Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Monday, January 16, 2006


In 2006, radical labor-activists are in agreement with NeoCon warhawks and libertarian economists in believing that a globalized economy requires new ethics.

The precise warnings and advice each offers about how to deal with a globe in conflict differ enormously. Libertarians and radicals note that the American economy’s current success is wedded by stocks and bonds to countries much poorer than our own. Neocons and Radicals worry about the political stability of those nations. Radicals and Libertarians worry about the human rights of those people. But all are concerned with a global world, with America’s involvement in that world, and with how well our policies work. All point to problems inherent with institutions, and all point to the hope of making institutions more democratic.

Schools, governments, and churches are all institutions necessary to society towards which libertarians and radicals hold correct suspicions. The suspicions are correct because indeed, schools, government, and churches promote abuses of free thinking, free activity, and free discourse. Schools tell students how and where to sit: they train them to obey a stance in society rather than thinking for themselves. Governments spy on their citizens, tax them, censor them, and make life hard for citizens whose views are held to be threatening for the reigning power. Churches follow all the other trends of corrupt cooperative practices: they place people into positions of power who are dangerous, immoral, and greedy; they thrive on the consent of their members, and they sustain that consent through seamlessly interweaving an ethic of obedience to the church into their other ethics of investigation, conversation, dialogue, and mutual compassion.

So facing schools, governments, and churches, we all face a wicked problem: not only have we consented to be governed because we want the good that comes out, not only is there a Leviathan, but our institutions are corrupt; our very ttempts to reform them come to nothing. Our radical universities and democratic societies become tools for promoting corrupt policies, ignoring the poor, and teaching homogeneity among the young. Even our “intentional communities” and communes turn into ideological boot camps.

In such a climate of corruption, many have dropped out of the conversation altogether, harnessing themselves to a nostalgic picture of a 1950s community where simple obedience to rules about sexual behavior and polite conversation was enough to insure some measure of social stability.

But we know that that social stability could not last because it provided only social insecurity for the people at each of its margins: for the black, the gay, the intelligent or ambitious woman. We doubt, therefore, that the socially stable fantasy of the 1950s can provide anything more than a chimera for us now. It can help some families, but it cannot repair the rifts in the nation. it cannot save the poor, it cannot bring back the alienated, of itself it promises no discussion and therefore no answers to the deep ethical problems of our day.

Against a climate where our best resources for cooperation and charity are polluted, we have a choice. We can abandon the conversation altogether and return to a limited conversation and the pursuit of our self-gratification – a choice that effectively betrays the very religion of service and conversation with God which we preach. Or we can commit ourselves to ever more perniciously thinking through the snares that are set within every institution we create. We will start think tanks and universities, but only if they are more dialogic, more open to public conversation, more willing to promote the dissenter, than ever before. We will start endowments, but only ones that can be easily reassessed once a critique is opened. We will start open dialogues on the internet where our views are open to our enemies and friends alike, where the most compelling rebuttal of our solutions to world problems will find us and correct our own errors and pride.

The libertarians are interested in thinking through a system that would sustain international development. In doing so they are committed to promoting local self government, creative entrepreneurship, and a diminished central military state. When Sybil and Beatrice Webb, that fantastic academic-politician couple so involved with early British socialism, wrote about cooperation on an international level to promote welfare and healthcare for all, they stressed that the record of modern government since the renaissance was an increase in the cooperation between peoples. In such a world, new, hybrid forms of political activity would flourish, constantly posing challenges to the despotic threat of a single enormous government or a monopoly of enormous and abusive corporations or a monopoly and abusive church.

We need that cooperation today, and we have seen consensual inttiatives towards vast global cooperation around the theme of human rights in the environmental movement (with Kyoto and Montreal) and in poverty (with the Make Poverty History campaign among international clergy and activists).

