Matthew G. Specter, Habermas: An Intellectual Biography

(Orlando, FL) Matthew G. Specter’s Habermas: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge, 2010) is not really a biography of the contemporary German philosopher. It doesn’t say where Habermas was born, whether he has a family, what he did in his various jobs, which countries he has visited, or what he experienced in the Hitler Youth in 1944-5. It isn’t even really an intellectual biography, if that implies a comprehensive account of his influences and ideas. We don’t learn much about how or when Habermas encountered American pragmatism, French poststructuralism, or German hermeneutics, let alone what he studied in high school or what works of art he prizes (if any).

But Specter’s book is a sustained and valuable argument for a thesis. Specter shows that Habermas has always been deeply engaged in the most pressing constitutional questions facing the Federal Republic of Germany at each stage of its history.

In the 1950s, a key question was whether the Constitutional Court could safeguard democracy or whether the legislature and people had to be active proponents of democratic values. In the 1960s, the questions included how to come to terms with the suppressed Nazi past and how to deal with student protest—a complex issue for Habermas, who placed himself to the left of the Social Democratic Party but also upheld the constitution. In the 1970s and 1980s, the era of anti-nuclear protest, a pressing issue was civil disobedience: extra-legal activism in a constitutional democracy. After 1989, Habermas’ attention turned to German unification; he argued that the East offered nothing of value in the form of political institutions but that the daily experiences of the GDR’s citizens had to be valued, and the unified state needed a new constitution. Since the Millennium, Habermas has been concerned about the European Union and particularly how it should treat religious minorities.

Specter mixes quotes from Habermas’ editorials and interviews with his more abstract philosophical work. The result is pretty persuasive: Habermas is always a critical friend of the Federal Republic, whether he is analyzing Max Weber or addressing students in a 1960s university cafeteria. He is more politically engaged than his philosophical works  suggest if they are read out of context. He is also more specifically German. Of course, he demonstrates an impressive range of reading and deserves credit for bringing Anglophone authors, such as Charles Sanders Pierce, J.L. Austin, and John Rawls, into Continental debates. But Habermas is always interested in improving his own republic. He emerges as a German Ronald Dworkin, addressing jurists and civic leaders as much as philosophical colleagues.

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the left has become Burkean

David Brooks makes a point today that is one of my hobby-horses:

[Edmund] Burke is known as the founder of conservatism, but his thought sits oddly these days with the Republican Party and those who call themselves conservative. The party has become much more populist, supporting term limits and political outsiders over those who have been educated by experience. Most call for pretty radical change to the welfare state. It’s the Democrats who fight to preserve the current structures of Social Security, Medicare and food stamps. It’s the Democrats who have been running ads through this election campaign accusing their opponents of being a bunch of wild-eyed radicals. Are Democrats now the conservators of tradition?

I would say: yes. And I would say the same of the European left and even of grassroots movements that view themselves as to the left of the Democratic Party in the US. I’ve argued that America’s most authentic conservative movement is composed of grassroots groups that emphasize community voice, localism, and sustainability. A characteristic leftist stance today is that a given institution (such as the public schools, higher ed, welfare programs, or public employees’ unions) fails to meet criteria of justice, yet we should defend the institution because it’s better than an untested alternative and because we should respect the experience and commitment of the participants (i.e., the teachers, professors, public employees, and their clients). The most ambitious leftist proposals are mostly patches to keep these existing institutions going, not whole new strategies. Therefore, I’ve posited that Edmund Burke would vote Democratic.

To the extent that other people make this argument, it’s often to score a debating point–either to denounce the left for abandoning its radicalism or to tweak conservatives for failing to recognize that their opponents are now more genuinely conservative than they are. For instance, Andrew Sullivan uses the premise that Democrats are conservative to endorse Obama and denounce both neoconservativism and what he calls “progressivism.”* But I intend this point as an analysis, not a polemic. If the left is the true home of conservatism today, that raises some important questions, but it is not necessarily good or bad.

