Debaters of the Lost Arc

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President Barack Obama, and the American left generally, have become fond of one of MLK’s more famous quotes:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

It’s developed into a kind of mantra in a year whose electoral outcomes have been easier to square with a quote attributed to the quantum physicist Niels Bohr:

“It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future”

It’s important to resolve the apparent tension between these two assertions. They are both true. If the left fails to appreciate this, they are likely to repeat their recent failures.

The President himself, the day after the election, took a stab at this modern theodicy:

“We zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back.”

“History doesn’t move in a straight line. It zigs and zags.”

Evidently we are to interpret the phenomenon of right wing populism as a statistical fluctuation, a temporary setback which will be set right merely by obtaining a larger sample size.

This is the wrong attitude. It’s implicitly founded on an overly literal interpretation of MLK’s quote. It’s true that, in some general sense, humanity succeeds over the long run in creating a world which is a better expression of our basic values. And that’s important. But this includes both liberal values like equality and freedom, alongside conservative values like order and loyalty. More significantly, it does not mean that some particular policy instantiation of these values is destined to be the law of the land, sooner or later.  It does not mean we are destined to have universal government sponsored single payer health care, or a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, more or less along recent liberal proposals, eventually, if we just wait long enough for history to surrender to us.

The reason the arc of history bends towards justice is that there are values that we all share. No one in their right mind, liberal or conservative, wants citizens to lack adequate healthcare, or to break up families by deporting people. But these values we all share have to be squared with one another. Often conservatives resist liberal policy solutions because there are other concerns, like economic efficiency and the rule of law, that need to be addressed as well.

We’re able to resolve these tensions through a commitment to dialogue and a confidence in human ingenuity. We bend the arc of the moral universe precisely BECAUSE we’re willing to be open to the uncertainty of human history. In this uncertainty is the hope we can resolve our conflicts in a creative and therefore a priori unpredictable way that expresses ALL our values.

Commitment to creative and collaborative problem solving is what fuels the fire of the engine of progress. When the left assumes its particular policy proposals are inevitable, or when it assumes opposition political movements like the current right wing populist uprisings are just statistical aberrations rather than an indication that further dialogue and conflict resolution are needed, it shuts down this process. Ironically, liberal faith in the “arc”, when misunderstood, can be its undoing.

It’s worth returning to the actual originator of the idea of the arc, the abolitionist and small d democrat Theodore Parker:

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Note the humility. We can have faith that in the long run our values will obtain better and better expression in the world. But only if we’re open minded when it comes to the form this expression may take and about the need to reconcile our values with the values of others.

Liberals shouldn’t become less liberal (on the contrary, now more than ever they must stand up for their values), they should become more democratic. And they needn’t lose faith in their philosophy of history, they just need a better understanding of its mechanisms and meaning.

President Obama, at his best, has understood these subtleties. Aspects of his legacy like marriage equality, which were ultimately grounded in conservative values like tradition and order as well as liberal values like tolerance, are likely to survive and become a permanent part of our society. Other accomplishments, like the health care reform law, never achieved widespread support and were implemented with party line votes or by executive orders. It’s no accident these are the most likely to be undone.

On a foundational level, politics, and therefore our ability to bend the arc of the moral universe, isn’t about technocratic ability or skill in parliamentary procedure or being good at campaigning. It’s about building consensus. And achieving that requires flexibility and open mindedness.

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How to Not Be a Metaphysician

Most people live in such a way that they are the center of their own lives. I believe that mindset can be happy and valuable when deliberately chosen, but we run into problems when it becomes our default setting. I call someone who is unreflectively self-centered in this way a “metaphysician.” In philosophy, a metaphysician is someone who spends time thinking about the first principles of things. I mean it in a more existential sense: someone who assumes that he or she has access to the bones of reality inside himself or herself, rather than considering that they may lie somewhere on the outside. Recently, I became interested in developing some practical tips on how to become something other than this. They are included below:

-Find a reliable way of reminding yourself that you do not have anything close to all the answers.

-Meditate twice a day.

-Understand the difference between knowing and understanding.

-Make sure that your own decisions have a proximate relation to the forces driving your life.

-Maintain friendships with people from different parts of your life.

