Category: Liberalism

Leftist Sensibility

As I already mentioned, this one is harder for me because it is my own sensibility.  Thus, I am biased.  The right wing sensibility, in my view, is always going to end up pathologized.  While the left-wing sensibility description will veer toward the panegyric and the self-congratulatory.  That warning stated, let’s plunge ahead.

I have always been attracted by Richard Rorty’s claim that liberalism, when it comes down to it, is simply “bleeding-heart liberalism.”  The core of the leftist sensibility is compassion.  I want to approach this historically.  “Sympathy” was the core of morality for Adam Smith and David Hume.  It was the basis from which they could explain why any human would care about the plight of any other human.  They, of course, thought sympathy was “natural”—and thus the place to begin when trying to construct a morality.

Cruelty (in all its forms from jeering and insulting to torture) tells us sympathy has its limits.  A delight in the suffering of others seems just as natural to humans.  There is something to be said, I think, for the Steven Pinker (stated positively) and Hannah Arendt’s (stated negatively) arguments that “compassion” is actually a fairly new phenomenon—dating from the Enlightenment century, the 18th.  For Arendt, the entrance of compassion ruins politics.  It leads to the collapse of politics into economics, into placing politics at the service of alleviating poverty.  (The argument is central to her book On Revolution, with its comparison of the American and French revolutions.)

It does seems to me that Arendt is on to something (even as her contempt for compassion is the hardest thing in her whole corpus to swallow).  Were their wars (or violence) prior to the American and French revolutions fought for the ideal of equality?  Maybe the Dutch war for independence from Spain?  And there were peasant revolts.  But mostly there were wars of conquest, not wars for the freedom to forge one’s own life.  The “left” after all comes into existence as a political category with the French Revolution.  And so does the modern right—which must find new ways (not based on the claim that God just made it that way) to justify inequalities of wealth, political participation/power, and status.  This battle between left and right is often fought on the grounds of “rights”—to whom should various rights be extended, and what things should be covered by rights.  (Is there a “right” to health care, a “right” to a job, a “right” to old age pensions?)

It seems weird, of course, in light of Christianity and Buddhism to say compassion is an 18th century novelty.  But I think we need to see the novelty as compassion plus rationalism/secularism.  Prior to the Enlightenment, poverty was the result of “fortune.”  It was not something that resulted from human actions or arrangements—and thus not something that could be alleviated by human action or that was a moral outrage (when and if humans refused to do anything to try to alleviate it.) Charity to the poor was encouraged, but that didn’t come with the idea that poverty could be eliminated and that the failure to try to eliminate was a moral failure.

The leftist sensibility, then, is a mixture of compassion with the belief that different social arrangements than the status quo (effected by either reform or revolution) would be preferable and are feasible.  As Steven Lukes has put it, the left is committed to a project of “remediation.”  It points to unjustified poverty and unjustified inequalities, claiming that these sufferings are not necessary (they could be otherwise), and that there are reasonable plans for remediation.

The left’s notion of justice, therefore, is built upon the notion of equality—of the idea that everyone is entitled to an equal chance for a flourishing, satisfying life.  No person should have a life that only serves to provide others (and not him- or herself) with the means for flourishing.  In short, Kant’s kingdom of ends where no person is ever only a “means.”

I think that this commitment to equality and to the understanding of justice that follows from it entails universalism to the extent that all humans must be accorded the same right to the necessities for a good life.  From that conviction comes the idea of “effective freedom” (i.e. that freedom is only “real” when a person has the means to act on freely chosen alternatives).  It seems to me that contemporary critiques of universalism are always complaints that the various versions of universalism on offer are not universal enough.  And I think that Sen and Nussbaum’s “capabilities approach” offers a good way to reconcile respect for and attention to differences while holding on to the broad commitment to a universalism that can be all-inclusive.  But I am not going to get into the weeds of that argument here today.

