Do You Believe in Magic?
January 24, 2012

As Corey Robin, Malcolm Harris and IOZ have all suggested or implied, Melissa Harris-Perry’s latest is perhaps best read as a sort of Swiftian parody of liberalism, written by a closeted anarchist. What else does one make of a column that compares American liberal democracy to Santa Claus and then exhorts us to believe in it?

Santa exists only if we make him real through belief. The American project in democracy is similar. Even as we challenge it to be better, fairer and more honest, we still have to believe that democratic governance by the people, through their institutions, can and should exist. Like Santa Claus, democracy requires us to believe that collective faith can be greater than our individual doubts. In 1994’s Miracle, Santa says, “I’m not just a whimsical figure who wears a charming suit and affects a jolly demeanor…. I’m a symbol, I’m a symbol of the human ability to suppress the selfish and hateful tendencies that rule the major part of our lives.”

Granted, we do Dr. Harris-Perry an injustice if we refuse to engage with the substance of her argument and instead content ourselves with snarking at an unfortunate metaphor. She does, after all, have a point, or at least half of one. A republic of institutional nihilists will destroy itself in seconds flat; the glue that holds any democratic project together is a shared commitment to democratic values. Whether or not one can have a rational commitment to those values is a point of contention as old as moral philosophy. On this point I would only say that even if all ethical claims are non-rational, they are still qualitatively distinct from empirical claims regarding the alleged existence of supernatural avatars of jolliness.

Anyway, even if ethical claims can’t be mathematically proven, they can still be persuasively argued. That is not what Harris-Perry has done; in fact, her entire column is a long exercise in question-begging. We are told that we should believe in the American democratic project because, if we don’t, then the project will fail. But if we don’t believe it in the first place, then why should we want it to succeed? A more persuasive version of this column (though also, no doubt, a much longer one) might have told us why, whether or not Santa is real, we should want him to be real.

Furthermore, it might have told us how that desire should translate into reality. I’m no anarchist — this little boy wants to believe. But what am I supposed to do with that? Faith in American democracy must mean something different from faith in the institutional machinery of the American state, machinery which Harris-Perry admits has failed us. That being the case, trying to exercise power through established channels may be necessary, but it is woefully insufficient. That’s why Harris-Perry’s final paragraph made this little boy’s heart sink:

Our faith has been badly damaged by governors who crush unions, by a Congress that will not govern, by a military that tortures, by campus police with pepper spray, by coaches who prey on kids, by CEOs who slash jobs as profits rise, by a system that seems irreparably broken. But building a country requires investment in one another, hope that we can be better tomorrow than we are today and faith that our failures are not definitive. In these final days before we enter the 2012 election year, it is time to ask, “Do you believe?”

Juxtapose the reference to 2012 with the glaring omission from Harris-Perry’s list of faith-damagers, and this starts to sound dangerously close to another call for everyone to just suck it up and vote for the Democrats. I submit to you that doing so, and letting the extent of our civic engagement stop there, would actually be a testament to our profound lack of faith in democracy. Surely Occupy Wall Street should have reminded us that democracy is more than something you do for a couple hours once every four years; it is, in fact, a way of life.

That’s another problem with the Santa Claus analogy: Saint Nick comes but once a year, if he comes at all. If American democracy is to be rescued, or if we are to so much as demonstrate that American democracy is worth rescuing, then that means conceiving it as a permanent, year-round state of existence.

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The Myth of the Magic Center
August 12, 2010

To expand on the point I made in today’s column, organizational principles based around individual actors (democracy in this case, but also, for example, capitalism) are going to trend away from equilibrium and towards entropy if there aren’t safeguards in place. The example of this most people like to point towards is how the laissez-faire capitalism of the Industrial Revolution morphed into something perhaps more accurately described as neo-feudalism. But I don’t think it’s hard to see how the same thing could happen in a democratic system where appeals to popular will are treated as a de facto justification for any sufficiently popular policy.

The problem is that popular opinion is extremely malleable, and often contradictory and strange. Which is why, rather than deferring to popular opinion, we invest decision-making authority in a smaller group of people whose wisdom, judgment and experience we put a special premium on. Too bad that quite  a few of them say crazy, irresponsible things, get their constituents to echo those things, and then act as if all they’re doing is deferring to the will of those same constituents.

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The Ethics of Legal Representation
July 17, 2010

On Twitter, my friend Charlie Eisenhood asks:

A couple questions: is it ethical to lobby for a company actively trying to do bad? Is it ethical to represent a serial killer?

Let me take the serial killer question first. “Represent” is ambiguous here, but I take it to mean legal representation, such as defending him at his murder trail. In that case, I would say yes, it is ethical. In fact, if you are a public defender, and called upon to represent him, I would say it is your ethical obligation.

The thing is, the integrity of the American court system rests on the idea that everyone gets roughly equal treatment, and roughly equal access to the same resources, chief among them being competent professional representation. If we allow even the worst people to be convicted and sentenced without access to those resources, then the integrity of the system is undermined.

