The real question is whether a religion or culture is capable of interpreting life in a dimension sufficiently profound to understand and anticipate the sorrows and pains which may result from a virtuous regard for our responsibilities; and to achieve a serenity within sorrow and pain which is something less but also something more than “happiness.” Our difficulty as a nation is that we must now learn that prosperity is not simply coordinated to virtue, that virtue is not simply coordinated to historic destiny and that happiness is no simple possibility of human existence.
This passage appears in Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History (1952), in a chapter where he meditates on the problem of Americans’ exceptional moral self-regard, which depends on confusing the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of prosperity and consequently measuring the virtue of our nation on its achievements in the latter. His conclusion — which ought not to surprise any Christian — is that material prosperity is not a measure of virtue, whether collective or individual.
In the context of the early Cold War, the danger Niebuhr senses is that, like the communists, Americans believe that their political philosophy is uniquely virtuous, but the proof of our superiority lay in our capacity both to generate more wealth collectively, as a society, and to distribute it more effectively (if less equally) to individuals than our ideological rivals. Niebuhr acknowledges the fact of the U.S.A.’s prosperity, but cautions his American readers against adopting it as a measure of moral self-worth. Doing so would mean creating an ideological illusion of perfect consistency in ideal and practice, one that leads inevitably to bellicosity and self-deception.
The more that Americans consider our individual rights to pursue happiness to be coterminous with our good fortune in creating and maintaining a high standard living, the more we confuse accidents of history with historical destiny. Thus delusions of historical destiny enable us to paper over our own failures, mistakes, and peculiar moral blindnesses. And the root of it is a simple categorical error, which is that happiness is material comfort. All manner of political evil derives from this error, and Niebuhr takes great pains to illustrate that both communists and apologists for capitalism are guilty of it. Striving for material gain is not a moral virtue, but Niebuhr views it as both the means and end of modern politics. That’s why, he argues, we need a religious perspective on this endless–and endlessly unfulfilling–pursuit of worldly happiness.
Over these exertions we discern by faith the ironical laughter of the divine source and end of all things… The scripture assures us that God’s laughter is derisive, having the sting of judgment upon our vanities in it. But if the laughter is truly ironic it must symbolize mercy as well as judgment. For whenever judgment defines the limits of human striving it creates the possibility of an humble acceptance of those limits. Within that humility mercy and peace find a lodging place.
Take no one’s word for anything, including mine—but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept hem and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.
—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963), Modern Library , pp. 7-8
After submitting my last post, I almost immediately happened upon a rant by Hamilton Nolan over at the Gizmodo blog, Splinter:
This is all going to get more extreme. And it should. We are living in extreme times. The harm that is being done to all of us by the people in the American government is extreme. To imagine that Mexican immigrants should happily cook for and serve meals to people who enable a man who is determined to demonize and persecute them as subhuman criminals is far more outrageous than the idea that those enablers should not be served in restaurants. I do not believe that Trump administration officials should be able to live their lives in peace and affluence while they inflict serious harms on large portions of the American population. Not being able to go to restaurants and attend parties and be celebrated is just the minimum baseline here. These people, who are pushing America merrily down the road to fascism and white nationalism, are delusional if they do not think that the backlash is going to get much worse. Wait until the recession comes. Wait until Trump starts a war. Wait until the racism this administration is stoking begins to explode into violence more frequently. Read a fucking history book. Read a recent history book. The U.S. had thousands of domestic bombings per year in the early 1970s. This is what happens when citizens decide en masse that their political system is corrupt, racist, and unresponsive. The people out of power have only just begun to flex their dissatisfaction. The day will come, sooner that you all think, when Trump administration officials will look back fondly on the time when all they had to worry about was getting hollered at at a Mexican restaurant. When you aggressively fuck with people’s lives, you should not be surprised when they decide to fuck with yours.
Stop working for this man. Stop enabling him. Stop assisting him. Start fighting him. The people who are responsible for what is happening are not going to get out of this with their happy wealthy respectable lives unscathed.
To reiterate, Nolan just uncritically placed domestic terror bombings into a rhetorical context that advocates for radical militancy. As we all know, political terrorism is well-known for targeting only those who really deserve to be harmed.
So let’s follow the progression: Two weeks after Trump was elected, Mike Pence went to see Hamilton on Broadway and got a respectful talking to from the stage. There was a long pause on this sort of direct action until, last Tuesday, Kirstjen Nielsen was heckled as she ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Three days later, Sarah Huckabee Sanders went to dinner at a restaurant called the Red Hen and the owner asked her to leave. And on Sunday, Maxine Waters upped the ante by suggesting that rather than just ask Trump staffers to leave, citizens ought to mob them and shame them, Cersei Lannister-style, whenever they are seen in public.
This is a disgusting and appalling lack of civility and a departure from the norms of American political discourse and I cannot fathom where liberals got the idea for it and, by the by, here is a list of some things the current president of the United States of America said while campaigning for his office:
“I’d like to punch him in the face.”