The formula of compassion plus reason runs into serious trouble when Romanticism comes onto the scene.  The Romantics keep the compassion, but are suspicious of reason.  Nationalism is the Romantic passion par excellence on the political front.  And nationalism limits compassion to one’s compatriots even as it eschews a rationalist approach to social policies.  American health care: the best in the world, says the patriot, wonderfully immune to all the facts that clearly indicate otherwise.  Romanticism, in short, is not necessarily leftist or rightist.  It is wildly overstating the case to say that Romanticism leads directly to Hitler, just as it is a wild exaggeration to say that rationalism leads directly to Stalin.

Still, it does seem we have leftists (like Blake and Shelley) of the romantic stripe and leftists (Bentham and Marx) of the rationalist stripe, and that the romantics are more likely than the rationalists to think art is crucial to the leftist cause.  It is also worth saying that, generally speaking, the rightist sensibility comes across as aggressively masculine while the leftist position (with its compassion and desire to care for the well-being of all) is feminized.  Within that framework, the rationalist leftist position can look like a compensation against the feminization of a leftist sensibility.  Poetry is for sissies–so either men worried about their masculinity must eschew it or write like Ted Hughes as over-compensation.

The leftist sensibility I would recommend features compassion connected (tempered) by rationalism.  It is that mixture that has led contemporary leftists to be extremely wary of violence in all its forms, opting instead for various modes of non-violent action to effect political change.  The argument is, on the compassion side, that violence harms people, and on the rational side, that violence only unleashes more violence and thus cannot effect the kinds of changes that it aims for.  Yet (as I have agonized over on this blog) eschewing violence seems to place leftist reformers in a very weak place in relation to those in power who are determined to hold onto that power and are not shy of using violence to maintain that hold.

Because the left has so often been ineffective (especially over the past forty years—since 1980—of the right’s resurgence), the right accuses it of hypocrisy.  The left parades its bleeding heart in public (especially since the chattering classes are full of leftists) while leading very comfortable lives under current arrangements.  The left never really puts its money where its mouth is. I know of a professor whose grad students called her a Neiman Marxist.

Meanwhile, the left itself splits between the so-called “liberals” who work for reform within the “system” (i.e. accept democratic electoral politics and some version of the market) and the “radicals” who express contempt of the ineffectual liberals at every turn (but remain muddle headed about what means of change they actually endorse—since very few of them openly call for violence.  Terry Eagleton may be the exception in his attitude toward violence, but I can’t tell for sure because his books on tragedy and “radical sacrifice” become obscure—in contrast to his usual bracingly direct style—precisely at the point where the question of political violence arises.)  For the most part, the argument between the “left” and “liberals” seems to be an argument about rhetorical style, with the left scorning liberals for their mamby-pandy refusal to denounce capitalism and Western perfidy, and the liberals scorning the left for their gestural politics of absolute purity that has little relation to facts on the ground or any possible political constituency.

More germane to this ongoing thread in the blog is the connection of the leftist sensibility to an aesthetic sensibility.  Where am I headed with this?

  1. The aesthetic sensibility as currently exhibited seems to me to share Romanticism’s suspicion of reason. (Maybe that’s why North has to fixate on “method” and “rigor.”  He’s trying to get rationalism back into the aesthetic, from which is has mostly been banned.)  So the aesthetic sensibility shares the compassion for the excluded and down-trodden.  But it is less attuned to reformist projects or prospects.  I will want to say more about how the aesthetic expresses its compassion, its solidarity with those unjustly treated.
  2. I don’t think there is any direct path from the aesthetic to the leftist sensibility—or that there is any necessary connection between them. To the extent that those who go in for aesthetics in the current moment also tend to be leftists of some variety, I think that’s because of a political education, not an aesthetic one. In short, it has been hard to get an aesthetic education since 1970 without getting a political one alongside it.  The relation between the two is neither necessary nor direct (as I have said), but their adjacency has been almost universal.  I believe it is sloppy thinking to believe there is a deeper connection between the two.
  3. The million dollar question remains: how do you instill a sensibility? What kind of education does the trick?  If sensibilities really are the fundamental drivers of moral/political commitments and of actions undertaken, then how are they formed?  What are the crucial sites of intervention?  Is there a formula?

Right-Wing Sensibility

“You cannot greet the world in the morning with anything less than ferocity, or be evening you will be destroyed.”  Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light, p. 543.

