We love to talk about the lessons of history in this group. Searching our website I count half a dozen meetings on the “lessons of” some particular historical event. We have had meetings on judging the successes and failures of various U.S. presidents, and we discussed which were the best and worst ones. (I think we may have to update the Worst list pretty soon.) We even spent an evening asking “how will future historians judge us.” I always enjoy these meetings.
Monday’s topic is about historical judgment, too. But, it is a little more challenging, I think. By asking us which moral standards we should be using to render historical judgments, the topic asks us to judge ourselves as well as the past. It compels us to make explicit the moral values that always lie behind our historical judgments, even if they usually are left unspoken. History only has lessons (and heroes and villains) if we supply the moral metric.
Also, there’s a sub-field of philosophy that wrestles with issues like what history is, to what uses it can be put, and how the present colors our perceptions of the past. It’s called the “philosophy of history.” I believe. I will try to learn a little bit about the field’s basic concepts and use it on Monday to guide our discussion. I think the true art of the meeting will be if we can learn to think about this stuff in different ways.
I will also make a short list of historically-controversial people and events and ask the group about them as needed (e.g.; Jefferson, the Confederacy, Truman/Hiroshima, Malcolm X, etc.).
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Our 2011 meeting on how will future historians judge us and last year’s mtg on Thomas Jefferson’s legacy..
- Should we condemn our ancestors’ moral failures?
- The problem of “presentism.” Recommended.
- Useful perspectives:
- The past is so distant to us that it is hard to imagine what people were like – or should be expected to have been like. Fascinating.
- Ask yourself this: How might our descendants judge us? Recommended.
- Conservative POV: Howard Zinn and other leftists distort history to teach moral lessons, leading to bad history.
NEXT WEEK: Jewishness – Faith, ethnicity, culture, or nationality?
It’s kind of a holiday weekend. But, I really like this topic idea of Aaron’s asking whether universal democracy should still be considered a kind of “Manifest Destiny” for the 21st century. Yes, it has been conventional wisdom for more than a decade that democracy around the world is in retreat. Authoritarianism has descended on country after country. The Arab Spring was stillborn and Iraq and Syria flew apart. Eastern Europe’s promising “color revolutions” petered out with help from a newly-aggressive Russia. Chinese democracy is still a no-show and the country has entered a new period of repression. In the West, right-wing political parties are surging all over the EU and we elected Donald Trump. So much for the end of history and all of that post-Cold War democratic triumphalism, maybe.
Or, maybe not. History is rarely a painless and quickly-triumphant march of progress, is it? There was bound to be a backlash to the post-Cold War spasm of democratic reforms in fragile countries, wasn’t there? And the 2008 financial collapse and growing economic inequality had to at least postpone the party, didn’t it?
FWIW, I think the relationship between economic and social change and democracy is really complicated. For example, globalization can either spur democratic and liberal reforms or a backlash against them. Religion often gets in the way of democratization, but it also binds societies together. I also try to take a long view. I think developing countries are going through the same highly-disruptive, painful struggle the West endured in its century of rapid industrialization and cultural change during 1848-1945. Like we did, the non-West will evolve its own forms of popular governance and institutions to empower and contain government. Results are going to vary a lot country to country and region to region.
Anyway, here are a small number of readings on the topic of the “democratic recession” we are currently experiencing and some speculation as to why and what might happen next. They are all general (not country-specific), but a few are long and/or a bit complicated. We don’t need lectures on basic stuff in this group. So, I will give open us up by highlighting a few of the tensions inherent between rapid econ/social/cultural change and emergence of/persistence of democracy.
- West: What is the Western model of democracy and how does it vary?
- Rest: Have other democratic models emerged outside of the West? Why?
- Retreat: Why has democracy been in retreat lately? Which causes are specific to countries/regions and which any common causes?
- Complexity: What tensions exist between: Democracy and liberalism? Democratic rule and individual rights? Globalization and democracy? Transnational governance and national/local control? Religion and democracy?
