Sunday, January 29, 2012

Expatriotically Speaking

Since I'm often challenged to explain myself politically--how can I be "so far left" is usually the gist of the question--I'll actually try to do so here. Or if not explain myself, I'll at least lay my cards on the table. 

Yes, the terms "conservative," "liberal," "right" and "left" aren't very useful, but I'll try to use these terms even so. 

And so. . . .

The problem for most people, especially those who've known me since youth, the thing they can't get their heads around, is that I actually believe in government. I believe it has a role to play in managing and regulating the economy. It's true that Americans with such wacky ideas as this rarely hail from my childhood demographic: suburban Republican Wisconsin.

But folks get even more confused in discussion with me when they learn I'm a Christian. This is because people in my hometown assume Christians are all naturally Tea Party supporters. After all, everyone knows that big government means secularism means communism. And everyone knows Barack Obama wants big government and that he's a socialist or even a Muslim. (An "atheist Muslim"? Sometimes I can't keep track of how these people use the terminology. Perhaps I've lived overseas too long, so my grip on the meaning of English words has begun to slip.)

In fact I don't fit the political categories of the sector of American society I hail from. I'm culturally conservative but politically on the left. This doesn't make any sense to the folks back home. I represent an impossibility. 

But it's not just my small-town Midwest roots I don't jibe with. In America as a whole, I'm something like the polar opposite of normal. The things on which I'm conservative, Americans are generally liberal; and vice versa--where I lean to the left, Americans are on the far right. America's current default settings have been decades in the making; perhaps it's worth outlining how I see them.

In terms of culture, then, I would say that my country is largely what could be called liberal. It brings the world things like MTV, Facebook, "Sex and the City," hip hop. Yes, America is full of outspoken people who call themselves conservative, but this is hardly to the point when one looks at larger trends. America has long been a force of cultural liberalization, both domestically and abroad. 

In terms of politics, on the other hand, America is largely conservative. (I might say this with a caveat: America is "conservative" at least according to the degraded parlance of American Republicans.) My country's economic system is rigged to suit an oligarchy, its foreign policy is nationalistic, self-righteous, trigger-happy. America is far to the right of most of its Western allies and is moving ever further rightward. 

Both trends--America's cultural liberalism and its political "conservatism"--have only gotten more pronounced since I've become an adult. Thus as my country's culture drifts further and further from any respect for traditional Western learning, its economic order becomes more and more a matter of unfettered capitalism. I'd like to see the opposite of this trend; as the trend continues I only feel ever more alienated from the country I grew up in. 

In some respects, then, my politics are "un-American," as are my cultural ideals.

Politics: If we assume that a far right position favors pure free-market capitalism and that a far left position favors a centrally regulated socialism, I'd position myself a few inches to the right of Fidel Castro. This is to exaggerate a bit, no doubt. In fact I do believe free markets have a role to play. Nonetheless I also believe in strong central regulation of all business and finance, a tax policy that takes increasingly large bites as a person's income reaches the top of the scale, strong government protection of the environment, and strong government oversight of education. Government, in my mind, fulfills its role when it ensures against gross income inequalities, when it educates citizens, when it establishes an even playing field, when it protects resources for future generations. These are some things my own leftism would stress.

Culture: If we take education policy as a central arena of cultural debate, I could make my thinking clear by saying that I've always (with some differences) supported the idea of education put forward by Allan Bloom in the 1980s in his book The Closing of the American Mind. I am strongly in favor of a book-centered, classics-centered education, starting in high school and including, certainly, anything that would dare call itself a "university education". I am against the political correctness that seeks to make American schools a culturally neutral space where no tradition of thinking is assumed. In my America, students would start reading the Western canon in elementary school and would continue wrestling with it in high school and during most of their college years. To imagine that someone could graduate from any university without having studied Homer, the Greek philosophers, the Bible, European history, the Enlightenment--this would be out of the question. Only on the grounds of a thoroughly Western learning would students be able to opt for study of other cultural traditions. 

But why, some might wonder, why stick so tenaciously to the study of these old books? Don't we live in the 21st century? Don't we face a different spectrum of issues than our ancestors?

Absolutely not. In fact the Western canon is still the only place where Americans might ground themselves in the crucial questions they need to consider as citizens. These questions include: the relation of the state to citizenry; the meaning of public and republic; the bases and effects of different economic orders; the question of freedoms and responsibilities in the context of a democratic republic. 

