Why Can’t the Leftists Teach Their Children How to Speak?

Conor P. Williams

Conor Williams on Twitter. More background here.

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40 Responses

  1. Line I wish I’d used: Rawlsianism is “desiccated solidarity.”Report

  2. greginak says:

    I know most people find the idea of “fairness” to be inadequate and not fit for proper philosophical discussion. However from “fairness”, or as the fancy folks call it, Justice, we have a moral principle that links to politics.Report

    • Simon K in reply to greginak says:

      Rawls wrote and entire book entitled “Justice as Fairness”, so presumably the “most people” who think fairness isn’t a fit subject of philosophical discussion don’t include philosophers?

      That aside, isn’t fairness too strong a constraint? Lots of things aren’t fair. Its not fair that people get cancer, or that some people are born in Somalia and others in New York. Most of these things we can’t do anything about. Indeed, being fair to one person may mean being unfair to another. Its not fair that some people don’t have enough to eat, but is it fair to take money from people who (for the purposes of argument) have earned it by their own efforts to compensate? So being concerned about fairness isn’t a very good guide to concrete action.

      Rawls saw fairness as a criterion for developing more concrete principles. But that does not mean that a Rawlsian world would be fair in a more general sense – people would still get cancer and not have enough to eat, and some people would still be rich.Report

      • greginak in reply to Simon K says:

        I agree about how mushy fairness can be. However most people aren’t philosophers and often use terms like fairness to mean something like justice. I’ve had a few of these discussions in this august forum and the general consensus has been that fairness isn’t a useful or acceptable term. I don’t agree with that but in general fairness is mocked as an idea. It seems more like a smarty pants, elitist philosophical way of looking down on a term only proles use to me. Fairness seems, to me, to be a perfectly reasonable place to start moral reasoning from.Report

        • Simon K in reply to greginak says:

          I think the problem is fairness doesn’t help you very much once you try to be rigorous. Rawls and Nozick developed (very different) ideas of what a fair political system would look like. But Rawls could justify lots of things the broader left could find unfair, let alone Nozick. eg. Rawls in principle could justify huge inequalities of wealth, providing the poorest were still better off than they would be otherwise. Obviously its debatable whether that describes our actual wealth inequalities (for the record, I think it certainly describes some, and certainly not others, but most are unproven one way or the other). But I suspect even if we could show that, say, Mitt Romney’s wealth made no-one else worse off, the average occupier in the street would still find it objectionable.Report

          • Scott Fields in reply to Simon K says:

            “But I suspect even if we could show that, say, Mitt Romney’s wealth made no-one else worse off, the average occupier in the street would still find it objectionable.”

            Maybe I’m parsing, but I don’t think this is the case. I think the average Occupier wouldn’t find Romney’s wealth objectionable (note that OWS has demonstrated an affinity for some fabulously wealthy Americans, such as Steve Jobs) if the case could be made that his wealth made no one worse off. It’s just, to most people in general and to an Occupier in particular, it would be extraordinarily difficult to make the case on behalf of most of the 1% that their massive wealth isn’t making someone else worse off. Non-zero sum benefit only goes so far, so at some point it becomes more and more evident that the inequality isn’t meritorious. It’s not the getting rich that bothers people; it’s the cheating that keeps them rich that does.Report

            • Simon K in reply to Scott Fields says:

              That’s the key question, really, isn’t it? There’s a lot to tease out in all this 1% business – I mean, are we talking about income or wealth? And do you really mean 1%? And what are we actually taking 1% of? But if we leave off the nit-picking and just say “the very richest”, there’s a legitimate question – to what extent do people get that rich without making someone else worse off?

              But in what sense do we mean this? Steve Jobs made lots of people worse off – shareholders in IBM and Microsoft for starters. Gil Amelio, no doubt. Hundreds of Apple employees he’s made unreasonable demands of over the years. Similar can be said for Bill Gates. Presumably this isn’t the kind of making people worse off we’re talking about, though, right? Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are usually cited as people whose wealth is largely harmless. Judging from OWS literature, the harmfully rich usually seem to be in finance or non-entrepreneur CEOs.

