phillip.e.johnston + america   5

Has the Operating System for the Western World Crashed?
At the core of Deneen’s critique is what he sees as a liberal redefinition of the ancient and medieval concept of freedom, or libertas. The ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as the medieval Christians, understood freedom as the learned ability, cultivated through discipline and education in virtue, to properly govern one’s self. The freedom to do what one desires is a false freedom, in this view, because the world is limited but our desires are not, so that in pursuing them we ultimately become their slaves. Becoming free, then, is the process of achieving mastery over our “base” impulses. There is a circularity, too, between good politics and good individual conduct. A society can only govern itself well if it comprises self-governing citizens, and citizens can only learn self-government within a well-governed society.

For Deneen, liberalism’s big innovation was to reject this classical understanding as unrealistic, unscientific, and oppressive. Seeking a more scientific basis for politics, liberals and proto-liberals such as Locke and Hobbes stripped humanity down to its bare essentials — self-interested individuals unmarked by culture or history. Writing in a religiously divided and perpetually warring Europe, they argued that civil peace could be assured by allowing individuals to pursue their private interests free of the irrational restrictions imposed by custom, religion, and popular prejudice, with the modern state there to prevent them from taking advantage of one another. Freedom, that is, was redefined from self-government to lack of external restraint — a notion that was extended to the natural world, where humans, now armed with reason and modern science, no longer faced nature as a fixed limit on their desires, but something to be conquered and transformed. To legitimize the whole structure, liberal theorists projected this state of affairs back into a “state of nature,” a mythical past in which individuals had come together and consented to be governed out of their own shared self-interest.

But while liberalism presented itself as a scientific description of reality, it was, for Deneen, from its beginning a project to transform the world. Humans, for instance, are not naturally isolated individuals. Everyone is born into a specific time, place, and cultural tradition which, however restrictive, is also the source of their identity and connection to other people. Yet modern liberal society, through the action of both the state and the market, erodes these “natural” social bonds, creating in their place the cultureless, isolated individuals that liberal theory claimed to find in the state of nature. And as individuals are stripped of the cultural norms that formerly governed social conduct, the resulting anarchy requires the state to step into the breach by threatening to punish those who violate the rights of others — retroactively coming to play the role that, in Hobbes’s story, it was consciously and consensually created to fulfill. The general trend is that people are freed from old restrictions only to be subjected to the more abstract, alienating powers of capitalism and bureaucracy. Yet liberal ideology masks its own origins, presenting as natural conditions those that is has in fact created.

This conspiracy is one in which both American progressivism and conservatism are implicated. For Deneen, American conservatives, many of whom consider themselves “classical liberals,” prefer a relatively limited state but endorse the scientific conquest of nature and the pursuit of self-interest through the market, both of which act as solvents on the traditional cultures and values they claim to wish to preserve. Progressive liberals, on the other hand, wish to use the state to reduce market-generated inequality — which they recognize can practically limit individuals’ freedom — but vigorously attack pre-liberal cultural norms and institutions, such as organized religion and normative monogamy, that Deneen argues temper inequality and preserve social solidarity. While each apparently fights either the state or the market, they are in reality only two sides of the same liberal coin. Partisan politics, for Deneen, can thus only serve to further entrench liberalism, deepening the pathologies that are already becoming apparent.

And what are these pathologies? In politics, Deneen charges liberalism with having created, under the guise of representative government, distant, arbitrary, and unresponsive rule by technocrats who despise the ignorant populace and are despised in turn. Culturally, he argues that liberalism has eviscerated actual cultures and replaced them with a pervasive, homogenous “anticulture,” in which identity is reduced to a sort of private, consumer good. And regarding the environment, liberalism’s rejection of external constraints — particularly the constraints of nature — have led it to trash the planet while hoping, delusionally, that future technological advances will put off a reckoning forever. Perhaps most interesting is his chapter on the new ruling class, the “liberalocracy,” which Deneen accuses of having established itself as a new aristocracy to replace the one it overthrew. Yet because these meritocrats are themselves creatures of liberalism — unattached individuals, defined by education and occupation rather than attachment to place or culture — they have little interest, he claims, in helping the system’s losers, with whom they share little except nationality.
Deneen  liberalism  politics  America 
february 2018 by phillip.e.johnston
Andrew Sullivan on the Opioid Epidemic in America
The pace of change, the ethos of individualism, the relentless dehumanization that capitalism abets, the constant moving and disruption, combined with a relatively small government and the absence of official religion, risked the construction of an overly atomized society, where everyone has to create his or her own meaning, and everyone feels alone. The American project always left an empty center of collective meaning, but for a long time Americans filled it with their own extraordinary work ethic, an unprecedented web of associations and clubs and communal or ethnic ties far surpassing Europe’s, and such a plethora of religious options that almost no one was left without a purpose or some kind of easily available meaning to their lives. Tocqueville marveled at this American exceptionalism as the key to democratic success, but he worried that it might not endure forever.

