A NONFICTION BOOK BY O.G. ROSE
Belonging Again (Part 13)
If the State stabilized, would we stabilize too?
Suffering what Charles Taylor called “cross-pressures,” “unbundling,” and “The Nova Effect” — increasingly surrounded by options of how we could live, causing us to suffer what Barry Schwartz called “the paradox of choice” — increasingly losing any sense of “quiet certainty,” unable to assume anymore that the people around us think like us (and even occupy the same universe), having to work increasingly more hours due to Globalization and automation just to scrape out a living, increasingly forced to live like a philosopher without necessarily having any increase in philosophical training, wanting a meaning for our lives but increasingly having to view any meaning we establish for ourselves as “created” versus “discovered” (to use a distinction from Making Sense of God by Timothy Keller) — emptying that meaning much of its authority and power to not only make us feel like we “belong” but to also unify people versus further individualize them with their “individual, created meanings” — we live.¹ And living amongst Pluralism, rather than only intellectually know it to some degree, we increasingly experience (personalized) a situation like what Paul Veyne described at the end of his Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths?:
‘Only historical reflection can clarify the programs of truth and reveal their variations. But this reflection is not a constant beacon and does not mark a stage on the route taken by humanity. The road twists and turns. The truth does not direct it toward the horizon. Nor are its vagaries molded on the powerful contours of an infrastructure. The road winds haphazardly. Most of the time the travelers do not care. Each one believes that his road is the true one, and the turns that he sees others take scarcely disturb him. But on rare occasions it happens that a bend in the road permits the travelers to look back and see a long stretch of the road and all its zigzags. Some travelers are of such a temperament that this sight moves them. This retrospective vision speaks truly, but it does not make the road any more false, since the road could not be true. Therefore, the flashes of retrospective lucidity are not very important. They are simply accidents of the journey […]’²
And knowing/feeling evermore that this is life/truth — and yet also knowing that this way of experiencing life doesn’t necessarily mean that the given “truth” we ascribe to is wrong (it is a forever-might-be) — we increasingly lose the feeling that we belong anywhere — that anything can ground us. So the questions befalls us: “How does the Cosmopolitan belong (again)?”
To state the obvious, “belonging” and “Cosmopolitanism” necessarily conflict; if a person is less Cosmopolitan, the person will have a better chance to belong. To belong is necessarily to rest, and if Conyers is correct that a society focused on “will” over “thinking” is a society that moves from “rest” to “action,” then a Cosmopolitan society is necessarily one where people will feel they have nowhere to rest or belong. In many respects, belonging is rest; belonging is the “quiet certainty” that we lose more every day. The more we feel like philosophers — uncertain — the less we will feel like we belong and like the world is falling apart (because in some ways, it is — ever-fracturing). It is the “acids of modernity” themselves which make us unable to “belong again,” and the only way to efface them totally is to turn back the clock, destroy modern technologies like the internet, force everyone back to their home countries, and other ridiculous, immoral, and impossible acts. Hence, though we could “belong again” by ceasing to be Cosmopolitan, that is increasingly impossible.
Let us first discuss what could help the problem: fixing and stabilizing the State which Cosmopolitans are increasingly “toward” (and keep in mind that we are all increasingly Cosmopolitan and Globalist). If the State was to stabilize, that would perhaps help us stabilize our own lives and increasing our rest. On this topic, we will turn to Before the Shooting Begins by James Hunter, which focuses on abortion, “the culture war,” and the collapse of democratic debate. If we take Hunter’s work seriously, we can see a way to help mitigate the increasing chaos of our modern politics, and since it is the State that we as Cosmopolitans are all increasingly “toward,” it is plausible that this would help us feel more at rest and able to belong.