What I want to do here is characterize right-wing sensibility. I will, in a subsequent post, try to characterize left-wing sensibility, which I find much harder to do.

I think Dick Cheney, more than Donald Trump, is a good exemplar here.  Recall his one-percent doctrine.  “If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_One_Percent_Doctrine

For the right-winger, it’s a dangerous world out there, full of enemies.  If you let your guard down, you are toast.  Pre-emptive violence (another doctrine of the Bush years) is best, but hitting back with ferocity is second best.  The “bad guys” are everywhere and eternal vigilance is required to keep them in check.  Conservatives are always the “party of order” because the challenges to order are everywhere.

The difference between us—the guardians of order—and them, the sowers of chaos—is, inevitably moralized.  They aren’t called the “bad guys” for nothing.  The maintenance of order becomes the maintenance of moral order.  And that requires punishment.  Justice for conservatives is “people getting what they deserve.”  It has nothing to do with equality, since some people are better, more worthy, than others.  Hayek wrote that the whole notion of equality is a travesty of justice.  How could equal treatment be just, he wrote?  The whole point of justice is to discriminate between the guilty and the not-guilty. A justice system that treated everyone the same would not be just.

Because it is a dangerous world, the conservative wants a strong military, a strong national security apparatus, and a strong leader.  The niceties of democracy, the rule of law, and tolerance are distractions, even hindrances, when it comes to securing the nation against enemies external and internal.  The moral division between good and bad translates fairly directly into strong-in-group bias.  The members of my group—the nation—are good; the outsiders are, at best, never to be trusted, and, at worst, dangerous foes incessantly plotting against us.

Obviously, this mind-set encourages paranoia, the continual identification of new groups that are a threat to my group.  Right-wing movements of the past two hundred years have always traded on identifying an “internal” enemy as well as an external one.

The moral component of conservatism rests on a strong sense of “desert” (less politely called “entitlement.”)  My standing in the world, the goods I possess, are deserved—and for that reason it is fully just to deny those goods to the undeserving.  The right-wing fury about the “nanny state” is about taking what I have earned and giving it to those too lazy or otherwise too morally deficient to have earned something for themselves.  A very basic sense of justice is the source of the indignation against the welfare functions of the modern liberal state.  (I believe that the fact that conservatives and liberals mean absolutely distinct things by “justice” goes a long way to defining the political divide between the two camps.)

There is, undoubtedly, a tension between the individualism that celebrates moral responsibility and what one has earned for oneself and the willingness to submerge the self in the larger group of the morally just.  (The group of the saved, of the elect.)  The aggression of a conservatism that is always on the lookout for enemies is complemented (perhaps even washed clean) by a concomitant willingness to sacrifice the self for the group in the event of violence.

Right-wing thought, because so focused on good guys versus bad guys, tends to the Manichean, toward moral absolutism, and, thus, to the conclusion that there is no compromising with the devil.  Negotiation is a sign of weakness—and every weakness with be exploited.  Strength is the only source of security in this dangerous world.  The evil are just evil; their badness is not to be explained away, and the idea that they can be rehabilitated is sentimental liberal claptrap.  For this reason (its inability to detect middle grounds), conservative thought is particularly attracted to slippery slope arguments.  Medicare is Socialism and we are on the road to serfdom.  Give them an inch and they will take a mile.  Hysteria about drastic consequences to even the mildest of reforms goes with the territory.

In certain strains of right-wing sensibility, there can be a strong sense of one’s own potential depravity, an Augustinian sense of all humans as weak, sinful creatures.  In that case, the appeal of a strong leader and an authoritarian social order extends to the need for external constraints to rein in one’s own tendency to sin.  We are in superego territory here, where the masochistic desire to submit to a strong hand flips quickly and almost seamlessly into the sadistic need to punish depraved others.  [This dynamic is very complex in US conservatism; it seems to play no role at all in the many shameless right-wing moralists.  But it runs through various sites of evangelical fervor, where drinking, domestic violence, drug abuse, and covert hetero- and homo-sexual behavior co-exists with a deep attachment to “saving grace.”]

