Passion plea (Drake Bennett, April 10, 2005, Boston Globe)

MICHAEL WALZER is a liberal who has spent much of his career unsettling the opinions of other liberals. The political philosopher’s enormously influential 1977 book ”Just and Unjust Wars,” an effort to outline the demands and limits of morality in war, was read by many as a challenge to an American left that, in the wake of the Vietnam War, had become increasingly pacifist. Twenty-five years later, in a widely read essay for Dissent magazine (of which he is co-editor) pointedly titled ”Can There Be a Decent Left?,” he took liberal thinkers to task for refusing to acknowledge and appropriately denounce the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalist terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. […]

IDEAS: What’s wrong with what you call ”liberal reasonableness”?

WALZER: One example is the love of the courtroom, and a general antipathy to old-fashioned political struggle…. In the literature of liberalism today, there’s a great dislike of bargaining. When political scientists talk about ”deliberative democracy,” they mean to describe a process in which people talk through very complex issues and eventually reach a consensus. But, in fact, in politics that’s very rare. People have very strong positions and interests, and what usually happens in democratic politics is a bargaining process, a negotiation process that ends in a compromise, not a verdict. It’s not a deliberative outcome, it’s a negotiated outcome.

IDEAS: You also argue that the liberal idea of the autonomous individual is a bit of a myth. Why is this a problem?

WALZER: The most intractable forms of inequality in the United States are connected to the collective disqualification of the members of pariah groups, and that requires a different kind of remedy, which addresses the problem of the group, rather than just the problem of this or that unlucky individual.

One way of doing that is to strengthen the organizations of the group, the mutual aid organizations, the philanthropic and welfare societies. We have a lot of those mutual aid organizations in the United States and some of them are very, very successful, particularly [those created by] groups like the Catholics and Lutherans and the Jews. I think it would make a big difference in American life if black churches, for example, or Hispanic churches, were providing services of this sort for their members.

IDEAS: Wouldn’t this just create a more fragmented public sphere?

WALZER: That certainly has not been the experience of groups like the Catholics, the Lutherans, and the Jews, whose members don’t seem to be isolated or withdrawn from public life. In fact it’s the weaker groups, which are not able to provide these sorts of services to their members, that tend to be isolated and withdrawn in our society.

I’m not proposing that the state help in any way to defend the boundaries of these groups, I think that there would be a lot of coming and going. One of the motivating factors in my argument is the discovery by political scientists that people who are active in the kinds of [mutual aid organizations] I’m describing are also active participants in the larger polity.

IDEAS: What you’re describing looks a bit like President Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Is that something you’d support?

WALZER: ”Faith-based” is their term. I was thinking more of community-based.

Fine, we can change the name.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: