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In A Tolerable Anarchy, Jedediah Purdy traces the history of the American understanding of freedom, an ideal that has inspired the country’s best—and worst—moments, from independence and emancipation to war and economic uncertainty. Working from portraits of famous American lives, like Frederick Douglas and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Purdy asks crucial questions about our relationship to liberty: Does capitalism perfect or destroy freedom? Does freedom mean following tradition, God’s word, or one’s own heart? Can a nation of individuals also be a community of citizens? This is history that speaks plainly to our lives today, urging readers to explore our understanding of our country and ourselves, and a provocative look at one of America’s cherished principles.
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Jedediah Purdy teaches law at Duke University and has also taught at Yale and Harvard. Purdy is the author of For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today and Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World, and has written for The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Democracy, and other publications.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
c h a p t e r 3
War and Its Equivalents
One of the best pieces ever in The Onion, the satirical newspaper whose articles make up a parallel history of the last two decades, appeared just after September 11, 2001. It opened, “Feeling helpless in the wake of the horrible September 11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands, Christine Pearson baked a cake and decorated it like an American flag Monday.” True to form, the article is lightly ironic as it traces the fictional Topeka legal secretary's rummage through her kitchen cabinets in a frenzy of distress and media saturation. It concludes, though, with a middle- American version of the “Yes” at the end of James Joyce's Ulysses as Pearson presents the confection to her neighbors:
“I baked a cake,” said Pearson, shrugging her shoulders and forcing a smile as she unveiled the dessert in the Overstreet household later that evening. “I made it into a flag.”
Pearson and the Overstreets stared at the cake in silence for nearly a minute, until Cassie hugged Pearson.
“It's beautiful,” Cassie said. “The cake is beautiful.”
That Onion piece better captures the mood of those weeks than the soaring and belligerent speeches of politicians. It spoke to a basic and powerful wish to be connected to others, to help heal rather than injure, to be on the side of good rather than let isolation make you neutral. And it recognized that the ways we try to do these things are often stumbling, awkward, easy to make fun of-even though making fun of them is not just cruel but also shoddy and trite, much more jejune than the attempts to do something good. This scrap of satire acknowledged all of this and, in a paper that specializes in relentless fun making, gently refrained from attacking it.
The appetites for connection, membership, and righteousness (which is not the same as self-righteousness) that this sketch almost shyly honored are a reminder of Americans' persistent desire for a sense of national community and the common good. More vivid reminders include the nomination in 2008 of two presidential candidates who believe in citizenship and political service and, in particular, the enormous enthusiasm for Barack Obama's conviction-driven primary campaign. Self-concern, self-regard, even a certain amount of self-involvement, are all resting places for human feelings. Selfishness and isolation are not. That is why political language remains essentially engaged in trying to find a language of common good that feels alive, contemporary, genuine, and American. The search often feels as futile as the fictional Christine Pearson's search through her kitchen cabinets and, like hers, ends in the personal orbit of friends and neighbors.
What might such language sound like today? Part of the answer comes from the themes of the previous chapter. For one thing, it would have to take seriously what Ronald Reagan saw when he triumphantly dispatched Jimmy Carter: there is no American appetite for diminution and bad conscience in political life. We listen to be affirmed and celebrated. We are mostly not interested in being called to serve, let alone to sacrifice, for a promise of sterner limits. In this respect we are the spiritual descendants of Walt Whitman,
who announced that he celebrated himself and, in that act, celebrated every American and the country as a whole. Reagan's inaugurals were tableaux of American dreaming and striving, full of a heroic ordinariness that had more of Whitman in them than any previous president's.
For another thing, a renewed language of common good would have to accept some of the personal-virtue consensus that united Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Americans do experience freedom, purpose, and satisfaction most strongly in family and individual life. These are, by and large, our archetypes for understanding what it means to be connected with others and have commitments beyond ourselves. We have fewer “mystic chords of memory” than felt, inhabited bonds with others whom we have seen healthy and sick, elated and sad, and at all hours of day and night. It is not just that these are what we live for, although that is true: they are also how we know what it means to live for something, rather than just to exist. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush went there because they understood
that family and community held undeniable shared values, based in the concrete reality of interdependence. Their difficulty-more frustrating, probably, to Clinton than to Bush-was that they had nowhere to go from there.