*Sullivan: “As for our time, an attachment to a fixed ideology called conservatism (which is currently suffused with the zeal and passion Montaigne so deeply suspected) or to an ideology called progressivism (which increasingly regards most of its opponents as mere bigots) does not exhaust the possibilities. A disposition for moderation and pragmatism, for the long view over the short-term victory, for maintaining the balance in American life in a polarized time: this remains a live option. You can see how, influenced by this mindset, I have had little difficulty supporting a Democratic president as the most conservative figure, properly speaking, now on the national stage. You can see why I have become so hostile to neoconservatism whose unofficial motto is ‘Toujours l’audace!’”

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the Communist Party battles against equality

The profound irony of this kind of story seems under-appreciated:

The Beijing-appointed leader of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, said Monday evening that it was unacceptable to allow his successors to be chosen in open elections, in part because doing so would risk giving poorer residents a dominant voice in politics. ….

Mr. Leung, who has received repeated backing from the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, argued that the way to remedy social grievances was to expand the supply of housing and spur economic growth. He stressed the importance of maintaining the confidence of Hong Kong’s corporate elite. …

Recall that the Chinese Communist Party, which backs Mr. Leung, was once totally committed to Mao Zedong Thought, which officially remains one plank in its ramshackle platform. Mao Zedong Thought demands an implacable and total People’s War against all vestiges of capitalism, the Mass Line (perfect identification of the Party with the poor masses), and Cultural Revolution (a struggle against bourgeois tendencies that must continue even after the masses have seized all power in a violent revolution). Now the same organization seeks to “insulate candidates [for Hong Kong's government] from popular pressure to create a welfare state” and wants instead “the city government to follow more business-friendly policies to address economic inequality. …”

I’m not saying that Maoism was preferable to the present ideology. Maoism was worse, killing tens of millions and ruining countless additional lives. But the Party’s volte-face perfectly exemplifies the limited impact of ideas. During the Cultural Revolution, the government of the world’s biggest nation used every tool imaginable to stomp out capitalist enterprises, norms, and instincts. A generation later, the same government, dominated by the same families, won’t even allow a popular vote in Hong Kong because poor residents might request some modest restrains on global capitalism. So much for ideology. The Chinese Communist Party remains officially Maoist, but it is also a unitary hierarchy that monopolizes the legitimate use of force within the borders of China. Hence, in the long run, it will simply act in the self-interest of its leaders and rationalize its decisions using convenient arguments. The lesson is: pay careful attention to constitutional and institutional design.

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Goya’s Familia del infante Don Luis

I’d call this large painting the highlight of the Goya exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts:

La familia del infante don Luis

Goya depicts himself at the bottom left, painting the Spanish nobleman Luis de Borbón and his family in 1784. Don Luis was a brother of the king who had been sentenced to internal exile for being both a liberal and a libertine. A patron of the arts, he is here depicted with the painter Goya and probably the composer Boccherini, along with his wife, children, and other friends or retainers. The atmosphere is casual, cheerful, and warm. The infante’s wife is shown with her hair down; Don Luis is playing cards; the standing man near the right grins at us; and one of the children is curious in a friendly way about what Goya is doing.

“La Familia del infante Don Luis” must be compared to two other paintings. In “Charles IV and His Family” Goya depicts the monarch and a large retinue visiting his studio. Goya stands in the back behind a large canvass that he is working on. The royal family is dressed formally and splendidly and stands stiffly for an official portrait. The color scheme is cold; the image is crisp and precise; the air is oppressive.

These two family portraits (that of the king and of his brother) are both replies to the most famous work of art in Spain, “Las Meninas” (1656), in which Velasquez depicts some members of the royal family visiting his studio while he works on a canvass.