I do think attitudes toward the necessity of punishment—and to the severity of the forms it should take—are central here.  Conservatives (Kipling is a great instance, but think of most policemen and many soldiers) hate liberals because liberals (in the conservative view) leave the dirty work of punishment and the enforcement of order to “the thin blue line.”  The liberals benefit from the police and from prisons, yet not only refrain from doing the dirty work themselves, but also disdain those who do that work.

Here we tap into another feature of the right-wing sensibility: a sense of grievance.  Their own rectitude, their doing the essential work society requires, is never appreciated, while the spongers, the eggheads, the chattering classes, not the mention the Jews, the blacks, and the immigrants gather in all the spoils.  Society rewards the wrong people—a proof of society’s corruption and of the need for a strong leader to pull it back onto the right path.

In short, something is wrong somewhere—and that wrongness is either the product of evil people or of a fundamental, unchangeable fact, of a dangerous world replete with people out to get you.  In either case, aggression is the best response.  As my conservative students tell me, the Machiavelli of The Prince basically has it right.

Conservatives are capable of exemplary generosity to those in their in-group.  That generosity, you might say, matches their ferocity to those deemed outside the pale.

Given the priority conservatives place on security, it was one of the great intellectual coups of history when the neo-liberals (Hayek and Friedman in particular) captured the word “freedom” to describe what capitalism delivered—and, on that basis, make a defense of unregulated capitalism the hallmark of late-twentieth-century conservatism (Thatcher and Reagan).  Traditional conservatives (Burke and Carlyle) saw capitalism as destroying communal solidarity by pitting each individual against the rest in endless competition.  They associated capitalism with the destruction of social order.

Hayek and Friedman, in contrast, correctly recognize that capitalism (because of the coercive force of economic necessity for most people) poses no danger to order.  Assured that order is not threatened, they can undertake their propaganda campaign for “free” markets by insisting that government is the source of coercion (as well as the source of inefficiency) while the market will set us free.  Ignore the fact of economic necessity—or of the disastrous results of profitable enterprises always shifting the costs of “externalities” elsewhere—and their argument makes some sense.  And it fits perfectly (Hayek’s work is the perfect model here) with right-wing Manicheanism.  The market all good; any efforts to regulate the market (either by states or by unions) all bad.

Hayek and Friedman also have to ignore all the evidence that capitalists hate risk.  Security remains the watch-word.  Capitalists always try to minimize competition, to shift costs and risks elsewhere, to never face personal bankruptcy. That’s why capitalism tends toward monopoly.  Competition (just like economic downturns) does not spur risk-taking; it spurs ever more ingenious ways to mitigate risk.  Innovation occurs within secure environments—like research tanks and universities.

Conservatives hate liberals—and the most common charge is that liberals are hypocrites.  Somewhere in the conservative psyche (maybe I am giving them too much credit) there are guilt feelings about their aggressive, uncharitable relation to their fellow human beings.  I would think there is a similar guilt about the costs of aggressive behavior (both military and economic) on the world and its inhabitants.  Such massive destruction (of cities, of the environment, of the people trampled by military and economic adventurism) is hard to justify—and do-gooder liberals keep pointing out that unpleasant fact.  For a conservative like my father, that finger-pointing spurred rage.  In his milder moments, he would brand war a sad necessity, taking a tragic view of what this world inflicted on us, these constantly fighting human animals.  But in less mild moods, the rage generated fantasies of violence against those liberals, the desire to place them in the front lines of battle, to have them subjected to violence.

Because determined to defend their own rectitude (no matter the deep, hidden doubts or guilt feelings that make liberal accusations sting), conservatives respond with similar rage to accusations of racism.  They will fall back on “desert”—which is why a certain kind of Darwinian and/or free market fundamentalism is so appealing to the right wing.  There has to be a mechanism (shades of Calvinism) to separate out the “elect” (the deserving) from the “damned” (the undeserving).  And it is much better if that mechanism can be demonstrated as “natural,” as a process uncontrolled by human hands and, thus, unbiased in any way.

