Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Jane Addams Precept

Jane Addams, 1915, via Wikipedia.
Former New York Times columnist David Brooks has been thinking about the Progressive-era Chicago activist Jane Addams ("The Jane Addams Model"):
These days everything puts me in mind of Jane Addams.
Everything, David?
Many of the social problems we face today — the fraying social fabric, widening inequality, anxieties over immigration, concentrated poverty, the return of cartoonish hyper-masculinity — are the same problems she faced 130 years ago. And in many ways her responses were more sophisticated than ours.
Oh, that. We're back on the Road to Character and those individuals who radiate something or other through their lives, etc., etc., though I would question whether the Addams model of conducting one's life is a suitable model for those of us who are challenged in the aspect of being born rich, and able to take time out traveling through Europe looking for good ways of spending it all.

Which is not intended to diminish the accomplishments of Jane Addams in founding and running the Hull House settlement in Chicago, because she was a truly extraordinary woman—and Brooks doesn't even mention her work as philosopher, social researcher, and public intellectual, hmm, wonder why that is.

Tough, Addams believed that we only make our way in the world through discipline and self-control. Tender, she created an institution that was a lived-out version of humanist philosophy. In today’s terms, she was a moral and religious traditionalist and an economic leftist, and an incredible role model for our time.
Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it true that that the tough, tender Jane Addams was, in today's terms, a moral and religious traditionalist and an economic leftist?

Answer: Yes, in principle, but
  • First of all, her moral traditionalism was of a tradition that is not often referred to in today's terms as "traditionalist", since it was radically pluralist and pragmatist, and founded in the concept of "sympathetic knowledge", or the idea that one must deal with people not by judging their conduct as good or evil but by understanding them through empathy, whether they are prostitutes or crooked aldermen*
  • Second of all, her religious traditionalism was similarly traditional only in a non-traditional sense, detached from specific denominations and articles of faith (born a Quaker, she joined a Presbyterian church but only attended Unitarian services and meetings of Chicago's famed Ethical Humanist Society, where she gave lectures as well) and focused her personal spirituality (as we call it "in today's terms") entirely on works**
  • Third of all, her moral and religious traditionalism was reflected in her personal life in romantic relationships exclusively with other women, including two that seem like marriages in every respect but the legal one (her use of the word "marriage" for the second one is recorded) from jointly held property and effusive letters to sharing beds; and
  • Fourth of all, her "economic leftism", meaning socialism, included a commitment to the rights of oppressed people of all kinds, including women of course, African Americans (she worked with W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells in the founding of the Chicago Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the NAACP for which it was the key precursor), and immigrants of all kinds, in particular Jewish immigrants; opposition to imperialism especially in her role as a strong opponent of US occupation of the Philippines; and a passionately held pacifism, for her active devotion to which she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, so it wasn't just economic—fact is, she was a social justice warrior, and that was her religion too.
So one thing is that the (unidentified) source Brooks is lifting this from isn't giving a very complete picture of the woman, though it has provided him with material to fill 11 paragraphs. (It's also propagandizing, with that false picture of her religious identity, appropriating her into conservatism the way the wingers do with Dr. King.)

The other thing is that if things are still the same as they were 130 years ago, maybe it's time to stop following the "Jane Addams model" (have a wealthy family, marry a woman wealthy as yourself, and start up a settlement house) in favor of the Jane Addams precept, which she was never able to sell to America's political class, of having society as a whole take up the cause of lifting up the poor and oppressed through its government, and changing the deep inequities we live with through what she called "lateral progress" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):
For Addams, lateral progress meant that social advancement could not be declared through the breakthroughs or peak performances of a few, but could only authentically be found in social gains held in common. Addams employs metaphor to explain the concept:
The man who insists upon consent, who moves with the people, is bound to consult the feasible right as well as the absolute right. He is often obliged to attain only Mr. Lincoln's “best possible,” and often have the sickening sense of compromising with his best convictions. He has to move along with those whom he rules toward a goal that neither he nor they see very clearly till they come to it. He has to discover what people really want, and then “provide the channels in which the growing moral force of their lives shall flow.” What he does attain, however, is not the result of his individual striving, as a solitary mountain climber beyond the sight of the valley multitude, but it is underpinned and upheld by the sentiments and aspirations of many others. Progress has been slower perpendicularly, but incomparably greater because lateral....
Whether one refers to them as “robber barons” or “captains of industry,” the rise of commerce in the United States was defined by the winners of the game: those who amassed wealth. The wealthy enjoyed tremendous progress in healthcare, education, and material well-being. Addams was not satisfied with narrow social development and redefined progress according to the common person's experience. This redefinition continues to elude us today as class disparity in the United States continues to grow.
UPDATE: Driftglass claims the whole column is that book report he was supposed to write in 7th grade and is finally getting around to as he winds up his affairs, "Jane Addams: Land of Contrasts". Brooks's source, which he actually does mention in the column, is Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy by the late Jean Bethke Elshtain (2002), but I don't have the heart to do the plagiarism search.
The basis of sympathetic knowledge is experience that is imaginatively extrapolated. When Addams addresses prostitution in A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil, she employs anecdotes from the Hull-House community to allow her audience to understand the struggles of young women in the big cities. In this manner, she is neither strictly deontological nor teleological in her moral approach. Rather than dealing with principles of sexuality, for example, or the consequences of prostitution on society, although both considerations are important, Addams begins by attempting to increase knowledge of marginalized women. Inherent in this approach to human ontology is a belief in the fundamental goodness and relationality of people. Addams believes that if her audience understands what is going on in the lives of others, even if those others are outcasts, then we may begin to care and possibly take positive action on their behalf. Addams’ method of sympathetic knowledge extends to those with whom she disagreed. For example, in Democracy and Social Ethics, Addams describes her failed political battles with local ward alderman, Johnny Powers (who Addams does not name in print). Hull-House sponsored a number of unsuccessful attempts to unseat Powers. Rather than excoriate Powers for his backroom deals and bribery, Addams set out to understand what made such an alderman popular. Through this method of inquiry, Addams, although not altering her denunciation of Powers’ cronyism, began to understand how the people of the ward appreciated an alderman who was visible and connected to their everyday lives.
**From Maurice Harrington (2009), The Social Philosophy of Jane Addams:

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