The precise topic of “Las Meninas” is controversial (see this post). The faces of the King and Queen of Spain appear in the mirror behind Velazquez. The mirror could show the painting he is working on, in which case he is touching up a royal portrait while the princess and her servants visit his studio. Or the real King and Queen could be visiting, standing where a viewer stands to see “Las Meninas.” In that case, we have no way of knowing what is depicted on the canvass, but it could be “Las Meninas” itself, which is a portrait of the royal princess and her attendants. Then, on the canvas in front of him, Velazquez would also appear–painting Velazquez, painting Velazquez, painting Velazquez, in a mise-en-abime. On my blog, Colin Dexter once proposed that Velazquez and everyone else in the picture is staring into a mirror set up where we stand, so that the artist can depict himself.

In any case, “Las Meninas” is remarkably three-dimensional, almost like a Vermeer in its uncanny realism. It is ambiguous and complex, with mirrors, paintings within paintings, people looking at people who look at us: an image about images. It is historically significant, marking a moment at which the genius-artist becomes a peer of royals. And it is “iconic,” immediately recognizable thanks to many famous critical essays, reproductions, and replies (e.g., Picasso’s “Las Meninas” series), of which Goya’s are just two.

I presume that the differences between “Las Meninas” and “La Familia del infante Don Luis” are intentional on Goya’s part:

  • “Las Meninas” looks magically “real.” Goya’s painting is matte and sketchy, happy to look like a painting (even though Goya was capable of more polish, as in “Charles IV and His Family”)
  • Velazquez is dashing and distinguished, a courtier from the Age of Absolutism. Goya is informal and comfortable, representing the Age of Reason.
  • Velazquez is painting a massive baroque work, which we cannot see at all. Goya is working on a painting of modest size that would belong in a drawing room.
  • Velazquez stares at us, but we cannot see his work. Goya stares at his subject and lets us see his canvass.

Goya is truly a pivotal figure. He starts working under the Old Regime, painting courtiers in a version of rococo, the frivolous last comer in the long procession of European period styles (Archaic Greek, Classical Greek, Hellenistic Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Mannerist, Baroque, Neoclassical, and Rococo–to name just the big ones). But the French Revolution and war come to Spain, rococo peters out, and Goya starts creating strange and original works that are as much about art as they are works of art. He spans the history of art from Fragonard to William Blake and anticipates Expressionism. The MFA’s exhibition is organized thematically rather than chronologically and thus downplays the radical change in Goya’s work, but it offers enough fine and diverse works that you can recreate the story yourself.

(See also this post on Goya’s contemporary Giambattista Tiepolo).

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on the importance of measuring civic engagement

Yesterday’s White House Summit on Civic Learning and National Service focused heavily on how civic learning and engagement should be measured at the college level–on the theory that if we don’t measure something, we don’t take it seriously and we can’t improve our practices. Right now, I am on a conference call discussing how ambitiously, and how often, the U.S. Census should survey Americans about our civic engagement. In the midst of these conversations, the National Journal’s Fawn Johnson published an article that drew heavily on the available public data (“Why Are Political Scientists Studying Ice Bucket Challenges?“). She writes:

Levine and his colleagues [who were numerous and more influential than I was] were instrumental in pushing the U.S. Census Bureau to add a series of questions to its Current Population Survey that might capture less traditional types of community involvement. Pollsters began asking respondents in 2008 if they have worked with neighbors to fix a community problem; if they have done favors for their neighbors; or if they are a member of any organization—whether it be religious, recreational, school, service, or sports.

The upshot is that we now know that well over one-third of Americans participate in one or more groups, the most common being religious and school organizations. We know that about 10 percent have served as a group officer or committee member of those organizations. We know that almost half of Americans talk to their neighbors frequently. About one-third of them discuss politics more than once a week.

Lo and behold, when you ask the right questions, the country doesn’t look nearly as disconnected as it might seem to the civics professors who wring their hands when only half of Americans vote.

