The Anglo-american conception of liberty was a really good thing while it lasted (in either country). Thing is, it doesn't just last under its own momentum. Particular conditions and institutions are required to sustain it, just as it didn't grow out of nothing. This means that it requires quite a lot of work to maintain, work that not enough people have been doing. Theologically, I could offer some reasons for this--I have a theory that, while this conception of liberty does not rest on any particular theological foundation in the sense of a noetic or belief structure, it does rest on a kind of historical theological foundation which lies hidden within other beliefs, but gets gradually eroded. So it doesn't matter whether the politicians are atheists or Mormons or whatever, but it does matter that certain theological concepts are still embedded fairly deep in the tradition, that they leave a trace. Particularly, I think some rudimentary distinction between the law and the gospel is actually in play--that is, a sense, however vague, that the law itself has a limit. Without that notion, it's very hard to see why we wouldn't become ultimately perfectionist, even messianic, about the law, and completely ruin any brake on government power. Hence the tradition of "negative" liberty--it knows, without quite being able to articulate it, that the law can only provide so much. What seems to have happened is this has eroded (or has been actively eroded by certain intellectual efforts--particularly Marxism and other Hegelian strands of mostly the left, but also even a triumphalistic nationalism that was already in evidence among some of the founding fathers) enough to where politics in this country really is mainly messianic, where we expect a new government to generate all the law (and so more or less perfect justice), to generate rights themselves, and for this law to ensure all things. Obama gets a pass from so many because he's still pretending this is doable, whereas Romney doesn't seem to have that ambition, and so people can only interpret his strange reticence as disinterest in helping them. So no, nobody can "fix" it. People who claim to be able to already have misunderstood the problem. The politicians are an expression of what's happened among the people, not simply a cause. Incidentally, this is why I appreciate David Brooks so much, even though he's a muddled squish on the partisan, hand-to-hand politics part of the problem. He gets that there's something much more fundamental going on, and it has to do with anthropology. As a secularized Jew, he doesn't quite get that at the root of it all is the notion of the end of the law--the absolute horizon of all legal thinking, the rupture of the ages that keeps our politics from aspiring to eschatology--but he does know that the finitude and sinfulness of the human being are at issue. Who you vote for isn't really the issue, because people don't agree anymore on what politics is for in the first place. Is it for regulating human life and restraining evil, or for transcending human life and generating the good? So, of course many feel like their on the wrong side of history. First, that's what the opposition wants you to think, because they've claimed "history" as the ground on which they're building their kingdom. Good luck with that. But second, in another way, you really are on the wrong side of history, because you know very well that in this age, nobody really wins.
Thursday, July 12, 2012
Law, Gospel, and the Liberal Tradition of Political Thought.
Some recent comments from a friend of mine on our current political situation in the west. Makes a lot of sense I think: