Thoughts on political ideals

Some notes, for whatever they’re worth:

  • “Freedom” sounds good rhetorically because it has an open-ended quality that seems to stretch out into the infinite. That makes it a good substitute religion that can support open-ended commitments like patriotism and world empire. It’s also good to pin ultimate loyalties to. That’s why liberals call themselves liberals rather than egalitarians. In day-to-day political life freedom mostly merges into lifestyle freedoms and economic concerns—middle-class benefits like reductions in taxation and in regulation of small business. That gives its ideal side a certain unreality. When the Berlin Wall fell the oppressed Easterners didn’t head toward churches and libraries, they went to the shopping mall. To make its ideal side seem real there has to be a crusade or jihad on its behalf. So freedom tends to be a martial ideal.
  • The more practical day-to-day issues in current politics are security, prosperity and equality. These points aren’t thrilling, except to the extent you have terrorists, evil oppressors, starvation and heroic champions of the people to give them some drama, but they carry a lot of weight. That’s why people are inclined to say “it’s the economy, stupid,” unless winning the war on terrorism or whatever seems to trump the economy. Equality in particular is boring, since its goal is to abolish everything that might attract particular attention. Resentment and envy can make it interesting to some extent, but it seems hard to base attachment to the social order on such feelings.
  • The Americans are confident and expansive and want to conquer the world so they talk a lot about freedom. The Europeans have been through too many things so they’re just looking for security, prosperity and equality. The Americans tend to view their nation and institutions as the embodiment of liberal values with a mission to realize them everywhere. The Europeans are skeptical, and view the EU, UN, dealmaking and possibly the slow logic of history as better ways to advance liberal values than idealistic jihads. So the Europeans view the Americans as wild-eyed and aggressive, while the Americans view the Europeans as cynical and corrupt. Each side views the other as out of touch with reality. There’s some justification for each point of view.
  • The old leftist ideal of fraternity seems to have dropped out in favor of inclusiveness. The latter has less content. “Fraternity” suggests activity and a particular sort of bond, while “inclusiveness” suggests individual passivity and unconditional acceptance of all kinds of people in accordance with therapeutic social adjustments made by experts and facilitors.
  • All the foregoing are strictly liberal ideals—ideals that say the highest good is to give people what they want as equally and reliably as possible. The objection to talking about God and “values” in politics is that if that manner of speaking changes anything it interferes with the business of giving people what they want reliably and equally. By definition, then, it is disruptive and oppressive. Of course, one might doubt that giving people what they want is an ideal that can sustain human life and the social order. For example, it may be unable to sustain the steady willingness to sacrifice personal interest to the general good that seems necessary for a tolerable society. To the extent such doubts are well-founded then talking about things that transcend human desire becomes a political necessity.

1 thought on “Thoughts on political ideals”

  1. just to add to Mr. Kalb’s observation on “inclusiveness”
    Indeed, it seems that almost everytime I’ve encountered the mantra of “inclusiveness”, it was accompanied by “diversity”, and usually in the phrase “diversity and inclusiveness”, which certainly demonstrates Mr. Kalb’s point about it referring to “unconditional acceptance of all kinds of people”. At a previous employer (a major petroleum company), I had to suffer through indoctrination about “diversity and inclusiveness”, in which they tried to goad us all into admitting we’d experienced some racist thoughts, and made us sit through Jane Elliott’s famous propaganda film…

    Regarding America’s global crusade for liberal goals; it disturbs me how evangelicals have become the biggest cheerleaders for U.S. imperialism. Someone on a Chronicles discussion thread recently stated his belief that for born-agains:

    “foreign policy alone would unite the Christian Conservative types and the neocons, even if it means supporting a social liberal for the presidency. Iraq triumphs over abortion and so Rudy G. will be palatable.”

    I concur with this, sadly… It seems that the more ground Christian values lose in the culture war, the louder the cheering for overseas imperial adventurism, by evangelicals. “Kicking Arab ass” trumps domestic concerns over abortion, indeed… All that’s necessary is for the president to be ostensibly evangelical and Republican, and even if he doesn’t gain anything in the culture war, hey, “that’s okay ’cause he’s one o’ us, and besides, he’s kicking Ay-rab ass, woo-hoo! USA! USA! USA!”

    (Shiver) God help us…

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