Monday, September 3, 2012

False Enlightenment

The Age of Reason, Cruikshank (1819)
Jonathan Zasloff reminds us that the GOP wants to return to a time much further back in history than the halcyon days of black and white television and Leave It To Beaver.  He has in mind the days of Social Darwinism and, even further, pre-Enlightenment.
....what the Republicans want on economics is the century before last, the 19th, when Social Darwinism flourished.  And what they want on social issues is the 17th, when theocracy was the order of the day.

I'm not so sure.  Is not enlightenment widely seen as the ultimate manifestation of the concept of free will and the self-made man, through reason arriving as the sole controller of his own fate?  Within an environment of limited government that confines itself to the rule of law and leaves markets alone, the classical liberal interpretation sees the enlightened man as achieving his greatest potential. 

I've heard more than one conservative praise the notion of Social Darwinism.  I highly doubt these folks had spent much time considering the term.  But the instinct to embrace a concept is telling.  Some may quietly embrace a cryptic racialism, or a sense that successful people have better genes.  But embrace of meritocracy is also widely valued.  And it trades in similar assumptions.  The more generous conservative avoids biological explanations.  He instead embraces an immaterial, unexplainable - almost magical - notion of "initiative", that arises not from prior structural development (either genetic or social), but rather believing such a thing to be entirely the product of the universal capacity for enlightened man to create his own destiny, available to him at any second were he only to "choose" it.

The fact is that there is zero evidence for any such capacity in man; all evidence points to initiative being the sole product of structural development, and thus forces apart from one's control.  However, due to this fact being both uncomfortable and seemingly counter-intuitive, we tend to cling to the notion of ourselves as free agents.  Nowhere more so than in the current republican slogan, "We Built It".  While purposely taken out of context, as a response to a Democratic president's emphasis on structural development as opposed to personal initiative, the slogan powerfully illustrates underlying intuitions about popular conception of agency, and the ramifications for social and economic justice. 

While most Democrats likely also embrace the myth of personal initiative, they intuitively understand how important a role larger determinative factors are in its development.  In many ways, the Republican and Democratic parties represent the interests of the haves vs. the interests of the have-nots, respectively.  Whether by race, gender, ethnicity, family education, wealth, or sexual identity, one party emphasizes the import of structural egalitarianism.  The other denies that structure (genes or socialization) have much to do with one's agency; failure and success are the result of a personal initiative located apart from any constraints.  To the extent that the Republican party views initiative as constrained by social institutions, the constraint is merely due to there being a sub-optimal choice on offer that crowds out that which is correct.  At no point, however, is the correct choice not on offer.  In the end, the individual could *always* have avoided the sub-optimal choice.  Again, this assumption rests on the notion of an immaterial, unexplainable source of agency for which there is zero evidence, as opposed to the endless supply of evidence for agency as solely determined by structural sources.


  1. Hello my favorite progressive writer. I miss seeing more of your columns per week.
    Notwithstanding your writings about personal agency, structural problems--with or without culture being important--and Vs those "got it all already", could you veer in the medical direction of attention deficit & behavior problems? Somewhere I read that over 70% of prison populations have AD issues. Maybe not true, but I'm looking for additional explanations to the problems of your students or, say, the numerous shootings and killings in Chicago every week. So many poor people "kill" themselves to get to USA for education and opportunity and seem to feel they have agency enough. Thank you.

  2. Thank you. School's back in session and I'm up to my eyeballs. But I should be writing more soon.

    Attention deficit is really interesting. It's probably the number one diagnosis teachers see in children who are unsuccessful. They are disruptive in class, have trouble following directions, staying focused, completing and turning in assignments. I wouldn't be surprised at all if a majority of prison inmates had AD issues. However, symptoms of AD can also be produced by stressful home lives, cognitive struggles, social resentment, lack of strong role-models/parent connections, etc. I'm curious as to how the literature teases out genetic/temperament effects from environmental effects. Many children are medicated for AD, but how can a doctor or psychiatrist sitting in an office really see what's going on at home?

    I'll always remember a kindergarten student I had who was completely out of control in class. He had an amazing ability to tune out directions. I knew he had family issues, and is siblings seemed to have behavior problems as well. His mom was quite poor and might have had a history of drug abuse. But she was very nice and concerned, telling me she struggled to keep him under control. Yet when we took a field trip, and she volunteered to chaperone, I understood immediately why her son was so immune to authority: she constantly scolded him. Every little thing he did that was not strictly in line, had her shouting his name and barking orders. His response? He ignored her! Not only were many of her demands unreasonable, but they we so constant and overbearing as to lose their authority in general.

    So, what they really needed was for mom to get some lessons in parenting. She was doing the best she knew how, but it was contributing to her son's behavior, and ultimately hindering his success. She was struggling to raise her kids, had little education, and lived in an area of town with parents of similar human capital. Their children were going to play with one another, and go to the same schools, all of them placing a greater pressure on the schools to try and educate them.

    I think we can see the same picture in city after city in America, were low-capital parents are segregated by income and where total human capital is lowered to the point where social fabric reaches the breaking point and alternate normative social systems reign, and gangs, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, etc. are natural by-products of failed childhoods, where children haven't received needed developmental skills.