And it hasn’t. What has happened in the past few decades is an accelerated waning of all these traditional American supports for a meaningful, collective life, and their replacement with various forms of cheap distraction. Addiction — to work, to food, to phones, to TV, to video games, to porn, to news, and to drugs — is all around us. The core habit of bourgeois life — deferred gratification — has lost its grip on the American soul. We seek the instant, easy highs, and it’s hard not to see this as the broader context for the opioid wave. ...

Opioids are just one of the ways Americans are trying to cope with an inhuman new world where everything is flat, where communication is virtual, and where those core elements of human happiness — faith, family, community — seem to elude so many. Until we resolve these deeper social, cultural, and psychological problems, until we discover a new meaning or reimagine our old religion or reinvent our way of life, the poppy will flourish.
america  culture  meaning  poverty  screens  technology  drugs  opioids 
february 2018 by phillip.e.johnston
Douthat: No Country for Young Men With AR-15s - The New York Times
The reason that mass shootings aren’t leading to legislative action is that we have a chasm between two sweeping moral visions, one pro-gun and one anti-gun, that is now too wide to be easily bridged by incrementalism.

The anti-gun moral vision regards America’s relationship to gun ownership as a kind of collective moral madness, a love affair with violence, a sickness unto death. Liberals increasingly write about gun ownership the way social conservatives write about abortion and euthanasia — it’s a culture of death, a Moloch devouring our children, a blood sacrifice to selfish individualism.

The pro-gun moral vision, meanwhile, links arms and the citizen, treating self-defense as an essential civic good, a means of maintaining Americans as free people rather than wards (or prisoners) of the state.

The pro-gun vision is linked, of course, to practical concerns — support for gun ownership is higher in rural areas where the police are far away. But it’s essentially a moral-political picture in which the fullness of citizenship includes the capacity to protect and defend, to step in when the state fails and resist when it imposes illegitimately.
Douthat  guncontrol  politics  shootings  violence  america  libertarianism  abortion 
february 2018 by phillip.e.johnston
Conservatism Fails to Act Responsibly | Mere Orthodoxy
Conservatism rejects the deterministic economics that denies people their agency, but the modern conservative movement has preached an atomizing freedom that eviscerates the structures and relationships that help people to exercise agency. [...]

Conservatism needs to decide what it is we’re trying to conserve and rewrite everything else around that. Conserving the institutions that help people to flourish – churches and families most prominent among them – is more fundamental than “liberty” or “small government”. A focus on the family will almost certainly require, though, that we buck the individualist-atomist elements of conservatism that have become ideological orthodoxy. [...]

Most of all, though, conservatism is doomed to degradation if conservatives neglect our pre-political relationships and do not use the freedom we have to be sympathetic and sacrifice for our neighbors. Here Williamson’s formulation is backwards: the more that one chooses to love and share in the pain of the poor, the more intimately you will want to know them and be friends with them. This is not only a necessary front in the war on the atomization, consumerism, and individualism that are picking us apart like crabs on a plate, but it is also what Christ demonstrates for us and demands of us.
conservatism  liberalism  poverty  politics  individualism  consumerism  Christianity  america 
february 2018 by phillip.e.johnston
The Christian Right’s Willful Faith in Trump
[The Faith of Donald J. Trump] dwells obsessively on the conservative cultural values exhibited by his parents despite their troubling tolerance for bad theology. The 45th president’s inherited work ethic, patriotism, love for the military (reinforced by the military boarding school he attended for five years), and Republican political habits are all touted as being indicative of a predisposition for conservative Evangelicalism. (One of his current advisers approvingly said of him: “He’s got that 1950s respect for clergy.”)
Trump  evangelicalism  america  christianright  metaxas  falwell  franklingraham 
february 2018 by phillip.e.johnston

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