Hidden Springs Lane, VA. A crisis reveals, perhaps more reliably than anything else, both the good and the bad (and perhaps even the ugly). While it took a while to reach a consensus, it appears that most Americans have come to terms with the seriousness of the coronavirus and the fact that our health care facilities are more fragile than many of us imagined. It’s not always easy to assess a fast-moving event while it unfolds. How this plays out is known only to God. However, there are some things that are becoming clear and perhaps should have been clear even before the coronavirus showed up.
First, and perhaps most obviously, we must rethink globalization. For years Wendell Berry has been arguing that our food system will be more resilient and secure if we “shorten the supply lines.” It is becoming painfully apparent that the same principle must be applied not just to food but every essential item. Quick question: is it a good idea to construct a system that in which 80% of your medicine and medical supplies are manufactured by a repressive Communist regime that, at best, is a competitor and is more likely an enemy? Clearly US trade policy and manufacturing endeavors must be restructured in light of clear threats to national security.
This painfully obvious point raises the underlying question: how could we ever allow ourselves to become so exposed? The answer has to be some combination of willful ignorance coupled with the optimistic mantra that free-trade fundamentalists have been chanting for decades: expand trade with China, and they will become more like us. Thus the threat of an authoritarian regime will be alleviated if we outsource our manufacturing to them and, in turn, buy heaps of cheap plastic crap the Chinese happily churn out for our Happy Meals and landfills.
A modest and chastened globalism seems likely as nations come once again to recognize the duty to responsibly produce and secure those things necessary for survival.
This is not to say that globalization is over. All of us have benefited from a system of trade that extends beyond our local communities and beyond, even, national frontiers. However, a modest and chastened globalism seems likely as nations come once again to recognize the duty to responsibly produce and secure those things necessary for survival. Outsourcing necessities to enemies or even competitors is not only foolish but, as we are seeing now, dangerous.
In some respects, the trade issue is simple, for it entails a technical solution, and therefore, though the implementation may be complex and even painful, the way forward is clear. However, there are other issues that go far deeper and are far less easily solved, for they turn on what Tocqueville called “mores.” These are the basic ideas and presuppositions that shape our self-understanding and therefore motivate our thoughts and actions.
In recent decades the fruit of several centuries has ripened. The logic of liberation was a salutary one when, for instance, race-based slavery was prevalent. It made sense when Jim Crow laws imposed the ideal of separate but equal while clearly fostering inequality and oppression. However, liberation from injustice is not the same as a demand for liberation from any and every structure or authority. The ideal of liberty is sustainable and beneficial when it is hemmed within a moral context that provides obvious limits. The ideal of liberty goes off the rails when that moral context (generally requiring a metaphysical or theological foundation) is denied or abandoned.
Thus, we see various rejections over the past few centuries. First, we should note the rejection of the authority of the past as handed down by tradition, practices, and deeply embedded social habits. “The past is dead,” we’re told. “Trust no one over 30,” the radicals of the 1960s insisted. “That’s old and boring,” mutters the barely literate teen as he idly thumbs the screen of the latest device from Apple.
In the nineteenth century, Nietzsche declared the death of God. That tormented man was wise enough to recognize what many of his contemporaries ignored: if God is dead, everything must change. The philosophical and moral limits implied by theism provided the context within which western morality grew and, as Nietzsche understood, within which even the concept of truth made sense. If God is out of the picture, morality must go and so must truth. All that is left, according to Nietzsche, is the will to power. We are beginning to see the consequences of the death of God in our day, which is precisely what Nietzsche predicted: the consequences of such a monumental event would take time.
Finally, in recent decades we have seen a concerted effort to deny the authority of nature itself. In this view, my identity is determined by neither nature nor even nurture: my desire creates my identity. Justice Kennedy, in his 1992 opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, laid out the position with remarkable clarity: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This all-encompassing affirmation of the infinite range of the autonomous self represents the apex of liberation, where the autonomous self has rejected any authority, tradition, or limit. We see the implications of this expansive notion of liberty today when, for instance, the designations of male and female are denied as nothing more than social constructions, which is to say, the arbitrary imposition of a social limit to which I have not consented. All categories that were once seen as rooted in nature or even in the divine order have been rendered fluid and subject to nothing other than my will. And, of course, my will can change, so a personal pronoun I insist upon today may be a source of grave offense if you employ it tomorrow.
