Epistemological Pluralism, Cognitive Liberalism & Authentic Choice

Originally published in Comparative Philosophy, Vol. VII, No. 2 (Fall 2016)

Print version available here.

 

In “Perfectionist Liberalism and Political Liberalism,” Martha Nussbaum (2011) persuasively argues that political liberalism is superior to its perfectionist cousin. However, her critique of perfectionism also problematizes Rawls’ account of political liberalism—particularly as it relates to his account of “reasonableness” vis a vis comprehensive doctrines (CDs) and life plans (LPs). In response, Nussbaum attempts to refine Rawls’ account to make it more inclusive—however, her alternative conception of political liberalism may actually be more parochial than that of Rawls, and seems to rest uneasily atop a series of profound contradictions. Yet, if we render her position more consistent, while the inclusivity problem is largely addressed, the normative force of political liberalism seems to be severely undermined—especially in contexts which are not already predisposed towards liberal ideologies, systems and institutions.

This dilemma arises out of the brute reality that, in many instances, there is not a clean correspondence between promoting the will (or even the interests) of a given population and advancing liberal practices and institutions therein. In the event of such a conflict, the internal logic of political liberalism seems to not only allow, but to mandate, deference to the former—even if the resultant society exceeds the bounds of liberalism, per se.

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The Myth and Reality of American Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship is often hailed as a cornerstone of American society. From Mom & Pop stores to Silicon Valley startups, it has been held up as the key to self-reliance and social mobility. Unfortunately, as American society has become more stratified and social mobility has stalled, these narratives have taken on an increasingly mythological character.

For instance, today only 21% of America’s wealthiest families earned their income through entrepreneurship–about half the worldwide average. As compared to the rest of the world, Americans are far more likely to have achieved success by rising to the top of a large and established enterprise than by starting their own.  In fact, entrepreneurship is actually on the decline in America.

In a similar manner, politicians frequently assert that small businesses are responsible for most new jobs in America. While technically true, the claim is misleading: businesses with less than 50 employees only employ about a third of the labor force. And not only is the quantity of small business jobs overstated, so is the quality of these jobs. As compared to their large corporate competitors, jobs created by small businesses tend to be relatively low paying, have smaller benefits packages and little room for advancement. Moreover, they often prove temporary as only 1 out of every 3 business ventures survives for five years or more, and even fewer manage to “scale up” into large, expansive enterprises (which is how new businesses really add energy to the economy).

Perhaps most troubling is that rather than being a ladder for social mobility, it turns out most successful entrepreneurial enterprises are headed up by people who hail from wealthy families. In other words, entrepreneurship is generally not a means by which low or middle income earners can improve their station in life—it is primarily a path for the next generation of social elites to maintain or grow their wealth. However, by exploring why it is that the already-wealthy are so much better at launching viable business concepts, it may be possible to glean insight into how to extend these advantages to a broader swath of American society.

 

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Why There Aren’t More Black Republicans

It is often remarked that the Republican Party was founded by Lincoln, who oversaw the defeat of the Confederacy, the emancipation of slaves, and laid the foundation for the civil rights movement. But the Republican history of civil rights is much richer than this. Conversely, the history of the Democratic Party has been overwhelmingly pro-slavery and pro-segregation.

Lincoln’s successor, Democrat Andrew Johnson, vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and strongly resisted the passage of the 14th Amendment (which ensured equal rights and protections under the law, championed by Republicans). The subsequent Republican Administration of Ulysses S. Grant saw the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 71 which helped dismantle the KKK and protect black voting rights. This was followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

In contrast, the next Democratic President, Grover Cleveland, won re-election in 1892 by campaigning against the Republican-sponsored Federal Elections Bill of 1890, which would have strengthened Grant’s civil rights legislation. Not only did Cleveland successfully kill that bill, he helped launch a movement to repeal and undermine civil rights legislation across the country.

His eventual successor, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, declared that “segregation was not a humiliation, but a benefit.” Commensurate with this thinking, when the Racial Equality Proposal was overwhelmingly approved by the League of Nations in 1919, Wilson single-handedly killed the legislation in order to protect America’s own apartheid system (and Britain’s). This was one of the pivotal acts which helped push the Japanese out of the post-WWI international community, precipitating the Second World War.

While FDR’s “New Deal Coalition” advocated a number of policies which were positive for African Americans, particularly through the establishment of the Fair Employment Practice Committee, his administration’s record on racial equality was mixed at best: he appointed J. Edgar Hoover to direct the FBI—who would abuse his position to surveille, intimidate and otherwise undermine civil rights activists throughout his decades-long tenure. He actively supported the internment of Japanese Americans. And while FDR pushed for integration in government contracting jobs, because his coalition was heavily dependent on rural white southerners, he said little about ending America’s apartheid system altogether. In fact, black agriculture and domestic workers (i.e. the majority of black workers) were explicitly excluded from receiving benefits from the Social Security Act, the Wagner Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. This whites-only welfare system, in turn, exacerbated socioeconomic inequality over generations.

