Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Proper Uses of Coercion

Charlie Chaplin in Shoulder Arms (1918), via ChaplinForTheAges.
David Brooks, "How Covenants Make Us":
When you think about it, there are four big forces coursing through modern societies.
When I think about what, exactly? How to apply facile analogies from physics to the description of social phenomena? What makes you think I think about it at all?
Global migration is leading to demographic diversity. 
Recent research pushes back the earliest date of sapiens-Neanderthaler interbreeding from 50,000 years ago to as much as 100,000 years. There has never been a time in the evolution of the species when humans have not been on the move. I've mentioned before how the period of Brooks's childhood—after his US-born parents remigrated from Canada to New York in the early sixties—was part of a truly exceptional time in American history, between about 1931 and 1980, when the amount of immigration, beginning with racial quotas and the Great Depression, was extremely low. He imagines, in his usual solipsism, that the state of the world has always been in general what it was in the homogenized-milk sameness of his own youth, and he is obviously wrong.

Legal immigration as a proportion of population. US Office of Immigration Statistics via Cato Foundation.
What is significantly going on, which is also not atypical in US history, is that at a time of slow growth and diminished opportunities, there's a lot of feeling in the population sector of people whose ancestors immigrated more than a few decades ago (especially those whose ancestors immigrated voluntarily; also known as "white people") that newer immigrants, who seem to find work more easily, must be "taking our jobs", and there's a political party exploiting that (fortunately false) belief. The really unusual phenomenon is that the party in question is funded by people who, at least privately, favor immigration, and favor it specifically because they want to "take our jobs" or at least lower our wages, from the Koch brothers through Donald J. Trump, whatever they say in public, which has been putting them in a very peculiar position over the past 15 or 20 years.
Economic globalization is creating wider opportunity but also inequality.
Imma just go ahead and say it: globalization does not create inequality. It creates wealth, which is generally a good thing, and it creates a lack of economic diversity in particular locations (when people stop producing things they can import more cheaply and focus on producing some tiny number of things they can export), which is probably a bad thing, and it can create unemployment, which is definitely a bad thing, if communities don't take countermeasures to promote economic diversity, but inequality is an entirely separate issue, caused by two mutually reinforcing factors, the propensity of those who have wealth to hog it, unless opposed, and slow growth when r > g, as it usually is. I just happen to have Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund right here with me in today's paper, probably not a dangerously radical leftist, and she says that
The antidote to slow growth differs from country to country.... The United States, she said, should expand tax credits granted to lower-income workers, increase the federal minimum wage and offer more government benefits for families.
In the eurozone, she said, countries should do more to train people for available jobs and to reduce unemployment, which is at 10.3 percent in the 19 countries that use the common currency.
Countries that produce oil or other commodities should do more to diversify their economies, Ms. Lagarde said.
“Overcoming the voices of despair and exclusion requires an alternative path,” she said, “one that leads to prospects for more employment, higher incomes and more secure lives.”
Needless to say, that's not going to be Brooksy's prescription. And we're still only three fifths of the way through his first paragraph.
The Internet is giving people more choices over what to buy and pay attention to.
Yes, David, and that's great for people who buy a lot of stuff but not so good for people with an attention deficit? Or what exactly were you trying to say?
A culture of autonomy valorizes individual choice and self-determination.
And what's that when it's at home? A clue from Thomas Nagel, vintage 1995, reviewing a horrid-sounding book by Willard Gaylin and Bruce Jennings, THE PERVERSION OF AUTONOMY: The Proper Uses of Coercion and Constraints in a Liberal Society: it's the hideous product of
a liberal tradition of political theory stretching back to Immanuel Kant, which includes John Stuart Mill and, in our own day, John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, naive abstract thinkers all, Willard Gaylin and Bruce Jennings say, who put their faith in the pure reason of the detached, autonomous individual and fail to realize the importance of more basic moral emotions like shame, guilt and pride, and the influence of communities, family and traditions on human conduct and social order. The application of their ideas, the authors write, has created a monster: a ''culture of autonomy'' that is ''the predominant sensibility'' of our society, making Americans generally unwilling to control people unless they are actively harming others.
Ah, that culture of autonomy. Or maybe not, as Nagel went on to clarify:
This account of the history of political liberalism is false and unworthy of [its] two authors.... Kant's theory that morality is grounded in free will doesn't imply that moral principles are up to each individual's choice or whim. Mill did not believe it is wrong to appeal to people's emotions to change their behavior. And the accounts of recent thinkers are just as inaccurate.... The ''culture of autonomy'' is a fiction.
Not that Nagel can't find anything he likes in the book, it's the Times after all, but that needn't detain us. Suffice it to say that when your book title suggests a notion of "proper uses of coercion" as opposed to the improper kind, you might be in Brooksville.

New paragraph:
All of these forces have liberated the individual, or at least well-educated individuals, but they have been bad for national cohesion and the social fabric.
He's very into textile metaphors these days. Paragraph 3:
The weakening of the social fabric has created a range of problems. 
Paragraph 5:
Strong identities can come only when people are embedded in a rich social fabric.
When I'm embedded in a rich social fabric I hope I find a chocolate on the pillow.

