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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Why I am not a "Progressive"


Last post but one, I offered a kind of apologia for a weaselly apolitical politics, of a sort. Partly because it could have been mis-read as a defense of political indifference, I concluded with a promise to mention "some things to which I am not indifferent." The interest of such a list of positions is certainly limited, but my hope is to indicate some of my pre-existing biases or instincts which are supposedly more-or-less correlated with "Progressive" and "Conservative" labels in the current American political scene, and which (cumulatively) serve to dis-align me with either such wing. Why such correlations even happen is partly understandable, and partly at least explicable; but it is also partly opaque. After all, why should a general hawkish military stance be aligned with lip-service to balanced budgets ("fiscal responsibility"), an enthusiasm for charter schools, or a desire to repeal Roe v. Wade? Why should a high degree of comfort with proposals of bureaucratic "oversight" go along with championing gay marriage, or (supposed) anti-gerrymandering? I understand how these things have made common cause from time to time; what I don't grasp is why they are held to be deeply, philosophically aligned. I still don't have a full-blown theory of political coherence, descriptive or prescriptive. About five years ago, Scott Alexander over at Slate Star Codex offered a sketch, on a roughly sociological level, of such a rationale, and I think it's fairly good as such accounts go; it's purely descriptive but you gotta start somewhere. I'm not going to argue for or against Alexander's theory here, or offer an alternative, but I commend it as the beginning of a conversation. What I am going to do, in this post and the next, is toss out some positions -- some of them are close to what you'd call "policy" positions, others are much higher-altitude (or foundational, depending on your point of view). All they really have in common is that they are mine. These two posts are not an attempt at a coherent platform. They are just a sort of pile of pieces of an incomplete mosaic of some of my socio-political concerns. To show that the mosaic is even completable would be a further project, worthwhile (for me, anyway) but of far larger ambition. The "pieces" here are just picked up and described one by one. They are indices (not causes) of whatever it is that makes me feel alienated from, not at home with, and (sometimes) unable to talk with, those who call themselves Progressives (this post), or (next post) Conservatives. We'll see if anyone is still reading by then.

Well then: Why am I not a Progressive?

First off, what is it I'm claiming Not to be? Well, it's kinda vague, actually, since there's no one place where you go to see what "The" Progressive Platform is, but I have in mind here a cloud of attitudes, styles, and default positions, which quite possibly no single self-described Progressive actually maintains, but all of which I encounter routinely here in Blue-Bubble Seattle. Some of these positions are actually further left than mainstream Progressivism, but they're all more or less in the left-liberal or left-radical zeitgeist. If anyone wants to argue that I've got this wrong, I'm interested.

The following numbered points are not intended as single-sentence theses with some subsidiary commentary. Each one is, rather, a little cluster of concerns that are related (and sometimes also related among each other) but don't always reduce to a neat summary. The fact that I have called them "biases" above does not mean they are unconsidered, or held merely out of stubbornness or inertia. I've thought a lot, and continue to think, about each of them. But it will be obvious that no item below is presented here as a full-blown argument. Each is, at most, a statement of position from which an argument would be mounted, or for which an argument is called. Usually (and with some of the items more than others) I have included some of the pieces of what such an argument would be, and any one of them could be expanded into a full post, or more than one.

1: I value existing goods -- things and situations that are real, concrete, and working for people, even if imperfect; and so I always tend to ask: what are the costs to the imagined reform / innovation / shiny new thing you are proposing? Because the imaginary new thing -- no matter how "necessary" it is by someone's lights -- is not going to be as good, in some ways for sure and maybe in all ways, as the thing we actually have that is good.

This is essentially what is at play in people's concerns over (say) "gentrification" of a beloved old neighborhood; or in the "development" of a piece of "empty" land; or the replacement of one set of practices with another. I think liberals and further-left folk alike are often pretty cavalier, if not in outright denial, of those costs, though of course they are also ready to marshal a long list of such costs when it suits them. ("Gentrification" is sometimes one such.) Sometimes those costs are worth it; sometimes they are revealed to have been worth it in retrospect. It is rarely absolutely clear.

