Monday, November 15, 2004

PHILOSOPHY BLUES

Brad Carson, defeated Democratic senate candidate from Oklahoma, has an interesting piece in The New Republic this week. In it, he tries to explain why the Red States go conservative. Here’s a portion of his argument:


The culture war is real, and it is a conflict not merely about some particular policy or legislative item, but about modernity itself. Banning gay marriage or abortion would not be sufficient to heal the cultural gulf that exists in this nation. The culture war is about matters more fundamental still: whether nationality is, in a globalized world, a random fact of no more significance than what hospital one was born in or whether it is the source of identity and even political legitimacy; whether one's self is a matter of choice or whether it is predetermined, before birth, by the cultural membership of one's family; whether an individual is just that--a free-floating atom--or whether the individual is part of a long chain that both predates and continues long after any particular person; whether concepts like honor and shame, which seem so quaint, are still relevant in a world that values only "tolerance." These are questions not for politicians but for philosophers, and, in the end, it is the failure of liberal philosophy that we saw on November 2. For the vast majority of Oklahomans--and, I would suspect, voters in other red states--these transcendent cultural concerns are more important than universal health care or raising the minimum wage or preserving farm subsidies. Pace Thomas Frank, the voters aren't deluded or uneducated. They simply reject the notion that material concerns are more real than spiritual or cultural ones. The political left has always had a hard time understanding this, preferring to believe that the masses are enthralled by a "false consciousness" or Fox News or whatever today's excuse might be. But the truth is quite simple: Most voters in a state like Oklahoma--and I venture to say most other Southern and Midwestern states--reject the general direction of American culture and celebrate the political party that promises to reform or revise it.



Now, one always needs to begin a discussion of something like this by noting the obvious: that if Americans had simply been given the basic, un-spun facts about domestic and international policy, Kerry would have won the election in a landslide: my guess is he would have won by about 56-44. The people Carson is talking about are that 44% who wouldn’t have cared about those facts even if they’d known them because their beliefs supercede those facts. Much as I disagree with Carson’s implicit suggestion that Democrats moderate their philosophy, it rightly identifies a philosophical rift as the cause for the current red-blue polarization. But Carson doesn't go the final step of turning a pragmatist's eye on the motives of "Red State" philosophy (likely b/c it would end what's left of his political career). As John Dewey says, philosophy is not "in any sense whatever a form of knowledge" but rather "a form of desire, of effort at action." The South's "metaphysical feudalism" has always inspirited and emboldened and policed its preferred social relations -- most notably slavery and the master-slave relationship, and more generally the traditional gender and class relationships which they have historically located (not always accurately, one could argue) in jolly old England and the Old Testament. That many Southerners "believe" their philosophy is important to digest but it doesn't remove the insidious and fundamentally un-democratic texture of that belief. What it DOES do is explain why a bunch of poor people would vote for one of the world's great elitists, George W. Bush. Put simply, they do it because they LIKE TO, because it pleasurably confirms their fundamental belief in authority and hierarchy. Bush executes the seamless melding of their earthly and heavenly masters. Why in the hell would they question his decisioon about a war, particularly when he has affirmed the righteousness of their nuclear family? God is good, all's right with the world, long live the king. Contrast this with what Dewey says about democracy:

"A philosophy animated, be it consciously or unconsciously, by the strivings of men to achieve democracy will construe liberty as meaning a universe in which there is real uncertainty and contingency, a world which is not all in, and never will be, a world which in some respect is incomplete and in the making, and in these respects may be made this way or that according as men judge, prize, love and labor...a genuine field of novelty, of real and unpredictable increments to existence, a field for experimentation and invention."

It's not "modernity" that Red Staters hate, it's democracy. Carson either doesn't recognize or is too afraid to break the code. But he is absolutely right that our defeat in the election is a defeat for our philosophy -- and
that we need to stop asking our presidential candidate to carry the whole load of selling democracy to the American people.

The Left (some of its more forceful advocates anyway) made an enormous mistake, IMHO, when it abandoned the term "democracy" to stroke its own skepticism -- they simply gave this powerful word to the very people who believed least in democratic practices and allowed them to call THEIR thing "democracy." How stupid can we get?? We did the same thing with such revered terms as "America" ("People for the American Way" being one important exception) and "Jesus." Dumb, dumb, dumb. So, Carson's got his symtom identified but he needs to think more about cause and cure.

4 Comments:

Blogger Matt Ruben said...

Excellent post, Mike. You capture the essential balance between "soul-searching" and standing up -- we need to acknowledge and understand the oppositional world view that motivates "the 44 percent." And your invocation of Dewey is almost enough -- almost -- to turn this leftist into a liberal!

November 17, 2004 at 12:47 AM  
Blogger Matt Ruben said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

November 17, 2004 at 12:47 AM  
Blogger Q said...

Thanks Matt -- hey, I think you're my very first commenter! I've been sending the URL for your blog everywhere, so expect some traffic.

November 18, 2004 at 12:19 PM  
Blogger Luke said...

Why not appeal to both the blue collar worker's moral and his economic interests? E.g., federal wage supports, an immigration moratorium, AND opposition to gay and polygamous marriage, racial preferences, and broadcast pornography which violate local community standards? Thomas Frank's point is that the Democrats have deserted him on the latter, which is true. But if you really want to beat the Republicans, best go the whole hog.

November 18, 2004 at 10:18 PM  

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