Freedom becomes, in this empire of liberation, unpredictable, capricious, and eventually tyrannical. It becomes clear, then, that liberty is only stable and sustainable when it exists within the context of limits. Tocqueville understood this. He recognized that a central part of the genius of the American system was the union of what he called the spirit of religion with the spirit of freedom. The spirit of religion in America provided the moral framework or limit within which the spirit of freedom could innovate, explore, and create. However, Tocqueville was concerned that an inordinate love of equality would, among other things, tend to erode a person’s willingness to submit to any authority. Thus, the spirit of religion was endangered by the expansion of equality. Tocqueville admits there is no stopping the democratic revolution that he saw sweeping the world. However, every effort must be made to support and encourage religious belief lest the ill-effects of equality run unopposed and erode the spirit of religion without which the spirit of freedom collapses into its opposite.
When we declare liberation from all limits, we necessarily deny the existence of any normative conception of human nature. But if there is no human nature that binds us together and orients us toward goods that are common to all humans, then the idea of the common good is lost. At best we have merely an aggregation of competing desires. In such a view, the state serves as an umpire, choosing winners and losers or, in another account, the state creates a level playing field and adjudicates between competing claims. There is, in any event, no “common” good but only individual desires that often compete with one another.
When a community or a nation is faced with a crisis, an agreement on the common good is a powerful engine for responsible action. When citizens are animated by a desire to promote the common good, they are disposed to think and act in ways that would befuddle or even disgust a person who simply acts according to his individual desires.
Our truncated notion of citizenship is simply inadequate in times of crisis.
We in America are not accustomed to thinking or acting in reference to a common good. Our celebration of “rugged individualism” runs counter to a thick conception of the common good. Citizenship itself is reduced to voting, and that generally amounts to casting a ballot for the candidate who promises me the most goodies. Such a truncated notion of citizenship is simply inadequate in times of crisis.
When a critical mass of people come to embrace the ideal of liberation as the defining characteristic of social history, when any normative conception of human nature is denied or ignored, when consequently the concept of the common good is submerged under the clamor of individual desire, we should not be surprised when two things occur: First, there will be a proliferation of rights. At a basic level, bereft of any coherent account of human nature, the concept of natural rights (or, more recently, human rights) becomes untethered from any normative category that justifies, directs, and limits rights claims. Rights claims will proliferate as they necessarily become merely an expression of individual desire. Yet these pseudo rights retain some semblance of moral authority because they are bathed in the residue of older rights that issued from metaphysical and ultimately theological categories. If humans are made in God’s image, the language of rights can be used to express that inherent dignity. If humans are merely a collection of desires, then the language of rights becomes little more than a convenient means to legitimate the will to power.
Second, we should expect that the language of rights will eclipse the language of duty or responsibility. With the proliferation of rights unmoored from any notion of human nature or intrinsic value, the habit of thinking in terms of duties will be replaced by the habit of thinking primarily about myself. This narrowing horizon of concern is an advancing sickness that, when combined with something like the coronavirus, reveals the fragility of our common life. This fragility is expressed in various ways.
“I have the right to party at the beach during spring break!” “Who are you to tell me I can’t?”
“I want to enjoy a dinner party with my friends in New York City. Denying this right is government overreach and fearmongering.”
“My church is going to meet because we are commanded by God to do so. And, besides, the First Amendment guarantees this right.”
In each instance, the language of rights (implied or explicit) dominates. In each instance, the ideal of liberation from any authority or constraint is the governing idea. In each instance, any notion of duty, rooted in moral categories or even in the Christian notion of love of neighbor, is lost in the individualism of infinitely expansive desires.