These questions arise in all sorts of situations. Should we build a mass-transit system? Seattle decided No, back in the 1960s, and arguably is now paying the price. The San Francisco Bay area decided Yes, and has a different set of problems. Should we ban salmon fishing to save Orca whales (another current question in my corner of the US) -- a question that has profound and immediate ramifications for the viability of native tribal culture? Should lobster fishing, or coal mining, or logging be banned? I don't say there can be no right answer about this, given the competing costs; I'm saying costs are real in any event.

In worrying about what gets lost, I am aware that this can look like status-quo'ism, or "privilege", from the outside. I take seriously the possibility that I could be missing something relevant -- this is just what is entailed by humility -- and that one reason I could be missing it is a degree of comfort. But that possibility is not the end of the conversation, and I do not like the frequent attempt to weaponize it.

This love of existing goods means that I am less ready to jump aboard with ideas that sound great, or even ideal. I believe in the inevitability of many, many unforeseen consequences of the best-laid-plans. Therefore, while I expect the Revolution, and not with dread, neither am I eager for it.

2. Related to the foregoing: I think Progressivism can be extremely casual about discarding cultural forms, in the name of (ostensible) justice or equity. I am an ecological conservationist (at least), and my ecological concerns go hand in hand with my cultural ones.

A good example of this is gender: after a lot of (still ongoing) reading, I just do not believe that most of the arguments against the so-called "gender binary" hold water (in fact, I often don't think they are even intended to hold water); but more than this, I think it is extremely perilous to try to eject a feature of cultural discourse -- the cultural ecology, if you will -- that has structured our experience since there was culture at all; and arguably since before we attained consciousness. A similar argument may be made (more limited in historical scope) about "marriage equality." The denial of the American left (liberal and radical), a few years ago, that this involved a "redefinition of marriage" was astounding to me. That's exactly what it was, and if people cannot see it, or do not have the courage to admit it, this merely bespeaks how gravely marooned we are from our own past, or how in thrall we are to rhetorical tactics that are indifferent to truth. Say that marriage has been redefined before; say that the past is well lost, if you like; but don't deny that it is real, and really different.

Now, on the off-chance that it might surprise you (having just read the above paragraph) to learn that I voted for same-sex legal marriages in the state of Washington, I want to respectfully submit that it is a mistake to extrapolate from high-altitude considerations to on-the-ground tactics -- or vice-versa. Alternatively, you may take it as a case study in how weaselly or vexing or "hard-to-pin-down" my "politics" is. Again, though, I swear this is not because I'm just that subtle and interesting -- or that I delight in being perverse. It's that the link between "theory" and "practice" is itself not straightforward.

The two foregoing examples (the "gender binary" and gay marriage) might imply that this critique about being casual with cultural forms has mainly to do with sex and gender. This is not the case; these examples (I have written somewhat about gender, at least indirectly, earlier this year) just happen to get so much attention that they are hard to ignore. (The reasons for this attention are doubtless interesting in their own right.) In fact, this critique of being cavalier about received cultural forms pertains (in my opinion) across all kinds of categories: art; commerce; property; class; etc. The short version of this is: Progressivism, probably as a function of its apparent prizing of egalitarianism above all, strikes me as being fundamentally (though often unconsciously) opposed to hierarchy. I am not so opposed. In fact I think this opposition is incoherent and impossible. (If I was developing arguments, here would be the place to venture into the very problematic distinction sometimes offered on the right between equality "of opportunity" and "of outcome," a distinction I think is too rough-and-ready to be of much help after the opening moves.)

3. Among these cultural forms is, above all, religion. I see a crucial place, an irreducible, central and non-negotiable place, for religion in human affairs, which when vacated leaves something like a cross between an amputee's stump and a black hole. This place is not the individual place of "worshiping according to one's conscience," though that is an acceptable if limping liberal modern shorthand if no other language is at hand. Because of this, I am fundamentally at odds with modernity, and therefore with progressivism which is in some sense its logical conclusion. I have often noticed that when you scratch a progressive you will find a fundamentalist -- usually an anti-fundamentalist fundamentalist. Even my good irreligious friends who acknowledge the over-the-top disdain and bile in the (no longer so "new") New Atheists ("Oh sure, Dawkins and Dennett are really abrasive about this," or even just "People don't need to be so fucking arrogant") do not really seem to me to grasp what I mean when I talk about faith. Doubtless most of the responsibility for this conversational impasse lies with me, if it is a question of responsibility.

I am a believer in -- not a fetishizer of -- tradition. Things that have been around for multiple generations probably are embedded in a cultural ecosystem in ways that escape immediate notice, especially when the ones who are doing (or not doing) the noticing are enamored of the latest loud fashion. This doesn't mean that traditions should enjoy some immune-to-critique status; but I think it is very short-sighted to be cavalier about them. For all this embeddedness, traditions are also, in a crucial sense, fragile. They can be broken in a single generation, and once they are gone, they are gone -- maybe rebootable (and this is not nothing), but no longer organically connected.

There's a practical, policy-impacting aspect to this orientation of mine: very often, in a contest between "religious values" and other interests, I'm going to side with the former. Of course such legal "victories" as these contests afford are Pyrrhic ("... according to one's conscience"), or, at best, temporary stays against defeat. But they may count for the individual.

4. For the better part of a decade I have found the excesses of "Identity Politics" frustrating, and increasingly impossible to engage -- hence, increasingly dangerous. (And please, see above (1) under remarks on "privilege".) I am deeply turned off by rebellion for its own sake, and I see this a lot -- under the just-enough excuse of righteous indignation. It's like going after low-hanging fruit by burning down the orchard -- the stupidest of both worlds. That these excesses are often turned against fellow, but not-woke-enough leftists, increasingly raises concerns that the Left is devouring itself; but they are also (of course) aimed against conservatives of whatever stripe, who are really looked upon as an enemy. We need to think about this. I think there is room for the idea of enmity, but this is the wrong place to look for it. Snark, tone-deafness, self-righteousness, disdain, and contempt are all at play in such characterizations, and it ought not take me pointing it out to see that they are wrong.

5. Here's an opportunity for some to exercise, or exorcise, your choice, some of that aforementioned self-righteousness. I do not condone the availability of abortion on demand, and I see the left as fairly incoherent on this matter. I am not exactly "pro-Life" (though I have used this as a self-description, it's really a placeholder, sort of like "worshipping according to one's conscience" (see above under (3)) -- in other words, not very good). As I read the history of this question, the notion of "Life" as it is deployed here is of very recent mint, and I am pretty persuaded by the genealogy Ivan Illich has traced for it; it is a kind of secular feel-good word, and possibly a kind of idol. In any case, my position here stems not from a high-level desire to honor Life, but from garden-variety a distaste for killing people. If there is any high-falutin' philosophical principle at work here it is a commitment to the irreducibility of personhood, a stance I found in kindergarten well summarized by Horton the elephant: A person's a person, no matter how small. There are, however, other small things besides small persons. Conveniently, Stan Goff has written recently on this, noting that in Christian and specifically Roman Catholic theology,
more than a thousand years after the Pentecost, the modern “fetus” had not yet been invented. The unborn were seen in two phases: pre-ensoulment and post-ensoulment. Ensoulment was signaled by the quickening, the sensation of the baby’s movement in the womb, something that happens as early as fifteen weeks into a pregnancy, and as late as twenty weeks. Abortion was not considered murder until after ensoulment, or the quickening.
That at some point abortion is the killing of a person I consider not up for debate -- at least, I really cannot imagine what would make me entertain such a debate. But the insistence that this point was the moment of conception is a very late development (see Goff's post for some orienting landmarks here), and I think it bears questioning whether the whole rationale for it is the "progress of science."

