The Prisoners Are Also the Jailers

Dan Savage devotes his column today to gay teenagers struggling with the closet. To one recently out lesbian highschooler stuck in a small-minded town he writes (“How to Cope in the Closet,” The Stranger, 13 March 2008):

The shits conspiring to make you miserable, TALI, are unlikely to have lives anywhere near as interesting as the one on which you’re about to embark. Your classmates are making you miserable now because they know, deep down in their little black hearts, that their lives are going to be duller than day-old douche water compared to yours. Their lives aren’t going to be dull because they’re straight, TALI, but because the value they place on conformity — that’s the reason they feel they have a right to abuse you now — is a prison they’ve constructed around themselves.

Contra The End of History and the Last Man, someone should make a study of that other force in the composition of humanity, every bit as fundamental as thymos, the demand for conformity. It would seem to be the central front of resistance to the march of liberalism. One can imagine that in socially oppressive countries the world over it is some deeply felt need for everyone to cohere, the tendency to see any difference as a personal affront to one’s self — among the politically powerful, but among the masses as well — that is the cause of the oppressive culture.

I’m not sure how adequately I have characterized it here as the demand for conformity. I’m not sure that is the fundamental feature. Perhaps a certain commonality is required to execute that similarly fundamental impulse, the us-them distinction. Or perhaps conformity is required for adequate mirroring. Again, I think that a study, informed by all the human sciences, is in order — its cognitive and evolutionary source, its logical structure, its sociological operation, its historical and political consequence. As a fundamental characteristic of the human psyche, its suppression, like so many other human blights, must be subdued anew each generation. But having made a more thorough study we might forge more effective weapons to the cause. To suggest the Foucaultian point, to make a study would itself be to forge one such weapon.

The Progressive Era and the Counter-Culture

I’ve been trying to do a little catch-up reading on the Progressive era and I think that the death of Norman Mailer is an opportune time for contrast. I have a fairly wide personal conservative streak and the romanticism, irrationalism, experimentalism, bar-brawling, violence and lawlessness of Mailer and his ilk has always provoked a violent rejection in me. Reading Norman Podhoretz’s indictments of this crowd in Ex-Friends, all due salt accounted for, made me pretty embarrassed to be partly in a position as a leftist to have to defend or at least account for the really inexcusable and discrediting behavior of these people.

But when I read about the reformism in the service of essentially conservative ends that constituted the early Twentieth Century Progressive movement, I realize how much more genial the anti-moralism of 1950s and 1960s is to me than early Progressivism. Do-gooders and small-minded busy-body conformists are intolerable. Mailer-esque lawlessness makes me embarrassed; the moralism of the early progressives makes me taste a little vomit in the back of my throat. Carrie Nation can suck my low-hanger. Gloria Steinem is another story. The benefits of real freedom — the freedom of the mind and the spirit — are worth the collective running a little risk of chaos. This doesn’t mean that I am against broad, collectivist systematization. The post-war experiment — both governing systems and mass movements such as feminism — seems to be ample demonstration that large liberal social programs are completely compatible with a radically individualist morality. In fact, it may be one of its prerequisites. Unless I am mistaken, I believe that is conservatism’s very critique of the project.

As much as Jean-Paul Sartre strikes me as a poser and essentially derivative in his philosophy, I find myself thinking that existentialist self-determination and radical difference are the proper minimalist configuration of society. A sort of sincerely and deeply felt mass Sartian existentialism seems to me the major division between pre-War Progressivism and post-War cultural liberalism. Our decadence and essential self-involvement — perhaps problematic in the face if the monolithic and variably fascist societies — is the End of History. But as Fukuyama has pointed out, progress is not smooth and consistent. It may be one step back, two steps forward. We shouldn’t fret too much about that; we should just be mindful of just how big some of those steps might be.

Not to accord Sartre too much credit, really there should be a Marxist account of Sartre as merely an instance of ideology catching up with material circumstances in so far as modern industrialism and prosperity are the true source of individualist hedonism and self-determination. In this sense perhaps it is Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism more than anything of Sartre’s that is the really important work here. Sartre just gave expression to the growing ethos of the age.

Hegemony Corrupts

Francis Fukuyama argues that the misbehavior of the United States in the last few years — he includes the Clinton years — is in fact systematic (“A Self-Defeating Hegemony,” Real Clear Politics, 26 October 2007):

But the fundamental problem remains the lopsided distribution of power in the international system. Any country in the same position as the US, even a democracy, would be tempted to exercise its hegemonic power with less and less restraint. America’s founding fathers were motivated by a similar belief that unchecked power, even when democratically legitimated, could be dangerous, which is why they created a constitutional system of internally separated powers to limit the executive.

Such a system does not exist on a global scale today, which may explain how America got into such trouble. A smoother international distribution of power, even in a global system that is less than fully democratic, would pose fewer temptations to abandon the prudent exercise of power.

A “smoother international distribution of power” could come about through any of a number of ways. The United States could revert to the former system whereby it conducted itself with a self-imposed restraint and voluntarily submitted to a series of treaty-based limitations on its power — ones largely imposed consistently on actors throughout the international system. This would require some measure of calm and circumspection on the part of the U.S. electorate, desiderata for which I am not going to hold my breath. The alternative is that restraint will be imposed upon us by the emergence of a competing power center. The latter is fraught with all the normal dangers of system transition.

So hopefully Mr. Fukuyama’s next book will be on the necessity for one world government.