November 3, 2004

Moral Values, Divided Universalisms, and Parasitic Anti-Modernities

Kieran Healy writes that the election appears to have been decided by moral values, and wonders why no one was tracking that seriously.

No one? I think that many Americans have been interested in this issue, and keenly aware of it. I think we’ve been talking about it for four years now, perhaps longer. I know that some public intellectuals have been desperately trying to get Americans on the left to understand not only their immense vulnerability in these terms but to adopt some kind of response that goes beyond an uncompromising defense of secular humanism.

Not to renege on my promises about the dispensation of blame—Bush voters are morally responsible for their vote, no one made them do it—but there is a deep causal reason why the culturally conservative minority is as overwhelmingly mobilized and politically aggressive as they are, why they are as determined as they are to gain control of the mechanisms of the state and through it, civil society and popular culture.

From the perspective of social and religious conservatives, their campaign to capture the government is a defensive response to attacks from the late 1960s through to the 1980s on the central mechanisms of their own social and cultural reproduction. Abortion rights, feminism, the expansion of free speech, the increased legal rigidity in interpreting church-state separation, and so on: these are hot-button issues not just for and of themselves, but because of them has symbolically come to stand in for a perception of a larger and more pervasive attempt to make religious and social conservatism a historical rather than continuing phenomenon.

I think that there is much that is fair about that perception, exaggerated and overwrought though it may be at times. Just as I think it’s pretty fair for those who oppose gun control advocates to suggest that “sensible” restrictions on handguns really are just a first step from the perspective of some gun control proponents, and that the struggle over guns has been in some ways only the veneer of a struggle over culture, lifeways, habitus.

Some of us with other values, who do not share the core orientations of the strongly religious or culturally conservative in the United States, pushed too hard beyond the basic necessary restructuring of social life, the basic enforcement of lowest-common-denominator rights and universal freedoms. Too many pushed forward towards a transformative project and suborned both the mechanisms of the state and civil society to try and accomplish that project.

Having mobilized, however, American social and religious conservatives are now far more sinning than sinned against. They are not and have not been for some time content to simply defend the integrity of their own choices, their own communities. They are paying back tenfold any harm done to their own social worlds, rolling the dice to commandeer American society as a whole.

In alluding to the need for a Fort Sumter in the reconfiguration of the American spirit, I am seriously thinking of the following Great Compromise: a radical embrace of an extreme states’ rights position on all cultural and social issues. We would offer to abandon the argument that the federal government must enforce a singular position on abortion rights and any other similar issue.

Let there be Heartlandia and Bicoastia, two republics with radically different laws. In Bicoastia, you could watch whatever you wanted to watch, read whatever you wanted to read, publish whatever you wanted to publish. Evolution would be taught in the schools. Women would have the right to choose an abortion. Civil unions or even gay marriage would be allowed. Church-state separation would be enforced strongly. In Heartlandia, public schools could mandate prayer time. Creationism could be required. Strict controls on popular culture could be allowed. Restrictions on divorce would be permitted. Abortion could be strictly outlawed.

This wouldn’t resolve the problem of federal mismanagement of foreign policy and so on, but at least the moral question would be taken off the table, or so you’d think. It might also provide an interesting “market” test for both ways of life.

Of course it would not actually, because neither of the antagonistic social coalitions that feel strongly about such issues would be willing to concede to the division of the Union. More importantly, the fact that most of us live in the in-between would suddenly arise as an equally powerful cultural fact. I’m reminded of something a friend of my father once told us about. He lived for some time in an almost entirely Mormon neighborhood in Utah. He would throw out his liquor bottles with the rest of his garbage. He noticed after a couple of months that by the time his garbage was picked up, the number of liquor bottles in it had mysteriously multiplied by a factor of ten, far beyond his own consumption.

The people who want to live in Heartlandia probably quietly live some of the life of the Bicoastians. I've seen the outside of a lot of strip clubs when I've been travelling in Texas, and you know something, I don't think it's liberal elites who are sitting inside. Some of the Bicoastians quietly or not so quietly harbor culturally conservative views on some subjects. I know I have quite strong feelings about marriage and infidelity: though I might intellectually support the right of people to carry on however they like, I emotionally am much more comfortable with monogamous couples (gay or straight). In fact, strip away a lot of my intellectual views, forget the fact that I’m not religious, and just look at me socially: married for almost 20 years, fairly ordinary middle-class life, soon-to-be-a-home-owner, pretty staid in a lot of my cultural tastes. I could at least disguise myself for a while as a Heartlandian.

The real true believers among the Heartlandians don’t want to let the Bicoastians go: they want to impose their entire worldview on them. And to some extent, the reverse is true. Truly fervent, quasi-theological “secular humanists” are a bit harder to find, and smaller in total numbers, than strong Christian evangelicals, but they exist. In autonomous Heartlandia and Bicoastia, both sides would blame the existence of the other for whatever failures and disappointments they suffered. The Bicoastians would be driven to watch for subversive signs of religious intrusion onto the secular, and into stupidities like France's law against the veil; the Heartlandians would have to prowl the backyards of their communities for hidden satellite dishes and smuggled videotapes.