I am not a Roman Catholic and I do not take my thinking orders from the Magisterium; but I would understand if anyone suspected this. I am opposed to the death penalty, opposed to torture, deeply ambivalent about the "permissability" of suicide under any circumstances. (My stance on this pre-dates my brother's suicide, but of course there are all sorts of debates to be had on this question -- because, among other reasons, suicide is not just one thing.) I am undecided about the coherence of just-war theory, but in any case support only defensive -- or at most extremely surgical offensive, guerrilla-style -- strikes. My belief regarding combat (not just armed combat but yes, especially this) is that it ought to be like T'ai chi ch'üan -- you give your opponent the dance they need to trip themselves up and lay themselves flat. Sometimes that requires making contact, sometimes even making contact first, but you know the difference between doing this judiciously and doing it viciously. In my own life, while I may go back to being vegetarian, at present I eat because animals are killed; and even were I to go back to vegetarianism, given our economic and ecological realities, there is no end of the violence upon which I am indirectly implicated. Nonetheless, I cannot square my stance on violence with abortion on demand. I grant that in this fallen world sometimes the least-bad way forward -- at least by our lights -- is still violent. I would settle for the Clintonian line of abortion being "cheap, legal, and rare," but show me a Progressive who really means this (that's a serious request, I may have overlooked someone), and backs policy to realize the rare part. Because of tactical concerns (see (1) on "privilege") I tend to let the pro-life women do the talking on this one (a lot of words got cut out of this entry on the list before I posted), but the tactical question has not very much to do with the issue itself. I do not dispute that abortion has been historically, and especially recently, bound up with a hell of a lot of sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny, because it obviously has. I'm also aware that this stance ought to commit me to other positions about women's health, childcare, and so on, and I'm down for those. And, because this issue is such dry tinder, I will add that not only do I not regard abortion as the same thing as "murder" (which in this case is a legal term, not a moral one). I know and love people who have had abortions or been party to them. I am deeply opposed to and repulsed by the shaming of anyone who has had an abortion, as I would be opposed to shaming military veterans (or, for that matter, convicted murderers.) This does not mean I am on board with recent name-it-claim-it-wear-it-on-a-T-shirt fashion; but people should be able to tell the truth without being derided.

6. Speaking of combat: I think Progressivism is a bit casual and blasé about Islamic terrorism, starting with a squirmy discomfort with calling it "Islamic terrorism," which needless to say is not a synonym for Islam. I'm not saying the Right, in whichever stance, has got this right either, but Progressives seem to me to lack much theoretical ground to stand on. Part of the reason is that the Left is just a little bit incapacitated when thinking about religion (see above under (3)), so it tries to change the subject to something else (this is happening right now in the minds of some readers of these very words). I don't think those other subjects are irrelevant. But leaving religion out (and for conflicting reasons at that) reveals a kind of bankruptcy.

7. On a related note, Progressives are also, in my experience, at best conflicted when it comes to the military. This is a conflictedness I happen to share, so I don't claim to have worked out a consistent stance here (let alone a "workable" one), but I think most Progressives shove this down into the memory hole with a pretense that they'll "deal with that later".

8. I think the far Left (Marxist and Anarchist alike) is often far too casual about the actual processes of production -- about what is involved in creating prosperity and thriving. I don't have a full-fledged account of this either, and I certainly share the critique of capitalist rapaciousness, but I'm unpersuaded by the positive accounts of economic growth or technological innovation offered on the further left, which suffer from a kind of reductionism that is just inevitable when you think culture is all a symptom of, well, blind material forces. On the nearer-left, among most "Progressives" who reject anarchism or Marxism, you find the opposite problem -- an under-theorizing of business as usual, a satisfaction with band-aids or an unreasonable hope in oversight and intervention, which all amount to kicking-the-can.

9. I am deeply turned off by collectivist superstructures. I'm enough of an individualist (despite what I said above about religion) to chafe at being told how to think -- or to act. When faced by need, I do not want my help (which I will sometimes willingly give) to be coerced. This means I'm less friendly to the idea of tax-funded and bureaucratically-managed social services than many progressives. I am, moreover, very skeptical of human over-reach, which has occasioned many of our current woes -- especially in other parts of the world where our best intentions led us to stage numerous interventions that fucked things up. (The establishment of obligatory charity and manifest-destiny noblesse oblige has been a moral catastrophe. See, on this point, Ivan Illich, who argues that such doing-good-in-the-third-world makes things worse pretty much every time, and more recently Anand Giridharadas who suggests that it's actually pretty self-serving.)