- Future: How will we all deal with all these tensions in the future? What’s the future of democracy worldwide?
- Our Role: Is USA leadership necessary, or is our absence? Doing what, exactly?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Why is democracy in retreat? Easier read but 5 years old here. Recommended.
- Six preconditions for democracy.
- Democracy’s retreat is only temporary. Recommended, or this longer (pdf) Democracy is NOT in decline worldwide.
- Lefty: Neoliberal globalization threatens democracy.
- Conservative: USA should be cautious and realistic about democracy promotion. (Long historian Walter Russell Mead)
- Will Trump abandon U.S. leadership on democracy promotion? Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: What is progressive religion?
Everyone is talking about the return of populism to American politics in light of Donald Trump’s astonishing primary victory and Bernie Sanders’ near-miss. But, there is some sloppy use of the term, even in the elite media. Many commentators seem to say “populist” when they just mean “popular.” Many ignore important differences between left-wing and right-wing populisms and democratic versus authoritarian populisms. I find this to be a shocking dereliction of their duty.
Of course, populist appeals are not just those that work really well on regular people. The term has a specific meaning historically. In the words of one of the links, populism
…generally refers to a rhetorical style that seeks to mobilize “the people” as a social or political force. Populism can move to the left or right. It can be tolerant or intolerant. It can promote civil discourse and political participation or promote scapegoating, demagoguery, and conspiracism. Populism can oppose the status quo and challenge elites to promote change, or support the status quo to defend “the people” against a perceived threat by elites or subversive outsiders.
The point is that populism defines The People and fingers The Guilty Elites. But, historically, left-wing and right-wing populisms in America do this very differently. (I think neither is inherently democratic or undemocratic, or at least I used to). Sanders and Trump continue this sharp difference. Both men and their movements have starkly divergent ideas about who are the oppressed people and who are their oppressors. And, despite some loose talk about their alleged substantive similarities, Bernie and the Beast have radically different ideas on what to do about it.
Now, the broader impact these two men and their revolutions (or “revolutions”) will have on our politics will be on Civilized Conversation’s radar for a long time. We will meet on the future of the Republican and Democratic parties right after their nominating conventions. July 25 = GOP, August 1 = Dems). But, I think the populist revival is not a flash in the pan in the USA or elsewhere, so I thought modern populism merited its own evening in our spotlight.
On Monday, I will open our meeting with some brief remarks on the differences between left-wing and right-wing populism in the United States and a (very!) quick summary of the major populist features of both Bernie and Trump. Then, we can have a wide-ranging discussion of whatever’s on your minds, including, I hope, the following tough questions.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What has populism meant, historically? Have American versions of populism had unique characteristics?
- What is the difference between populism and…
- Popularity (mass appeal) in a democracy?
- Right-wing versus left-wing populisms: How do they differ, specifically?
- Underlying world views?
- Who they appeal to (“us”) and target as the enemy (“them”)?
- Their solutions?
- Populism versus authoritarianism: When does populism expand democracy versus threaten it?
- Sanders and Trump: How populist are their
- How lasting will their “revolutions” be on GOP/Dems?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – Lots, so pick and choose.
ABCs of American Populism:
- Brief history of U.S populism.
- Right-wing and left-wing populisms are different. Recommended
- Populist economic pressures in USA have been building for decades.
- It’s not just us: Authoritarian populism is on the rise worldwide.
- Sanders and Trump bringing European-Style populism to America, although both have uniquely American characteristics. Either recommended
- Wrong. Neither Trump nor Sanders are genuine populists. Recommended.
Trump and Right Wing Populism’s Future:
- White Lives Matter is Trump’s unstated campaign slogan. Recommended
- Too simple. His appeal is to both racial and economic anxiety.
- Yeah, simple: Trump won because the Tea Party has always been about protecting older Whites’ govt benefits from being taken away and given to minorities. Recommended
- Conservative POVs:
Bernie and Left-Wing Populism’s Future:
- “Bernie Sanders and the New Populism.” Recommended.
