrong with leaving it there.
At the heart of healthy physical discipline is an emphasis on stillness as well as motion, including the “active rest” of mind and body. Mere exercise — whether in the gym or on the field — doesn’t teach the critical physical skill of adjusting one’s consciousness to tune out the din of the world. It certainly doesn’t foster a reflective experience of the rewards that practice can bring.
Alyona-ing. I come in at 38:36.
Rich Yeselson has written the best critique of my recent columns on the impact on the culture wars of America’s disagreements about nature, women, and choice. But in one important way — the one that matters the most — my argument is different from what Rich takes it to be. Here are his key passages:
“what [women] are for”, as he argues in the second essay [...] is to civilize those who “fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.” That would be men.
[...] in Poulos’s inadvertent and confused telling, nature must trump history and the inequality between the sexes becomes a comprehensive and final one, the one that establishes “women’s choices about how to live” once and for all. How could it not? The inequality is linked to women’s connection to the natural world, and that connection–again, their wombs–is trans-historical. Poulos has ushered women to their final destination for all time and place. Is this the end of history? For women, it must be. Even as Poulos inflates women’s “purpose,” he degrades their humanity.
In fact, what I argue is that women are naturally endowed with a certain kind of power — fertility — that allows them, if they choose, to speak with an important degree of authority to the limits and dangers of objectifying and instrumentalizing practices that historically have been closely associated with male fantasies and desires. I don’t want to make that choice obligatory. I don’t want the laws to compel that choice. I want it merely to continue to exist as a choice. And I want the insight animating it not to be outlawed or suppressed.
It is one thing — not my thing — to argue that women are under some kind of biological, cultural, or political obligation to make that choice. It is quite another to argue, as I have done from the outset, that women can make this choice, and that it’s a choice that can be made without self-enlistment into (unjust, oppressive, etc.) inequality.
Far too many readers have assumed that because I think contempt for my argument augurs the destruction of social conservatism that I must be a social conservative myself. In fact, because my argument is far more modest and circumspect than the social conservative argument — which, as Rick Santorm shows, contains very robust claims about what women are for — my point is that if my argument meets such venemous, vehement hostility, then the social conservative arguments of Catholics and others face what strikes me as an almost incalculable amount of public fury and hate. If the culture wars continue with that ferocity, America will be damaged, and Mitch Daniels’ idea of a “truce,” naive or not, will take on a lot more credibility in hindsight than it has now.
I disagree with the social conservatives about the wisdom or necessity of enforcing their judgments on nature, women, and choice. The prima facie case against them is that America simply won’t tolerate it. The deeper case is that it’s impossible to enforce those judgments without striking an unacceptable blow against human liberty — the same human liberty that would be unacceptably damaged by enforcing the view that the powerful capabilities of the female body do not give women the opportunity to choose to speak with a particular degree of authority about objectivizing, instrumentalizing, and totalizing sociopolitical projects. Enforcing that view would “degrade women’s humanity,” as Rich puts it, as well as men’s.
Rich is wrong that I think nature must and should trump history. He is wrong that I want or describe a comprehensive, final inequality between the sexes. I certainly do not think that history should — or can — comprehensively or completely trump nature. Nature and history can’t live without each other.
I had (wrongly) guessed that these judgments would come through more clearly than they did in columns where I emphasized repeatedly that the abandonment of any enforced consensus about what women are for might well mark a great leap forward in civilization. And I say might in the same spirit as Nietzsche did when he warned how badly, from the standpoint of political stability and durability (“a first-rate value on Earth”), the truth can hurt. Huge steps forward in progress — and here I think again, as Strauss did, of how radically Christianity proposes to liberate all individuals from their natural bodies — may well be destructive to peace and harmony, may well create painfully divisive ordeals that last decades, or centuries, or thousands of years. Certainly the history of the West suggests that ‘Western civilization’ has been in the grip of ordeals like this for a very long time. That might be all well and good from the long-term vantage of human development, but from the shorter-term perspective of American politics, it looks more like a disaster in the making: the culture wars, as I said, pit two groups of people against one another who really think of one another as more than enemies — as enemies of civilization itself.
