Notable links from the week, with a smattering of commentary

Buzzfeed(!) profiles pioneering Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. I blogged about Johnson’s book She Who Is back in 2009–see here, here, here, and here.

Nadia Bolz Weber preached a good Ash Wednesday sermon.

Rep. Paul Ryan thinks free school lunches are bad for kids’ souls. I take this a bit personally since I got free lunches when I was a kid and don’t think my soul is particularly worse off for it. You know what is bad for your spiritual and moral development? Being too poor to eat.

David Brooks wrote a great column about the evils of solitary confinement.

A wonderful essay from the New York Review of Books on the “secret life” of W. H. Auden. Apparently the great poet–who was also Christian, if a somewhat idiosyncratic one–did a lot of surreptitious charitable works, even when it made him look like a jerk in public.

The impending publication of some of his journals reignite the debate about whether philosopher Martin Heidegger was an anti-Semite.

The Democratic primary for D.C. mayor is next month, and the Washington Post has put together a helpful guide on where the candidates stand on various issues. I’m still undecided on this.

Political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. published an essay in Harper’s (not available online) about what he says (apparently; I haven’t actually read the essay) is the long decline of the American Left and its over-investment in the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party.  This garnered some push-back from various quarters (see here, here, and here, among others); Reed replied to some of these criticisms here. I’m probably less left-wing than most of the participants to this argument, but it’s hard to deny that conservatives have been more successful than the Left in recent decades in building a grass-roots movement that can drive policy changes. The GOP is far more beholden to the conservative movement than the Dems are to the Left. I don’t think, however, that investing in such a movement should prevent anyone from supporting the superior alternative (or lesser evil if you prefer) in a given election. And for left-of-center folks this will almost invariably be the Democrat.

On the situation in Ukraine, and the persistent demands that the U.S. “do something,” I found this helpful.

Music-wise, I’m still on a St. Vincent kick. Here’s a great live session from a couple of years ago.


Can conservatism protect your daughter?

Say what you will about conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, he certainly knows how to troll liberals.

Yesterday, the Times published a column in which Douthat offers an explanation of why, as some research has apparently shown, parents who have daughters are more likely to vote Republican. Douthat sketched a post-60s sexual landscape in which men hound women for commitment-free sex, and women spend their prime child-bearing years without landing a husband. This situation, he theorized, can increase the appeal of social conservatism to parents who worry about such a fate for their daughters.

This set off a round of the usual Twitter outrage among liberals. And much of it was well justified–Douthat’s column could be read as endorsing the retrograde sexual ethic or a bygone (and in many ways mythical) era. Virtually all liberals–and many conservatives–think we’re on balance much better off living in a world where premarital sex and previously taboo forms of sexual behavior like homosexuality don’t invite the full force of social disapproval (not to mention legal sanction). Moreover, the findings that Douthat’s argument leans on can be given a much more unpleasant interpretation.

But in fairness, Douthat’s conclusion was actually pretty modest. You don’t have to be crazy to think that contemporary sexual norms have drawbacks as well as advantages. Or that those drawbacks might disproportionately affect women. Certainly Christians, whatever their political views, can’t sign on to a regime of anything-goes sexuality.

All this notwithstanding, as (yes) the father of a daughter (and of a son for that matter), I’m glad my kids aren’t going to grow up under the sexual norms that prevailed when I was young, much less those of the 1950s. If for no other reason, this is because (1) girls and women today aren’t held to quite as rigid a double standard and (2) being gay is much less stigmatized. I don’t want my daughter to live in a world that tells her she’s a slut for expressing her sexuality, and I don’t want either of my kids to think there’s anything wrong with being gay.

Having kids has made me more conservative in some ways (and more liberal in others). Yet this hasn’t translated into increased support for the policy objectives of the organized conservative movement. As far as I can tell, these have very little to do with addressing the real problems facing people today, including young people. A policy that actually supported commitment and family formation, for example, would include paid parental leave, something that is largely anathema to the Right. Contemporary social conservatism seems driven largely by a tribalistic opposition to anyone who doesn’t fit a very narrow definition of “real” American. And it’s far from clear to me how a platform of cutting taxes on the rich, gutting the welfare state, and opposing gay marriage will make life better for my daughter (or my son) as she grows up.

If there’s a problem with contemporary sexual mores, it’s not clear there’s a policy fix for it. But to the extent there is, I don’t see any reason to think conservatism provides it.

A liberal revival?

According to the New York Times, after a period when it was more fashionable to study relatively marginalized religious movements like evangelicalism and Mormonism, historians are turning their attention back to liberal mainline Protestantism. One of the more surprising arguments, made by David Hollinger, is that the legacy of the mainline may be deeper and more enduring than its numerical decline suggests. He contends that, despite the apparent success of conservative evangelicalism in displacing it from the center of American Protestantism, liberal Protestantism succeeded in imparting certain broadly progressive values to American society.