Citizens in a democracy must first understand ideas before they can debate them. More to the point: they must understand the grounds of their political system in order to be able to judge where it needs reform and change, or even to judge the possibility of change.

Americans, as far as I can tell, are at present entirely unable to do this. The oligarchy is just fine with that. In fact, looking at what counted as a liberal education in previous decades, and comparing it to the present, I'm more or less convinced the oligarchy orchestrated, or at least expedited, the changes.

 A solid education in the humanities is the last thing the capitalist class wants.

And so it is that my compatriots enter adulthood with scant idea of how their political institutions developed or where their culture came from. They think of their culture as a kind of natural phenomenon to be taken for granted, not the result of historical struggle and the ascendance of a particular set of ideologies. Only a canon-based education can address this blind spot. With a stronger grasp of actual history, citizens would be less susceptible to the politics of warring soundbites and fear-mongering that's currently passed off as political debate. They'd also be more able to recognize a common good and thus more resistant to the absurd demonization of government we hear constantly from the American right. 

Of course most Americans are such hard-wired anti-intellectualists that they'd probably howl in protest at my idea of canon-based education. For them, university is a matter of job training on the one hand, football games on the other. And they're howling already, in any case, about my left-leaning idea of good government.

Go ahead, compatriots and sports fans, go ahead and say it: "If you like Fidel Castro so much, why not move to Cuba!" 

My answer to this is simple: Because I'd rather not live in Cuba, thank you. An experiment in authoritarian socialism, Cuba has serious problems, probably the main one being that it was built on a Leninist model. But Cuba with limited free markets, Cuba with elections and a range of political parties vying for who gets the right to manage a socialist economy--that would be something else. And so, though I'm glad I don't live in Castro's Cuba, I'm glad I didn't have to live in George W. Bush's USA either. 

Yes, I've lived overseas since the mid-1990s. The country I'm living in has its problems too, but I certainly don't feel I've missed out on much in the US. And what can I have missed--the Bush/Cheney years, the rise of the reality TV, Charlie Sheen? Though I had some hope when Obama was inaugurated, I see I was mistaken. In fact America is an echo chamber that gets only more idiotic with each passing year. Obama, if re-elected, does not seem likely to stand up to the oligarchy and push for any of the actual change he once promised. So rather than watch four more years of Compromiser-in-Chief up close, I'm grateful I don't have to live there. 

Maybe you think only lunatics (or perhaps Europeans) could be in favor of the kind of political order I advocate. Fair enough. But I'll ask you a few simple questions: How long do you think humans will be able to survive on this planet if unfettered capitalism is allowed to continue its onslaught on the natural environment? How long do you think the earth will survive the frenetic over-consumption we see in our country and other developed nations? If you recognize, like me, that the earth cannot long survive such pillage, who or what do you think will be able to regulate it? A different political order is needed to moderate excesses: to knock down the monopolies that tend to develop ("too big to fail"), the outrageous wealth that begins to gather, the rampant consumption that ignores what is happening to the environment. These are things only strong central governments can address--governments with a human agenda.

 Governments entirely in the pocket of corporations will never be able to address these issues.

Before closing, I'd like to return to the question of Christianity. As noted above, I'm a Christian, and this seems odd to many who hear me talk about political issues. I really don't know why. In fact both my political leftism and my cultural conservatism are informed by my faith. As for the leftism, this again, I know, is not the norm for American Christians. But so what? I myself find nothing particularly Christian about the things many other American Christians seem to support: free-market capitalism, militarism, greed as good, unbridled consumerism. Some Christians reading this now, maybe they'd like to say, "Hey, I don't support greed as good or militarism or unbridled consumerism!" Well, maybe you don't. But if you support the political status quo, especially if you vote Republican, I don't see how you can imagine you're not supporting these things. Think about it. What is it that the policies of the American right are grounded on if not the belief that 1) greed is good, 2) rapacious consumerism is a God-given right, and 3) American bombs bring peace, not war? Do you really think you don't stand for these things when you vote Republican? Heck, even if you vote Democrat you are supporting these things. If you consider my idea of Christian politics to be "weird" compared to yours, on what grounds are you making this comparison? Have you ever read, say, the Gospels?

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P.S.-- But might I, to raise the sense of contrast even higher, add Marx to that list of Western classics that should be required study? Certainly Marx was wrong about many things, but he remains a massively important thinker, maybe even especially now. Terry Eagleton wrote a fine piece on Marx last year:

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