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Telos 138: Love, Law, and Liberty

The November elections and the new Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate have been widely interpreted—or misinterpreted—as rejections of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, which itself has been widely labeled—or mislabeled—as the “neo-con” agenda. In fact the election outcomes were both more complex, as evidenced by the Lieberman victory in Connecticut over Lamont’s anti-war candidacy, and more sordid: when all is said and done, the elections probably turned on the congressional page sex scandal rather than on any debate over military strategy in the streets of Baghdad. The adage that one should be careful with one’s wishes applies in no small ways to the Democrats: it was comfortable for them to be able to attack Iraq policy, while basking in the opposition party’s luxury of not having to come up with any programmatic alternative. Too few troops? Too many troops? It made little difference as long as one did not have to make the decisions. How sweet it was. Now, after the November results, the new majority party ought to come up with something better on its own. So where’s the beef? As of this writing, it remains unclear if there’ll be more than symbolic votes of opposition. There’s a healthy dose of opportunism in all of this, which seems so familiar, but it does go beyond the obligatory mendacity of Washington. On a deeper level, Democrats have a hard time genuinely opposing the war because the Bush foreign policy draws on the indelibly Wilsonian currents in American foreign policy, which are more Democratic than Republican. Democratizing the Middle East is not a conservative foreign policy: it is militant liberalism at its heart—just as the call for regime change in Iraq dates back to the Clinton era. Calling it a “neo-con” plot is just reprehensible rhetoric, appealing to conspiracy-theory thinking with a dose of some light anti-Semitism, as if a secret cabal were somehow following some mysterious Straussian directive. If you believe that story, I’d suggest you also check out Nostradamus. And while some Democrats are trying isolationism on for size, they are not particularly credible in this traditionally Republican role. They won’t be isolationist at all when it comes to immigration, nor will they be isolationist with regard to the U.N., even if they are willing to argue that the United States has no interest in the outcome in Iraq. They want to have their cakewalk and eat it too: attack the war and the democratization project, while hoping that they themselves won’t be saddled with the blame of defeat in 2008. This is all about political positioning, not about responsible policy.

In our political fog of war, the campaign against the neo-conservatives has eclipsed but hardly defeated a very different, prior confrontation: the attacks on neo-liberals—to be clear, the latter term indicating the advocates of deregulation, reduced spending (and reduced taxes), and in general a shrinking of the state. Bush may have cut some taxes; this did not make him neo-liberal. On the contrary, this Republican administration, with its brand-name “compassionate conservatism,” has expanded the government’s role in education and medical care; not surprisingly, the effort to privatize social security was only half-hearted, and it was quickly dropped. This contributes to further confusion in the ideological encounters in Washington: the new Democratic majority is not facing a Republican administration driven by a Reaganesque hostility to government. Today’s Republicans are neither scrooges nor skinflints. After six years of Bush, the bureaucracy continues unimpaired, with no program left behind. At the end of the day, the structures of Washington appear to have such powerful inertia and may have developed such immunity to political change, that no new majority and no new administration will ever be able to change much except at the margins—barring a national calamity on the order of the Great Depression. Bureaucracies don’t reform themselves.

This is where the discussion developed over years in this journal becomes pertinent. Stepping away from the media circus of the national public sphere and the tedious minutiae of policy debates, we recognize how the political question of the day remains the standing of the bureaucratic state, its implications for society and the sorts of lives we can lead. Some of Telos‘s concerns derive from the tradition of Weber’s critique of bureaucracy, its deadening impact on human creativity, and its imperviousness to genuine change except through religious or para-religious movements: prophets and charismatic leaders. Some of this derives however from Husserl and the phenomenological critique of a modernity that reduced life to a naturalistic accumulation of mere facts, data points, the combined accuracy of which only produced ignorance by occluding the beckoning and elusive horizons that signal the potentials of humanity. A further source is the neo-Marxism of the Frankfurt School, part of the wider self-critique of Marxism that transpired in the mid-twentieth century, as well as the critique of the oppressive character of the Soviet regime and its bureaucracy, rediscovered in the structure of the bureaucratic regimes of the West. However complexly these strands of thought have intertwined, the central question remains, how to safeguard creativity, the human pursuit of a constantly rearticulated telos, against the lethal grip of bureaucratic power and the dead embrace of reification.

The articles in this issue explore the constitution of our social and political life through several crucial texts and from distinctive viewpoints, all of considerable importance to the journal. The discussion oscillates between politics and religion because that is the nature of our age. James V. Schall dwells on Benedict XVI’s encyclical of 2005, Deus Caritas Est, in order to trace the significance of love, in its various forms, in community life, and its relationship both to reason and to politics. Whatever the state may designate, however rationally it may organize legal relations, no matter how elaborate the structure of contacts, there remain dimensions of social life beyond politics, law, and contract, which is where charitable love comes into play. Communities depend on this care, even if the state prefers to place it beyond the law or even outside the law. A reduction of life to justice and rights, as indispensable as they are, would eradicate the love that sustains humanity, including the possibility of freedom, the freedom of the beloved’s particularity, which is not a legal category at all. On the contrary, that particularity participates in the lived circumstances of tradition and experience, which are prior to, outside of, and the preconditions of the state. Aristotle therefore taught that even for the legislator, friendship is more important than justice, precisely because friendship can never be legislated. Schall traces the position of affection in politics from antiquity to the modern world, from Socrates through Lincoln’s “charity for all,” to the loneliness induced by the continued expansion of bureaucracy. It is not that the “personal is the political” (which is an invitation for state administration to expand into the private sphere) but that the lives of persons in communities form the possibility of the political.