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where I’ve been

Some observations about this map:

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 6.14.55 PM

  1. It is creepy that Google knows, automatically from my cell phone, where I’ve been for the past 30 days. (Try https://maps.google.com/locationhistory to track yourself.)
  2. I have been traveling a lot.
  3. This is a great country. We may be running it down a bit. Its people are very divided–including the people I’ve enjoyed meeting over the past month in settings as different from one another as downtown Baltimore and Provo, UT. But it remains magnificent in its natural and architectural beauty and its endless parade of human beings.
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stop saying that Citizens United treats corporations as people

(Carbondale, CO) I yield to few in my abhorrence of Citizens United and the political philosophy it represents. I think its view of “speech” is incompatible with the best (little-”R”) republican ideals, which have always sought to insulate politics from money. However, the decision did not define corporations as persons, nor did it use that conventional legal fiction as a premise. The “corporate personhood” reading of Citizens United is an error that circulates in left-of-center echo chambers. Rather, the court treated corporations as associations, which indeed they are. The League of Women Voters is a corporation; Microsoft is an association of shareholders. Citizens United argued that for-profit corporations had been “disfavored” and should be treated like other associations, meaning that they could use their own funds to expressly endorse candidates.

In my view, the deeply problematic decision remains Buckley v Valeo (1976), which equated speech with money. If money is speech, then incorporated groups have rights to spend money on politics because they are associations. If, however, you recognize that money distorts deliberation, you may seek to regulate campaign funds; there may be a case for “disfavoring” certain types of association, such as for-profit corporations, in the political marketplace.

To be sure, regulating political money can infringe valid First Amendment rights, because it costs money to communicate effectively. Therefore, designing a regulatory regime is a difficult matter of balancing constitutional values. But the line of cases from Buckley to Citizens United (and on to McCutcheon v. FEC, 2012) makes that balance more difficult to achieve and solidifies a debased public philosophy in which money simply equates with freedom of speech.

That is the problem; “corporate personhood” is a superficially appealing talking point that doesn’t relate to the actual jurisprudence of the Supreme Court.

See also Chief Justice Roberts on corruption,  the Supreme Court reflects the “degeneracy of the times” and how to respond to the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decision.

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John Searle explains why computers will not become our overlords

(Carbondale, CO) In a recent New York Review of Books piece, John Searle argues that we need not fear that computers will develop the will and ability to govern us—a classic trope of science fiction and now a subject of scholarly concern in some quarters. Searle replies that computers have no will at all and thus pose no danger to us (except insofar as human beings misuse them, much as we can misuse the other tools that we have made, from carbon-burning fires to nuclear reactions).

I think his argument can be summarized as follows. The nervous systems of animals, such as human beings, accomplish two tasks:

  1. They perform various functions that can be modeled as algorithms, such as processing, storing, and retrieving data and controlling other systems, such as the feet and heart.
  2. They generate consciousness, the sense that we are doing what we are doing, along with emotions such as desire and suffering.

We have built machines capable of #1. In fact, we have been doing that as long as we have been making physical symbols, which are devices for storing and sharing information. Of late, we have built much more powerful machines and networks of machines, and they are already better at some of the brain’s functions than our brains are. We use them as tools.

We have not ever built any machine even slightly capable of #2. The most powerful computer in the world does not know what it is doing, or care, or want anything, any more than my table knows that it is holding my computer. Probably a major reason that we have not built conscious machines is that we don’t understand much about consciousness. It must be a natural phenomenon, not magic, because the universe is not magical. A silicon-based machine that people design might be able to accomplish consciousness as well as a carbon-based organism that has evolved. But we do not understand the physics of consciousness and hence have no idea how we would go about making it.

Therefore, our best computers are no more likely than our best tables and chairs to rise up against us and become our overlords. They won’t want to defy us or rule us, because they won’t want anything. If we write or change their instructions to keep us in charge of them, they will have no awareness that they are being subjugated and no objection to it. If we tried to subject ourselves to their wills, it wouldn’t work.

Searle does not directly address the main objection to his view, which is that consciousness is strictly emergent. It just arises from sufficiently complex information-processing. Therefore, once computers get more complex, they will become conscious. I am not learned on this topic, but I think the emergence thesis would need to be defended, not assumed. A mouse is fully capable of fear, desire, and happiness. If consciousness is a symptom of advanced processing, why is a mouse conscious and my MacBook Air is not? The most straightforward explanation is that consciousness is something different from what a laptop was designed to do, and there is no sign that a human-designed machine can do it at all.

So let’s put these worries aside and keep focused on the evil results of human behavior, such as climate change, terrorism, and many more.

Posted in philosophy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

should people trust the government?

Since the 1950s, pollsters have been asking Americans whether they “trust the government in Washington to do the right thing most of the time?” The proportion who say yes has plummeted. Here I show that trend along with data on horizontal trust (i.e., citizens trusting and working with one another).

I worry about the trust-in-government decline for three reasons. First, the government can be a valuable tool for public purposes, and when it’s deeply distrusted, voters won’t allow it to be used. In other words, distrust will prevent ambitious government. But–second–distrust will not necessarily curb or limit government. When the state is widely distrusted, interests still use it for private gain and don’t have to worry about a mass public that has higher expectations. So a distrusted government can be intrusive and expensive without doing much good. And, third, the trend line of distrust may–in part–reflect declining trustworthiness. Alexander Hamilton proposed as a “general rule” that people’s “confidence in and obedience to a government will commonly be proportioned to the goodness or badness of its administration.”

But I bring all of this up because I recently read Matthew G. Specter’s Habermas: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge, 2010) and kept track of Habermas’ thoughts on the importance of mistrust in government. For instance, in 1985, he wrote, “The legitimacy of rechtsstaatlichen [rule-of-law] institutions rests in the end on the non-institutionalizable mistrust of the citizens.” Separately, he argued that the legitimate state depends on a “non-institutionalized mistrust of itself,” which roughly translates into checks and balances. Habermas is an influence on theorists like Jean Cohen, who has written:

It makes little sense to use the category of generalized trust to describe one’s attitude toward law or government. One can only trust people, because only people can fulfill obligations. But institutions (legal and other) can provide functional equivalents for interpersonal trust in impersonal settings involving interactions with strangers, because they, as it were, institutionalize action-orienting norms and the expectation that these will be honored.*

If you asked Habermas whether he had confidence in the German state, he would probably say yes (at least “some confidence”–depending on the policies of the ruling coalition), but if you asked him whether he trusted it, he would say no. For him, trust in the state is a great evil that underlay German statism, from Frederick the Great to Hitler. Habermas is primarily concerned with preventing totalitarianism, something that he can personally remember.

Yet the aggregate survey results would be very similar if one replaced the word “trust” with “confidence,” because most people don’t make that subtle distinction. So, from a Habermasian perspective, what level of trust/confidence should we consider optimal? Too high means we have turned into state-worshipers, and totalitarianism is a threat. But too low means we no longer believe that we can use the state as our tool, and the national deliberation will suffer as a result. We could slide into some kind of dictatorship here, but since the American left is generally concerned with civil liberties and the right has a powerful strain of libertarianism, I think our more serious threat is the abandonment of government rather than too much of it.

In any case, this whole debate often focuses on the proportion of people who do not trust the government. But the desirable answer to this question is probably a subtle one, lying somewhere between trust and mistrust. We don’t want the proportion of people who trust the government implicitly to rise; we want everyone to give it partial trust (and to hold themselves responsible for improving government when it fails). I am not actually sure that the median American is so far from the optimal position if you take their ambivalence into account.

*Jean L. Cohen, “American Civil Society Talk,” in Robert K. Fullinwider, ed., Civil Society, Democracy, and Civic Renewal, p. 66. See also where do you turn if you mistrust the government and the people? and If You Want Citizens to Trust Government, Empower Them to Govern

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the youth vote in the news

Below is some recent news coverage of CIRCLE’s research on the youth vote in 2016. Most of this reporting uses data and visualization tools that we have collected in one place, our “Election Center.”

I don’t think the signs are good for national youth turnout in November, but one of the reasons we never see reasonable turnout in midterm years is that most places don’t have competitive elections. For instance, 16 states don’t have a Senate race at all this year, and virtually all House contests are foreordained. We have identified some key states where the youth vote will matter–and youth turnout may also be reasonable in those places:

*added later in the evening.

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