Hopefully, in reading this, Rich will stop being so depressed about my views. Wollstonecraft sounds great to me, especially on the point about allowing people to take on the enjoyment and punishment of being exceptions to general rules; my parting word would be that I take my argument to be in favor of several of a number of things for a reasonable creature to think and do.
The common thread? They’re all topics of conversation on this episode of The Point, a YouTube/Young Turks joint. If you appreciate free enterprise, Eugene McCarthy, or Joan Jett — though I also (alone!) defend Tim Geithner — you might want to watch this one all the way to the end.
I’ve been plagued by Noah Millman’s recent accusation that national security is now a conceptual tentpole for Republican identity politics. “Foreign policy,” he writes,
is now basically a branch of the culture war: a way of convincing the white working class to support a party that is not pursuing their economic interests by flattering them with the implication that, in the memorable words of Edward Wilson, they’ve got the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.
This ungenerous but plausible account adds to a string of important musings, kicked off by Julian Sanchez, on the capture or near-capture of a certain kind of movement conservatism by the political performance of shared selfhood that once seemed to belong entirely to the contemporary left. A few days ago Reihan Salam contributed to the conversation, in typically intriguing fashion, with a long post on symbolic exclusion and the politics of taste.
Reihan gives us several points of entry into the dual problem of conservative identity politics and the mistaken judgment that conservative identity politics is best understood as just another species of the identity politics genus. Reihan’s remarks revolve around the claim that “disagreements flow from heterogeneity in tastes and preferences, e.g., basic disagreements regarding the meaning and implications of fairness.” It’s useful to remember that this is true even within political groupings. (Partisans of the view espoused by John Rawls sometimes act like ‘justice as fairness’ is better measured legislatively, by the act of redistribution, than judicially, by the act of caring.) Disagreements across groupings, however, seem to be the primary concern of those painting contemporary conservatism with the identity-political brush. In fact, their primary concern is to establish that conservatives have fallen in for identity politics (because, e.g., without it, their political project can’t muster popular support adequate to preserve the power position of party and movement elites). If they were really moved to understand political disagreement across identity groups, however, critics of movement conservatism would spend substantially more time shifting their inquiry to consider what it is that identity politics in general, and its conservative variant(s) in particular, are conceptual alternatives to.
As Joshua Mitchell has argued, identity politics
may not immediately seem to oppose Madisonian pluralism, but it bears no family resemblance to it, and that fact itself is telling. Madisonian pluralism emerges out of the Anglo-American tradition; ‘identity politics’ is of Continental origin and can trace its proximal roots to Hegel’s claim that in the course of the march of world history, Absolute Knowledge subsumes all ‘difference’ (Plato’s Fable p. 5).
This insight yields the following argument: Identity politics is an alternative to Hegel’s appropriation, “purportedly on the higher ground of philosophical thought,” of the “final unification that Christianity proffers” (p. 6). It is “not an exaggeration to say that ‘identity politics’ is the response of the Hegelian Left to the notion that difference is subsumed by the Absolute. [...] Difference can never be subsumed; identity remains intransigently self-same” (id). Critically to contemporary American politics, identity politics “supposes not only difference, which pluralism acknowledges, but also difference of a sort that is not mediable through the scalar calculus of preference [...] identity is not a preference. Preferences, because scalar, can be quantified; ‘identity’ must be qualified” (id).
Left progressivism, properly understood, demands the earthly unity that, as Tocqueville observed, individuals long to experience above all in a democratic age. But it denies the experience of difference that democrats stubbornly demand too. The result is an ongoing liberal struggle to accommodate to the politics of the expansion of the all-subsuming Hegelian State the ever-more ceremonial politics of according official recognition to identity groups (who themselves only recognize the recognition of the State as authoritative!). In theory, this two-pronged process has a certain logical appeal; but in practice, as the limits of liberal progressivisim under Obama seem to indicate, its painful contradictions cannot be suppressed, nor its real-world disappointments forever concealed behind the drapery of political theater.