- Can the Democrats win in long run with populist appeals?
- [Added on Saturday] Progressives should AVOID populism like the plague. It’s dangerous and antithetical to building civic engagement.
Next Week: Brexit – What if the U.K. votes on June 23 to leave the E.U.?
Breaking the law in order to highlight its injustice (one, but not the only, definition of civil disobedience) is all around us these days. In our crowded media environment, many individual acts or organized campaigns of civil disobedience don’t break through to the mass media. But, some that did in a big way are:
- Black Lives Matter;
- Occupy Wall Street;
- Protestors disrupting Donald Trump rallies;
- Cliven Bundy, et. al., facing down authorities in Nevada and Oregon to protest federal govt land policies;
- Local government officials (like Kim Davis in Kentucky) refusing to sign same sex marriage licenses;
- Edward Snowden leaking classified information on NSA eavesdropping programs.
Some of thee efforts involved many legal as well as illegal acts, of course, and some have achieved a lot more than just publicity. Black Lives Matter has had a major impact on the Democratic presidential primary and renewed efforts to reform policing. (We will discuss police reform and oversight on June 8.) The anti-Trump protestors have influenced the Republican presidential primary process, just maybe not in the way they intended. Others either fizzled out (Bundy) or just need more time to grow support (Snowden, perhaps).
The perpetrators of all of these illegal acts done for a higher purpose routinely cite as their inspirations famous civil disobedience actions of the past by abolitionists, civil and women’s rights activists, etc. As the author of one recent book on the subject puts it, civil disobedience is an American Tradition.
Now, I believe we may be entering a new era of political activism. Why is a subject for another days – many, actually. But I see this new era as arising from widespread public discontent with our political system and parties, income stagnation, and rapid demographic and cultural change. I think civil disobedience will play a heightened role in our politics because of the Internet and social media. Even if I’m wrong, the recent big protest movements cited above are well worth a meeting.
My idea here is for us to see if we can identify some universal principles on when civil disobedience might be morally and politically justifiable. We’ll look to our own values and our current political and social environment, sure. But we also can use our history, others’ histories (e.g., from Gandhi all the way to terrorism!), religion, and philosophy. The latter two have been arguing about when civil disobedience is and is not justified for generations. There are many interesting questions we can pose. For example…
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- DEFINITION: What is “civil disobedience [CD]?” How does it differ from passive resistance or non-cooperation?
a. Must CD be non-violent? What is non-violence, anyway?
b. When does CD become something else, like insurrection?
- CURRENT: What major CD movements/acts are occurring right now?
a. How have they been justified by their perpetrators?
b. Are they helping or hindering budding political movements?
- PAST: Are there any major lessons from U.S. history on when civil disobedience is justified? Do all Americans agree on them?
a. Has it all depended on the object of the disobedience; i.e., on the morality of the goal? What else has mattered?
b. Has CD ever worked by itself, unattached to a big political movement?
- RELIGION and PHILOSOPHY: What do they say about civil disobedience? When is it justified and within what limits?
- LAW/GOVT/YOU/ME: Should the law treat acts of civil disobedience differently from ordinary law-breaking?
a. What about when there is no democracy or no way to redress grievances?
b. Is CD ever morally or religiously required?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Movements involving civil disobedience [CD]:
- Black Lives Matter has hugely influenced the Democratic Party. Recommended.
- Mass arrests of anti-Citizens United protestors happened just last week at the U.S. capitol building.
- Bundy stand-offs: What were they all about?
- Other recent conservative uses of civil disobedience. Recommended.
- MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham jail, 1963. Highly recommended because notice how he justifies taking direct action.
- Still, civil disobedience involves many thorny issues. Recommended.
- Civil disobedience in philosophy. A hard read from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Problem with + limits to civil disobedience:
- The public usually sides against law-breakers, per the “Bigger Asshole” axiom. Recommended
- Targeted vs. untargeted civil disobedience.