Hayek himself avoided the crude claim that the market’s creation of winners and losers was just.  Desert, he was willing to concede, played only a small role in market success.  But Hayek was adamant that the processes of the market were beyond human control—and that all efforts to control them would lead to worse results than laissez-faire.  The point is that the conservative is going to strive to avoid taking any responsibility for the ills the liberal harps on (poverty, racism, environmental degradation, workplace dangers etc.)

Three final thoughts.  One, I don’t know what to do with people like the Koch brothers.  Their animus against workers, environmentalists, and any kind of regulation is so over the top, so relentless, and so directly hostile to the well-being of millions of people even as their own wealth is beyond what could be spent in a thousand life-time, that I cannot fathom their motives or sensibility.  What is at stake for them?  They have been given a sweet, sweet deal by this world—and yet are filled with rage against it and a desire to do hurt.  What’s their beef?  It’s baffling.  As Gary Wills put it many years ago (reporting on either the 1992 or 1996 Republican convention in the New York Review of Books), what explains all these aggrieved millionaires?  It is one thing for politicians (eager for power) to exploit the sense of grievance among those the economy has not served well, providing those souls with enemies to focus on.  But why would a millionaire fall for that poison?  And I end up thinking (simplistically, but with no place else to go) that even as there are souls for whom no amount of power will ever suffice, there are souls for whom no amount of money will ever suffice.  Just greed simpliciter.

The second thought is spurred by Walter Benjamin’s insight that the logical end of fascism is war.  At the extreme right, the only plausible response to the identified enemies is extermination, and the only way to offer “the masses” participation in power (the opportunity to exercise that strength, that “ferocity,” that insures survival into the evening—to recall my opening quote) is to put a gun in their hands and march them off the battle.  Trump’s America has not reached this point; the undercurrent of violence in his politics is unorganized at the moment, only inspiring lone shooters, not para-military or official violence.  With the courts increasingly in right-wing hands, most of the contemporary conservative movement (especially its “respectable” political and business wings) is willing to effect its coup through the law.  And liberals have been hand-tied by this strategy, with its vote suppression, roll back of regulations, business friendly court decisions etc.  The left, I believe, will eventually have to resort to defying court decisions–the way much of the South defied the Brown decision.

Third:  I have deliberately not talked of Trump in this post.  I don’t think him easily exemplary of the right-wing sensibility.  His craving for attention, his obvious insecurities, his participation in the pursuit and circuits of “celebrity” make him a rather different animal.  There are overlaps of course, but better not to be confused by thinking there is a perfect match.

Oliver Wendell Holmes: Violence and the Law

Holmes’s war experiences left him with the view that it all boils down to force, to the imposition of death.  “Holmes had little enthusiasm for the idea that human beings possessed any rights by virtue of being human.  Holmes always liked to provoke friends who he thought were being sentimentally idealistic by saying, ‘all society rests on the deaths of men,” and frequently asserted that a ‘right’ was nothing more than ‘those things a given crowd will fight for—which vary from religion to the price of a glass of beer’” (369-70 in Budiansky’s biography of Holmes).

Holmes’ rejection of any “natural” theory of rights always returned to this assertion about death:

The jurists who believe in natural law seem to me to be in that naïve state of

mind that accepts what has been familiar and accepted by them and their

neighbors as something that must be accepted by all men everywhere.  The

most fundamental of the supposed preexisting rights—the right to life—is

sacrificed without a scruple not only in war, but whenever the interest of

society, that is, of the predominant power in the community, is thought to

demand it (376).

 

And he understood the law entirely through its direct relation to force.  “The law, as Holmes never tired of pointing out, is at its foundation ‘a statement of the circumstances in which the public force will be brought to bear upon men through the courts’” (435).  “Holmes’s point was that the law is what the law does; it is not a theoretical collection of axioms and moral principles, but a practical statement of where public force will be brought to bear, and that could only be derived from an examination of it in action” (244).  “[H]e would come to insist as a cornerstone of his legal philosophy that law is fundamentally a statement of society’s willingness to use force—‘every law means I will kill sooner than not have my way,’ as he put it[;] . . . he did not want the men who threw ideas around ever again to escape responsibility for where those ideas led.  It was the same reason he lost the enthusiastic belief he once has in the cause of women’s suffrage: political decision had better come from those who do the killing” (131).

