Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Vox Blogoli 2.1: Rauch on Violence from the Right

Thanks to Hugh Hewitt for organizing this symposium. Here is my contribution to the Vox Blogoli 2.1, my thoughts on Rauch’s comments, which I’ll quote, then comment on. My comments are critical, but I think Rauch has done well to continue this discussion.

“On balance it is probably healthier if religious conservatives are inside the political system than if they operate as insurgents and provocateurs on the outside. Better they should write anti-abortion planks into the Republican platform than bomb abortion clinics. The same is true of the left. The clashes over civil rights and Vietnam turned into street warfare partly because activists were locked out of their own party establishments and had to fight, literally, to be heard. When Michael Moore receives a hero’s welcome at the Democratic National Convention, we moderates grumble; but if the parties engage fierce activists while marginalizing tame centrists, that is probably better for the social peace than the other way around.” (Jonathan Rauch, The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2005)

Put aside the assumption that religious conservatives wouldn’t be caught dead (or allowed) to write antiabortion planks into the Democratic platform. Also put aside the assumption that the Vietnam War activists responsible for street warfare had either a right or a privilege to the resources of a party establishment.

Moving on to what I see as the heart of Rauch’s view, first, one notes the implicit characterization of religious conservatives as “insurgents” [shades of MSM coverage of Iraq, anyone?] and “provocateurs.” If we don’t let the religious conservatives into the political system, then they’ll become violent. (This line of thought goes back at least to Hobbes. More on that later.)

Rauch attempts to make a parallel between religious conservatives and the left in order to mask his characterization of religious conservatives as violent: If we don’t allow “activists” from “the left” into the political process, then they’ll become violent, too. Rauch essentially soothes the religious conservatives by implying that they’re not the only ones prone to violence if shunned. But it doesn’t seem that his examples do that.

To see why, consider what the average reader of The Atlantic thinks about this paragraph. It doesn’t seem to be a great stretch of imagination to think that they consider civil rights (obviously) and Vietnam (slightly less obviously) to be just causes of protest, whereas antiabortion laws are to them indefensible in principle. That is, the effect of Rauch’s characterization and examples is to make support for the violent left more feasible to his readers than support for the violent right.

But why not just talk about violent protests simpliciter? Why the need to identify violent protests as the expression of either religious conservatives or the left? I think Rauch, and others, feel the need to do so because -- here’s my second main point -- they judge political choices on one principle: Do they promote social peace? Or, negatively, do they minimize social violence? Given this principle, it’s prudent to find out who or what is responsible for violence in society and either tame them or put a boot in their face. So, if the religious conservatives are responsible for most of the violence, let’s tame them or, well, we’d rather not say it.

Rauch seems to be occupied with considerations of violence. Suppose you think antiabortion laws are unjust. Under what rubric is it better to conclude that it’s better to have people working to write them into law as insiders instead of working to undermine abortion as outsiders? The only one I can think of is one in which the paramount fear is a fear of violence, which in turn reduces to a fear of violent death. Is there a Hobbes scholar in the house? Seriously; it’s a real question, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that Rauch’s article opens with the words “Have fear, Americans.” (A joke, he says, with “a kernel of truth.”) The attitude of those who govern from the left and the attitude of the cultural image-shapers from the left seems to be motivated by the fear of violence. An obvious problem -- and not necessarily the toughest -- with this is what Rauch would have us do with a political decision that promotes social peace but is also unjust. A Hobbesian way would be to define the just as that which promotes social peace. If we want to know whether Rauch’s ideas are taking hold in the political realm, look for this redefinition in the future.

To get to the heart of the left’s understanding of the Christian culture in America in 2005, I think one needs to ask representatives of the left whether they think all religions are essentially the same. We can even focus the question: are all major religions essentially the same, where “major” means religions such as Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. (This is not an exclusive list, and of course there will be borderline cases. But let’s not pretend that Wicca is in the same league as Christianity.) Two answers present themselves: yes, no. If yes, then we’re back to Hobbes’s treatment of religion. Treat it nicely, but if it gets out of hand, use the boot. Here’s something that’s explicit in Hobbes, but hidden in Rauch’s claim: If we let the religious conservatives into the political process, they must check the religious part at the door to the senate chamber (or wherever). The reason is that religion is the result, really, of superstition. If it were something rational (or at least something not irrational), then the concerns of the left wouldn’t be so large. Rational people can have reasonable political dialogue, but what do you do with superstition? Well, if there are a lot of superstitious people, you try to placate them and minimize the violence.

(A heuristic question for persons of the left to consider: What are the salient differences, if any, between the social philosophy/theology of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the social philosophy/theology of evangelicals in America in 2005?)

Of course, if you answer no to the question, then you’re on a different path, one most people on the left don’t like to consider. You’ve got to make some value judgments about different religions. So it’s not likely that many persons of the left are going to take this position, which leaves us with the first: religion is superstition. This, I think, is what Rauch's position boils down to.

In closing, Rauch seems to be throwing aside a crucial (and sensible) political maxim: govern from the center, not the fringe. But if you govern from the center you will need to “lock out” the fringe. (In the old days -- what am I, 28? -- this was what the police did if they needed to.) If the primary motivation is fear of violence, then governing from the fringe will look appealing because it’s not likely that the center will become violent, or so goes the thinking motivated by fear of violence. But if the primary motivation of policy makers is not fear of violence, then a number of reasons for governing from the center present themselves. Discussing these reasons, however, will have to wait for another post.

UPDATE: I wrote this last night and then read Rauch's comments to Hewitt that are on Hewitt's blog. Much of my first main point seems to be obviated by Rauch's comments. I want to go read the whole article, which is now posted on Hewitt's site, but that will take some time today. Perhaps I'll have a rewrite tonight.

[If you came from Hugh’s symposium, please check out the rest of the blog that I run with Thorgerson, who seems to be MIA from the blog recently. (Could it be the German class at 8:00 M-F?) Anyway, our blog consists mostly of my serial translations of Plato’s Republic, but there’s a post on the Georgia evolution-is-a-theory-not-a-fact Sticker from a while back, among other things.]

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