Lonely, isolated, insecure citizens will be increasingly inclined to look to the government both for security and material well-being.
But there is a flip side to these concerns, and an extended period of isolation and social distancing will only exacerbate the problem. Here is a political axiom we all need to consider: lonely, isolated, insecure citizens will be increasingly inclined to look to the government both for security and material well-being. It is undeniable that the coronavirus provides the impetus for a sweeping expansion of state of power. And in some ways, this highlights the tragic nature of politics, for even those with the best of intentions, who are working diligently to preserve life and who have no taste for centralization of power, are enacting policies that serve that very end.
Of course, the time was ripe. Last year a Gallup Poll found that 43% of Americans thought some form of socialism would be good for the country. The popularity of Bernie Sanders tapped into (and perhaps helped drive) that sentiment. We are witnessing a perfect storm of prevailing dispositions, a real biological threat, precarious economic circumstances, and political expediency. The result will be increased calls for economic socialism and political centralization, which are really just different sides of the same coin. When the dust settles, it is likely that the state will have permanently breached some long-standing limits, and economic power will be further concentrated as many small businesses fail to survive the cure.
It is clear that the threats we face are real and the possible consequences are sobering. Yet perhaps this crisis, while revealing the fragility of many aspects of American society, can at the same time provide opportunities for a recovery.
First, in “normal” times, our mortality is generally invisible and easily obscured. The prospect of death seems dim, and to insulate ourselves from reflecting on such unpleasantness, we pursue various diversions. And it is undeniable that in recent years we have invented a variety of devices and activities that make diversion almost second nature. However, a tiny virus is stripping away the pretense to immortality that too often characterizes our daily lives. When we are compelled to think seriously about our own mortality as well as the mortality of those we love, the door is open to serious reflection on what it means to be human. We can become reacquainted with both the fragility and beauty of human life. In the process, we might be better positioned to think about the moral value of life, the source of that value, and the conditions necessary to preserve life. In other words, we might regain a more adequate context for thinking of rights, moral duties, and the common good.
Second, as we learn to deal with greatly reduced social circles, perhaps the importance of neighbors and the virtue of neighborliness will find new purchase. Even after the coronavirus has abated, the damage to the economy in general and to local communities in particular will persist. Then it will become increasingly evident that healthy communities are made up of citizens who understand that citizenship begins not with the nation but with the family, neighborhood, local church, and local community. The national debt is ballooning in a frantic attempt by congress and the president to blunt the effects of shelter-in-place policies. Federal spending may help to some degree, but ultimately recovery—not just economic but social—will come as we cultivate the virtue of generosity, which is merely applied neighborliness. Many will lose their jobs. How will those who retain their jobs practice the virtue of generosity toward those who have not? This will be a practical measure of the health of a community and an opportunity for those seeking to build one. Furthermore, recovery will require that we relearn the practical skills necessary for getting by with less. These skills, moreover, will better equip us to help our neighbors in tangible, meaningful ways. In the process, we may come to better see and appreciate the little platoons of which we are a part. Healthy citizenship, one rooted in love of a place and its people, is nourished in local affiliations characterized by the recognition of our interdependence and mutual responsibilities. Ultimately, healthy communities are less susceptible to the siren call of government intervention, for such communities are nurtured by on-going and reciprocal acts of kindness and accountability.
Finally, as we turn our attention toward our local places and simultaneously confront the fragility of our lives, we may find ourselves overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude. That might, at first reading, seem counter-intuitive, even absurd. How can gratitude blossom as a plague sweeps our land? However, isn’t it often the case that we attend more carefully and lovingly to the things that are most susceptible to loss or destruction? When we are reminded that our very lives and the lives of those we love are delicate gifts, we might be moved to gratitude. When we consider how a complex array of inherited social and political institutions work together to perpetuate a free society, and when we are confronted with the possibility that those institutions could fail and many of our freedoms could be forfeited, our gratitude will be heightened. In the process, we will be moved to consider how to fortify or rebuild that which is under threat or actually coming apart. Gratitude is only a pretense if it does not give birth to acts of responsibility. This requires love, wisdom, and humility. Ultimately, such acts of responsibility are born of hope, and without hope we have no chance of surviving either the ravages of coronavirus or the ennui of everydayness.