-Don’t be mysterious on purpose.

-Indulge yourself as often and as richly as it is interesting to do so.

-Ruminate forward, not backward.

-See movies without consulting Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

-If it’s not an emotion you’re comfortable sharing with anyone, you probably shouldn’t be having it.

-Grow in ways that encourage you to grow.

-Keep track of the times when you start to be a certain way and of what had just happened.

-Be more interested in what you hear and see than in what you have to say and reveal.

-If it’s not a decision you can avoid, it’s also not a decision you should rush.

-See how long you can go without forming an opinion.

-Fail as often as you are able to learn from failure. Which is most of the time.

-Cultivate a meaningful distance between your decisions and your actions.

-Use anger as a forge, not as armor.

-Aim for a filter that keeps things spiffy and doesn’t just keep things hidden.

-Try to get better at trying.

-Trust your gut, it knows more than you do.

-Aim for skillful coping, not managing success.

-Decide which parts of your life you aren’t going to try to make better right now.

-Experiment in such a way that you don’t foreclose the possibility of future experiments.

-Experiment as often as possible.

-Don’t play games with yourself you can’t win.

-When all else fails, recognize that survival is its own virtue.

-Cultivate a relationship between your ends and your means of realizing them.

-Fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, scratch where it itches.

-Make the dysfunctional functional.

-Check that the parts of your life you don’t think about are the parts that are working.

-Forge meaning, build identity.

-Be willing to sacrifice uniqueness for distinctiveness.

-Learn the difference between being outstanding and standing out.

-Date.

-Fuck up artfully. At least make it a good story.

-Do not throw away your shot, but wait for it.

-When in doubt, get more data.

-Be aware of the things you put inside your body and your mind.

-Be discreet and not duplicitous.

-Master the art of forgiving yourself.

-Ensure the ambiguities of your life are healthy.

-Be glad to share the story of your past. Be afraid to know the story of your future.

-Get in the habit of forming habits.

-If you can’t laugh about it, don’t talk about it to people you don’t trust.

-Know what it would take for you to be happy, and don’t be indifferent to the stakes.

-Discover life’s contradictions, treat them as challenges, and share them as parables.

-See fear as a resource.

-Minimize fantasies, maximize projects.

-Gain intuition about your own limits. Be the person who decides what they are.

-Front-load your pain.

-Befriend your insecurities.

-Never be afraid to compromise in the pursuit of becoming yourself. In fact, jump at the chance.

-Live one day at a time.

-Attempt to please others, and work hard for what you care about, but strive to be yourself.

-Don’t try to be a great “man.” Just be a “man,” and let history make its own judgments.

-Take a gender studies class.

Concerning the Party Poopers

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A recent politico article argued that our two political parties, being as old and firmly established as they are, perpetuate a kind of ideological or institutional inertia, stifling our political imagination with their resilience. Many voters, dissatisfied with their two presidential choices, lament the lack of a viable third party alternative.

I would advocate a completely opposite view of the political parties: they adapt to, react to, and absorb whatever cultural or ideological realities are playing out in the country. To the extent that they coerce political discourse, it’s in the direction of compromise and synthesis. It’s only stifling insofar as our democratic institutions naturally are, and there’s a strong argument to be made that this is a feature, not a bug, in our system.

For example, why don’t we have a socialist party or a libertarian party? Is it because the parties squash those ideologies or cannot accommodate them? No. They couldn’t stop Trump, or Sanders, or either of the Pauls. As hard as it may be for many Sanders supporters to accept, the people decided the fates of these candidates in the primary elections. The voters, not the party machines, are primarily responsible for our ideological emphases.

Now you could say things like, who says business interests, evangelical Christians, and war hawks should all belong to the same party? Isn’t that artificial and stifling? I’d argue it’s just a compromise formed by a political system doing its job. The only thing it “stifles” is the chaos of having a proliferation of factions. Government, democratic or otherwise, requires consensus building, and our two party system plays an important role in this process.

Right now our political system is unable to resolve some of our political conflicts. The GOP is imploding, and the Democrats arguably only narrowly avoided a similar fate. The result is that some of the absurdities of the compromises that have been made in the past are on prominent display. This is awkward for a lot of people who aren’t used to consciously acknowledging the practical realities underlying a lot of our political discourse, but not really a sign of a problem with the two party system.