Perhaps providing some support for Hollinger’s thesis, a report released this week by the Brookings Institution and the Public Policy Research Institute suggests that the religious conservatism in America is actually declining, and progressivism is on the upswing. The report summarizes the results of a survey of Americans’ views on economics and religion, and a key finding is that younger generations are more likely to identify as religiously moderate or progressive (or not religious for that matter). This trend seems to mirror the same long-term demographic changes that are contributing to the woes of the Republican Party. In short: America is becoming less old, white, and conservative and more young, non-white, and liberal.

Of course, “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive” and the like are notoriously slippery and malleable terms (particularly when it comes to theology). And we don’t know if increased religious liberalism will translate to a revival of more progressive religious communities. At the same time, though, these trends hardly seem to support the oft-repeated claim that hard-core theological conservatism is the key to successful, growing churches.

Negative liberty, positive liberty, and the second American revolution

In the afterword to his magisterial Battle Cry of Freedom (which I finished reading over Christmas), historian James McPherson says that the Civil War was a turning point between two different understandings of liberty. He distinguishes them using the terms made famous by Isaiah Berlin: “negative” liberty and “positive” liberty. Roughly, negative liberty is freedom from external interference–the “right to be left alone.” So understood, freedom is essentially opposite to government power: the stronger the government, the less freedom. The American Revolution was arguably a battle for negative liberty in that the colonies were seeking freedom from English domination and that the resulting government was one of sharply limited powers.

By contrast, positive liberty is having the actual capability to do something you want. Freedom in this sense is not inherently opposed to power, but in fact requires a strong government. Freeing slaves, to take the most salient example, required a dramatic increase in federal power.

McPherson contends that, after the Civil War, positive liberty became the dominant American understanding of freedom. He points out that the first ten amendments to the Constitution–the Bill of Rights–were essentially a series of “thou shalt nots” directed at the federal government intended to limit its power; but the post-Civil War amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th) established that the federal government did have the power to enforce the equal civil rights and freedoms of citizens. This created a much wider scope for government activity to ensure equal effective freedom.

McPherson observes that the “libertarians and southern conservatives of the 1980s and 1990s who wanted to revive the exclusively negative form of liberty that prevailed before the Civil War were right to make Lincoln a target of their intellectual artillery.”

Unlike these one-dimensional philosophers of negative liberty, however, Lincoln understood that secession and war had launched a revolution that changed America forever. Eternal vigilance against the tyrannical power of government remains the price of our negative liberties, to be sure. But it is equally true that the instruments of government power remain necessary to defend the equal justice under law of positive liberty. (p. 867)

This, of course, is also the view of American liberalism–the liberalism of F.D.R. and L.B.J. and the modern Democratic Party. When conservatives invoke freedom they usually intend to restrict it to negative liberty in McPherson’s sense (although even this commitment is often more honored in the breach than the observance). Freedom from taxes, from regulation, from restrictions on gun ownership, etc. are all framed as negative freedoms. Liberals maintain, though, that government power is necessary to ensure a degree of positive freedom sufficient for people to lead flourishing lives. This is the theoretical basis for the social welfare state and government regulations on nominally private activity, such as pollution. Lincoln may not have been a “liberal” in the modern sense, but there’s a relatively straight line from his political philosophy to New Deal-Great Society liberalism.

Disturbingly, though, the increase in positive liberty often seems to go hand-in-hand with a diminution in negative liberty. We only need to recall Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, F.D.R.’s internment camps, or Obama’s “kill list.” That’s the legitimate insight of the libertarians (and their left-wing cousins the anarchists)–that it’s hard to establish a firewall that confines government power to good purposes. So you end up with an expanded welfare state and civil liberties violations and overseas wars. That doesn’t mean that a free, peaceful, and social democratic society is impossible (the Scandinavian countries seem to pull if off fairly successfully); but it may be a risk inherent in the project.

The incoherence of conservative economics

First ThingsR.R. Reno and The American Conservative‘s Scott Galupo both have recent posts that grapple intelligently with the problems of the G.O.P’s economic message. They’re responding in part to Mitt Romney’s post-election diagnosis that President Obama won because he offered “gifts” to voters.

Here’s Reno:

What today’s Republican Party can’t seem to get its mind around is that globalization has disoriented and disadvantaged large portions of American society, just as industrialization did more than one hundred years ago. Democrats aren’t “creating dependency” by inventing social programs, they’re responding to the social reality in the way progressives have for more than a century. I’m not in favor of the progressive approach, but the fantasy that politics is simply about everybody getting the best deal for themselves is absurd. We have an instinct for solidarity, not just self interest.

And Scott Galupo:

Strong national government and federal supremacy have been with us since the Lincoln administration, but you can see its root system in the Adams administration. Michael Lind has been an essential source for the “developmental economic” history of the Unites States. If I can sum his work in one sentence, I would put it like this: The story of America, from Hamilton to Lincoln to the New Deal to World II, has been one of state-promoted — not state-run — industrial capitalism and American Dream-ism. The “neoliberal” adjustments of the 1970s and the Reagan-Clinton era did not replace this system, but rather enmeshed it in the lean-and-mean world of global finance and multinational corporations.

