Wednesday, July 17, 2013

I'm From the Republican Party, and I'm Here to Help

I'm enjoying Nina Eliasoph's new book The Politics of Volunteering (Polity Press, 2013).  Her 1998 book Avoiding Politics made a strong impression on me (and as I've noted before, it's time I reread it), and this new one fits well with Sarah Sobieraj's Soundbitten, on political activism.  For now, a few notes.

Eliasoph has already brought up the Left vs. Right dichotomy a few times, though she recognizes its limitations.  On the anarchist Emma Goldman, she writes:
So we can see that if we want to line up Goldman along Left-Right lines, it is impossible.  The Left usually agrees with [Jane] Addams in favoring a strong state, to ensure equality of opportunity, and fears corporate power.  The Right, in contrast, fears a strong state and is not very worried about inequality; generally favors corporate power; and assumes that corporate heads are justified in using their financial power to influence elections; if they were clever enough to get rich running companies, they must also be clever enough to run everything else [38].
This is a fairly conventional description of American politics, but I'm bothered by it.  The American Right talks about the perils of big government, and claims to want to shrink it ("until you can drown it in the bathtub" is one of their taglines), but in practice, when they get into power, they increase government spending and deficits, and are eager for the State to violate people's privacy -- sodomy laws, restrictions on divorce, restrictions on contraception and abortion, for example.  (One of RWA1's finest moments was when he accused the Obama administration of thinking that "women's (and everyone's) bodies belong to the state, and there will never be an end to their intrusions on private decisions, if only to care for their 'property' and to mitigate the costs of taking care of it."  This was brought on by Obama's efforts to require insurance companies to cover the costs of contraception in their policies.  This initiative was opposed by conservatives who really do believe that women's bodies belong to the state, as well as to the church, which have the right to control them.  RWA1 is libertarian enough -- barely -- to tolerate women's reproductive freedom even though "I have queasy feelings about the subject of abortion," but he joined his elderly male right-wing compatriots in believing that the insurance mandate would require women to use contraception, a marvelous and typical bit of Rightist nuttery.)  The massive surveillance apparatus now under fire, thanks to Edward Snowden's whistleblowing, is a joint Republican-Democratic project, though that doesn't strain Eliasoph's categories because both parties are on the Right by any reasonable standard.

Most people who are ostensibly critical of Big Government don't have a very clear grasp on what government does.  I've been trying to remember the location of something I read on this point last week, about how little most people think about what their taxes pay for: roads, streets, bridges, parks, schools, public health projects, and much much more.  The "Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare" meme is notorious, but if the government at all levels did drown in the bathtub today, Americans' lives would get a lot harder very soon.  I'm all for small civic organizations at the local level, but some things need to be done at regional and national levels.  Like most leftists, I don't trust Big Government any more than I trust big business.  In principle I believe it's possible to treat large organizations as our creatures, rather than the other way around.  Certainly most people who dismiss the value of large organizations seem to forget just how much they depend on them, every day.  That doesn't mean that I think government at any level is currently responsive to ordinary citizens; of course not.  But the remedy is to make our governments more responsive.

Which brings me to the other passage in The Politics of Volunteering I wanted to mention.
When a student of mine started an essay by saying, "Society makes us do things we would not otherwise do," this sentence was already a mistake.  Without society we would not exist, so there is no "otherwise" [36].
Society, like Soylent Green, is people.  If I think of myself as a discrete, atomized individual, I'm luxuriating in an illusion; the easiest way to recognize it is to remember that from another discrete, atomized individual's point of view, I am "society."  Eliasoph describes Alexis de Tocqueville's conception of society earlier in the book:
He has very little faith in people's innate decency.  People are not born good citizens or bad citizens, good or bad people, caring or uncaring, selfish or altruistic, greedy or generous or generous, passive or active, Tocqueville says.  Their societies train them to be good or bad, in very small, constant, steady, everyday ways: the steady constant drip drip drip that creates canyons and valleys, not a big, one-time splash.  "Common sense" tells us that good people create a good society, but Tocqueville reverses the arrows: a good society creates good individuals [12].
That first sentence reminds me of Paul Goodman's anarchist take on human nature.  I have some reservations about this, of course.  I don't "reverse the arrows," I think that they go both ways.  Good societies make good citizens make good societies: which came first, the chicken or the egg?  It's impossible to separate them.  Also, there is wide variation among citizens: society doesn't train us all uniformly.  Whether this is because of innate temperament or variations in our training -- it's probably some of both -- the fact of variation remains.  If Tocqueville meant to advance a theory of social determinism, he was mistaken.  And a good thing, too.

Eliasoph also describes Tocqueville's belief that American society was more atomized, individualized, and that this was in some ways a loss of the cohesion that came from a traditional "aristocratic" society where everyone had his or her place in the Great Chain of Being.  I agree with this caveat to some extent.  But Tocqueville, Eliasoph says, feared that the individuals of American society might "glue themselves together and massify ... Mob rule, witch hunts, and fanaticism set in" (17).  I don't think "aristocratic" societies avoided this danger: the great European witch hunts had been part of traditional hierarchical societies, for example, run from the top of hierarchies downward.  So had mob violence against minority religions earlier in history.  The same goes for "the tyranny of the majority," a familiar bugbear:
Imagine the person who does not agree with the majority, or can't conform.  If a "tyranny of the majority" develops, the whole society turns into one interminable seventh-grade class in the 1950s, before there were rules against harassment, and you are the gay thirteen-year-old who thinks you are the only oen of his kind on the planet ... In such conditions, democracy vanishes.

Civic associations to the rescue, again!  Where there are plural civic associations, Tocqueville implies, people learn to tolerate opposing views, even if they do not agree with them. ... [17]
Tyranny of the majority, expressed in the pressure to conform, occurs in traditional societies too.  That's how society creates citizens, after all.  And plural civic associations, fostering groupthink, may simply declare war on each other.  I don't think Eliasoph shares Tocqueville's optimism on this point; she's just summarizing it, and she goes on to discuss other models.  I think Tocqueville wasn't entirely wrong, just incomplete.  I'm looking forward to seeing where Eliasoph goes from here.

(I found the title of this post in comments somewhere last week, by the way; I don't remember where.  I think it's wonderful, and I don't to give the impression that I came up with it myself.)