In the contemporary world, law takes on the character of administrative orders, distributing the spoils of power to individual clients: the notorious earmarks, the everyday bribery that greases the wheels of Washington. While Aristotle, as just noted, understood the social importance of friendship among members of the polis, for today’s legislator what counts is friendship with lobbyists. That’s what we proudly call law-making. Tod Lindberg presents an alternative conceptualization by taking us to Plato’s Minos. Law appears there as universal, applying to all equally, and permanent: it is neither the accumulation of particular appropriations nor a series of ever-changing stipulations. Law, for Plato, is lawful in that it gives expression to “what is,” the character of the lived order, rather than an expression of some programmatic effort to transform it. Recalling the Platonic account we face even more starkly contemporary law as a combination of arbitrary will and the state monopoly on violence, hence a loss of legitimacy and a degradation of civic life, at least as far as “politics” are concerned.

Bureaucratic intrusion also stands at odds with an alternative account of the modern liberal state, the so-called “nineteenth-century liberalism” reticent to intervene in society and obligated to maintain a rule of law equally for all citizens. In particular this equality before the law presumed a tolerance with regard to religion, not merely a prudent separation of church and state following on the bloodshed of the religious wars, nor a tactical marginalization of religion into the private realm, but—much more profoundly—a result of a negative theological transformation of religious sensibility: a consistent monotheism appeals to a sublime unity that made God unknowable, beyond all characterization in human language. This leads to a fundamental agnosticism: not on the existence of God but on the variety of religious traditions. Aryeh Botwinick presents a negative theological reading of the Qu’ran (Sura II): this is a post-9/11 thought experiment to explore the potential for liberalism at the heart of Islam. However it is also part of a genealogy of skepticism and liberalism as it emerged from medieval philosophy and eventually informed Hobbes and the discourse of the modern state. The possibility of the liberal state, and the liberty it should guarantee, depends, Botwinick argues, on negative-theological preconditions. A rule of law imbued by faith in a God beyond the possibility of human knowledge mandates freedom. (Botwinick will continue this line of thought in planned articles in subsequent issues on Avicenna and on Maimonides.)

James Barry investigates Hannah Arendt’s political theory with regard to her account of the social and political transformations between the early modern period and twentieth-century totalitarianism. The restricted state and its rule of law gave way, in the era of the French Revolution, to the new nation state. This state no longer merely oversaw the limiting conditions of life within its boundaries but, instead, the whole population, defined as nation, became the sovereign and the metabolism of the state. This revolution overthrew the monarchic sovereign, but it also quickly imported all the class tensions of society, the new sovereign, into the state apparatus. Hobbes figures in this argument too, as brilliantly forecasting the growing prominence of private interests in modern politics. However this privatization of the public, the rise of the social, and the expansion of state administration soon subvert the viability of the rule of law itself. Love gives way to loneliness, law to terror, and liberty grows every more endangered.

The issue continues with a cluster of articles on some interrelated aesthetic and literary topics. Howard Eiland addresses Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project through the familiar figure of the flâneur, wandering the streets of the city. He becomes the embodiment of an epistemology, an esoteric theory of dreaming and historical awakening. Whatever transpired in a particular location becomes suddenly available to recollection and retrieval: space is shot through with time. Eiland explores this historical complexity through the term of superimposition, a nearly photographic multiplicity of exposures as the foundation for a dialectical hermeneutics. Harris Feinsod adds to the Benjamin discussion via an account of Saint-John Perse’s Anabase of 1924, its position in the international modernism, and its multiple translators: Benjamin produced a German translation when Rilke bowed out, T. S. Eliot completed an English translation, and Giussepe Ungaretti provided an Italian version. Modernist literary currents crisscross in this history of dissemination with Saint-John Perse’s own mysticism and archaic surrealism. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht contributes an autobiographical reflection on literary study in Germany and, in particular, the relationship to his teacher, Hans Robert Jauss. At stake here is a documentation of the history of the hermeneutic movement, in its late stages, and therefore the role of tradition in culture, as well as the relationship among generations of intellectuals. Heidegger (on whom Gumbrecht wrote here in issue 135) continues to cast a long shadow in German intellectual life.

The issue concludes with two reviews that echo some of the earlier topics. Shafiq Shamel writes on Khaled Hosseini’s best-seller The Kite Runner. While that novel of immigration includes a page-turning adventure, Shamel describes important literary references that underscore the national utopia underpinning the Sunni-Sh’ia tensions that drive the plot. The novel reminds us of the barbarism of Taliban Islamism (in contrast to the negative theology that Botwinick uncovers and the rationalism of Avicenna). Mark Wegierski discusses two thematically related studies, Roger Scruton’s The West and the Best: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat and Robert Kagan’s, Of Paradise and Power: the U.S. and Europe in the New World Order. Both publications address post-9/11 geo-political tensions, and both see the West under siege: where Kagan offers, ultimately, a foreign policy commentary, Scruton delves more deeply into the religious differences and cultural tensions. He foregrounds the differentiation of state and politics in the West, a legacy of Christianity and, he claims, barely thinkable in an Islamic context. In addition, he dissects the postmodern West’s “culture of repudiation,” an endemic hostility to its own institutions. As important as it is to understand the external opponents of Western modernity, the more perplexing question is whether its internal supporters have the will to defend it.

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