Libertarians fear top-down world government. They don’t fear courts; they don’t fear the arbitration of legal rights. They fear a global power under an ideology of massive government that would diminish entrepreneurial activity. They fear the UN, in statements that sometimes make me smile in thinking of Tim leHaye’s evangelical science-fiction romance with its Antichrist who promotes a reign of fascist terror after rising to head of the UN by promising to end poverty. What they are right about is clear to me: local governments are inherently more participatory. In local government, the villagers burn down the manor when the manor is too oppressive for too long. In great big government, the dictator has an army that can lock up and torture anyone who speaks out. In both democracies and despotic countries, big governments have militaries behind them. In both democracies and despotic countries, the abrogation of ancient liberties of speech is a historical fact and remains possible in the future.

Cooperation has important precedents. Local governments don’t just exist on their own. They notice that the neighboring city lives in utter poverty and disease; they notice that their neighbors’ insecurity means a more likely invasion for them too; they notice that the neighboring township being sick means that cholera will spread to their quiet suburb as well.

What we need to do is reexamine the interest in self-government, cooperation, human rights, and judicial arbitration of rights, in the space that international radicals and entrepreneurs can agree. We think of the world as an arena where either Zapatistas or Bill Gateses will win, but the two cannot work together. When we start down that path, it’s not long before we reach an ideological deadlock; a stupid non-speaking place where the more charming man usually wins, but rational conversation is discouraged.

Charity has always existed. Methodist riders brought the gospel to the working class areas of England because the Anglican Church didn’t have ministers there. Housewives in Chicago organized hospitals before there was a government service to provide hospitals. Charity is dangerous, because it often comes with strict ideas about who does and doesn’t deserve charity, and often those don’t correspond to anything like the virtue system that the place needs: welfare in early twentieth-century Britain designated the deserving poor from the undeserving poor, and included in the undeserving poor were people who took time off work because they needed to take care of their sick family.

Then we have two tools, cooperation and charity, each of them great, and each of them problematic. We have a calling to help the poor and protect human rights, knowing that our tools with which to do so are faulty. Our best direction, it seems to me, is twofold: first, to help the poor and protect human rights in the most immediate and local ways – as volunteers, supporters, donors, and friends of soup-kitchens hear us; as mentors of troubled youth; as individuals willing to talk to strangers of a different race in a coffee-shop. Second, and equally important, is to begin in earnest the conversation about the future of community.

What libertarians sometimes fail to recognize, although it falls within the realm of their ideological commitments, is the importance of human rights. The greatest legacy of the Enlightenment, the one it shared with Christianity and tried to expand, was the realization that every individual deserves the same chance to life, economy, happiness, and fulfillment, regardless of parentage, gender, or race. No race can be sacrificed so that the others may thrive; neither gender should serve in slavery so that the other should reach its creative potential: we hold these truths to be the basis of all action. So libertarian contemplations of voluntarism, cooperation, and charity must all aim for the protection of human rights.

Knowing that our tools are faulty, but knowing our deep conviction that our own salvation and the redemption of the world comes through social collaboration, using information, entrepreneurship, charity, schooling, and institutions to help our neighbors and our own, what are we to do?

I want to argue in this manifesto that the one thing we don’t need yet is a manifesto.

The Phoenix Affirmations and the TCPC resolutions provide a starting point for talking about what Progressive Christians believe as a movement: they like the poor; they believe in human rights; they believe in cooperation; they’re positive towards people who are investigating their sexuality while committed to ethical dealings with their fellow creatures. These are very broad-tent positions, and many people will agree. Some people we should talk to may only agree with a majority, and not all, of the resolutions.

Ultimately our movement will have more to offer because we’re not merely reciting the trite prescriptions of an earlier age: we aren’t long-haired hippies, holding signs against war at any cost; we aren’t school marms winging that holding hands is sinful; we aren’t glazed-eyed sexual experimenters and drug addicts; we aren’t rapture fanatics calling down hurricanes upon cities that host the Emmys. And beyond that we have so much to say about what good relationships really are, how good families treat each other, how good societies act.

