Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sandel on populism in The Guardian-2/27/16

The conclusions Sandel reaches at the end of this excellent piece are similar to the premise of my PhD dissertation (2004) on the myth of equality in writing during the the American Revolution and early Republic periods. My further point was that equality survived as a motivating and even a unifying rhetoric during that period because it was elastic and empty and easily shifted content between an equality that meant "everybody shares the community bounty" to an equality that meant "somebody wins big, lots of people lose big, but nature or merit or God fairly arbitrates that outcome." American writers in the late 18th, early 19th century wielded "equality" like a flag, using it to promote a sense of national definition and purpose--even though what equality meant was quite unstable--moving between those two very different referents. We see a similar polarization in definitions of equality now, even--as Sandel points out--among populists. The difference between now and then seems to be that, because polarization is sharper now and spelled out constantly in internet memes, the myth of equality no longer describes our collective identity but underscores our contentious multiplicity. The contentiousness and division are nothing new but only less well obscured these days by a murky but encompassing myth. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Leaving Right to the Mercy of Chance

The Thoreau quote below has always been one of my favorites. If I remember correctly he was writing in the context of an increasingly hot national struggle over slavery that would lead, in the year after his publication of his essay, to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which required free states like Massachusetts to apprehend and send escaped slaves back to the South--despite their own state laws against slavery. The sentiment and logic (and Thoreau's prose) never fail to fill me with a kind of awe. Majority rule keeps us running and supposedly reflects a people's values and priorities (it is "expedien[t]"), but it never bears a necessary relationship with right. When the majority holds for something evil (i.e., slavery, internment camps), Thoreau argues that a conscientious person ("the wise man") must vote in some way other than by ballot. How exhilarating. One thinks of the Occupy Movement. The only problem is that this logic is as much that of Thoreau and someone like MLK as it is central to the thinking of the more virulent anti-choice groups or those wankers in Oregon. So--and this is no argument against Thoreau's point--when your government does things that you not only disagree with but on reflection find deeply and morally repugnant, even horrifying (i.e., Guantanamo Bay, denying health care to women with few resources in Texas, etc.), how do you register your vote for right? Resistance that is meaningful must undermine the order of law. That sounds fine if the cause is my cause, but if it's the cause of Operation Rescue, things start to seem more complicated. Order is never the same as justice, but it seems a more likely context for it than chaos.

"All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or back gammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obli­gation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority." --Thoreau, Resistance to Civil Government, 1849