Third, it would have to be a language of common good for a country that is much more diverse and, in some ways, equal than any previous America. The New Deal, the greatest American political experiment in social solidarity, addressed a national community with whitesupremacist struts. Roosevelt held his indispensable congressional majority only through concessions to Southern Democrats who refused to have their system of racial caste dismantled. He went as far as declining to support an antilynching law, a shameful capitulation to the ugliest and most lawless form of American violence. The part of the Great Society that we remember-the War on Poverty- had real failings, but it was also broken on racial resentment, precisely because Lyndon Johnson would not limit its reach along the racial lines that Roosevelt accepted. Decades of growing tolerance and openness have made the country a much better one but have also made us more nearly a country of strangers. The equality of tolerance is not that far
from indifference, and very far from the equality of opportunity that LBJ envisioned. As political scientist Robert Putnam has recently argued, there is no reason to deny in principle that diversity and solidarity can coexist; that said, we have not found a convincing register for their coexistence in American politics.
Finally, a language of common good would have to contend with the enrichment of private life. The search for a fuller life is under way everywhere but in government: it is the personal utopianism of yoga and Pilates studios, mega-churches and living rooms, pharmaceutical labs and psychotherapy clinics, and the editorial offices of Dwell and Saveur-the hundreds of thousands of places where billions of dollars and hours drive the unending search for meaning and satisfaction. Americans have always been amateur specialists in self-transformation, but the practice has never been more elaborate, mainstream, or sorted into lifestylecompatible market segments. If there was a hint of unique adventure and transformative possibility in the politics of past generations, it is harder to find now, partly by contrast with the multifarious growth of possibility elsewhere in life.
At least some of a language that worked might extend Roosevelt's and Johnson's images of citizens whose free personal activity is enabled by shared institutions. Such language might begin with the paradox of American individualism-a new version of what Progressive critics of free labor described a century ago. On one hand, we experience ourselves as vessels of infinite possibility, and we have more tools and techniques to make that possibility real than anyone else in history. We feel correspondingly entitled to make good on at least a generous portion of what we might become, and disappointed and wronged if we find we cannot. On the other hand, we are not much less buffeted by economic and institutional fate than earlier Americans. Tens of millions lack the basic security of health insurance. Globalization, the decline of private-sector unions, and new corporate models all make unemployment an ordinary interruption for the fortunate and a long-term threat for the unlucky. It is fashionable to praise the flexibility and selfrevision that these changes necessitate, and there is some basis for the praise; but “reinventing” yourself is much more fun when you choose the occasion than when circumstances pick you out for reinvention. The Progressive criticism of laissez-faire began in the clash between the ideal of selfmastery and the reality that people were vulnerable to impersonal forces whose dictates could feel as arbitrary as the Greek Fates and that, like those iconic powers, made a mockery of human will. The world has changed since 1905: we are much richer, and real deprivation is less likely. Nonetheless, the psychic whiplash that strikes when our vast sense of possibility meets unyielding constraint is as acute as ever. A competent, innovative government might pick up this problem-which it is fair to describe as the politics of the American dream-where Johnson set it down when the Great Society yielded to bureaucratic overreach, racial anger, and a war the country was coming to hate, which the president did not know how to end. There is more on this possibility in later chapters on the economy of freedom.
War and Its Equivalents
Maybe, though, there needs to be more. In an 1895 Harvard commencement address, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the Civil War veteran and future Supreme Court justice, attacked the Progressive concern with personal security and comfort as spiritually insufficient. Holmes and some of his contemporaries might have predicted the developments described in the previous chapter: the failure of Progressive politics to sustain an idea of common good and the retreat of public values into personal virtue. For them, the lives that Progressives tried to make possible for all citizens could not sustain the idea of citizenship itself. Citizenship, as a status and source of dignity, relied on an idea of civic honor. Honor was a quality of soldiers, not homemakers, and there was no way to save it in a world of safe private lives. “War is out of fashion,” Holmes complained to the listening Harvard graduates, and he derided the “society for which many philanthropists, labor reformers, and men of fashion unite in longing . . . one in which they may be comfortable and may shine without much trouble or any danger.” Progressives wanted less pain, less suffering, less failure, and, at the end of history, a world “cut up into five-acre lots, and having no man upon it who [is] not well fed and well housed.” But such a world, Holmes complained, would be intolerable, because it would contain no honor, that is, no earned dignity. All previous ideas of honor, he insisted, had been based on the virtues of war: the willingness to die for something greater than oneself. If Progressives wanted civic dignity, they were trying to have it both ways, to “steal the good will without the responsibilities of the place.”