This fertile new investigation of morality is even more potent in the realm of politics. We aren’t seventy-year-old Commie-bashers calling for the destruction of an enemy who no longer exists; we aren’t Communists trying to build an ideal society based on a manifesto never tested in human reality; we aren’t war-mongers deposing dictators only to plunge a foreign nation into decades of tribal warfare; we aren’t money-hungry corporations exploiting foreign nations without consideration for the consequences of our actions; we aren’t glossy-eyed peace marchers holding up signs in the park without being willing to enter a further conversation. We are for conversation, if we are for nothing future. We want desperately to know about micro-lending policies and conscientious capitalism, about shareholder activism and socially-conscience hedge funds. We accept capitalism as a fact, and we want to make it work to promote the social good rather than oppose it.

When we avow that we are a people who believe in open conversation, in listening to other opinions, in finding truth, and in using truth to promote the good and help the poor, we do so at our peril. At our peril because we know our tools are broken. We have no other tools. All we can use Is our poor, broken tools, and all we can do with them is to build, and to ask for the help of our friends, and to humbly take their correction of our errors, and to break our own pride that we know how to build the house of the future even as we set out to build.

For there are no unbroken tools in the whole world: the nostalgic image of 1950s America is as broken as the idols of planned Communism; our socially pure ethics traumatize our own families; our empires of freedom enslave foreign people; our democracies grow only while we maintain economic predominance over other countries. Our nation is in the State of Nature where it knows no other virtue than kill or be killed. We need social ethics. We need ideas about the social order. We need theories of international relations. But we do not need the ones we have.

Our only common starting point is Jesus’ commandment to love others as ourselves; and our only tools are cooperation and charity, both of which are broken and need constant checks, criticism, and readjustment.

In taking up cooperation and charity under these checks, we have no choice. To avoid the conversation is to plunge ourselves into a state of social and political insecurity, of terrorism and race riots, of broken families spewing the Bible as a message of hate instead of love; of an underclass devoid of hope; the American dream shattered, the people miserable and selfish. Let us go bravely, then, into the future, and let us invite to the table all those who have ideas: the shareholder activists, the socially-conscience hedge fund bankers; those into big government, those into local government. Let’s have the conversation.

The twentieth century has been painted black by the hubris of manifestos. We do not know what we need to do, and we must not write a manifesto. We must never write a manifesto. We have parameters of love, and we can tell heresy when the Bible is used to contradict Jesus’ primary teaching of service to others. We have tools of reasoning and argument by which to discern truth, and we can tell despotism when our institutions start shutting out of discourse those who disagree with us. We need our whole hearts and whole minds when we face the world: heartless planning and bleeding-heart self-delusion will not do.

So this is a call to serious, even academic conversation, about the location and figures of malnutrition, about kinds of capitalism and industry which don’t send children into mines and don’t impoverish nations without contributing to their long-term growth. We certainly shouldn’t kick out libertarians or radicals, Republicans or Democrats.

And our courage about how to approach each of the issues, and our calling to serve our brothers and sisters, comes directly from the Bible; our conversation will be refreshed and chastened from Biblical texts.

But we must insist above all: only a conversation will do. Only a conversation between rich and poor, between conservative and liberal, between capitalist and homeless person, between central planner and libertarian, will suit the ideals to which we have avowed ourselves time and again.

Only the conversation, and not the manifesto, will do to secure a world worth the work of people who believe themselves to have souls improved by conscientious engagement.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said

11:37 AM  
Blogger owlindaylight said...

very well thought out ...

but i have to ask, do you think that the efficacy of "conversation" is dependent upon the existence of a moral sensibility (i.e. concern for others outside one's clique) on the part of all parties to the discussion?

how inclusive is this discussion? are there some parties which must be excluded from the conversation due to their well-demonstrated intractability?

i guess i have little belief in the possibility of reasoning with powermad ideologues, uncommitted to social advancement, only advancement of their own interests. "ideologues" may be a polite term for the people to which I'm referring; "sociopaths" may be the more accurate term.

"neocon" is their self-applied label.

7:09 PM  

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