There is a deeper set of asymmetries here, however, and it’s the real reason why Bicoastia and Heartlandia cannot be. One of the strangest things I’ve struggled to understand over the last decade is how neoconservatives and other Wilsonians can take a strong position on the universal necessity of liberty and freedom abroad and then not extend that position to the domestic front. The contradiction works equally well in the opposite direction: many liberals and leftists in the United States take a strong position on the importance of the strong enforcement of universal rights by the federal government within the borders of the United States and then take the position that other societies need to be self-determining and autonomous on questions of values, culture and rights. From the first position, how can someone take a strong position about clitorendectomy abroad and then be agnostic about abortion rights at home? From the second position, how can someone defend the importance of self-determination in non-Western societies and then argue strongly for serious intrusions into the autonomy of rural, religious communities within the United States? But many have and still do exhibit just this pattern of contradiction.

There are those who do not. Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom does a pretty good job of trying to bridge this gap. Trying to avoid this contradiction is the exact reason that some Marxists or leftists like Norman Geras ended up supporting the Iraq War; it’s the same reason that Francis Fukuyama has found himself on the outs with his old colleagues. But on the whole, there are few who claim the authority of a universalist perspective who live up to its obligations. Some of those who try, like Geras or Andrew Sullivan, ended up the victims of a colossal con game, the dupes of particularists and chauvinists who have absolutely no interest in a universal, globalizing, free world, nor any interest in an authentically devolutionist approach to the size and power of the state.

There are very few particularists or anti-moderns who really let go of the power and capacity of universal, globalizing liberalisms. American cultural and religious conservatives don’t really want autonomy for themselves, to pursue their own views and convictions freely. Like parasitic wasps, they want to lay their particularist eggs inside of the U.S. Constitution, to suborn its increasingly well-realized framework of universal rights and protections for the sake of a universalized anti-modernity. They don't want small government, they don't want federalism. Osama bin Laden does not really want to produce a reversion to a purified Islam of the caliphate: his Islam is a futuristic one, a globalized and unified Islam whose identity is forever defined in opposition to and therefore in reliance upon Western secularism. There are no real anti-modernities left: a real anti-modernity is something which is not against modernity, but perpendicular to it, opaque to the understanding of modern subjectivity, a social or cultural world which retains some untranslatable affect to it.

I cannot give up Heartlandia because I believe in a universal humanity possessing universal rights and freedoms. Giving up Heartlandia means giving up Zimbabwe, means giving up Iraq, means giving up Afghanistan. I wish that those who really believe in the Iraq War because of a commitment to universal human rights would see that their project has been commandeered by a movement which is not in the least bit interested in those universalisms save for the ability of a universal framework to impose their own particularisms.

At the same time, precisely because I recognize the advance of universal human rights as a matter of slow, persuasive and voluntaristic transformation rather than civil or statist enforcement, I know that not giving up on Heartlandia is not the same as forcing it to be what I want it to be. I am against clitorendectomy, but there is no way for my opposition to be anything more than a persuasive argument. Any attempt to enforce it through global institutions will make the localisms that reproduce clitorendectomy stronger and more entrenched. I am for the teaching of evolution in public schools, but I recognize that the more stridently I insist on this as an absolute priority, the more I am likely to have the opposite effect, the more that my insistence will come to symbolize the intrusion of the entire substance of my everyday life into the fabric of someone else's comforts and norms.

There is a bottom floor of basic rights when it comes to ceding to particularisms. Dictators do not have the right to hide behind localisms when it comes to torturing their own people or squashing free speech. Religious conservatives in the United States cannot defend their own values to the point of outlawing divorce outright, or requiring women to stay at home. At some point, we need both international and national structures which guarantee the solidity of that bottom floor. In this, the defenders of the Iraq War have a point: someone must act when the fundamentals of freedom are violated by the rulers of nations. If only they could see that point must be carried home to the United States. If only they could also see that you cannot prosecute a war for the extension of freedom in which you exhibit total contempt for the sanctity of individual rights. You can’t be concerned about the loss of life on 9/11 and utterly, chauvinistically indifferent to the loss of civilian lives in Iraq. On the domestic front, liberals have a point: the federal government must enforce basic rights uncompromisingly, and allow no one to defend their violation in terms of “values”. If only liberals could see that point must be carried abroad as well. If only they could see that concern for the rights of innocents in Iraq has to be always and persistently, consistently matched by equally vehement concern for the rights of people blown up by suicide murderers in Israel or the rights of the dead in the World Trade Center.

Much as I would like to be quit of Heartlandia at the moment, I cannot, and not merely because in practical terms I know they would not be quit of me. I cannot be quit of Heartlandia any more than I would be quit of humanity. Modernity points only forward to a world united in its rights and freedoms, and divided in its diversity of values, practices, lifeways. We need to find a stable new consensus about where the division between our universal obligations and our divergent values can lie: in 2004, it’s become clear that none of us know any longer where that line is, and some of us—today, the majority of voting Americans--seem determined to increasingly violate its necessary sanctity with little compunction and a great deal of contradictory ruthlessness.