so late last week i cleaned out a bunch of old emails that had been languishing in my inbox, and found a link to this blog, which then led me to actually reading said blog, which led me to reading this post.
the second half of it kind of doesn’t make sense to me, but i am admittedly not that fond of philosophy and theory, so it’s probably just that i’ve never read the thinkers in question. but the first half is what i find most intriguing:
In graduate school I read a book whose author claimed that John Rawls was the font of liberal thought in America and I said to myself, “John who?” Until then I’d thought the font of liberal thought in America was probably this chap named John Locke. Because of course I’d read Louis Hartz’sLiberal Tradition in America, which argues
One of the central characteristics of a nonfeudal society is that it lacks a genuine revolutionary tradition … that it is “born equal,” as Tocqueville said. And this being the case it lacks also a tradition of reaction: lacking Robespierre it lacks Maistre…. Its liberalism is what Santayana called … a “natural” phenomenon…. [A] society which begins with Locke, and thus transforms him, stays with Locke, by virtue of an absolute and irrational attachment it develops for him, and becomes as indifferent to the challenge of socialism in the later era as it was unfamiliar with the heritage of feudalism in the earlier one. It has within it, as it were, a kind of self-completing mechanism, which insures the universality of the liberal idea…. [W]e have only the American Way of Life, a nationalist articulation of Locke which usually does not know that Locke himself is involved….
Or, as one of my former colleagues explained when teaching the American Revolution,
Remember litmus paper? Imagine political litmus paper. Dip it into Robespierre and it turns scarlet. Dip it into Maistre and it turns blue. But dip it into any American, or anyway any non-fringe American, and all you get is a kind of mauve.
Without getting into why this is true, it’s pretty nearly always true: there are limits to the scope of American thought. Me, I don’t think they’re kept in place by a “self-completing mechanism”, I think they’re actively reproduced generation after generation. But they’re there. No matter how the oppressed financier classes scream, there are precious few socialists in American public life. Nor are there quite fascists, or at least not out in the open.
i find this an interesting commentary on the same issue i brought up a while back – is revolution possible in this country? at a time when it seems like blood should be flowing in the streets, are we really just too complacent to revolt? or is it less that we’re complacent and more that our country lacks a philosophical and ideological basis for revolutionary thought and action (ironic, considering our founding)? i kind of think the answer lies somewhere in the middle (shocking, i know).
i think a lot of people are complacent; but i think that the ideological and political structures in this country reinforce that complacency – and i don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. our country is founded on principles of democracy; it stands to reason that if we never have a totalitarian government (and regardless of our horror over the torture memos and the civil rights infringements of the past 8 years, we are not exactly in stalinist territory yet), if the populace is always somewhat in control of who’s in charge and how those leaders act, then the resulting society will be palatable to the masses (at least most of them). essentially, our systems of thought and action have ensured that things never quite get bad enough to provoke open revolution. even with our current economic and social problems, the majority of americans still have homes to live in and food for their families. they don’t have to worry about being hauled off for show trials and exile to siberia. things are just good enough to keep us fat and happy. and maybe that’s not a great thing, but honestly, it’s not that bad a thing either.
of course, none of this stands as an excuse to just sit idly by and let the world go to shit around you. people should care about politics and their elected leaders and what’s going on in the world around them. after all, there’s still that old truism that hitler was elected. bad things don’t always happen suddenly; frequently they are the result of that ol’ slippery slope. so we are probably more complacent than we ought to be, but that probably won’t change in the foreseeable future.
(sorry for the crazy layers of quotations in this.)