- Crowds are disinhibiting and riots lead to backlashes.
Building grass roots political movements
Next Week: Thomas Jefferson and His Legacy. Jim Z. will guide us!
This was James’ idea and I’m off this week. It’s a good topic for the obvious reason that Russia is an important country and more and more analysts are using the F-word to describe both Vladimir Putin and the political system he is creating.
A second reason James’ idea matters is because far-right political parties are a bit on the march these days in Europe and in a few others countries, too. Several openly fascist parties have done well in elections in the years since the continent’s economy went into the toilet. The recent immigrant crisis has provided additional impetus. Far-right parties have gained strength in the Netherlands, the U.K. and France, just to name a few off the top of my head. People are worried all over Europe an outside of it, too.
Gee, we sure are lucky that no crypto-fascist politician is surging in American politics these days, amirite?
The articles linked to below discuss all of these issues and more. Enjoy the meeting, everybody, except the Trump abomination. I hope we can save that topic for our meeting in two weeks on fear-mongering as a a political strategy, which I will be back for.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
It’s James’ meeting, but I was thinking some obvious questions are
- WHAT: What is fascism in the 21st century of globalized economies, open borders, internet networks, etc.? How would it differ from, say, Mussolini’s version?
- In what ways is Putin’s Russia fascist, as opposed to a garden variety authoritarian government?
- WHY: Whose fault is this? What elements of Russian society support this swing to fascism; e.g., elites like the military, oligarchs, and the Orthodox Church hierarchy?
- EFFECTS: Who’s harmed by Russia’s fascist drift, besides Russians?
- Its neighbors, like Ukraine?
- U.S. interests? ** Is Russia’s threat to us exaggerated? **
- Will Russia turn back or plunge into full-blown fascism?
- Will fascism spread to other parts of Europe via far-right and anti-immigrant political parties? Why?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- A good definition of modern fascism. Recommended.
- Is Putin’s Russia fascist?
- Is Russia a threat?
- Is fascism returning to the rest of Europe?
- CivCon 5/14 mtg: Are we in a new Cold War with Russia?
Next Week: Fear-Mongering as a U.S. political strategy.
Socialism lives. In the United States. At least as an abstract idea. Bernie Sanders’ no-longer-quixotic presidential campaign seems to be reviving the label’s popularity almost single-handedly. “Socialism” was the most searched for word at the Mirriam-Webster website in 2015, and surveys show public approval of “socialism” is rising fast, especially among Millennials. Go, Bernie, I suppose. And, yet…
A couple of yets. First, Bernie’s version of socialism seems to be more like European-style Democratic social democracy than any of the old-style forms of socialism, in which the government or workers own the means of production. Second, he has yet to flesh out a lot of the details of his version of socialism. Abstract ideas are often more popular than their detailed policies/programs version. (See “conservatism.”) Also, Bernie’s socialism has not yet been subjected to the white hot flame of full on news media scrutiny – or to the supernova of GOP attacks.
Finally, socialism is still a dirty word to most Americans, especially older ones that vote a lot. Perhaps it even deserves to be or, at least, so many Americans’ objections to a large expansion of government need to be taken seriously by progressives. (FYI, at the last debate Bernie repeatedly dodged the question of how much he would expand government)
Before any of this extended combat happens, I thought it might be a good time for us to explore what socialism could mean in the 21st century. Bernie’s isn’t the only possible version of socialism, to say the least. Europe alone has 2-3 different varieties of social democracy, not just the Scandinavian model. Asia has its own successful models of what today’s American conservatives would pan as “socialism” in Korea, Taiwan, and (gulp) China. Some socialists still believe that unless concentrated private power is abolished all versions of socialism are just window dressing (see link).
I’m hoping we have a good turnout on Monday, so I will not prepare any lengthy opening remarks. I’ll probably just briefly summarize Bernie’s vision of socialism and briefly compare it to other social democratic systems around the world.
