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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

 

Where do you start your journey?

posted by Razib Khan at Saturday, June 17, 2006 permalink View blog reactions
I'm not a very political person. I used to follow politics closely, but not much anymore. The reality is that much of politics is screaming tribalism, a synthesis between premodern group cohesion and preadolescent petulence. Of course the partisans will tell you that they are doing something, working toward an ends, and the means are sometimes not so pretty. Well, the reality is that I'm doing something too, I'm making my life more pleasant, I'm trying to do right by the people I care about, I'm trying to learn as much about this universe as possible. In other words, there's a lot going on in the world aside from partisan politics, and those of us who have dropped out of the neverending race aren't vegetables flipping from CNN Politics to Springer. But engagement matters, and even my egoism has limits, the outer world isn't an illusion, man is a social animal. In fact, many evolutionary anthropologists have long contended that sociality is what drove the growth of the human brain over the last 2 million years. Be as that maybe I want to backtrack a bit, and focus on why we engage, and for what we engage.


The method of this working backward toward first principles will be the examination of a book with an outrageous argument, in Beyond the Global Culture War, Harvard lecturer Adam K. Webb concludes that a new revival of traditional high cultures must rise to meet the challenge of liberal globalism and its "atomistic" progress. Roughly, Webb presents a meta-narrative which frames history as a battle between four ethoses:

Demotism
Perfectionism
Virtuocracy
Atomism

Webb states that these four ethoses can be represented by combinations of trait dualities, Demotism is a combination of social embeddedness and homogeneity, Perfectionism is striving for transcendence and detachment, while Virtuocracy is embeddedness and transcendence. Finally, Atomism is homogeneity and detachment. Webb doesn't equivocate, he states that Atomism is an expression of the "lower" traits of both Demotism and Perfectionism, while Virtuocracy manifests the higher traits.

The archetypes who encapsulate these ethoses are obvious. Farmers are Demots. Mystics, athletes and reclusive scholars are Perfectionists. Priests and philosopher bureaucrats are Virtucrats. Finally, marginalized merchants and artisans are more likely to be Atomists. Webb argues that for most of history Atomists have been marginalized, and rightly so, because they promote a nihilistic and unsatsifying account of human nature and the Good Society. But in the late 19th century Atomists slowly emerged to take control, coupling their reductionistic and materialist narratives with the rise of science, shunting aside Virtucratic elites and establishing an alliance of compromise with Demots. Webb argues that in the present age of neo-liberal globalization the Atomists are abandoning their Demot allies and making a power play to dominate the world and fulfill Francis Fukuyama's End of History and generate a self-supporting social system predicated on gratification of hedonistic preferences.

Webb contends that the response to liberal globalization has to be a revival of high traditional culture, whether it be Hinduism, Confucianism or Christianity, that transcends parochial bounds, and binds together to form a polycentric World Commonwealth ruled by a virtucratic elite. Webb also asserts that it is in the interests of both Demots and Perfectionists to support the Virtucrats because these two ethoses, the everyman and the mystic, have been driven out of the public square by the Atomists, who constantly push forward a dehumanizing and legalistic regime which promotes abstractions and technocracy above humanity. Instead of leaving the world to the aggregate choice of human preferences via the market, Webb asserts that Virtucrats have to demand that people strive to better their nature, to live up to an ideal. Character matters than efficiency, human judgement more than the blind impartiality of law.

I do not present Webb's platform to promote it or because I find it appealing myself. To a great extent my own biases are somewhere between the Perfectionist and Atomist. I am not in total sympathy with Webb's Virtuocracy because I am not a Virtucrat, and never will be. Nevertheless, Webb's book is important because it presents a powerful and resonant ambitious positive message about what man is about, and what we strive for, what the ends to our means are. Too often we live in a society where discourse is focused on the means, with the ends being indeterminate or implicit. Much of the conflict emerges from the fact that we no longer live in a society where a core group of ends matters, where values, ideals and ethoses are shared between fellow citizens to a great degree. To some extent our American government is becoming Robert Nozick's idealized contractual state which enforces capitalist transactions between consenting adults.

In the squalor of coarse petty squabbles humanity has forgotten the stars above. Many American liberals sneer at common decencies of patriotism to signal their status, while many conservatives respond with chest-thumping jingoism to reaffirm their status as "true Americans." The republic is fraying apart as centrifugal forces tear it asunder. We are at a nexus, and I fear, though I hope I am wrong, that we are witnessing the last generations of the republic.

What should we do? I believe that we should, at least some of us, redouble our efforts to elucidate a positve program which Americans can stand behind, which preserves both the democratic impulse and the republic right to liberty. To move past the petty bickering that is focused on the next election our visions need to be big and inspiring, just as Webb's is. Our conclusions need to be fair but unequivocal, coldly judged by the dictates of the principles which we put forward. To bind together a republic of multitudinous religions, races and ethnic groups takes will and ardor, and today our pepole seem to have little of that.


Discussion

...that we are witnessing the last generations of the republic.

Any speculation on what might ensue?

To bind together a republic of multitudinous religions, races and ethnic groups takes will and ardor, and today our people seem to have little of that

Maybe the people seem to have "little of that" because they do not see themselves as "one people". All one has to do is visit a place like "yahoo message boards" to see what Americans really feel about their fellow countrymen. Whenever there's a chance, say, to poke fun at Asian-americans, the opportunity will be feverishly seized.

Maybe, instead of the federalist system we've got currently, we ought to set up different "countries" on this continent. It's certainly large enough, the multitude of peoples certainly great enough. Ok, that's nonsense, but some countries would be poor and some might prosper. Who knows.

 

Whenever there's a chance, say, to poke fun at Asian-americans, the opportunity will be feverishly seized.

well, usually whites are the butt of jokes in my experience (speaking as a brown-skinned asian american).

Maybe, instead of the federalist system we've got currently, we ought to set up different "countries" on this continent. It's certainly large enough, the multitude of peoples certainly great enough. Ok, that's nonsense, but some countries would be poor and some might prosper. Who knows.

i think it is a reasonable proposition, but it seems like a non-starter in the current climate....

 

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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.