Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Brooks, Habermas and conservatism

Lately I had been second guessing my verdict of earlier this year that New York Times writer and PBS Newshour talking head David Brooks is "my favourite pundit." He's just been too wimpy. Although he may be a conservative, his whole style screams liberal. His being molested by a US Senator wouldn't be such a headshaker if it didn't fit his personality so well. Man up, Brooksie! Some guy is violating your personal space? Tell him to lay off and if he won't then start shoving! As David Warren of the Ottawa Citizen has noted, Brooks once retracted the views he presented in a column after the White House called him and told him to get back in line. Do you think they could muscle Krauthammer like that? I think not!

But Brooks has earned his keep with his Sept 28 opinion piece about the need for "economic morality":
Over the past few years... there clearly has been an erosion in the country's financial values. This erosion has happened at a time when the country's cultural monitors were busy with other things. They were off fighting a culture war about prayer in schools, "Piss Christ" and the theory of evolution...
In 1960, Americans' personal debt amounted to about 55 percent of national income. By 2007, Americans' personal debt had surged to 133 percent of national income....
If there is to be a correction, it will require a moral and cultural movement.
Our current cultural politics are organized by the obsolete culture war, which has put secular liberals on one side and religious conservatives on the other....
It will have to take on what you might call the lobbyist ethos... It will have to take on the self-indulgent popular demand for low taxes and high spending.
A crusade for economic self-restraint would have to rearrange the current alliances and embrace policies like energy taxes and spending cuts that are now deemed politically impossible. But this sort of moral revival is what the country actually needs.

What I find compelling about Brooks' analysis is that he criticizes what the "cultural monitors" have been obsessing over but does so from a conservative as opposed to a liberal or libertarian perspective. I am not a libertarian. Never have been. When I was a young adult and at the stage where I might have become libertarian I was exposed to Postmodern thinkers and subsequently decided to reject libertarianism as a Modern and therefore philosophically untenable ideology. But that doesn't mean that the rationalism that drives libertarianism at its purest isn't of tremendous practical value within a circumscribed sphere. I've championed communally conscious or responsible libertarianism which rejects the usual "culture war" as obsolete because with luck my fellow conservatives will be convinced that if we follow the Glenn Becks of the world down the road they are on we will just be barking louder up the wrong tree. I say "communally conscious" libertarianism because the retail politics that have been labelled libertarian in the United States have routinely been infected with the "lobbyist ethos" Brooks rightly indicts. Regular readers of this blog would note that Brooks' call for "energy taxes and spending cuts" is a prescription I've been writing out for anyone interested in which medicine I think we need to swallow.

My one reservation with Brooks' opinion piece is that he seems to suggest that "religious conservatives" should give up one battle in favour of taking up another one without really explaining what is different about the second battle aside from the implied suggestion that the second battle is currently being lost via neglect. There are, in fact, sound reasons for why the first battle is misguided beyond just questions of tactics. For this, one may turn to J├╝rgen Habermas' essay "Modernity versus Postmodernity" where Habermas describes conservatives who
welcome the development of modern science, as long as this only goes beyond its sphere to carry forward technical progress, capitalist growth and rational administration. Moreover, they recommend a politics of defusing the explosive content of cultural modernity.
According to one thesis, science, when properly understood, has become irrevocably meaningless for the orientation of the life-world. A further thesis is that politics must be kept as far aloof as possible from the demands of moral-practical justification.

Note that politics "must be kept as far aloof as possible" from what I would call the hot button social issues. Why? Because it's the exact opposite of "defusing": it's inflaming. It creates a take-no-prisoners show down with Modernity when Modernity ought to be encouraged to flower within its circumscribed sphere. I, for one, champion the Economist on a regular basis but that's because it addresses "technical progress, capitalist growth and rational administration." When it infects the "life world," that is when to pick a fight. I am not saying religious conservatives should not be fighting the battles that have been fought per se. I am saying that these should be battles for souls and need to be de-politicized. De-politicized means reserved for the "life world" and separate from the world of "administration." Rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's means preventing abortions through private counselling not public lobbying.

But doesn't Brooks venture into the public arena when he calls for an "economic morality"? Yes, he does. But the difference here is that "the enemy" does not have to change his or her fundamental metaphysical presumptions to come around. Athiests can appreciate the need for an "economic morality" by considering the social science evidence and reasoned appeals to shared self-interests. They can't appreciate the need to ban abortion if their metaphysics doesn't recognize a notion of sanctity. They have to be won over on that issue by personal regeneration, not political lobbying. In the economic, or more precisely the instrumental, sphere, however, conservatives can go on the offensive and win with libertarian allies. Outside this sphere, one should battle privately not publicly because publicly it will be a continual defensive action (the currency of the public or political battle is language and reason and conservatives believe the efficacy of these tools is limited because our worldview was ultimately arrived at via irrational, nonverbal experience). Not only is the prospect of winning the political battle over, say, abortion more unlikely with every decade that Modernism advances, making a political fight out of it raises the stakes, putting everything at risk, because it suggests that co-existence is impossible. If we indicate that we cannot live in a world in which they do not adopt our metaphysics, they are going to resolve to eliminate the threat by eliminating us. In fact, co-existence is entirely possible if Modernism/Rationalism/Instrumentalism is contained within its appropriate field: separate "life worlds", common political worlds. Libertarians will be our allies in a circumscribed political world and will even help protect our separated "life worlds" but first we have to recognize that arguments with theistic assumptions are not going to work in the political sphere. That concession in no way implies that they do not carry the day in the private sphere of concrete personal experience.

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