12 February 2013

Rebranding Republicanism with Ralph Waldo Emerson

Jonah Goldberg the syndicated columnist is ambivalent about calls to "rebrand" the Republican party. He agrees that the GOP needs to communicate its message better, arguing that the party's problem isn't "a lack of principle" but "a lack of persuasiveness." He also warns that Republicans have to be careful about "caring" for people. "Obviously, Republicans should care about what is best for the country and the voters -- and they should demonstrate that concern," he writes, "but they will never beat liberals at the game of whose heart bleeds the most." In his mind there seem to be at least two kinds of caring. The liberal kind, in his view, emphasizes the gratification of "immediate desires" -- note that Goldberg says "desires" and not, as a liberal might, "needs." If liberals show caring by giving, "even when all we have in the checking account is IOUs and cash on loan from China," Republicans ought to care, Goldberg suggests, through teaching. Predictably, his is a rather paternalistic form of caring.

Children often think their parents are being mean when they tell their kids to do their homework. That doesn't make the parents mean, it makes them responsible. Eventually, the lessons of life persuade children their parents were right all along. Voters aren't children, but too many of them have the childish notion that the best policies are those that pander to their immediate desires. The challenge for the GOP is to persuade them to put away childish things.

This is a popular if not instinctual metaphor for Republicans, as it has been for all those through history who've considered themselves entitled to govern their more "childlike" fellow humans, whether it means keeping the lower classes in line at home or governing the "lesser breeds without the law" abroad. But it's an odd metaphor for 21st century Republicans, since parents self-evidently have a  responsibility to their children that most Republicans, I'd guess, don't feel toward their fellow citizens. Republicans are sometimes thought of as the "daddy party" in contrast to the alleged "nanny state" aspirations of liberals, but actually embracing that "daddy" label as your new brand would be disastrous in its patronizing stance toward millions of voting-age Americans. Still, there should be a way to make the "giving vs. teaching" distinction without striking Goldberg's paternalistic note. In fact, you hear the idea expressed all the time in less patronizing form in the popular proverb, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." You can dispute the premise, as well as Republicans' sincere commitment to such teaching, but at least it doesn't have the same demeaning, "I'm the adult, you're the child" implication of Goldberg's comments.

What has all this to do with Ralph Waldo Emerson? Before the bit quoted above, Goldberg had quoted the 19th century transcendentalist, who wrote: "There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact." Goldberg believes the same to be true about the parental "meanness" of Republicanism: hard truths, tough love and all that. For once, a Republican propagandist is accurately quoting a famous American. Emerson wrote that sentence for an 1841 lecture, "The Conservative." Is the whole lecture as supportive of Goldberg's worldview? Might Emerson become part of the rebranding of 21st century Republicanism? Let's take a closer look.

The two parties which divide the state, the party of Conservatism and that of Innovation, are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made. This quarrel is the subject of civil history. The conservative party established the reverend hierarchies and monarchies of the most ancient world. The battle of patrician and plebeian, of parent state and colony, of old usage and accommodation to new facts, of the rich and the poor, reappears in all countries and times. The war rages not only in battle-fields, in national councils, and ecclesiastical synods, but agitates every man's bosom with opposing advantages every hour. On rolls the old world meantime, and now one, now the other gets the day, and still the fight renews itself as if for the first time, under new names and hot personalities. 

Sounds familiar -- though Emerson will later press his particular point about the conflict within individuals of the two impulses with more insistence than we normally hear today. Before we get to that, let's have the sentence quoted by Goldberg in its fuller context.

There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact. It affirms because it holds. Its fingers clutch the fact, and it will not open its eyes to see a better fact. The castle, which conservatism is set to defend, is the actual state of things, good and bad. The project of innovation is the best possible state of things. Of course, conservatism always has the worst of the argument, is always apologizing, pleading a necessity, pleading that to change would be to deteriorate; it must saddle itself with the mountainous load of the violence and vice of society, must deny the possibility of good, deny ideas, and suspect and stone the prophet.

This isn't quite the vindication of conservatism that self-described conservatives in the Republican party might have hoped to find in Emerson. There's worse to come: "Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory." But Emerson is philosophical enough to see the flaws on both sides. He follows up at once with: "Reform has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry." He isn't particularly flattering about either impulse, but emphasizes again that every person has both of them.

It makes a great difference to your figure and to your thought, whether your foot is advancing or receding. Conservatism never puts the foot forward; in the hour when it does that, it is not establishment, but reform. Conservatism tends to universal seeming and treachery, believes in a negative fate; believes that men's temper governs them; that for me, it avails not to trust in principles; they will fail me; I must bend a little; it distrusts nature; it thinks there is a general law without a particular application, -- law for all that does not include any one. Reform in its antagonism inclines to asinine resistance, to kick with hoofs; it runs to egotism and bloated self-conceit; it runs to a bodiless pretension, to unnatural refining and elevation, which ends in hypocrisy and sensual reaction. And so whilst we do not go beyond general statements, it may be safely affirmed of these two metaphysical antagonists, that each is a good half, but an impossible whole. Each exposes the abuses of the other, but in a true society, in a true man, both must combine.

