Wednesday, May 13, 2009

An Open Letter to Andrew Sullivan

In the fall of 2008 I began reading Andrew Sullivan's blog The Daily Dish, and was so taken with him that I immediately bought and read his book The Conservative Soul: Fundamentalism, Freedom and the Future of the Right, which I reviewed here.  At the time I also sent Sullivan an email detailing my delight in, and my critique of, the book.  The man receives hundreds if not thousands of emails a day; I'm not at all surprised that I never heard back from him.  But an interesting post and thread of comments over at Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog got me thinking about this again, and I dug up my letter and decided to publish it here.  


Dear Andrew:

I'm a fairly new reader of your blog, and a huge fan.  As a life-long liberal who sometimes questions whether liberalism (at least ideological, Democratic Party style liberalism) accurately describes what I believe, I hoped your book The Conservative Soul would help me understand another perspective better.  I just finished it, and it very much has.  It is smart, beautifully written, and very clear even for someone like me who is not at all well-versed in political philosophy.  As a Christian, I find your explication of fundamentalism especially insightful, and your description of the experience of the Catholic Mass quite moving.  Your lyrical description of the conservative temperament as being rooted in loss struck a chord, describing quite well myself and many other liberals I know (indeed, one of my critiques of your book is that I am not at all convinced a conservative political philosophy as you later describe it necessarily flows from such a temperament).  

The first few pages of the book (which I thought were so lovely, I had to read them out loud to my partner Julie) got me thinking about what is at the core of a liberal temperament.  If conservatism is rooted in loss, I would say liberalism is rooted in abundance, and in a sense of satiety in the face of abundance that leads to an impulse toward hospitality.  It's the satisfied feeling you have when you get home from the market, and the larder is full, and you just want to cook something and have folks over for a meal.  And if conservatism suggests (quite correctly, I think) that we are ultimately all alone and unknowable to one another, then liberalism suggests that in our isolation, we nonetheless have no choice but to reach out to one another. We are unknowable to one another, but we are also unknowable to ourselves without each other.  Being left alone, I would argue, is not all we need to be free.

So, thank you for this lovely and thoughtful book.  Not surprisingly, I have some questions.  I'm not interested necessarily in being convinced or converted, merely in understanding.  I also recognize that you must get scads of emails every day, and the chances of your even reading this one, much less having time to answer my questions, is slim.  Still, it has been a useful exercise for me to write this all down.  Here are my main questions/critiques:

1.  You argue, correctly I believe, that maintaining a monopoly on force and securing the physical safety of its citizens is the first and most fundamental role of government:  "Without such security, it is impossible to have the peace necessary to cultivate virtue, apart from the virtue of courage.  Without security, we are all forced to bludgeon human personality into the uniform mold of physical strength or cunning.  Without security, we cannot even afford the luxury of questioning whether we need security.  We are too busy trying to stay alive and intact."  (pp 232-33)  My experience of working with youth in the ghetto in Philadelphia is that the government is utterly failing in this fundamental role.  In my experience, "law and order" conservatives 1) blame this lawlessness on the criminals and thugs, and 2) push for more cops, more guns, stricter laws, fiercer punishments and more prisons.  Perhaps the greatest insight I gained reading your book was that both of these responses are not conservative ones.  If THE first and most fundamental role of government is to gain an effective monopoly on violence in order to secure the safety of its citizens precisely because some people are bad and will behave badly if left alone -- well then, the fact that some people really are bad and really do behave badly cannot become the excuse for the failure of government to secure the safety of large swaths of our cities. Moreover, to propose more cops, more guns, stricter laws, fiercer punishments and more prisons -- when none of those things is currently working -- seems to me the sort of thing conservatives love to accuse liberals of -- throwing more money at the same failed schemes with no accountability.  

Poverty in this country is not primarily an issue of material lack -- most poor people in this country are not starving, are not freezing, are not without basic material resources.  Materially speaking, most poverty in this country looks like vast wealth to the majority of the world's poor.  Rather, poverty in this country is more a poverty of opportunity, beginning with a fundamental poverty of basic safety and security.  Many of the children I have worked with have decent enough homes, enough to eat, clothes on their backs and shoes on their feet; what they don't have is any sense of being part of civil society, any sense that there is something more powerful than the law of the street, which begins and ends with physical strength, cunning, and courage.  They don't even question whether something else could or should exist -- as you put it, they don't have the luxury of questioning whether they need security, because they are just trying to keep themselves alive according to the rules as they know them.  This lack of security which so circumscribes their lives is not first and foremost a failure of culture or of parenting (although their plight may also stem from those failures), but a massive failure on the part of government to do its most fundamental job in any sort of meaningful way.  It seems to me that a truly conservative response would be to seek any and all possible means of securing the safety of all, strict accountability for those charged with getting the job done, and the jettisoning of all schemes that don't work (starting, I would suggest, with the "war on drugs.")   You say that enduring a dictatorship is "life lived as trauma," (p235), and I would argue that life lived in America's ghettos is likewise life lived as trauma -- that's exactly how these kids experience it.