Eventually the two parties will reorganize themselves. Their resilience is borne of their adaptability rather than any kind of permanence.  It’s going to be a messy affair. It’s going to involve new compromises, and some unhappiness will result. But that’s ok. Democracy’s not supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to work, and for the most part it does.

Disrupting Conventions

[Co-authored with tkgilbert]

The much anticipated RNC is over and the reviews are in. Reactions range from fear, to dismissal, to raw political calculation. Unfortunately absent is any attempt to actually understand and confront the political situation we’ve reached. This range of responses to an increasingly deranged conservative movement have become a habit on the left, a habit which has only served to reinforce destructive trends in our politics.

Let’s be clear. Donald Trump is a blatantly racist, sexist, narcissistic demagogue whose election would arguably be a threat to civilization itself. Fear, denial, and dismissal are psychologically reasonable reactions to his rise. Satire and a bit of levity would be healthier options. But none of this is sufficient as a political response.

Nate Silver outlined two options for Clinton: either accept Trump’s framing and paint him as unfit to lead us in chaotic times, or ignore/dismiss it and count on beating Trump by turning out the Obama coalition. Either of these tactics might work to beat Trump the man and win the battle in November, neither is a political strategy for winning the war against Trumpism in the long run.

Trump’s rise is fueled in part by a denial of 21st century realities: pluralism, globalism, rapid economic and cultural change. Dismissal is the appropriate response here, as these are realities we must live with whether we like them or not (and both the left and the right have reasons to celebrate or reject these developments).

But it’s also fueled by shortcomings in the way progressives and liberal elites have responded to these changes. The left has embraced cultural pluralism without making room at the table for the white working class.  It’s delivered economic prosperity, peace, and cultural progress without political empowerment or real economic opportunity.

And deliverance is the operative word here: the left is still locked into a semi-messianic notion of economic and political “deliverance.” The path to prosperity should really be a thoroughly collective enterprise.

We can attack Trump as incompetent or psychologically unfit to lead. But you don’t have to believe Trump is capable of solving our problems to support him, you just have to think he’s capable of “disrupting” or destroying a political system which has been paralyzed, which places emphasis on political correctness over problem solving, which is beholden to special interests. Trump has already proven he can do these things by defeating the Republican establishment. This is the only way to explain some bizarre but real sources of Trump support.

We can attack the picture Trump paints of America as factually unsound and overly pessimistic. But you don’t have to live in fear of being murdered by illegal immigrants to believe they’re making your life harder or drowning out your voice. You don’t have to believe the President was born in Kenya to feel alienated from a new cultural majority which seems to be planning a future for your country that does not include you.

Progressives are on the right side of history. But we need to find a way of welcoming the white working class into our 21st century vision of a pluralistic society. We need to deliver political empowerment alongside our legislative and legal accomplishments. We need to acknowledge that although the Obama administration has represented a huge leap forward compared with the America of 2008, his original goal of forging a new kind of politics remains entirely unrealized.

That won’t be easy, but there is historical precedent. During The Progressive Era a century ago we confronted a rapidly changing country marked by economic inequality and the suppression of issues of racial equality. We achieved a complete transformation of our civil society: women’s suffrage, direct election of senators, the introduction of political primaries and the defeat of big city political machines, mass expansion of secondary education, trust-busting economic policy, muckraking journalism. We massively widened the political field to include all sorts of people who were empowered in ways that were previously unimaginable. There’s good reason to believe a similar transformation could be achieved today. For example, smart phone users have become the new muckrakers.

When liberals react in fear to the conservative movement they forfeit any possibility of a proactive response. When any of us dismiss our political opposition we feed the very alienation that’s led to Trump. When elites succumb to tactical political calculation they reinforce the suffocating political system that has left people hopeless and spiteful.

As progressives (and as Americans more generally), we’re obligated to view politics as dynamic and inclusive. To quote the senator from Batman vs. Superman, “In a democracy, good is a conversation.” We should demand that any conversation be fact based. We should demand it respect democratic norms. But it also must involve an actual effort to understand legitimate grievances even when they are expressed dysfunctionally, and to address them.