Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Libertarianism, Communitarianism, and Culture

Update below:

No group, local or national, can define itself in the presence of libertariansim. This is its great strength and weakness. We cannot define for ourselves what marriage is, or when life begins, or celebrate commonly-held virtues as if they are universals. If you and your like-minded pals decide to go off and have it your own way in an area, the next people who move in don't have to go along. Often, they can even legally force things out of the culture they have just entered. Yet in a country with individual rights of great importance, no one can forbid them from moving in. Similarly, those who grow up in a culture but decide they no longer like parts of it don't have to move, they can force change upon the others.

There's a lot of good in this. Local and national cultures have often been founded on some pretty unattractive and damaging ideas, majority ideas forced on minorities. The southern states resented the federal government changing their culture as regards black people, both in the 1860's and the 1960's. We now consider disallowing of that local culture to be a good thing. We remain more resentful of the religious aspects of our national history being removed from any government sponsored istitution. This shows up especially at Christmas, where a remembered tradition of Christmas carols at school events and nativity scenes on public property are now forbidden. Interestingly, those very items were a force for tolerance in the eras that were still divisively ethnic but generally Christian. Those carols and creches were a point of unity among Poles, Italians, blacks, Lebanese, and founding British culture. We have many differences but we have much in common. It created the kind of cultural unity that communitarians now approve of.

But it left out the Jews and was an implied slap. It left out the nonbelievers, who resented having to fork over tax money for this. Those were able to force - and I think rightly - cessation of "community" expressions that didn't express everyone in the community. Excluding them from the culture (and making them pay for the honor), was deemed to be an infringement of their individual rights.

I think it was right. I don't see any fair way around it. But the cost was enormous. The whole idea of an American culture weakens.

It is not replaced by anything. A tradition of individuality can certainly be a cultural distinctive, but only the few - those who most desire to be separate - consider it to be the entirety of their culture. To step outside ourselves and look at this from a perspective we know but do not share, consider the Brits. The soldier in WWII was not fighting for empire, whatever accusation were leveled at him by those who prefer the dark side. He was fighting for cups of tea, and songs known in common. There were great overlapping ideas of what the culture back home was all about. That no two soldiers had precisely the same definition did not change the fact that there was a strongly-shared culture worth dying for.

There have always been competing versions of what American culture is made of, with each group considering its experience to be the heart of America. Those who grew up in the large cities point to the mixing of groups; those who went to the various frontiers of our history consider self-reliance and remaking oneself as the American distinctive; country music has its own vision of what being an American is, a vision founded in a region but recognised as similar by many other regions. We had shared entertainments, though everyone opted out of some and had specializations. Somehow we had a balance between those ideas and had an American culture we felt we agreed on. It was tied together by a civil religion that owed a great deal to Christianity and a trading attitude that owed a great deal to Adam Smith. All were free to sell or by. All were free to worship as they chose. This was part of how we defined ourselves.

But worship just a bit farther afield, atomizing entertainments, and a free market less free, have caused us to seek redefinitions.

Let me step back from that - it's oversimple. National unity was founded on a dozen other factors that are less true now. I don't wish to limit the list.

Culture always changes, and people have always seemed to adjust, so perhaps there is no real worry here, just uncertainty. The communitarians certainly believe we can forge a new culture based on ideas that are outgrowths of the old ones. But their vision for all of us sounds suspiciously like their own current culture, to the exclusion of other groups. It's one more version of "well, we all believe this, right?" when we don't.

An example, not to prove a point but simply to illustrate. When someone says they are a Red Sox fan, they may not quite mean what another fan means. Yet we have some idea what they mean - there are overlapping definitions. A high-minded person who comes up and says "But to be a true Red Sox fan you should care more about the good of the game of baseball itself than your individual team." We suspiciously grant some sense in that. If baseball is ruined, the Red Sox will not be far behind, so yes, we should care more deeply about the noble enterprise of baseball itself.

But why stop there? The next person, even more high-minded, will declare that the true fan wants Sport to be a healthy enterprise, a force for unity and uplift rather than a cultural drag. Hmm, perhaps. Then follows another. The True Fan, she says, should care about all our entertainments and enthusiasms and how they affect our youth and our future. The one after that thinks we should not merely limit ourselves to entertainments, but to all the pieces of culture, that they be forces for good and not evil. But why stop at America, says the next higher-minded person. Shouldn't all of our actions be directed toward the highest good of all people? Political and religious questions begin to infiltrate.

These all may be fine things, far more worthy than following a local team. But notice, we have made the phrase "Red Sox fan," which had some cultural value we could all relate to (even if in disapproval), completely meaningless. The True Fan idea turns out add nothing to the shared culture. It becomes merely another synonym for one's philosophical outlook. CS Lewis noted that this had happened to the words gentleman and Christian. That latter is less true in a culture where a shared Christianity can no longer be assumed. It is no longer a word of vague, general approval, as it did in my youth. It retains some of that, but is returning to some specificity.

Akafred sent this link from Christianity Today International Leadership Journal: Ed Reed's The End of Wanderlust. An interesting counterpoint to the above.


Ben Wyman said...

This was excellent.

A mild diversion - have I mentioned this before to you? I can't recall - but I realized recently that Libertarianism and certain aspects of Christianity walk hand in hand. I was having a discussion with someone who was discussing politics with me and his desire to see the government move back to its old systems, to become purely constitutional in mindset. When the discussion moved to faith, they had the exact same mindset. We could fix the church if we just got back to Scripture, if we just got back to tithing, if we just got back to the words of Jesus.

Show me a man who feels all of Christianity could be fixed if we stopped interpreting the book and just got back to obeying it, and I will show you a Ron Paul voter.

james said...

You could think of love for the clan, the community, the town, the state, the country, and the world as being increasing attenuated versions of love for your family. You would die for your family and run to defend your neighbor(*), but the more distant the connection the less strong the love.

So what connection is there between a German and a Greek that would encourage the German to cough up extra taxes to bail out the Greek, or indeed for the Greek to show gratitude (and an intention to reform) for the bailout? The EU has, from this distance, never seemed to be more than an economic self-interest group--and that's not a good motivator for sacrifice for the common good.

With less and less common culture and fewer clan ties and less interest in the American ideology, I think we are becoming less and less of a nation and more and more like an EU with a few traditions. The oligarchs running the show without any interest in our welfare or opinions don't help instill a sense of community either.

In one sense we _do_ have a common culture--that of our common entertainments. Our connections with each other become stronger the more other people we have in common; and it turns out that the "other people" we have in common are often the celebrities shining in our living rooms. Our personal relationships are partly mediated by media tycoons. But what a trivial and ephemeral culture this is! Who cares about last year's entertainments?

(*)Unless he's one of "Chesterton's neighbors" ("The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people")

terri said...

re: the Wanderlust article....I feel that within myself, too. Maybe just because I have kids and a stable extended family life in our geographical area.

I don't really enjoy Florida's climate, at least not from May through the end of, sticky, oppressive...90% humidity anyone? But this is where we've made our lives and picking up and leaving it just for more money, or a better climate seems like surrendering all the good things for trivial reasons.

I've also realized that stability is the key ingredient to accomplishment. People who are so spent trying to reboot things all the time have no energy to work on the things that are really important to them.

That sort of goes back to some of your points about community. There must be some sort of broad tradition/feeling that gives a community a starting place for establishing itself and thriving.