Temperamentally, this is easy enough to characterize.  The manly facing up to harsh facts, to an unsentimental view of humans and their social institutions, and a disgust with all sentimental claptrap.

Philosophically, it is less easy to describe.  Where there is power there must be force is clear enough.  But what Holmes seems to miss is that the law often serves as an attempt to restrict force.  Rights (in some instances) are legal statements about instances where the use of force is illegitimate.  Certainly (as Madison was already well aware and as countless commentators have noted since) there is something paradoxical about the state articulating limitations on its own powers.

Who is going to enforce those limitations?  The answer is the courts.  And the courts do not have an army.  That’s what the rule of law is about: the attempt to establish modus vivendi that are respected absent the direct application of force.  Holmes, of course, is arguing that the court’s decision will not be obeyed unless there is the implied (maybe not even implied, but fully explicit) use of state power to enforce that decision.  But his position, like all reductionisms, does not do justice to the complexities of human behavior and psychology.  The Loving decision of 1967, like earlier decisions on child labor laws, led to significant changes in everyday social practice that came into existence with little fanfare.  There are cases where the desire to live within the law is enough; there is an investment in living in a lawful society.  Its benefits are clear enough that its unpleasant consequences (in relation to my own beliefs and preferences) are a price I am willing to pay in order to enjoy those benefits.  Of course, there are also instances where force needs to be applied—as with the widespread flouting of the Brown decision.  My point is simply that the law’s relationship to force is more complex than Holmes allows.  The law is an alternative to violence in many instances, not its direct expression.

My position fits with my notion of the Constitution as an idealistic document, of a statement of the just society we wish to be.  The law is not, as Holmes would argue, completely divorced from questions of morality and justice (more claptrap!).  That relation is complex and often frustrating, but it does no good (either theoretically or practically) to just cut the tie in the name of clear-sighted realism.  Social institutions exist, in part, to protect citizens from force.  And, yes, that can mean in some instances that state force must be deployed in order to fend off other forces.  But it also means in some instances that the institutions serve to prevent any deployment of force at all.  The law affords, when it works, an escape from force, from the unpredictable, uncontrollable and deeply non-useful side effects of most uses of force.

In short, the manly man creates (at least as much as he discovers) the harsh world of struggle he insists is our basic lot.  True, Holmes did not create the war he marched off to at the age of twenty.  He experienced that war as forced upon him.  But he never got quite clear about who was responsible.  He was inclined to blame the abolitionists and their moral fervor, their uncompromising and intolerant absolutism.  He certainly had no patience for their self-righteous moralizing.  Still, blaming them had some obvious flaws, so he ended up converting the idea of struggle into a metaphysical assertion.  He, like Dewey and James, but in a different, more Herbert Spencer-like register, became a Darwinian, focused on the struggle for existence.  But he yoked Darwin to Hobbes; it is not the best adaptation to environmental conditions that assures survival, but the best application of force.  Of course, if the environmental condition is the war of all against all, then the adepts at violence will be the ones who survive.

All of this goes along with contempt for the losers in the battle.  Holmes had no patience with socialists or with proponents of racial justice.  The unwashed were driven by envy; “no rearrangement of property could address the real sources of social discontent” (396), those sources being the envy of the successful by the unsuccessful.  It’s a struggle; just get on with it and quit the whining—or expecting anyone to offer you a helping hand.  Holmes did accept that the law should level the field of struggle; he was (somewhat contradictorily) committed to the notion of a “fair” fight.  Where this ideal of “fairness” was to come from is never clear in his thought—or his legal opinions.  (He was, in fact, very wary of the broad use of the 14th Amendment’s language about “due process” and “equal protection of the laws.”  The broad use of the 14th amendment was being pioneered by Louis Brandeis in Holmes’ later year on the Supreme Court.)  Budiansky is clear that Holmes is by no stretch of the term a “liberal.”