2.  The necessity of government in securing our physical safety is obvious to me, but I don't understand why securing personal property and wealth ought necessarily to be an end of a limited government.  Your conservative philosophy, as I understand it, does not recognize a God-given or "natural" right to private property.  Indeed, it seems to me that if we accept the government's monopoly on coercive violence, there is no "right" to private property outside of the government's ability to enforce that "right."  The conservative notion that government should "leave us alone" to "do what we want" with our property seems to me to miss the fact that any government with a monopoly on coercive violence is always exerting its power over our property, which is, after all, only "our" property because the government agrees that it is and is willing to enforce it.  But under a limited government which, you argue, should be concerned with few and only the most fundamental of ends, why should protecting your property and wealth necessarily be among them?  Owning property is not intrinsic to being human, and I would argue that after a fairly limited baseline of basic needs is secured, there is no positive correlation whatsoever between owning property and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  So why should the government not redistribute your property as a means to ends which might be more fundamental to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?  For example, I would argue that there is a far stronger correlation between life/liberty/the pursuit of happiness and one's health than there is with one's property.  Similarly, I would argue that a life of the mind -- supported by a sound education -- is also more fundamental to those pursuits.  So why shouldn't the government use its power over your property to secure universal and effective health care and education, rather than using its power over your property to secure it merely for your personal use?

3.  Somewhat remarkably, in my estimation, you utterly fail to address our government's most fundamental failure to secure its citizens' freedom to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and then to leave them alone except in the most limited ways absolutely necessary for the common good.  That most fundamental failure is NOT the New Deal, or progressive taxation, or any other liberal scheme; rather, that failure is, of course, slavery and its institutionalized legacy which was, inarguably, actively enforced by our government through its monopoly on coercive violence until just a couple of generations ago.  The failure of conservatism to adequately address slavery and its legacy is so baffling to me precisely because everything about slavery and institutionalized racism is so antithetical to conservatism, at least as you describe it.  I'm very open to the possibility that liberals have not come up with adequate ways of addressing this legacy, even open to the possibility that many liberal policies have been well-meaning but misguided and have done as much harm as good.  But the conservative response -- which, it seems to me, boils down to deep denial masquerading as "color blindness" -- is just, well, baffling.  The conservative philosophy of limited government, the only real ends of which are to secure our freedom and liberty and then leave us alone -- that's lovely, but it does not seem to me to be rooted in any sort of reality for African Americans.  The government not only did not secure the safety, liberty and freedom of African Americans and then leave them alone, but in fact it actively used its monopoly on coercive violence to enslave African Americans for a century, and then after emancipation to effectively enslave them for another century.  As I understand your version of conservatism, this is a profoundly un-conservative history.  But in the face of this reality, to call the modern conservative response -- or rather non-response -- merely naive seems way too charitable.  Do conservatives really believe that every generation we simply wipe the slate clean when it comes to freedom and opportunity?  Do conservatives really believe that it is primarily the arguably misguided efforts of liberals to address this legacy, and not the legacy itself, that is the primary problem when it comes to race in this country?  Again, I am quite willing to put all the liberal policies -- affirmative action, welfare, AFDC, etc. etc. -- on the table in any honest effort to unstitch this legacy from the very fabric of our government and society.  But conservative denial that the legacy of slavery and institutional racism have any relevance today -- I just don't get it.

Take good care, Andrew.  You're a good egg.




Patrick said...

This is quite illuminating. Your two recent posts about him are inspiring me to take a closer look at him. I'll admit I dismissed him for some time after his hypocrisy about safe sex came to light, but more and more people I trust are speaking highly of him, so I think I need to give him another shot.

Marta said...

patrick: i will admit that i KNEW nothing about all that, until i just googled it (eww, thankyouverymuch). have i ever mentioned that they're going to take away our lesbian cards any day now (if they haven't expired already), i'm so very far out of the loop of queer politics/drama.... i'm just gonna pretend that i don't know anything about any of that and keep reading and loving sully for what he's good at. 'kay?

Patrick said...

Well, since one of the things I think he's good at is admitting mistakes (like his stance on Iraq) I do think it's reasonable to love him and appreciate him NOW. Other folks I respect are finding his thoughts worth checking out lately too, so maybe they (we) have changed and mellowed, maybe Sullivan has, or maybe (and I hope this is it) we're ALL getting better at meeting half-way for a respectful discussion. I loving him for what he's good at is just fine.