Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sound Historical Reasoning about Marco Polo

My sister, in an exchange with my inventive nephew, who is eight:

Da Neice asked why the call and response game was called "Marco Polo." I
was about to answer ("I don't know,") when Da Nephew jumped in.

"It's because when they were exploring North America -- "

"China!" I said.

"I mean, Africa -- "

"China!!" I said.

"They had an Indian guide -- "

"Seriously, you're thinking of Lewis and Clark!" I said.

"They would get separated and Polo would yell 'Marco' and Marco would
yell 'Polo,' and then they could find each other," he finished

"You make me crazy," I said.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Sandel 5: We Need Enchanted Political Life

Michael Sandel concludes Democracy's Discontent with the claim that “A politics that brackets morality and religion too completely soon generates its own disenchantment.” If public life has no higher purpose, we lose heart in it. It becomes a tool for corruption.

Conservatives have tried to fight this disenchantment by promoting individual virtue. This would have a social effect in two ways: we would all benefit if there were no corrupt individuals, and the project of promoting virtues is shared. The problem of today's theory of government is that the state is trying to be neutral about citizen's ideas of what makes for virtuous individuals.

Liberals have tried to fight this disenchantment by fighting the economic inequalities that stand in the way of solidarity among all citizens. Making people less unequal is clearly a social project, but it is negative, in the sense that it is removing an obstacle to solidarity without providing a common goal to be solidary about.

The early American republic did have enchanted - that is, purpose-driven - public life. We had the project of creating a democratic society out of people who had been trained to be subjects rather than citizens. That was a great project. But it has largely run its course in the world. Most states, even the most brutal tyrannies, at least pretend to be democratic.

Sandel says that when we got too diverse to ignore our different moral and religious values, we switched the goal of public life to trying to create a voluntary state that was neutral about all other goals. Sandel is right that this is not a goal big enough and positive enough to enchant our public life.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sandel 4: Common Consumption is a Lame National Identity

Michael Sandel, in Democracy's Discontent, says that the Progressives, faced with the problem of creating common identity in an America that had become too massive for civic participation, proposed to focus on Americans as consumers.

While I am grateful for federal laws ensuring clean food, I don't think making a national identity out of our common consumption is enough. In Theory Camp this morning we talked about how common it is for young people to wear brand names on the outside of their clothes as a way of making a common identity. But consumption, even very common consumption, is too thin to make a national identity. Brand loyalty just does not replace democratic participation.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sandel 3: Employees Are Also Free Citizens

Michael Sandel, in Democracy's Discontent, reviews the argument among the Founding Fathers over political economy. The New Englanders wanted to develop American manufacturing and merchant capacity. The Virginians wanted farmers, and feared cities. Both thought that free, democratic citizens needed to stand on their own feet economically.

Both classes of Founders were imagining the owners of these enterprises as the true citizens. The irony is that factories and stores depend on employees, and the farms that the Virginians actually ran depended on slaves, as well as employed farm hands. Employees were not seen as truly free; they were like slaves because they depended on another to live.

When slavery was abolished, and the great mass of Americans became employees, this eighteenth century argument became totally outdated. Yet we have not really resolved the question of what economic assets you need to be a free participating citizen.

Instead, Sandel usefully points out, we have redefined freedom from participating in government to choosing how to live. In other words, we have re-imagined freedom from a kind of production to a kind of consumption.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sandel 2: The Altered Marriage Contract

Michael Sandel, in Democracy's Discontent, describes the Supreme Court's change of philosophy from the state trying to form individuals into a particular kind of good citizen, to the state trying to uphold neutral procedures by which all kinds of citizens could do what they want.

Sandel then outlines the way in which this procedural view spread from Court judgments to other government actions, and then to how private citizens treat one another. A crucial moment in this spread was the invention of no-fault divorce laws. Prior to no-fault, the state had an explicit interest in marriage and therefore supported the party who wanted to keep the marriage together. No-fault law changed from a right to stay married if you upheld your part of the marriage bargain, to a right to divorce if you no longer wished to uphold your part of the marriage bargain.

Sandel 1: Amoral Politics Breeds Disenchantment

My annual Theory Camp has begun. This year we are studying two books by Michael Sandel. This week we will work through Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy.

Sandel says America was built on a republican tradition that understood freedom to mean the ability to participate in governing a democratic society. However, as America grew and became more diverse, we lost a sense of common values that we wanted all citizens to share. Since the Second World War, therefore, we developed a new public philosophy, "procedural liberalism," which taught that freedom was the right to do what we wanted, free from participating in democratic governance. We avoid conflict over different moral and religious views by bracketing them out of state action.

Sandel says the problem with this merely procedural view is that it is too thin to make citizenship out of. When politics brackets out morals it breeds disenchantment.

Sociology normally sees disenchantment as a religious problem. Sandel rightly sees that when we keep moral and religious meaning out of political life, we disenchant more than just the state. We sap the sense of meaning out of public life as a whole.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Denominationalism and Civil Religion Are the Complementary Halves of Modern Social Theology

The idea of a denomination is a brilliant achievement of American society. It is a distinctively modern idea - that varieties of the same religion, and even different religions, can freely compete within society.

There are two problems with this competition.

One is that it is not really a neutral standard, but really can only be fully embraced by people who do not think the differences between denominations matter. In other words, the denominational theory of religion works best for people who don't really believe in any denomination's religion.

The other problem is that the doctrine of denominational competition is not enough of a religious view to hold society together.

Modern societies have developed another distinctive religious view: civil religion. Civil religion was, originally, a religion of the (anti-Christian) state. The idea has broadened to mean the shared faith and symbols of the nation. Still, civil religion is most coherent as a cult that venerates the nation through the state, through patriotic myths, practices, and doctrines.

I had not fully appreciated before how much the ideas of denominationalism and civil religion go together. Really, they are two sides of the same coin. Denominationalism allows the old religions to live together in mutual toleration, if not respect. The price they pay is that each must accept an equal place within the new religion of the nation and its state.

This is an ingenious solution to the problem of religion in modern society. But it does require important modifications to all pre-modern faiths.