Underscoring the leftist roots of identity politics is important, albeit in a limited way, to understanding what’s happening on the right. Even if the presence of some particularly unreflective conservative imitators of the leftist pattern is freely stipulated, what should already be evident is that the confluence of identity and politics on the right does not fit the pattern produced on the left in Hegel’s wake. For conservatives reject all three of (1) the ultimate unity promised by the philosophy of the State; (2) the investiture of all meaning in earthly identity and difference; and (3) the compromise principle that diversity is the source of political rights. What is caricatured by the left as a copycat conversion of rural Christian whiteness into a political identity is in fact something both more and less.
“On the one hand,” as Mitchell puts it, “there is the demand to level all difference; on the other hand there is the wish to retain difference in the face of the democratization of the world. The first aspect produces the affliction of envy; the second, the promulgation of difference that manages to maintain distance” (The Fragility of Freedom p. 183). Tocqueville’s proposition, notes Mitchell, is that “Christianity can ameliorate but never wholly arrest both of these intransigent problems, and that democracy requires this palliative in order to avert these twin perils” (id). In the space of this blog post, more important than the particulars of Tocqueville’s political theology is the fact that, for many conservatives, his is a scandalous claim. For many on the right, identity is a preference — or, rather, our preferences are our identities. Mockery of ‘Real America’ conservatives as identity-political goons is often a pastime of critics of liberalism unwilling to follow Tocqueville in taking Christianity seriously as something categorically other than a political identity — as a deep conceptual alternative to the left’s would-be solutions to the problem of political authority in a democratic age. In addition to the three items listed above, conservatives accused of identity politics also reject the contention most popular on the right that all differences can actually be subsumed — that is, made interchangeable — by the Market and not the State. It is of huge importance that this disagreement not be caricatured as ‘Conservatives vs. Libertarians’. Barry Goldwater, one of the most prominently libertarian Republicans, dismissed the reduction of all human interests to material ones as the central myth of the command-and-control left. Corporatist Republicans, meanwhile, often share stereotypically libertarian views about the supremacy of the market. Indeed, Ron Paul and his popularity should be proof enough of the point.
What’s more, Christianity is not the only source to which conservatives turn to ameliorate the problems of difference in a democratic age. In addition to the biblical tradition of forbearance, conservatives avail themselves of the classical tradition of honor and the neo-classical tradition of virtu (understood, as J.G.A. Pocock argues, to mean that bearing the burden of armed independence is the best defense against decadence and corruption). These things, more than the allure of identity politics, must be borne in mind when diagnosing the forbearance (and more) of conservatives with regard to the global militarism and maximum-security nationalism that have become unquestioned doctrine for much of the establishment right.
If the left is indeed the aggressor in the culture wars, the defining tactic of that protracted conflict should be recognized as the conceptual transformation of all combatants into commensurate units of analysis. That might not resolve the conservative predicament, but it may well ameliorate it.
And welcome. The Thanksgiving holiday is as good a time as any to introduce a new my-name-dot-com site into the world. But why this one?
If you’re like me, you’re susceptible to the uncanny sensation that, taken together, the internet’s aggregators, in all their splendor, are…well…disaggregating you.
If you’re not like me, you think that’s pretty cool. But if you are like me, you want it both ways: maximum diffusion, and some way of putting it all together simultaneously, a cherry on top of the perpetually already mostly-consumed banana split.
So at jamespoulos.com you will get access to the stuff I do that’s scattered hither and yon, and you’ll also get some original content you can’t find anywhere else. And if you’re anything like me, that kind of arrangement leaves you pretty…content.
Thanks for reading, watching, hearing, and caring.