I apologize that this post has little to do with right-now stuff. There’s a lot of right-now stuff happening, and maybe we need some respite.
This actually links into the Bob Massie discussion, and why I got the feeling that he comes from a place I think I understand. He’s an Episcopal priest; I was a religion major (kind of by default, but no matter).
There’s an interesting (to me) thread going on on a few other blogs about the relationship of liberal politics to liberal policy. I feel like liberals have been fighting a rear-guard battle for maybe 30 years, defending our policy achievements against persistent attacks. And now those programs are more vulnerable than ever. And while we talk about how important and effective these programs are in a practical way … the fact is that there’s a large chunk of the population that no longer buys into the consensus-of-values that brought these programs into existence. It’s not simply that old people got health care and black people got civil rights because, well, they needed them. There existed, after a time, a value system of justice, mercy, and fairness that those policies served.
Where did that value system come from? Was it the teachings of Jesus, or “Justice, justice shall you pursue” from Deuteronomy? Was it simple moral reciprocity — the logical “do unto others”? Emerson’s sense — faith, perhaps — that, put too glibly, what comes around goes around?
In other words … why am I a liberal? My parents are liberals; Is it adequate that it’s passed on as an inheritance, like blue eyes or nearsightedness? What’s the moral imperative of liberalism?
I find myself intrigued by this comment at Crooked Timber:
Might it be that one reason why neoliberalism has been historically weak on theories of politics—and consequently often hasn’t been able to really grasp, nor to morally appreciate, the conditions which made the pre-neoliberal establishment viable—is because many, perhaps most, of those drawn towards “technocratic discussion” as a substitute for politics have either abandoned or were never acquainted with the sort of ethical or religious grounding that suggests something prior to discussion? A robust theory of politics is often, perhaps nearly always, animated by a conviction that politics is the means by which human beings can democratically realize certain naturally or philosophically preferred ends. Eliminate a belief in the prior and/or enduring existence of those ends, and maybe politics does seem, to many people anyway, wholly concerned with…well, with just talking, talking as efficiently and responsibly as possible, as each new problem arises. Which maybe works wonderfully while a cultural consensus reigns, but once it is lost, and you’re running up against True Believers, talk as a theory of politics doesn’t produce the same results.Don’t mean to boil this all down to a simplistic point; obviously there are several epistemological shifts going on in the case of the rise (and decline?) of neoliberalism. But for the left, I wonder if there might be a larger connection between a kind of secularity and the decline of an “ethic of ends” (in the Weberian sense) than many contemporary liberals realize.
We get frustrated by politics. It will disappoint, because it is not the realm of ideals or prophecy. Obama said it himself, and — without letting him off the hook — there is truth to that.
And yet there’s a hole in the soul of liberalism right now. “What to do” is only a question that matters after you’ve decided what is good and right and meaningful. If you think that doesn’t matter, look at the shibboleths of culture and symbol on the right — you know, “Faith, Flag and Family” -type of talk, the anti-intellectualism at which we tend to squint and scratch our heads. But see how powerful they are. We may dismiss them as tribalism, superstition, or ignorance … but either way, the values and meaning are the game. And on our side, policies that we support — health care for everyone, sustainability, a peace-oriented, collaborative foreign policy — are expressions of specific values and a contingent sense of the good life. These things are not universally valued; their benefits are not self-evident to all. There are other things to value, eg. war-heroism and self-reliance; and some people value those more.
On the other side, the renewal of interest in Ayn Rand is an expression of a search for meaning. Heroic self-expression and self-reliance, finding your own way, taking yourself seriously, and letting the world go its way, neither giving nor taking from one’s inherent dignity. I feel it’s misguided and self-contradictory on many levels, but it’s something.
Sorry to inconvenience you by asking at this stressful time … Where do your values come from?