Many of you are big Bernie fans. I urge you to read the links below to make sure you know what he actually stands for and how it differs from the socialism many of us remember from an earlier time.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- THEN: What did socialism used to mean?
- NOW: What models of social democracy exist around the world today? How “socialist” are they?
- BERNIE: What does he mean by socialism? How does it really differ from
–> The policy consensus within the Democratic Party?
–> Hillary’s platform?
- WHY has “socialism” gained popularity in America? What do you think people think it means?
- HOW do American conservatives define socialism and why do they despise it?
–> Do they have a point?
- FUTURE: What version of socialism in the 21st century could”
- Work to solve USA’s problems?
- Be popular enough with the public to actually be enacted and endure?
OPTIONAL/SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Why did socialism never take hold in America? Other CivCon meetings on socialism.
- Bernie Sanders’ version of socialism:
- DSA: The Democratic Socialists of America explains socialism. Recommended.
- Can Sanders win?
- The future:
Next Week: Is our country’s safety really in danger?
Yesterday (9/17/15) was national Constitution Day, so I thought Monday might be a good date to discuss this idea of Bruce’s. Natural rights may seem like an arcane philosophical matter. But, they are a huge deal to many conservatives. The existence and implications of natural rights is one of the main (although not the only) intellectual justifications for political conservativism. And, a moral foundation. And a secret ingredient for constitutional interpretation, one that renders much of the 20th century’s activist government literally illegal.
In a nutshell, natural rights are a priori human rights, the basic freedoms that God or nature allegedly endows us with prior to any political arrangements we create. These rights are indefeasible: A political system based on natural law principles may not legitimately take them away from us except in narrow, exceptional circumstances. Conservatives that anchor themselves in natural law/natural rights, I’ve observed, tend towards libertarianism, believing that the natural right of life, liberty, and property are pretty much the only freedoms that the federal government must protect. Congress can make “positive law” that advances other goals, but only in very limited circumstances. The pursuit of happiness? To most conservatives I read and know, it’s something we’re entitled to chase after, but only with the protections of the Bill of Rights’ negative liberties to support us.
A natural rights-based philosophy, IMO, serves two other purposes, politically. First, arguments based on natural rights seem to be, well, natural and common sense, and who could be against nature? Second, natural rights can be conceived of as either God-given or derived from nature or reason. This helps to marry together religious conservatives and more secular-minded libertarian ones. See, since natural rights are directly referenced in the Declaration of Independence (“inalienable rights”) and the Declaration also mentions God, then, if you’re a Declarationist, you can say that the Constitution has a fundamentally religious purpose even though God is absent from the Constitution’s text..
As for me, I’ve never quite figured out several things about natural rights. Such as how we’re supposed to be dead certain what they are and where they stop. Also, it’s unclear to me why any set of natural rights has to be eternally unchanging. Can’t our conception of fundamental human rights that need protecting evolve as our societies evolve?. But, YMMV.
Below are some readings on natural rights and their political ramifications. Most are by conservative writers that put these rights at the center of our political system, plus a few progressive rebuttals. I also separated out some more complex articles on constitutional doctrine and legal history for the true masochists among us (you know who you are.).
I’ll open Monday’s meeting with a short summary of the issue of natural rights and then give Bruce a chance to do his thing.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- What are natural rights and do they exist?
- Why are natural rights so important to conservatives?
- For many: They are God-given, putting God front and center in U.S. constitutional and political thought.
- For most: If the Founders only intended for our govt to protect a narrow set of natural rights, then progressive expansion of govt is literally unconstitutional. Recommended Longer, slightly obnoxious treatment here.
- Progressive rebuttals:
- More complex/detailed materials:
Next Week: Public Ignorance as a political problem. Donald, here we come!