Speaking of childishness, Emerson argues that the two impulses are "so united that no man can continue to exist in whom both these elements do not work," but recognizes that few will acknowledge the fact because "men are not philosophers, but are rather very foolish children, who, by reason of their partiality, see everything in the most absurd manner." Lest he put on airs, he reminds us that "There is even no philosopher who is a philosopher at all times" His main point, however, is that there is no innovator, no reformer, who is innovator or reformer at all times. Even as we seek reform or revolution we are products of what we seek to overthrow. "You who quarrel with the arrangements of society, and are willing to embroil all, and risk the indisputable good that exists, for the chance of better," he writes, "live, move, and have your being in this, and your deeds contradict your words every day." If you yourself with your beliefs and desires are a product of this social order, he asks, how bad can it really be? More importantly, perhaps, no one is committed to perpetual innovation or experimentation. At some point, Emerson suggests, everyone becomes conservative.

The past has baked your loaf, and in the strength of its bread you would break up the oven. But you are betrayed by your own nature. You also are conservatives. However men please to style themselves, I see no other than a conservative party. You are not only identical with us in your needs, but also in your methods and aims. You quarrel with my conservatism, but it is to build up one of your own; it will have a new beginning, but the same course and end, the same trials, the same passions; among the lovers of the new I observe that there is a jealousy of the newest, and that the seceder from the seceder is as damnable as the pope himself. 

Having made the point, Emerson now elaborates on the supposed "meanness" of conservatism as a matter of perspective.

[W]hen this great tendency [toward conservatism] comes to practical encounters, and is challenged by young men, to whom it is no abstraction, but a fact of hunger, distress, and exclusion from opportunities, it must needs seem injurious. The youth, of course, is an innovator by the fact of his birth. There he stands, newly born on the planet, a universal beggar, with all the reason of things, one would say, on his side. In his first consideration how to feed, clothe, and warm himself, he is met by warnings on every hand, that this thing and that thing have owners, and he must go elsewhere. Then he says; If I am born into the earth, where is my part?

Emerson's ultimate answer seems to be that no one in a civilized society is so deprived as this "universal beggar," for there's at least the culture to draw upon, and opportunities for self-improvement. That answer may have less appeal now as more people see themselves shut out of opportunities. Beyond that he offers a hopeful paradox. Society, he claims, has always been conservative, yet never fully; it has also always been changing, in many cases improving. Emerson, an early idol of Nietzsche, believes that improvements come not from systematic revolutions but through the acts of heroic individuals.  "A strong person makes the law and custom null before his own will," he writes. Lest that sound like a recommendation of crime, he adds: "Then the principle of love and truth reappears in the strictest courts of fashion and property. Under the richest robes, in the darlings of the selectest circles of European or American aristocracy, the strong heart will beat with love of mankind, with impatience of accidental distinctions, with the desire to achieve its own fate, and make every ornament it wears authentic and real" The strong person can change things without changing all the rules. If anything, Emerson seems to mistrust the rule of law, if not the lawgivers. In language that anticipates Nietzsche's dystopia of "last men" while appealing to those modern Republicans who can work their way through the 19th century rhetoric, Emerson the champion of "self reliance" expresses contempt for dependence.

[I]n peace and a commercial state we depend, not as we ought, on our knowledge and all men's knowledge that we are honest men, but we cowardly lean on the virtue of others. For it is always at last the virtue of some men in the society, which keeps the law in any reverence and power. Is there not something shameful that I should owe my peaceful occupancy of my house and field, not to the knowledge of my countrymen that I am useful, but to their respect for sundry other reputable persons, I know not whom, whose joint virtues still keep the law in good odor?... [I]f I allow myself in derelictions, and become idle and dissolute, I quickly come to love the protection of a strong law, because I feel no title in myself to my advantages. To the intemperate and covetous person no love flows; to him mankind would pay no rent, no dividend, if force were once relaxed; nay, if they could give their verdict, they would say, that his self-indulgence and his oppression deserved punishment from society, and not that rich board and lodging he now enjoys. The law acts then as a screen of his unworthiness, and makes him worse the longer it protects him.

How you interpret this depends on who you think Emerson may be talking about. A 21st century reader might guess that he means anyone who depends on handouts from the state, but Nietzsche and other intellectual contemporaries would have recognized a broader indictment of bourgeois society ("a commercial state") in general, where many perceived a failure of human potential in a dependence not simply on "welfare" but on the rule of law itself. Read the whole essay and draw your own conclusions; a blog post can't do even this fraction of Emerson justice. You've probably seen enough to conclude that Emerson may not have endorsed "everyone must live" as a moral imperative. But you may also have seen enough to suggest that latter-day opinionators like Jonah Goldberg should be more careful about what they start by quoting random sentences from philosophers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

Well, I suppose this is true - assuming you also give the man fishing gear and bait and there is a place for him to fish that hasn't been leased out to a third world fisherman already. And assuming you plan on keeping the water clean so the fish are not poisoned and diseased.