              So what distinguishes them? Isn’t it that the financiers don’t obviously create any wealth? And that their vast incomes are getting paid from somewhere? So its assumed they must be benefiting from some kind of power imbalance, right? In other words – aren’t we talking about exploitation here? But then the wealth question is a bit of a distraction. The real question is, is there in fact any exploitation going on? I suspect there must be, but its hard to put your finger on exactly where.Report

              • dhex in reply to Simon K says:

                the rhetorical mushiness of fairness is a feature*, not a bug.

                * for those it appeals to, of course.Report

              • DavidTC in reply to Simon K says:

                So what distinguishes them? Isn’t it that the financiers don’t obviously create any wealth? And that their vast incomes are getting paid from somewhere? So its assumed they must be benefiting from some kind of power imbalance, right? In other words – aren’t we talking about exploitation here?

                Basically, yes. Or at least, that’s my issue, I have no idea of what the OWS movement thinks.

                There are two kinds of jobs. There are the jobs that create wealth, and the jobs that don’t.

                The ones that create wealth in some manner, no one has a problem with, because they are not zero-sum jobs…I can come out wealthier, and you can come out wealthier. I make a widget that costs me $4 to make, you think it’s worth $10, you pay me $6 for it, we’re all winners.

                And, of course, there are plenty of non-wealth-creating jobs that are merely doing the bookkeeping for the wealth creating ones, and things like UPS driver and cashier and whatnot, that are needed to actually get the wealth somewhere.

                And then there are jobs that were originally claimed to be like this, like ‘stockbroker’ and ‘investor’, and at a certain point they rather stopped actually being helpful to the creation of wealth in any way, and almost everyone else involved would rather they stay the hell away. (Bain Capital, for example. Or millisecond-stock traders. Or oil speculators.)

                That, actually, is a pretty good rule-of-thumb: If _no one_, not the businesses, not the other customers, not anyone but you yourself, appreciated your business’s interaction in the market…i.e, if you caused higher prices for customers, and lower profits for existing corporations, and somehow everyone but you ended up worse off…you’re probably a parasite and not creating any sort of wealth. (Like I said, this a rule of thumb, and rather hard to measure objectively.)

                It’s a tricky line there, which is why OWS focused not just on that, but on people like that who _also_ have so much money that they’re able buy politicians and rig the laws so not only are they not actually doing anything other than siphoning money, they’re not even bothering to pay taxes on it. I.e., ‘Not only are these people not doing anything except taking our money, we’ve decided not to tax them for it’.

                But then the wealth question is a bit of a distraction.

                Yeah, but without vast wealth, such exploiting would be rather hard to get away with. I mean, _I_ can’t leverage a buyout of my grocery store, borrow money which it then pays to ‘hire me’, run it into the ground, and walk away.

                There is low-level exploitation that OWS would presumably be against, like payday-lending places, but OWS thinks they have bigger fish to fry.Report

  3. Murali says:

    So basically, you think peope should give the wrong/bad reasons to do the right thing yes?Report

  4. Jaybird says:

    One of the big problems is that the new media gives us is that arguments that could once have been dismissed as strawmen can now be linked to.

    For example, remember the 99% guy who left his teaching job to get a Masters of Fine Arts in marionette arts? The Nation talked about him. Back in even the early 90’s, Conservatives who yelled that “Those Leftists Want You To Pay For Their Master’s Degrees!” could be waved away as cranks who were deliberately cherry-picking obscure magazines (that not even Publisher’s Clearing House had ever heard of) to make some political point.

    Now? Well, they can link to the article. Want to call the magazine “obscure”? Here’s a wikipedia page devoted to it. Maybe *YOU* have never heard of it… which tells us more about you than the magazine. Forget cherry-picking the paragraph, quote the whole thing! Put a link to the article itself! Point out various comments for the article!

    Heck, there was a school teacher the other day who is on tape yelling something stupid. Once upon a time, that would have been hearsay at worst. Now? It’s got a million views on youtube before suppertime.

    The liberalization of media is now making it possible for the fringe to be dragged to the center spotlight… by anybody at all, this time.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Jaybird says:

      +1. Well said.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird says:

      Yep. Which is unfortunate for both sides.