I’ve always liked Rieff’s phrase “primacy of possibility” as shorthand for the commitment to the endless liberation you’re discussing here. It’s a kind of mindless version of Nietzsche’s eternal return, I think.
On your overall theme, I’ll be curious to see if more people decide, out of this, that they actually like their own kids and want to raise them themselves, rather than letting the state do as much of it as possible. Anecdotally, I’ve heard remarks recently that make me think that one could go either way.
A good response to the pandemic, even for a Brit like me since the local focus can be applied in other settings, as can the ethical points like ‘Gratitude is only a pretense if it does not give birth to acts of responsibility.’ While we have a system of medical care that’s very different, American friends will nevertheless appreciate the outpourings of gratitude towards our National Health Service. We will see whether the acts of responsibility happen. Finally, I wonder what Mr Berry himself makes of all this?
Anytime someone praises limits and condemns Justice Kennedy’s quote from the Casey decision I have to ask: who sets those limits? On whom are they set? If we can’t individually decide on our own concept of existence, who should define it for us?
I’m a woman. Men have defined my existence for all of human history as inferior, weak, and only useful as far as men want to have sex with me or need me to do disgusting, mind-killing domestic labor. When a man praises tradition, I hear my father shouting at my mother or remember my friends’ mothers’ bruises. I recall my gay friend’s suicide at age 20 and his parents’ refusal to have a public funeral so that no one would learn of his boyfriend. Is that what you want? If not, what do you want?
Hi Karen. I’m sorry to hear the things you mention. While your questions are aimed at Mark T Mitchell, I would like to offer my own testimony that the tragic elements in my own early life arose from a lack of limits, I think. Then I converted to Christianity at 30 years old, and while life has been tough since that time, for example having two boys with autism, it has had purpose and hope. My experience is that limits and responsibility bring flourishing. With best wishes!
Thank you for the good wishes, and best to you as well.
Still, my question stands: who sets the limits? On whom? What limits?
It seems to me than unless the creator has set limits, we are stuck with the ‘condemned to be free’ slogan of existentialism. The what question could be answered simplistically – The Bible – but my own favourite place for how this pans out is L’Abri Ideas Library.org. Dick Keyes has a talk on ‘Boundaries and Freedoms in Christian Thought and Life’. (FPR is interesting to me but quite remote from my own experience).
A quick request for clarification. Your initial comment seems to imply that you believe that, for instance, the abuse of women by men violates an important moral limit that all people should know and obey. If that is a limit you also affirm, it seems that your question to the room really needs to be answered by you. Namely, what is the source of that moral limit? On the other hand, if that is not a moral limit you affirm (or if you don’t think moral limits exist), then what is the source of your complaint about the abuse of some women by some men? If there are no limits, then you are merely expressing a personal preference that really can’t be imposed on anyone else.
Thanks for clarifying.
Whether “abuse” violates a moral limit depends on the definition of ‘abuse.’ I believe that bodily autonomy is THE fundamental right — no one can own or use anything if they don’t own and control their own bodies. Obviously physical assault is abuse, but so is screaming at her or other emotional manipulation designed to force her to agree with him. I also think that raising daughters to believe that men are heads of the household with the authority to enforce their will on its members is inherently and always abusive no matter how superficially benevolent the domestic dictator might be. So, in my view, the individual person sets her own limits for herself and the state respects those limits. All state authority stems from the need to protect individual autonomy of each person and all state action should support each person in attaining the skills necessary to act as an independent and autonomous individual, including outlawing the ability to contract away autonomy by selling oneself into slavery or agreeing to do so in marriage.
Still, your question evades mine: who sets these limits in your view? What are those limits?
Comments are closed.