Now, if the CEO of Charlie’s corrupt corporation is on trial, and the question is whether or not to represent him in court, my answer would be the same. Lobbying, however, is an entirely different matter. Nobody has a right, legal or otherwise, to have their interests professionally represented on Capitol Hill. And whereas legal defense is a necessary function of the justice system, corporate lobbying can often have a corrosive effect on the democratic process. Monied interests too often wield disproportionate influence over lawmakers and other government officials, leading them to make decisions that are in contradiction with the interests of their constituents and the advice of less compromised experts.

So far as lobbying for corporations that do significant harm to the public interest goes, I would say no, that is not ethical.

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In Which I Reveal a Hidden Conservative Streak
July 16, 2010

In order to understand what I mean when I say “ethically dubious” in my previous post, I think you’ve got to understand a bit about where I come from when it comes to political philosophy. One small way in which I could be said to have an old-fashioned conservative’s disposition is that I place a great deal of emphasis on stuff like personal responsibility and communitarian obligation. I don’t see this as being at all in contradiction to my fairly orthodox liberal progressive politics; instead, I think it complements it. Liberal democracy, I would argue, should do everything it can to account for and counter human selfishness and venality, but it fundamentally doesn’t work properly unless we expect the average citizen to feel a certain amount of obligation towards his fellow man.

Just as I’ve argued before that our rights expand with the government’s ability to defend and nurture them, I also think individual responsibility grows with the individual’s ability to discharge it. So to connect that back to blogging, the larger an audience you command, the greater your responsibility to produce something good—not just aesthetically, but ethically.

That may sound sort of limiting, but I don’t think it is. Goodness, after all, can be found in a lot of things—I’m inclined to side with John Gardner’s belief, for example, that all good literature is more or less an ethically good proposition.

But the real point is that if we have a responsibility to do right by others, then first we need to figure out what “right,” given one’s present circumstance, even is. That’s not easy; in fact, it’s mind-bogglingly difficult. And the reason why I make such a big deal out of interrogating the ethical dimension of something as seemingly innocuous as, say, writing an autobiographical blog post is because that’s something new and complicated that I believe deserves a lot of thought and open debate.

(If this all, by the way, seems like a way of setting up unreasonably high moral standards that no human being could possibly fulfill satisfactorily, I’d happily concede that. But it seems to me that law is the place for reasonable standards, and philosophy is the place for ideal standards. I haven’t yet to hear of the ethical system that is somehow convenient without being deeply anemic.)

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Instilling Public Virtue
June 16, 2010

Romantic history painting. Commemorates the Fr...
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My earlier post about the ethical limits of state interference in culture ties into one of my major concerns in political philosophy: public virtue. Namely, what it is, and how to get some.

It seems to me fairly self-evident that a strong sense of public virtue is necessary for the continued survival of a democracy. After all, in an ideal democracy or republic (which, admittedly, we don’t have), accountability and legitimacy ultimately ends with the decisions of the people. So the state, then, would only be as virtuous as its citizens.

Maybe you disagree. The counterargument is that voting should be done purely as an exercise in self-interest, because if everyone votes in their own self-interest then the result will be candidates and policies that benefit the majority of the people. But very few would argue against some basic limits on the ability of the majority to assert its will, and the reason given tends to be pretty simple: letting the majority enslave the minority and trample on its rights would be unjust. Which makes me think there’s a consensus that justice is a greater priority for a society than making 51% of the society as happy as possible.

So an ideal democracy, then, would be one in which as many people as possible—a bare majority, at the very least—make rational voting decisions based on the outcome most likely to produce a more just state.

So the next question—and, I think, the truly difficult one—is this: Is there a just way to guide voters into freely making decisions like that? Is it just to even try?

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May 25, 2010

Penguin English Library 0 14 043.195 0
Image by scatterkeir via Flickr

Reader lulwa asks:

Where does freedom of speach starts and where does it ends ?

Like with every question in philosophy, there’s no single question to this. A lot of philosophers would even reject the premise—when we talk about freedom of speech, we’re talking about a right, and there’s by no means anything approaching universal agreement that rights even exist.

The very notion of rights is actually a fairly recent innovation, one that has its roots in Enlightenment-era thought. I think the first mention of rights as a concept was made in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (first published in 1651), in which Hobbes suggests that we have natural rights which we forfeit to a supreme leader in exchange for protection and various other benefits.

Personally, I’m a fan of the concept of rights, largely because I don’t think you can have a functional democracy without them. But the argument for natural rights is pretty dubious. Very few proponents of rights would dispute the existence of a universal right to a fair trial, but I don’t think it’s coherent to argue that this is a right that exists outside of human law and society, or somehow prior to the existence of courts that can provide for a fair trial.

So my own view on rights is a form of constructivism, which is the metaethical view that certain ethical claims can be true or false, but that they’re true or false on terms constructed by human society. Rights exist because there is a framework for them to exist in, and they expand along with society’s capacity to accommodate for them.

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