Holmes did not argue that a country needed soldiers to protect its home fires and permit its citizens their innocent, decadent pleasures. His was not a practical argument but a spiritual one. He argued that a man needed to be a soldier to be a man. A citizen needed to be a soldier to have honor. And being a soldier was as personal a spiritual posture as being an Emersonian individual, except that, for Emerson's resolute openness and self-trust, Holmes substituted a selfsacrificing dedication to struggle as such, which approached impassioned nihilism. He said,
I do not know what is true. I do not know the meaning of the universe. But in the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt, that no man who lives in the same world with most of us can doubt, and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has little notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.
It was a Romantic idea, far from the practical concerns of the founding generation. Jefferson had described a continent of homesteads as an empire of liberty, full of clearheaded and self-reliant citizens. Holmes answered that a nation of prosperous house lots was a kind of spiritual prison. He portrayed human life as shadowed by ignorance and confusion but pierced and illuminated by pure commitment,
regardless of its object, with self-sacrifice as its defining emblem. The idea that materialistic, democratic modernity had eroded heroism, and sacrifice could restore it, would later become a Fascist theme. Holmes's call for blind collectivism, however, was thoroughly and paradoxically individualist at its core. The point of unreflecting duty in battle was to experience one's own “heroism.” A man had to do this to confront his own soul, “to know that one's final judge and only rival is oneself.”
Holmes had seen nightmarish battles. Teddy Roosevelt, who had seen only the quick and victorious kind, was so impressed by Holmes's address that he selected the Massachusetts judge for the Supreme Court. (Holmes was a major jurist and scholar, so it was not an eccentric choice; but the Harvard address helped to persuade the young president that he had found his justice.) In an 1899 speech in Chicago, Roosevelt sounded like Holmes as he poured scorn on “the men who fear the strenuous life, who fear the only kind of national life which is really worth leading.” He celebrated the search for new challenges, the vitality of “men with empire in their brains,” and denounced “the timid man, the lazy man, the man who distrusts his country, the over civilized man, who has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues.” In one way, Roosevelt's address was less militarist than Holmes's, for although he praised the moral greatness of war, he did not embrace blind sacrifice, and he imagined the fighting spirit of great souls expressed in writing, politics, commerce, any field where ability was pressed to its limit.
Unlike Holmes, however, Roosevelt had in mind an actual and ongoing military campaign: the reconstruction of the Philippines, recently taken from Spain, where United States forces were locked in bloody combat with guerrillas. The “empires” he praised were literal, and he offered them as a national purpose greater than mere wealth and comfort. He proposed as a model British imperial rule in Egypt and India, which, he said, had educated imperial officials in public-spiritedness while preparing the colonized peoples for self-government. War, conquest, and self-overcoming in all forms were his exemplars of greatness. The industrial magnates who had built the country's factories and railroads might be great souls, but neither their clerks nor their workers found much honor in Roosevelt's picture. Those who were concerned “only with the wants of our bodies for the day” would consign America to “the part of China, and be content to rot by inches in ignoble ease within our borders, taking no interest in what goes on beyond them, sunk in a scrambling commercialism; heedless of the higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and risk.” Like Holmes, he implied that the modern world provided a spiritually intolerable life to most of its inhabitants. Progressive policy makers might describe modern life accurately, but their managerial solutions did not address its essential depravity.
Even William James, a pacifist who hoped for a socialist future, accepted the power of this line of criticism. No “healthy-minded person,” he conceded, could deny that “[m]ilitarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible.” It seemed to James that pride in communities, movements, and, above all, nations, increased pride
in oneself. Those who believed in the essential connection between dignity and combat understood this: “No collectivity is like an army for nourishing such pride.” Those who opposed war in favor of Progressive utopias had no such vision of dignity: “[I]t has to be confessed that the only sentiment which the image of pacif...
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