While Democratic President Harry Truman passed executive orders to eliminate segregation among federal employees, he faced a revolt from his Democratic colleagues and his electoral base as a result—and was largely unable to actually realize his edicts. It would be his successor, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who oversaw the implementation and enforcement of these provisions. Eisenhower would also champion the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960—the only major civil rights legislation passed through the Congress since Republican President Grant. In the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education rulings, Eisenhower federalized units of the National Guard in order to help force integration of schools and protect black students.

In contrast, President Kennedy’s advocacy for civil rights was lackluster and inconsistent due to concerns about alienating his party’s base. The first real moral leader for the Democratic Party on civil rights would be LBJ, whose administration would oversee the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 68, along with 1965’s  Voting Rights and Immigration and Nationality Acts, and the 1967 appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. Of course, all of these efforts were stanchly opposed by the Democratic coalition headed up by George Wallace, and only passed as a result of coalitions the Johnson Administration built with Republican legislators.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of these moves by LBJ’s Administration, Republicans Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan would play to fears about the civil rights movement and the social unrest of the 60’s in order to consolidate support for the right among lower-income, blue-collar, and rural white Americans, particularly in the former Democratic stronghold of the south.  But they faced stiff opposition from the Republican coalition of George Romney, who relentlessly and confrontationally championed affirmative action, fair housing, and civil rights—arguing that the so-called “Southern strategy” was a cynical betrayal of conservative ideals and the Republican tradition.

It is often emphasized how Reagan’s “War on Drugs” helped institute the mass incarceration state. Less known is that Reagan’s initiatives largely built upon a series of Democratic “law and order” policies (see Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America). Or that Bill Clinton’s “tough on crime” laws were just as destructive as Reagan’s.  Similarly, while Republicans are often (rightfully) accused of gerrymandering districts to dilute or marginalize black voters, left out of the discussion is that for most of the country’s history it was the Democratic Party who pioneered these tactics. And of late, as the Democrats have increasingly come to take the minority vote for granted rather than seeing it as a threat, they have come to champion gerrymandering once again in order to concentrate the minority vote to create “safe districts.” The result of these bi-partisan efforts is a situation in which minority voters wield disproportionate influence in a small number of districts, and virtually no influence in most others.

 

The Elephant in the Room

Given this history, it seems almost incomprehensible that up to 95% of today’s African American voters are aligned with the Democratic Party (see Leah Wright-Rigueur’s The Loneliness of the Black Republican). But then again, the GOP has largely abandoned its own proud legacy of civil rights activism:

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Creating Visionaries

Education plays a pivotal role in cultivating excellence—although its function is largely misunderstood. Consider the case of entrepreneurs:

Successful entrepreneurs tend to be both more intelligent than average, but also more confident. Perhaps for these very reasons, they are also far more likely to engage in disruptive or even illicit activity in their youth. Fortunately, wealthy children tend to grow up in an environment which helps them cultivate and productively channel these impulses:

Elite schools generally respect students’ drive and intelligence rather than teaching to the lowest-denominator; they are not afraid to challenge students’ pre-existing beliefs, even at the cost of creating controversy or offense—nor are they afraid to teach ignorance and uncertainty. At the same time, these programs tend to have less testing, less busy-work, and less memorization or regurgitation of trivia. This enables students to explore course subject-matter with far greater depth, breadth and rigor. Overall, elite institutions tend to be less-structured, to prize inter-disciplinary pursuits and collaboration, and to give students a good deal of latitude in forming their course of study. In other words, it is the virtual opposite of what the rest of us experience. Continue reading “Creating Visionaries”

Progressives: It’s Time to Stop Patronizing White People

On average, whites are far better off than blacks. But the problem with averages is that they often conceal radically uneven distribution of the phenomena in question. This is certainly true of wealth among white Americans.

It is well-established that white people are overrepresented in the upper classes. And even in the middle class, whites are far more likely to own their own home, to own their own business, to send their kids to better primary schools and have them go on to college. By contrast, the children of most black middle-class families earn less than their parents when they reach adulthood, often sliding into poverty—and for blacks, college does little to ameliorate this trend. And even among the lower classes, blacks are far more likely than whites to live in areas of “concentrated poverty,” which has a severe debilitating effect on social mobility.

However, the fact that blacks are so much worse off relatively speaking does not entail that white people are generally enjoying prosperity. Although most Americans continue to believe they are “middle class,” overall 15% of the U.S. population lives in poverty—40% of these in “deep poverty.” An additional 30% of the total population lives just at the cusp of poverty. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans struggle with economic insecurity, and most will sink below the poverty line for some period of their lives. And these dynamics persist across generations, regardless for instance, of how hard people work: the rich stay rich, the poor stay poor.

A majority of America’s poor are white, as are a plurality of those receiving federal assistance. Why does this matter? Because poor white people seem to be a natural ally for the social justice movement. In fact, there is widespread support among this constituency for policies addressing inequality, enhancing social mobility, protecting social safety nets, and reforming drug and sentencing laws.

However, when crime and poverty are discussed in racialized terms, this dynamic changes completely: whites become far more likely to support stricter enforcement of the law and harsher sentencing. They also grow far more receptive to policies which erode safety nets for the poor and redistribute money to social elites. And this is not just a problem for old white men, these trends are just as prevalent among millennials. Similarly, when reminded of the fact that whites are trending towards being a minority in America, both Republican and Democratic whites grow more conservative in their political views.

Is this racist? Of course. But it’s easy to misunderstand what this means. At its core, racism is not about xenophobic reactions to difference, stereotyping people from other groups, or a sense of intrinsic superiority. Racism is about preserving a socio-economic order which privileges the majority group (in this case, whites) at the expense of minorities. And while hate can (and typically does) play an important role in justifying this cause, strictly speaking, it is not necessary: there are plenty of racists who do not hate black people, per se. Many may even have black friends and colleagues whom they hold in great esteem. But this does little to alleviate the gnawing, pervasive and persistent fear that the empowerment of minorities will ultimately come at the expense of whites. For those many white Americans already struggling (or failing) to keep their head above water or support their families, this prospect doesn’t just induce dread—it motivates resistance.

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Understanding ISIL’s Appeal

Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay.
On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.Slavoj Zizek

It is oft-remarked that proponents of the prevailing international order, despite rhetoric about freedom and democracy, eagerly support dictators, warlords and other autocrats in order to preserve the status quo. However, this tendency is no less pronounced in opponents of the system. For example: during the Cold War, Lenin and Mao inspired large swaths of Westerners, particularly young people, into leftist movements—many of which carried out campaigns of domestic terrorism in order to provoke revolution.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) similarly aspires towards a new form of social arrangement. In this post-Occupy movement period, where no one else seems to have the willingness or ability to meaningfully “fight the system,” ISIL appears to many as virtually the only actor interested in, and capable of, radical societal reforms. Understanding this source of ISIL’s appeal will be critical to countering its narratives, undermining its recruitment, and ultimately defeating the group. 

Beyond brainwashing

ISIL’s recruits are generally not stupid, ignorant or naïve , nor are they religious zealots,  nor are they somehow unable to resist social media messaging. It is comforting to write-off ISIL supporters as deranged or “brainwashed” because it helps distract from the role the anti-ISIL coalition’s members played in creating and perpetuating the conditions under which the “Islamic State” could emerge and flourish—but the extensive post 9/11 body of research on terrorism clearly shows that regardless of how a campaign may be framed, the primary reason people support terrorism is to achieve political aspirations.

For example, it is widely assumed that most suicide bombers were uneducated, mentally ill or otherwise cognitively deficient. Or that martyrs were simply nihilistic (often from having few socio-economic prospects), or were narcissists eager for notoriety. It turns out that those cases are the exception rather than the rule:  Suicide bombers tend to be wealthier and better educated than most in their societies. In fact, it is their deeper understanding of societal problems that often impels their activism. And rather than being sociopathic, would-be martyrs tend to be prosocial, idealistic and altruistic, driven by compassion and a sense of moral outrage.

Millennials tend to be especially globally conscious and passionate about making a difference. However, they are also intensely skeptical about societal institutions, or that “the system” can work to evoke sufficient change on pressing issues. This is the main source of ISIL’s allure among youth.

Sympathizers are well-aware of the atrocities committed by the organization—crimes which are disseminated widely by ISIL itself, in part to lure unpopular foreign actors into their theater of war. By taking the bait, the Western-led coalition has allowed ISIL to position itself as a resistance organization against a U.S.-dominated unipolar world order, a bulwark against meddling in Middle East and Muslim affairs by former colonial and imperial powers and the repression of western-backed autocrats. ISIL’s recruitment has surged as a result.

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Implications of America’s Evitable Decline

Generally speaking, change is inevitable—however, most specific transformations are not.

Virtually any prediction can be defied; in fact, most are. That people are pretty terrible at forecasting in most (especially sociological) domains does not inhibit many from making grandiose claims about the “inevitability” of American decadence—often relying upon ill-formed analogies with empires past. If only analysts dedicated more attention to the decline and fall of their own projections. Although the so-called “End of History” is little more than a neoconservative eschatological fantasy, the “American Empire” may well persist for some time… and that’s probably a good thing.

Contrary to the assertions of President Obama, the U.S. has long been a de facto imperial power–albeit one that has consistently refused to see itself for what it is. For this reason, the United States has often been unwilling or unable to design and implement its foreign (or domestic) policies with the vision or commitment of other historical empires—further hampered by America’s political system which often imposes government shifts in 2 to 4 year intervals, driving policymakers towards short-sighted and populist positions in the interim, even as it renders them beholden to competing constellations of lobbyists and special-interest groups in order to finance their ever-impending campaigns (increasingly resulting in total dysfunction).

And of course, America’s track record of promoting socio-economic justice, or the rights, freedoms and sovereignty of others across the globe has been inconsistent, to put it mildly—despite the incessant and lofty rhetoric of its leaders, and the U.S. public’s general lack of awareness of the scope and profundity of this dissonance. That said, critics of U.S. foreign policy have been, perhaps, too eager to celebrate the apparent decline of America’s unipolar order—in particular, they have not sufficiently reflected on what is likely to follow. Continue reading “Implications of America’s Evitable Decline”