Holmes’s famous dissents from the more conservative decisions of the pre-New Deal Court are motivated by his ideal of fairness—and (connecting to earlier posts about what liberalism even means) that ideal is used against decisions that in American usage are understood as “conservative” even though those conservative decisions were based on the “liberal” laissez-faire idea that the state cannot interfere in business practices.  Holmes’s scathing dissents from the court’s overturning of child labor laws enacted by the states are usually argued on the grounds of consistency.  He says that state governments already regulate commerce (for example, of alcohol), so it is absurd to say they can’t regulate other aspects of commercial activities.

Regulation, it would seem, is always about competing interests.  Since it is inevitable that there will be competing interests, society (through its regulatory laws) is best served by establishing a framework for the balancing of those interests.  Regulation is neither full permission nor full prohibition.  It strives to set conditions for a practice, conditions that take the various interests involved into account.  But Holmes never really worked out a theoretical account of regulation—another place where his reductionism fails him.  Yes, regulations must be enforced, but they are also always a compromise meant to mitigate the need to resort to force–and to prevent anyone from having a full, free hand in the social field characterized by a plurality of different interests and aims.

A Veteran’s Worldview

I have just finished reading Stephen Budiansky’s riveting biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, subtitled “A Life in War, Law, and Ideas” (Norton, 2019).  Like Louis Menand, Budiansky claims—and makes a very compelling case for the claim—that Holmes’ manner and belief are all shaped by his service in the Civil War.  Holmes was severely wounded twice (once in late July 1861 and then again at Antietam in September 1862).  The second time (like Robert Graves) his death was reported in the newspapers.  Holmes returned to service after both wounds, but saw only limited combat after 1862 since he joined a general’s staff.  He had had more than enough—and quit the war in 1864 as soon as his three year term of service had expired.

Budiansky does a superb job in portraying Holmes’ worldview, one that I think is shared by many veterans.  It certainly resonates with the hard to describe beliefs that animated my own father, who saw serious combat (although far short of the slaughterhouse that was September 17, 1862 at Antietam) in the Pacific during World War II.  At bottom, Holmes became a “it’s struggle all the way down” guy.  In the final analysis, it is force that tells—and that rules.  That is an ugly truth.  Force is relentless, mindless, brutal, and unrelated to justice or any other ideals.  People who mouth ideals or try to call others to account in the name of ideals are naïve at best, deluded hypocrites speaking claptrap.  At worst, they are moralistic despots, deploying their moral certainties to tyrannize over the rest of us.  Dewey’s pragmatist attack on “the quest for certainty” becomes in Holmes the justification of an activist pluralism.  The role of the law is to create a social field in which individuals are free to live their lives according to their own vision of the good life.  Oddly enough, this yields a positive value: basically the very English value (both Holmes and my father were over-the-top Anglophiles) of “fair play.”  Holmes’ Supreme Court decisions, in almost every instance, were directed to leveling the playing field, to denying any one or any group more power than any other.  Thus he was a liberal in the Judith Shklar’s “liberalism of fear” sense; the focus is on preventing concentrations of power.

But Holmes (and here he is also very pragmatist) did not accept that uncertainty meant nihilism.  “’Of all humbugs the greatest is the humbug of indifference and superiority,’ he wrote . . . in 1897. ‘Our destiny is to care, to idealize, to live toward passionately desired ends.’ He always dismissed the nihilistic attitude ‘it is all futile,’ which he termed ‘the dogmatism that often is disguised under skepticism.  The sceptic has no standard to warrant such universal judgments.  If a man has counted in the actual striving of his fellows he cannot pronounce it vain’” (130).

Eureka!  I can’t help but take this for the cornerstone.  It jives with William James’s constant harping of “striving,” and it is tied to a deep commitment to a certain ideal of masculinity.  Holmes (like my father) was clear-eyed about the waste, the futility, the sheer brutal nastiness and devastation of war. He could see that a killing field like Antietam left nothing to individual initiative, ability, or resolve.  It was all sheer chance as to whether one survived or not.  And yet, he still hung on to the time-worn notion that war was the supreme test of manhood—and thus valuable because (for reasons never examined) manhood has to be tested.  Maybe that goes back to the struggle thing; one needs to compete against others for the prize of being able to, in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others, be accounted a man.  Since the struggle lies in front of us, the prize goes to those who most energetically strive.  And by upping the stakes to life or death in the way that combat does, manhood is fully tested.