‘Cumulatively,’ Hunter wrote, ‘the various issues of cultural conflict point to a deeper struggle over the first principles of how we will order our major institutions, and in all this, a struggle to shape the identity of the nation as a whole.’³ Before the Shooting Beings was written in the early 90s, and even back then, Hunter was well aware of the coming problems of Pluralism, of a society composed increasingly of people who didn’t share the same frameworks through which they understood and interpreted the world. Hunter saw how difficult Pluralism made it for democracy to function and worried back then, long before Brexit and the 2016 Election, that if we failed to learn how to democratically deal with these differences, civilization would suffer. Hunter admonished:
‘If the culture war is really a war over first principles of how we will order our lives together, then the only just and democratic way beyond the culture war is through it — by facing up to the hand, tedious, perplexing, messy, and seemingly endless task of working through what kind of people we are and what kind of communities we will live in.’⁴
‘If we say the cleavages are too deep to resolve any other way, then it is time to choose sides and set up the barricades. If, however, we say they are not […] then it behooves us to look carefully not for the middle ground of compromise, but for common ground in which rational and moral suasion regarding the basic values and issues are our first and last means to engage each other.’⁵
Hunter understood that the “culture war” wasn’t merely a disagreement between people about something “in the world,” per se, but a disagreement about the very nature of the world in which things rested. One person who believes unicorns don’t exist and another that does have more in common, and are more likely to be able to engage in democratic debate, then someone who believes the existence of unicorns is up to individual conviction. For Hunter, we increasingly live in a world that doesn’t even agree on what people disagree about: the terms of debate aren’t even clear, and no one seems willing to let anyone set those terms (liberal science might be helpful here, but not necessarily). In debates, ‘both sides demonize their opposition as extremists who are outside of the American mainstream,’ and furthermore attempt ‘to frame [their] particular positions as superior to all others [by] mak[ing] the reasons for the superiority seem ‘natural’ ’ — Hunter noted that ‘[t]he capacity of a social group or movement to make its particular preferences and practices seem natural is the key to its control; these particularities become standard throughout society while shrouded in a cloak of neutrality.’⁶
Nations are increasingly composed of differing worldviews erected upon conflicting “first principles,” and erasing these “first principles” is to erase their worldviews, which those who ascribe to them will not likely allow without a bitter fight. Strangely, as we’ve discussed with the work of Conyers, at the same time, there has been an inflating away of the communities erected upon various axioms, which Hunter suggested could hurt democracy. This is because communities can help us learn how to express our differences, to understand and root them in something other than the State (“winning the next election,” intensifying their divisiveness). This can help us feel more secure about our differences (and democracy greatly benefits when its participants aren’t nervous). Hunter warned:
‘Without a base of knowledge about the law, without traditions of moral understanding to draw upon, and without cohesive moral communities within whose values, norms, and ideals our lives are patterned, all we have left are our emotions. Public debate among citizens becomes an exercise in emoting toward one another.’⁷
This may help us understand why the rise of Cosmopolitanism and Pluralism have risen alongside emotionalism and “post-truth”-ism.⁸ Yet paradoxically, as communities are “inflated away,” there is a stress on personal background: as communities lose power, we stress their importance even more (which is perhaps fitting, as a person who loses something tends to frantically look around for it — to become “singular in purpose”). Critical of Foucault, Roger Scruton claims that today, ‘ ‘[t]he question ceases to be ‘what are you saying?’ and becomes, instead, ‘where are you speaking from?’ ’⁹ Though perhaps slightly different from the emotionalism that Hunter wrote about in Before the Shooting Begins, it seems to be a branch on the same tree.
The manner that emotionalism often manifests today is in the language of the very community the loss of which made way for the emotionalism. Today, according to Scruton, ‘personal background becomes far more important than the argument being made, because according to Foucault, even logical reasoning itself is suspect and can be used as a tool of oppression’.¹⁰ ¹¹ And yet, at the same time, personal background and community are viewed with profound suspicion by moderns as potential sources of discrimination and bigotry. All while increasing the importance of “personal background” in democratic debate, there is simultaneously an “inflating away” and/or undermining of the authority and power of personal background thanks to tolerance, as described by Conyers. We seem to increasingly grasp its importance while we try to render it less meaningful.
That all said, perhaps “community” isn’t the right word for what intersectionality focuses on, but rather “identity.” By “personal background,” intersectionality seems to (unintentionally) mean something much more “individual” than “communal,” which falls in line with the individualization that worried Conyers. But I’m not sure we can draw a line where “community” ends and “identity” begins: the two need one another. Progressives tend to agree that we need “diversity” and “others” to become our full selves, and yet there is simultaneously a skepticism and even aggression toward the backgrounds that make individuals “selves” who can increase diversity. This creates a tension that threatens rest and belonging.
