"The Road" - Emmylou Harris
Hauntingly beautiful song about Gram Parsons and what he meant to her.
- I am debating whether to read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, a book that has been getting a lot of buzz recently. Haidt, a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia, writes about the mental processes by which people acquire their political views and highlights, in particular, what he sees as an overemphasis on reason by people on the liberal side of the ledger. Haidt stresses that reason tends to be something done retrospectively when it comes to politics -- in other words, we arrive at our political positions intuitively and then resort to reason to sell it to others (and ourselves). I pretty much buy that world view, although I think it sells short the reasoning process and how undertaking that exercise -- even in the interest of self-justification -- can lead us to interesting places and instill the habit of thinking seriously about things.
Haidt appears to hit on themes that have been a frequent subject of discussion around here and one that several of you I think have had particularly good insights about -- the frequent lack of compelling narrative in the liberal approach to politics, a failure to deal well with the tribal and the mythic, a certain comfort with our own rectitude, coupled with a tendency to overestimate our own numbers.
Of course I was bit put off the book by the fact that Will Saletan was chosen to review it by the Times. Saletan enjoys nothing so much as to castigate liberals while turning the flaws of the right into virtues. He is the ultimate totebagger -- smug and self-loathing all at once. Saletan's review is full of gems like this:
People accept God, authority and karma because these ideas suit their moral taste buds. Haidt points to research showing that people punish cheaters, accept many hierarchies and don’t support equal distribution of benefits when contributions are unequal.
You don’t have to go abroad to see these ideas. You can find them in the Republican Party. Social conservatives see welfare and feminism as threats to responsibility and family stability. The Tea Party hates redistribution because it interferes with letting people reap what they earn. Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order — these Republican themes touch all six moral foundations, whereas Democrats, in Haidt’s analysis, focus almost entirely on care and fighting oppression. This is Haidt’s startling message to the left: When it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. They serve a more varied diet.
So in other words, resorts to tribalism, religious primitivism, and reflexive nationalism are the equivalent of adding spinach, broccoli, and quinoa to your diet -- they make you -- huh? -- more broad-minded. It is all well and good to understand that these impulses animate the politics of many people and that communication strategies need to be designed to appeal to aspects of this world view. But having a broader array of reflexive prejudices does not make one more "broad-minded."
(I also find it interesting the Saletan stresses the left's electoral failures. It's worth noting that Democrats have won the popular vote in four of the last five presidential elections and came rather close in the fifth. Should Obama win in 2012, that will represent popular vote victories in five of the last six presidential elections, something that the Democrats have not done since winning five straight elections from 1932 through 1948. The Republicans accomplished the five out of six feat between 1968 and 1988, but although people like Saletan never quite notice, they haven't really dominated national politics since then. I am not suggesting that this has been a liberal golden age, but it's not 1994 in perpetuity either.)
Most annoyingly, Saletan, like his right wing doppelganger David Brooks, resorts frequently to glib suggestions that political attitudes are products of evolutionary biology. Really, can someone just make this crap stop. Political attitudes can transform over the course of a relatively few years -- see e.g. gay marriage -- they are not some sort of immutable biological fact.
Ultimately whatever its flaws, we should not forget the degree to which liberalism's narratives have often succeeded in our politics. Appeals to the universal nature of human equality have succeeded to a marked degree in the struggles of blacks, women, and the gay community over the last fifty years. There are powerful aspects of the American mythos that have been effectively harnessed in these causes -- and if you talk to young people you realize the degree to which they have taken root in the culture. The struggle it seems to me is to take the strengths that liberalism has shown in this arena and look to ways to make similar appeals in the economic arena, the place where I believe we have not made much progress in recent decades. These are in some respects more complicated arguments to make and ones that prompt fierce opposition by vested interests, but I think that they can be made in a way that is both respectful and persuasive.
(Wow, I am watching Colbert really take it to Charles Murray right now -- it's pretty interesting to see how steely Colbert can be -- one gets the sense that Murray gets under his skin in a way that the usual buffoons don't.)
Alright, I've got to catch an early flight to Louisville in the morning -- consider this an open thread.