Ho, ho, ho! Just in time for Christmas, I thought we would tackle a question that probably is on the minds of one minority of Americans this time of year: Atheists. Will atheism, or at least agnosticism, ever become common in this country? How about just socially acceptable? The usual argument that it will be is pretty familiar to you, I imagine. As societies get richer and better-educated, they tend to grow more secular. To most atheists, this is because the need for supernatural answers to life’s questions declines as people get more ecucated and feel more in control of their lives, so the need for religion declines along with it.
Maybe. But, doesn’t this kind of assume not only that religion is bunk – that there is nothing out there that calls to us, we just imagine it – but also that religion’s only appeal to us is magical? What about its ethical appeal? And, if the relationship between wealth, education, and religion is so straightforward, then how do we explain why the United States is still so highly relgious compared to other rich countries? It sounds like we need to ask some other questions here.
DIUSCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Why are people religious in the first place? What is the difference between being religious and being spiritual?
- What causes societies to grown less religious over time? How do they change as a result?
- Why have Americans resisted the secularization that has overtaken other countries? Is it cultural factors? Economics? Inertia? Events? Why are Millennials so much less religiousa than older generations, even than the Baby Boomers?
- What would we gain and lose by secularizing like Europe has? Will it realy be all good? Will we grow even more socially and politically-divided than we are now?
LINKS (only a few, due to my computer crash)
- [UPDATE: I know it’s late, but please read these two fascinating explanations of what atheists can do to help their own cause with the public that despises them:
- Atheism is growing in the United States. Worldwide, it is now the third-largest “faith,” so to speak.
- But, American atheists still are a despised minority – and absent from society in many parts of the country. They are among the least liked religious groups.
- In a 2012 XMAS meeting, we discussed whether atheists and religious folk will ever get along. My post had some thoughtful links, IMO. Recommended.
- Religious people DO tend to be less intelligent than non-religious people. But, maybe we should not read too much into that. Recommended.
- OTOH, education makes people less religous.
Next Week: Should Euthenasia Be Legal?
We have a great topic this week and a lively one. Methods of Constitutional interpretation may seem like an obscure subject, and maybe it would have been five years ago. But, since the rise of the Tea Party, “Constitutional conservatism” has become a kind of battle cry and a label with a fairly specific meaning to its adherents. The right is calling for a kind of restoration of a lost Constitution, one that sanctions a much narrower range of federal government activities than it currently undertakes.
At its most extreme, almost the entirety of constitutional law that expanded government since the New Deal becomes illegitimate and illegal. The Constitution allows government to protect our basic rights, mainly from government itself, plus carry out a handful of other tasks (e.g., make treaties). But, nothing else is permissible unless specifically enumerated in the document. Not Social Security, nor the Clean Air/Water Act, nor Food Stamps, nor federal aid to states for education, nor national parks, nor…you get the idea.
As suggested by Carl, I wanted to spend a few minutes Monday discussing whether we should create some new rules to make or discussions work better. Then, I’ll do a brief opening explaining the Tea Party’s version of constitutional conservatism as I understand it, and then open it up for the group’s input and discussion.
In the interest of keeping my remarks short, please read the recommended links below to a get a more thorough idea of what Constitutional conservatism means to its advocates and to its critics.
What is a Constitutional conservative, in their own words –
- Must-read: It’s a return to a government that protects our rights (especially our property rights) and does little or nothing more. From RedState.com.
- It’s libertarianism minus the social issues. From American Conservative magazine. Very good.
- It’s opposition to redistributive socialism, says Tom Delay.
Criticisms of it –
Must read[update: NOT a must-read. Read the next two instead]: A thorough takedown of this notion and its real-world implications. The New Republic.
- Another TNR, but by a different author with a different emphasis. Constitutional conservatism’s religious overtones and reactionary nature. Must-read.
- Many practical problems with interpreting the Constitution so narrowly and literally. Must-read. An alternative way, the one we’ve used since the 1930s.
- [Update] Another good and brief point: The Founders’ main achievement was to create a framework in which future debates over government’s size and power were to be constructed, NOT to settle the matter for all time, in 1792.
NEXT WEEK: Lessons learned from Guantanamo.