The rise in emotionalism and paradoxical stress on personal background may help us understand the imperative for the liberal science Rauch discussed, but I fear that even liberal science isn’t enough to fix our democratic failures, as I think Hunter made clear. On technology, with a logic that I think applies just as much to science in general, Hunter echoed a warning from Jürgen Habermas: ‘[t]echnological consciousness reflects not the sundering of an ethical situation but the repression of ‘ethics’ as such as a category of life.’¹² In other words, technology cannot help people resolve their differences over “first principles,” only suggest — if anything — that “first principles” don’t mater, which is a message people will likely fight. Furthermore, Hunter was concerned that a faith in technology to resolve democratic differences would ‘undermine the communication necessary to achieve social solidarity and the attainment of consensus.’¹³ This is because people will not see a need to learn how to engage in what Hunter called “substantive democracy,” because they (subconsciously) believe that, at the end of the day, technology and science will be the final judge, not reason and debate. ‘The essential elements of power politics are implicit in the high hopes that many […] place in technology to circumvent our difficulties,’ Hunter admonished: the belief that science and technology will resolve debates is to believe that these forces will establish what is natural and normal, all ‘while shrouded in a cloak of neutrality.’¹⁴
Liberal science, technology, and even democracy are necessary for peace and help increase the general quality of life, but they alone are not enough to stabilize the State and political climate of a nation. ‘For all citizens in a democracy and for the [S]tate that claims to represent them, coming to terms with the fundamental differences over the “common good” is perhaps the central question we face.’ For Hunter, “substantive democracy” — an individual responsibility versus system that forces individuals to be “substantively democratic” — is our society’s only hope.¹⁵ Hunter wrote that ‘democracy can be despotic in the way it exercises power, particularly when democratic processes becomes shallow rather than substantive, and thin and weak as opposed to strong.’¹⁶ Contrasted with the “shallow democracy” Hunter observed in American democracy:
‘Substantive democracy […] is not only consonant with the idea of conflict, it depends upon conflict and the frank recognition of the substantive differences it implies. The crucial premise to the substantive democratic option is that consensus or moral agreement should not necessarily be the first and most urgent priority of a social and political order, particularly if such consensus is achieved by compelling people to compromise their most passionately held beliefs and commitments.’¹⁷
“Substantive democracy” is likely the only kind of democracy possible in Pluralism that will avoid horrible political and social backlash. A democracy that “practically forces” people to betray their “first principles” is one that citizens will view as a totalitarian force (exactly as Conyers warned), and people will resist it (as I believe Trump and Brexit prove).¹⁸ Hunter continued:
‘The priority in substantive democracy […] is to find not the ‘middle ground’ of last moral compromise but rather a ‘common ground’ where the particularities of people’s beliefs are indeed recognized as sacred to the people who hold them (and, therefore, as nonnegotiable), but common problems can nevertheless be addressed.’¹⁹
American democracy has underestimated the passion that fuels people’s dedication to their “first principles.” This has led to a democracy that is interested in overturning and effacing “first principles,” versus one that seeks to find a middle ground between people of different axioms. There has been a failure to ‘take serious and substantive account of the Other’: everyone reasons from “first principles” that are self-evidentially correct to them but not others, leading to failures of democracy, because people project these “self-evident principles” onto others (as also being “self-evident” to them).²⁰ ²¹ Consequently democracy has become shallow and empty, and when this occurs, ‘public speech becomes a language game that has the form of meaningful communication, but is in fact merely another form of aggression’; in other words, it becomes ‘a weapon facilitating the coercion of consensus’.²² In this environment, even if there is “liberal science” and “democratic debate,” the mediums will prove powerless to “keep the shooting from beginning.”