Obama’s mission, as he sees it (or as I think he sees it), is to try to revive the high middle-class living standards of the mid-20th-century in this neoliberal world. “Advanced manufacturing,” new infrastructure, high-tech energy, and higher education are the key components of Obama’s vision of re-industrialization. Republicans have reacted to Obamanomics as if 1) it is akin to socialism or European social democracy; and 2) they do not practice a similar brand of state-promoted capitalism themselves (military-industrial complex, anyone?).

Neither writer, both being on “the Right” broadly speaking, is enthusiastic about the economic program of the Democratic Party, but they both agree that a political party should have an economic program–one that responds to the actual needs of voters. As Matt Yglesias put it, the G.O.P. could stand to learn from Obama’s “make people’s lives better” strategy.

It has always seemed to me that there’s a basic incoherence in the message of economic conservatism. If you free up the market–cut regulation, increase foreign trade, etc.–then you are inherently exposing certain people to more economic risk. Now, this may be justifiable on the grounds that it increases the overall wealth of society. But if you simultaneously argue for slashing the welfare state and public services, then what happens to the “losers” whose economic fortunes are worsened by the market’s “creative destruction”? A cynical view of the matter–and one with some truth to it, I think–is that this is a feature, not a bug of the conservative economic worldview. That is, the whole point is to reduce the power of the middle and lower classes relative to the rich.

But assuming charitably that conservatives are interested in increasing everybody’s well-being, a more coherent approach might be a “Nordic“-style model that combines a liberalized market with a universal safety net and robust public services. This model upholds the values of economic freedom that conservatives claim to cherish, but also recognizes that government action is needed to blunt the sharper edges of the market and ensure universal access to basic goods. However, given its reliance on high levels of taxes and public spending (not to mention its–ew!–European-ness),  I have a hard time seeing such a vision catching on among American conservatives.

Romney vs. the 47%

The big political news of the day, of course, is the video released by Mother Jones of Mitt Romney speaking to a room of wealthy donors in which he essentially wrote off half the American public as moochers who will never be convinced to take responsibility for their lives.

Romney’s remarks are a version of an increasingly popular conservative narrative according to which 47 percent of the American public allegedly pay no taxes and are living off the largesse of the welfare state at the expense of the hard-working “makers.”

There have been a number of debunkings of Romney’s comments today, not all of them from liberals. Ezra Klein wrote about it with his usual wonky detail, but National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru and First ThingsMatthew Schmitz also pushed back. The New York Times’ David Brooks pointed out that these “freeloaders” include war veterans, students getting loans to go to college, and senior citizens (who disproportionately vote Republican!). The reality is that there’s no clear sense in which the political coalitions of Right and Left can be divided into “makers” and “takers.”

I’m not trying to make a tu quoque argument that Republicans benefit from government spending too. The point I’d rather make is that the self-made man who inherits nothing and doesn’t owe anybody anything is a myth. Luck is as large a determinant of where you end up as individual initiative is. And liberals believe that government is the only entity in society with the ability to level the playing field a bit and make sure as many people as possible have a shot at a decent life. It does this through redistribution, regulation, and provision of public services, among other functions. As I’ve written before, one of the reasons I became disenchanted with libertarianism was that I realized my life wouldn’t be possible without “big government.”

We all probably have a tendency to exaggerate our own contributions to our successes and to minimize what we owe to others, to circumstances, or to dumb luck. But is that something to base a governing philosophy on?

Liberals aren’t sexual relativists

In an article that otherwise makes some good points about conservatives’ “populist” defense of junk food, Rod Dreher just can’t resist taking a swipe at a time-honored liberal strawman:

For conservatives, it may be revealing to compare the defensiveness with which many of us discuss what we do in the dining room to the defensiveness liberals approach discussion of what they do in the bedroom. Liberals, to overgeneralize, believe that what consenting adults do in bed with their bodies is immune from moral judgment. Social conservatives recognize the falsity of this view, understanding that immoderation in sexual matters corrupts individual character and can have deleterious social consequences.

I can see why this neat bit of parallelism may have been too tempting to leave on the editing-room floor, but it just doesn’t wash. A more accurate approximation to the “liberal” view would be that what consenting adults do in the bedroom is not a fit matter for state regulation. But liberals are hardly barred from making moral judgments about sexual relations. This is because consent is a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion for morally appropriate sexual acts. A liberal can easily say, for instance, that a relationship of equality and mutuality is morally superior to one based on humiliation and degradation, even if all the parties involved consent to their treatment.

Dreher here makes the common conservative mistake of assuming that because liberals object to some longstanding moral prohibitions (on, say, homosexual relationships) that they must object to all moral judgment in matters of sex. This only follows if you treat sexual ethics as a seamless whole that can’t be altered without the whole thing unraveling. But liberals typically take a different approach: they look for the deeper, underlying principles that justify a particular sexual ethic and try to prune off the bits that seem inconsistent with those principles, understood in light of changing social contexts and new knowledge. Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant made some particular judgments about sex that nearly all of us (conservative and liberal) would now reject, but we can still use the principles of human flourishing or respect for persons to articulate a consistent sexual ethic.