      “That bunch of punks probably DESERVED to get pepper sprayed!” Well, let’s watch the video, because it looks like everyone on both sides is just kind of standing around looking uncomfortable about the whole thing, and then some guy in a sergeant’s uniform rolls up and blasts away.Report

      • Yet, even when presented with the video, how many people actually incorporate its contents into their thinking?Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to Will Truman says:

          You’re right; no matter how many times people link to actual examples, “my tax dollars are paying for basket-weaving and film-studies degrees!” is always going to be answered by “data is not the plural of anecdote!” or some other witticism.Report

  5. Stillwater says:

    Leftists don’t need more sophisticated philosophers (they already have Zizek, after all). They need to link their political arguments to moral principles.

    Hmmm, I’m not so sure. I think linking their political arguments to moral principles requires two things: clarity of their political principles and clarity of their moral principles. Often, in specific cases, both are lacking. I mean, OWS wants to bring attention to the fact that the 1% do X, Y and Z. They’re focused mainly on describing a situation, getting that description out there, having it accepted, taken seriously. There’s definitely a place for description in all this, but what are the political principles being appealed to? What are the moral principles being appealed to? Justice and fairness?

    I hope it can get a little more precise than that, since justice and fairness are probably the same principles the 1% would use to justify their disproportionate wealth. Maybe the philosophers could help sort this out, after all.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

      I think linking their political arguments to moral principles requires…clarity of their moral principles.

      I was thinking something along these lines today, that liberal appeals to moral principles tend to be inconsistent, that certain principles are called on in certain situations and purposely abandoned in other situations. It’s not simply a case of situational ethics, but of finding certain principles convenient to ends in some cases and inconvenient, and so discarded, in others.

      That’s off the top of my head, though, and thinking of some very specific examples of certain people I know. So I’m not sure I can defend the thought from critique.

      Also, it may simply be a common trait of humans, regardless of ideology.Report

  6. Brandon Berg says:

    Unfortunately, Rawls’ project, whatever its philosophical merits, is a rhetorical disaster.

    It’s a philosophical disaster, too. Though in practice that term tends to be a bit redundant.Report

    • Simon K in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      If I ask you why, are you just going to quote or paraphrase Nozick?Report

      • Simon K in reply to Simon K says:

        Because for the record, Nozick proves a lot less about Rawls than people seem to think.Report

      • Murali in reply to Simon K says:

        At least one major problem with Rawls’s wrok is that his defence of the use of the original position is seriously inadequate. The bright side to that is that it gives me a Master’s project to do.Report

        • Robert Greer in reply to Murali says:

          Another problem is that Rawls’s social ontology is seriously questionable. The early versions of the Theory flatly assume a nuclear families to be the natural order, and social arrangements that fall outside of it are inadequately theorized. Even his later attempts to rehabilitate the theory are just ad-hoc patches and still largely assume prevalence of this social arrangement. Because the nuclear family is largely an invention of the past two hundred years in Western cultures, Rawls’s insistence on assuming it is a big black mark on his universalizing project.Report

        • Simon K in reply to Murali says:

          Can’t you say something equivalent for almost any major political philosophy, though? The basic ideas materialize out of nowhere and get only the shakiest of justifications. To take the flip-side, Nozick’s criticisms of Rawls and justification of the minimal state are quite solid, iff you accept his particular version of natural rights which is justified only by a bunch of semi-utilitarian handwaving. Political philosophy is basically an exercise in working out the minimal set of basics required to justify what you already believe. Actually justifying that basis once you’ve found it isn’t possible.Report

          • Brandon Berg in reply to Simon K says:

            “Can’t you say something equivalent for almost any major political philosophy, though?”