To quote Hunter at length on the “common ground” as opposed to “compromise” a “substantive democracy” focuses on establishing:
‘Let me be clear here; the common ground to which I refer is not ‘dialogue’ in the vacuous sense often invoked by some ministers, marriage counselors, and conflict-resolution specialists. It is, rather, robust and passionate and utterly serious civil reflection and argument. In this sense, it builds upon an agreement about how we should contend over our moral and political differences — a public agreement over how to disagree publicly. As George Weigel has put it, when an agreement is realized at this plane, genuine disagreement becomes an accomplishment, and authentic debate becomes a virtue. Only in this context can there exist the possibility of forging politically sustainable solutions to the conflicts that divide us.’²³
‘In the final analysis, substantive argument is the one essential ingredient that can make the concept of democracy — and the consent it implies — meaningful.’²⁴ I find Hunter’s book convincing, and believe it’s correct that if we are to survive Pluralism, we must learn to find “common ground” between people of different “first principles,” versus learn to “compromise” with them — a seemingly insignificant change of focus that changes everything. As long as democracy continues in people’s mind to be about whose “first principles” will reign and whose will be debased if not erased, every election will be divisive and turbulent. If democracy demands people to practically sacrifice “first principles,” then the winner of the election is the group that must sacrifice “first principles” the least if at all, and this will leave part of the society greatly dissatisfied to the point of even violence. One part of civilization has hope while the other loses it: the existential tension will be dire. Hunter wrote:
‘The problem, of course, is that when politics is framed as the only (or primary) solution to public disagreement [because there is no substantive democracy], the only practical question people ask is about who is in control. Is it ‘our’ party, ‘our’ candidate, ‘our’ side — or ‘theirs’? […] Indeed, the question of political solutions permits people to avoid or deny altogether the human side of controversy, as though cultural controversy could be formulated as a technical problem permitting a purely technical solution.’²⁵
Where “substantive democracy” and “liberal science” are lacking, Hunter warned that democracy becomes nothing but a battle of Nietzschean “wills to power” (and it is hard to imagine people feeling like they “belong” in the middle of a fight) — a political environment ‘where words are weapons and debates are occasions to intimidate if not verbally bludgeon one’s opponent.’²⁶
Even if we do manage to fix our debates and help stabilize the State which we as Cosmopolitans are necessarily “toward,” we will still have systematic problems to fix — lobbying, money in politics, corporatism — as described powerfully in Government’s End by Jonathan Rauch. One step at a time, I suppose, and if we as Cosmopolitans are going to “belong again,” fixing the State and democratic debate seem necessary. However, I’m not sure if that alone will be enough to help us belong again.
¹Paragraph inspired by “The Life of the Church in a Secular Age” by Charles Taylor, as can be found here:
²Veyne, Paul. Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths?. The University of Chicago. 1988, 128.
³Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 4.
⁴Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 12–13.
⁵Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 13.
⁶Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 33.
⁷Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 148.
⁸If “the map is indestructible,” this is especially problematic, for the “grounds” out of which the “emotionalisms” arise are not only permanent, but without reason, incapable of being comprehended, let alone reached.
⁹Allusion to “On Roger Scruton: Can Well-Cultured Atheists Save Our Civilization?” by Lea Singh, as can be found here:
¹⁰Allusion to “On Roger Scruton: Can Well-Cultured Atheists Save Our Civilization?” by Lea Singh, as can be found here:
¹¹Scruton also warns that Foucault’s thinking is taught to students who lack both the culture and religion to resist it, precisely because they lack the communities and institutions which can instill character in students to oppose it (except perhaps those communities and institutions which preach Foucault). Intersectional thought contributes to the fall of communities and institutions (other than those approved of by the State and zeitgeist), hence creating a feedback loop. But if that reduces the likelihood of “the banality of evil,” is this so bad thing?
¹²Allusion to Jürgen Habermas, as found in Before the Shooting Begins by James Davison Hunter. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 34.
¹³Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 34.
¹⁴Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 33.
¹⁵Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 19.
¹⁶Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 34.
¹⁷Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 34.
¹⁸For more on “practical force,” see “The Tragedy of Us” by O.G. Rose
¹⁹Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 35.
²⁰Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 29.
²¹Being Wrong by Kathryn Schultz also belongs alongside the work of Hunter and Rauch in usefulness for understanding modern times.
²²Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 35.
²³Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 35.
²⁴Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 36.
²⁵Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 222.
²⁶Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 223.