10. I believe in the relevance of Dunbar's number. I'm a localist. Which means I don't buy the tenability of large-scale "solutions". I also (for similar reasons) believe that certain utopian promises ("Universal Health Care") are likely to have promised way too much; others ("Universal Basic Income" -- though it seems better than many alternatives) are likely to create as many problems as they solve. That doesn't mean we can't dream big -- but we are mortal, and we need to 'fess up to this.

11. I find groupthink distasteful, and overweening confidence abetted by groupthink downright creepy. I don't always succeed, but I try hard to eschew the usual vocabulary for social and political questions; too often it serves as a substitute for thought. It conceals prejudices -- or wears them on its sleeve (which is worse). And, like all default settings, it is subject to parody; and when you live in a parodic age, it is best not to make oneself a target. (The young people I work with sense this parodic potential instinctively. They dutifully attend to the lessons in microaggression or the gender-spectrum that are placed before them by well-meaning adults who are trying to raise them to be on the right side of history; but in their off-hours, which I get to see as an after-school "supervisor," they veer towards parody, employing terms like "racist" or "oppressive" or "stereotype" or "identifies as ___" in as over-the-top a manner as they can. They also instinctively sense, and avoid, the border between this parody and mean-spiritedness.)

When the right parodies the left, when (say) the language of wokeness gets turned for comedic effect into a joke, it shows that the users of the language have not thought about the weak points. (Sometimes. Other times, it's just a bad joke.) Just because the take-down was of a straw man, does not mean you don't have a lot of straw yourself. That straw is the padding provided by shared assumptions, by having recourse to terms accepted by the like-minded; if your reaction to having those terms disregarded is simply "that's not funny," you may be right, but that rightness may still be getting in your way. I am genuinely perplexed about politics, in a way that (to judge by their "it's-just-obvious" tone) many Progressives are not. I am often persuaded by Nietzschean or Platonic critiques of democracy. But you don't have to be a name-dropping philosopher to be kind of sickened by the in- and out-grouping social dynamics of political tribalism, and to want to listen to the other side(s).

12. I am largely convinced that the story told by Progressivism about history is incoherent and in many ways in bad faith. To put things very baldly: Progressivism tells a Whig version of history -- what has happened was bound to happen, because Progress! -- which nevertheless casts itself as embattled and heroically striving against the Powers That Be. Each of these aspects of the tale seems to me extremely unlikely to be true without exception; together, they almost cancel each other out. It is clear to me that the "direction" called "progress" is often accidental, and not at all always progress towards what I call Good. On the other hand, for the last hundred and fifty or so years (at least in the so-called First World), "Progressivism" has in fact, as I read the record, been ascendant, and gradually consolidating its position, in a feedback loop between academia, government, media/entertainment, industry, and the military, with a little inter-caste warfare keeping things interesting.

That is not an argument, only the outline of an intuition (call it a prejudice if you like, I won't argue.) It would take a long excursus to spell out the whole critique, which would be complicated, and possibly (given the state of my thinking at present) involve contradictions or aporiae. That's politics for you.

*

OK, so there you have it, a sketch of where I see my significant divergences from Progressivism, with some addenda about other left-liberal and outright genuine Left positions thrown in for good measure.

These are critiques from within. I am not a capital-P Progressive, but if we are still using the Left-Right distinction (I don't see why we have to, but that's another argument), I am a man of the Left (OK, sure, I'm a "centrist," but a radical one). And, since I am not the smartest person on the Left, of course there are many other folks, who may well call themselves progressives, who share some variety of these criticisms. The worries about identity politics are becoming widespread; the critique of "callout culture" and the righteous indignation of various movements is gathering force. I know left-wingers who are pro-life, who are for genuinely responsible gun ownership, who are "fiscal conservatives," and so on.

So it's only fair to give some counter-point: Why am I not, then, that other thing, whatever it is, on the right?

Well... if you are still with me, stay tuned.

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