Paragraph 6:
You take away a rich social fabric and what you are left with is people who are uncertain about who they really are.
They've been disbedded.

And paragraph 7:
We’re not going to roll back the four big forces coursing through modern societies, so the question is how to reweave the social fabric in the face of them.
The answer is supplied by Marcia Pally, a professor of Multilingual Multicultural Studies (NYU) and theology (Humboldt-Universität Berlin), in her newly published Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality ($50 paperback), which argues, according to Brooks, that we need to make fewer contracts, where people do stuff because they are legally obliged to, and more covenants, where they do stuff because they love me, sealed with a kiss. Not that you make your covenant with me, of course, you make it with God, but I'm the one who gets the stuff. This may be a somewhat superficial account of Professor Pally's thinking, but it's not my fault (the Kindle preview is only 8 pages).

And paragraph 11:
The social fabric is thus rewoven in a romantic frame of mind. During another period of national fragmentation, Abraham Lincoln aroused a refreshed love of country. He played upon the mystic chords of memory and used the Declaration of Independence as a unifying scripture and guide.
I remember how during the Civil War and throughout the Reconstruction period after Lincoln's assassination everybody was in this romantic frame of mind and had a refreshed love of country. We should totally try that again. The Mystic Chords of Memory is a Hoagy Carmichael song that was not that highly regarded until Coltrane recorded his modal version, which brought out the haunting strangeness of the melody.

And paragraph 12:
These days the social fabric will be repaired by hundreds of millions of people making local covenants — widening their circles of attachment across income, social and racial divides. But it will probably also require leaders drawing upon American history to revive patriotism. They’ll tell a story that includes the old themes. That we’re a universal nation, the guarantor of stability and world order. But it will transcend the old narrative and offer an updated love of America.
That will be from Senator Cory Booker, poor guy, wonderfully misquoted as drawing a "contrast" between patriotism and tolerance:
Senator Cory Booker nicely defined patriotism by contrasting it with mere tolerance.
"I wouldn't say I'm patriotic, but I tolerate the US pretty well."  "Well, I'm a patriot, thank God, so you won't see any tolerance from me."

What Booker, e.g. here, has contrasted is tolerance of our fellow citizens, which doesn't show that we are patriotic, with love of our fellow citizens, which does. I'm not sure I want to go there either, with the implication that we all could use a patriotism rubric because how else are we supposed to monitor whether we're doing it right, but I will say that Booker, unlike Brooks, knows English.

Honestly, the whole thing is like some kind of cat vomit (as in a recent report by Smut, which is what put the image in my mind), but there was still something I wanted to say. While Brooks may have finally slipped beyond the region where what he says can be entirely analyzed, there's still an agenda.

Namely, the Romanticism to which Brooks appeals somewhere in there is a real thing, but it isn't the theological Romanticism of Abraham Lincoln (which is an extremely interesting idea, as far as I'm concerned); it's the political Romanticism of Benjamin Disraeli, with its picture of a society where everybody knows her or his place, the squire and his lady in their pew and the rest of us in ours, bound by all the covenants and worshiping from the same 39 Articles, so that he won't evict us unless we get really behind in the rent and we won't bother his foxes, in all the dear old villages in all the dear old shires, and it'll be just like it was before the factories came except the factories will still be there (because the squire has shares in them), that you could restore, just by voting Tory.

That place never existed, even before the factories came. The idea that we can relax back into a time when we all took care of each other, squire and cottager, as our stations permitted, with our mutual love and covenant and the beaming (probably at least slightly drunk) rector, was always Tory propaganda. Village life in the English 18th century didn't provide people with meaning in their lives; maybe to the squire's lady, as she tootled around the village with her gifts of warm socks and calves' foot jelly for the sick and indigent, and perhaps uplifting tracts that she could read to the girl in danger of going astray, but not to the peasants. They got fear of starvation and overwork that helped them not to think about it, and endless hypocrisy from the gentry, and the proper uses of coercion, incredibly proper, keeping them bound in the rich fabric of exploitation.

What Brooks is always suggesting is a two-tier social system with him on one side, the person of quality who can afford to be an individual ("the individual, or at least well-educated individuals"), the people with "strong identities" ("father, plumber, Little League coach"), and the unspeakable anonymous masses on the other—
Alienated young men join ISIS so they can have a sense of belonging. Isolated teenagers shoot up schools. Many people grow up in fragmented, disorganized neighborhoods. Political polarization grows because people often don’t interact with those on the other side. Racial animosity stubbornly persists.
But not among us it doesn't, just the awful them.

He always makes his solutions sound sweet—covenants sealed with love, delight in offering gifts, an "updated love of America". Don't listen! What he's asking us to do is submit to our superiors, tug our forelocks, and conspire, by the millions, to make him feel better.

Driftglass has a totally different and somewhat more entertaining theory of who Brooks is talking to—it's Andrew Rosenthal.

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