Thus, he famously wrote (in 1884) of himself and his fellow Civil War veterans: “We have shared the incommunicable experience of war; we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top . . . Through our good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire” (127).  And later, during the First World War, he wrote: “I truly believe that young men who live through a war in which they have taken part will find themselves different thenceforth—I feel it—I see it in the eyes of the few surviving men who served in my Regiment.  So, although I would have averted the war if I could have, I believe that all the suffering and waste are not without their reward.  I hope will all my heart that your boys may win the reward and at not too great a cost” (363).

That last bit strikes the note perfectly.  A real desire to avoid war joined with an equally real belief that war brings its own distinctive rewards, along with the absolute distinction between those who have the incommunicable experienced of war and those who do not.  The veteran is part of the elect; he has looked into the abyss; he has seen the fundamental ugly truth of struggle, and is the better man for it.

In the implacable face of violence and death, high ideals mean nothing.  The only worthy response is to shut up and get on with it. Grim determination, strong silence, and doing the job well are what is worthy of respect; nothing more or less.  His ideal men “were free to be egoists or altruists on the usual Saturday half holiday provided they were neither while on their job.  Their job is their contribution to the general welfare and when a man is on that, he will do it better the less he thinks ether of himself or of his neighbors, and the more he puts his energy into the problem he has to solve” (137).  His contempt for intellectuals and moralists was unbounded.  “More than once he cautioned his friends about ‘the irresponsibility of running the universe on paper. . . . The test of an ideal or rather of an idealist, is the power to hold it and get one’s inspiration from it under difficulties.  When one is comfortable and well off, it is easy to talk high talk’”(131).  His attitude toward intellectuals was very close to that of George Orwell; they talked a talk they never had to walk—and they rendered the world frictionless in their images of its betterment.  It is the contempt of the self-styled man of action for the man of ideals—and is undoubtedly tied up with a cherished ideal of manhood.  And, of course, in both Holmes and Orwell, it comes from two men who are primarily men of words.  But they both share their military experience, so can see themselves as superior to the non-veteran.

When you aspire to be a man of action, the nostalgia for combat is understandable.  What other field of action that is not contemptible does the modern world offer?  What honor is there in making more money than others?  Where, in other words, is the moral equivalent of war?  Certainly not in politics, which is even more contemptible than trade.  Holmes was determined not to become either the gloomy Henry Adams nor the god-seeking William James.  He wanted, instead, to be the tough-minded realist described in the opening pages of James’s Pragmatism book.

I want, in my next post, to consider how tough-minded realism plays itself out in Holmes’ understanding of the law.  But today I will end with the way that realism renders Holmes a pluralist in an additional sense.  He is a pluralist in the John Rawls sense of believing that the central unalterable fact that liberal society must negotiate is the existence of multiple visions of the good, none of which should be allowed to trample on the others.  He is a pluralist in the Isaiah Berlin sense in asserting that, even within a single vision of the good, there are competing goods that require tradeoffs and compromises; we will never getting everything we could wish for because those things cannot co-exist.  Going to the theater tonight means missing a dinner with a different set of friends.  Intellectuals, he thinks, never take the inevitability of never achieving the maximum into account in their criticisms of the men of action or in their imagined utopias.  “Remember, my friend [he wrote], that every good costs something.  Don’t forget that to have anything means to go without something else.  Even to be a person, to be this means to be not that’ (131).

In sum, life’s a struggle and a real man just gets on with the job, harboring no illusion that it will be all wine and roses.  That real man is full of contempt for the complainers and idealists, the ones who aim to change the basic fact of struggle into some kind of gentler form of cooperation that tends toward ameliorating the sufferings of himself and/or others.  You just need to face up to the suffering in stoic silence, doing the best that you can for yourself and for those you love.  Because you are a man and they are depending on you, even as you have no one to depend on but yourself.  It’s a cop-out of your manhood to expect help; it’s a sign of weakness, of not being up to the struggle, to whine for help from the law, from society, from anyone.