            Right. That’s what I meant about “philosophical disaster” being a bit redundant. Political philosophy tends to be very hand-wavy, as people are mostly just doing the best they can to justify their intuitions. It’s not the philosophers’ fault, really—you just can’t get very far in political philosophy without the hand-waving.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Simon K says:

        My main objection is to the lexigographic preference for improving the welfare of the least well-off. It’s one thing to weight improvements to their welfare somewhat higher, but lexicographic orderings pretty much never stand up to scrutiny. Rawlsianism as applied tends to be even more of a train wreck, with a great deal of sloppiness around identifying the least well-off and accounting for indirect effects of measures taken to improve their welfare. But I’m not sure whether that can be pinned on Rawls.Report

  7. Pinky says:

    I didn’t think that Kazin’s article was talking about big-p philosophy, as much as about a single-ish message. Occupy didn’t simply lack a founding treatise. It lacked a banner, an agenda. More importantly to Kazin I think was that it lacked a means of implementing its agenda.Report

  8. Simon K says:

    Vagueness about moral principles can be a strategic benefit. That’s certainly part of what’s going on with OWS and other left-wing protest movements. The vast majority of participants don’t want any particularly radical change or are focused only on very specific issues. The far left parties and organizations have radical agendas but are tiny and can’t do very much on their own, don’t agree with one another anyway, and know they could never build a mass movement if they were specific about their goals. So you get a result that’s much clearer about what it doesn’t like than it is about what its trying to acheive.Report

    • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Simon K says:

      Haidt visits Babel:

      “It’s with that research in mind that Haidt made two visits to Occupy Wall Street. How does the left-wing uprising, and its Tea Party counterpart, jibe with his ideas about moral intuitionism in politics? On that January evening, he’s back in Zuccotti Park to learn more, leading a gaggle of Ph.D. students and watching with fascination as moral conflict unfolds live.

      The big business of the night’s General Assembly meeting is crafting a vision statement for the group. Several people “facilitate,” but no one leads. The way to make yourself heard above the din is “the people’s mic,” a system whereby one person speaks and the crowd amplifies the words by repetition.

      A row over internal charges of racism and sexism dogs the meeting from the start.

      One facilitator explains efforts to improve the grievance process. As he tries to move on, a stone-faced man in a black ski cap steps forward and flips on his own people’s mic.

      “Mic check!” he shouts.

      Mic check!

      “I would like to say…”

      I would like to say!

      “That this does not feel…”

      That this does not feel!

      “Like a safe space.”

      Like a safe space!

      Throughout the evening, Haidt circulates in the park, listening respectfully as he probes the occupiers’ motivations. He falls into conversation with Hillary Moore, an artist, and Danny Valdes, a teacher. How do they feel about capitalism?

      “When it’s out of control, it’s a nightmare—and I think that’s where we are,” says Moore. She adds, “Things with no regulations are for gangsters. This is a gangster economy.”

      Moore is talking about empathy in public policy when another confrontation flares up nearby.

      “Because you want to be a little brat!” a lady screams. “Park Slope is not a working group.”

      “Democracy’s ugly, man,” says Valdes. “It’s messy.”

      What strikes Haidt is how messy. When people get down to debating the manifesto, the document does not name any specific goals. One speaker reports her group could not even agree on a section about nonviolence, since “there are a diversity of tactics within the movement.”

      “Stunning,” says Haidt. “Consensus wins over nonviolence.”


  9. Robert Greer says:

    The problem with the American left is that conservatives do a very good job of tying their message into voters’ aspirations, and the left hasn’t figured out an effective counter to it. There’s a certain kind of hope in Romney’s “strike out on your own” economic prescriptions, a certain kind of adventure, a certain kind of pride. Obama is offering the middle classes retirement plans and health insurance. That shit is BORING. Romney is offering the middle classes a chance to drive a Cadillac and not feel guilty about it.

    If the American Left wants to own the economic issue, it should relentlessly point out the truth: Safety nets foster entrepreneurship, and reducing inequality promotes social mobility. I don’t know why they’re not hammering lines like “Barack Obama wants to make it easier for you to start a business even if your dad isn’t a company president, which is why he’s enacted health care policies that make it easier for you to switch jobs or strike out on your own.” Dynamism and self-sufficiency aren’t the exclusive province Randian economics, but leftists have shown little interest in claiming this rhetorical ground.Report

    • karl in reply to Robert Greer says:

      From the “in my day giants bestrode the Earth” department: I can’t think of an effective and highly public voice for liberal values and polices since Mario Cuomo. Don’t know why that is; Wellstone was good at it but died young, Frank was good but a tad… eccentric, Pelosi’s good but lacks charisma, (Bill) Clinton’s good but his heart doesn’t seem to be in it, Obama’s good but saves it for peak campaign.