“Maybe he should have been roughed up.”
“Part of the problem . . . is no one wants to hurt each other anymore.”
“I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself or if other people will.”
“The audience hit back. That’s what we need a little bit more of.”
“If you do [hurt him], I’ll defend you in court, don’t worry about it.”
“I’ll beat the crap out of you.”
“Knock the crap out of him, would you? I promise you, I will pay your legal fees.”
It’s a mystery, isn’t it? Where in the world did Maxine Waters and the Red Hen and the people in that Mexican restaurant come up with such terrible, norm-shattering ideas about civility?
–Jonathan V. Last, This Business Will Get Out of Control
Two quotes from Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent Atlantic article:
The best distillation of the Trump Doctrine I heard, though, came from a senior White House official with direct access to the president and his thinking. I was talking to this person several weeks ago, and I said, by way of introduction, that I thought it might perhaps be too early to discern a definitive Trump Doctrine.
“No,” the official said. “There’s definitely a Trump Doctrine.”
“What is it?” I asked. Here is the answer I received:
“The Trump Doctrine is ‘We’re America, Bitch.’ That’s the Trump Doctrine.”
It struck me almost immediately that this was the most acute, and attitudinally honest, description of the manner in which members of Trump’s team, and Trump himself, understand their role in the world.
I asked this official to explain the idea. “Obama apologized to everyone for everything. He felt bad about everything.” President Trump, this official said, “doesn’t feel like he has to apologize for anything America does.”
“People criticize [Trump] for being opposed to everything Obama did, but we’re justified in canceling out his policies,” one friend of Trump’s told me. This friend described the Trump Doctrine in the simplest way possible. “There’s the Obama Doctrine, and the ‘Fuck Obama’ Doctrine,” he said. “We’re the ‘Fuck Obama’ Doctrine.”
Just a friendly reminder: No, you’re not dreaming. This is all real. These are the people who are responsible for negotiating international treaties and keeping World War III from erupting.
In the 1970s, the story goes, a CEO met with environmental activists only to tell them: “I agree with you. Now go out and make me do it.” Businesses operating from a responsive mindset require relentless outside pressures to do the right thing. What is needed in the present moment is not uncritical celebration of “woke” companies working to ingratiate themselves into certain political constituencies, which would likely expand the current us-versus-them political divides into the private sector. Recognizing the dominance of the responsive mindset means all businesses, woke and un-woke alike, will need a healthy degree of “vigilant belligerence” from wider society as they navigate a politically contentious era. But perhaps at a more basic level, concerned citizens need to continually evaluate the degree to which profit-seeking, market-responsive entities should be tasked with preserving the social and political goods necessary for a flourishing society.
–Andrew Lynn, “The Limits of Corporate Activism”
The hallmark of the neoliberal thought collective was that they more or less accepted the inherited image of an addled and befuddled populace, but thoroughly rejected any appeals to a scientific technocracy to instill some discipline in the masses. For them, the discombobulation of the masses was not a reason for despair, but rather the necessary compost out of which a spontaneous order might blossom. The primary way this would come to pass was through acknowledgement that “the market” was an information processor more powerful and more efficacious than any human being was or could ever be. The cretinous and nescient would propose; the market would dispose. In effect, the NTC believed if only the masses could learn to subordinate their ambitions and desires to market dictates, then their deficient understandings and flawed syllogisms could be regarded as convenient expedients smoothing the path to order, rather than as political obstacles to be overcome, as in the technocratic orientation of postwar social sciences. And, conveniently, the neoliberals would mobilize numerous institutional structures to nudge the people down that path.
Hence, when it came to the simple matter of bamboozling the masses with ripping tales of government as the very embodiment of evil, as Friedman did, there were never any qualms expressed about their simultaneous drive to take over the Republican Party, and then the U.S. government, in order to impose a strong state and an even stronger set of state-instituted novel markets. The neoliberals often had to disguise their true allegiances from the masses: as Friedman once claimed, “the two groups that threaten the free market the most are businessmen and intellectuals.” Yet Friedman promoted the destruction of state education and the privatization of universities to put the intellectuals out of business; he never attacked the businessmen to any equivalent degree. Indeed, he openly preached the doctrine that corporations had no responsibilities to society other than to maximize their profits; if corporations were persons, they were of the purest strain of self-interested creatures, free from all surly bonds of obligation. The demonization of the state relative to the corporation was the epitome of the short-term tactic; the usurpation of power to the extent of reregulation (not deregulation) and extension of state power both at home and abroad were the long-term goals. No matter what Grover Norquist might rabbit on about, no neoliberal in government has ever actually shrunk the size of the state, much less drowned it in a bathtub. That was merely red meat for the groundlings. While in power, neoliberals may have subcontracted out parts of government, but that rarely makes a dent in bureaucracy. The coercive power of government inexorably grows.
–Philip Mirowski, “Neoliberalism: The Movement That Dare Not Speak Its Name”