      I’m not looking for a white knight, just a guy or gal who combines an eloquent, fearlessly unapologetic liberalism with gravitas (Elizabeth Warren, anyone?). Maybe I am looking for a white knight, after all.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Robert Greer says:

      The American Left is ashamed to admit it’s for the poor man anymore. You can call Americans anything but poor. They won’t accept the label. So it’s the Emperor’s New Clothes, the politicians trying out all sorts of prose on us, “Hope and Change” or “It’s Morning in America” or “Yes America Can” or “Moving America Forward”. A campaign slogan such as “This Country’s Fucked Poor People Over Long Enough.” will never fly because nobody wants to admit he’s poor and everyone’s too proud to admit he could use some help from society.

      Never mind that lots of people are actually poor in this country. Others will point out those folks have televisions. The more a politician tries to convince folks he just might do some good for them in Washington, the worse it gets. We want to think we’re great. Well, we’re not. And nobody wants to hear that fact.

      Mr. Williams would tell us the Occupy Movement has no goals. I’ve worked with poor people for most of my life. Their goals are as disparate as the poor people themselves. Often they have no clear conception of just how trivial some of these changes might be and how much they’d benefit from them.

      The Occupy Movement shows the veneer is peeling off the shabby chipboard tabletop which was one the land of hope and opportunity and all that jazz of which the politicians speak. For all this vicious hoopla over illegal immigration, the migration north from Mexico has stopped. Lots of folks don’t quite realise it yet. The dream has very largely died.

      Eventually, the Left will find its Robespierre. The inchoate rage against a system engineered to screw the poor will broach the cask and it will get Very Ugly, very quickly. Romney is now backing away from his record in Massachusetts, not exactly promising a Cadillac, since he was opposed to bailing out General Motors. He wants us to feel guilty about the bailout itself.

      Robert, America won’t be happy until it has a king. America’s just stupid enough at present time to believe the President is a Monarch of a sort, who can change the world with the snap of his fingers and imperial edict.Report

      • J.L. Wall in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Something like this, you mean:

        >>>” ‘The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen; and the Lord will not answer you on that day.’ ”
        >>>”But the people would not listen to Samuel’s warning. ‘No,’ they said. ‘We must have a king over us, that we may be like all the other nations. Let our king rule over us and go out at our head and fight our battles.”

        That’s the problem with wanting the Bible to be a kind of American epic — too few people remember that it doesn’t actually end well for those involved.Report

  10. BlaiseP says:

    (roars of laughter) By far the silliest, most pretentious bit of blustering I’ve yet seen online this year. Kudos of a sort, Mr. Williams. May you never dislocate your shoulder from patting yourself on the back so hard. After a low, dishonest decade of lies and contorted morality from what passes for the Right, where shall we turn for Morality with a Rightward Bent?Report

  11. Kolohe says:

    There really aren’t enough non-metaphorical boobs in political advertisements these days.Report

  12. NoPublic says:

    “For every problem, there exists a simple and elegant solution which is absolutely wrong.” (Some math guy I can’t be bovvered to look up right now)

    The same is true for political arguments. The simpler they are, the more they get parroted, the bigger influence they have. “Less Taxes” is easy. “Pay for what you get” is less easy. “Get what you pay for” even less so. “Safe, Legal, Rare” is complicated. “No, Never” is not. Nuance is not rewarded in politics.

    The Left teds to eschew simple arguments in favor of complicated attempts to build consensus and engage issues. The Right’s caricature of the Left as “Government will solve all your problems” is far simpler than the reality. Guess which one most people internalize.

    The Left is not usually incoherent in the sense of “not making sense” but they are incoherent in the sense of “not having only one note and playing it all day long”. I find that a strength but it’s understandable that Authoritarians find it a weakness.Report