It Wasn’t Supposed to Happen (Michael Walzer)

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Michael Walzer is a thinker who often thinks about politics. He has largely stayed away from the light beam of publicity, but is well-embedded into the lineages of Locke, Mill, Russell, and maybe, somehow, Aristotle. A lot of his work has dealt with the morality of initiating and resolving conflicts. He has taught in many prestigious places, and appears throughout the Western scholarly and journalistic realm. The caricature is by Honoré Daumier.

I feel I am too young for politics, and can tell that when I’ll be old enough, I’ll be too old.

(laughs) Then I suppose that I am too old.

You feel this?

You want me to concede that politics is a matter of involvement. That we are not, in some way, automatically involved.

Are we all equally involved?

Perhaps not equally. I’ll agree that politics is so often about distance. I was quite active for about ten years in my late 20s, early 30s. After that I became mostly just a writer, and an editor of a political magazine, and my political activity has mostly been literary, so to speak. And I’m not going to offer that at this period I am more involved than in my youth. That could be quite pretentious. My period of activity was in the civil rights movement of the early 60s and the anti-war movement in the late 60s. I was quite engaged then, as a graduate student spending more time in politics than in the library.

It’s a good phrase: ‘in politics, not in the library.’

It is distance – the degree of immediacy. Politics in the 60s was something like what it is today. That is, everybody spoke about it. It was a politics of communication. Except I found it a much more buoyant and optimistic period. Now the conversation is rather venomous. I was an anti-communist leftist back then, my mentors were the founders and editors of Dissent magazine, where I had done most of my writing. I’ve always been committed to the two-fold dissent that those editors had first announced: dissent against American capitalism and the inequalities of American society on one hand, and an opposition to authoritarian leftism on the other. At that time, that was most of the left. Authoritarian.

I’ve of course never experienced it, but the New Left has always struck me as a very vitalizing, romantic movement. When you could dispute your professor by bringing up intellectuals he knew less about than you – E. P. Thompson or Marcuse. When Christopher Hitchens inhaled cigarettes and Mario Savio gave that speech in Berkeley. That speech alone, what a moment. You mention “buoyancy” – why do we lack it today?

These are complex matters, and I’m not above acknowledging my own bias in favoring past expressions of leftism. You know, the Discourses on Livy… the second book starts with “Men always condemn the present…” Well, it may be that we had more of a center. We had the shared experience of World War Two, which in effect created my political consciousness… It was the feeling of the war, the grimness. I had the feeling that it was an evil, that there was evil there. And this feeling was carried through the anti-war movement, which didn’t see much success. The modern generation has no clear equivalent; the financial crisis was a difficult time for many, yes. There were also other binds that informed our lives in the 60s – intellectual, artistic backgrounds. 1984 was not yet a cliché, shall we say, of the high-school curriculum. Now the counterculture is more disparate, its focus isn’t so sharp, and there’s a much more robust realm for opinion. As the sphere for public exchange grows, the room for action often narrows.

Tell me about that sphere. Is that where the political life starts?

I suppose the political life, as we understand it, has not always existed. For long, there have been attempts at domination, and rebellion – that is a feature of the human psyche. But have people always argued, en masse? Politics – I believe – is a verbal activity. A lot of people want to see more action, perhaps, but it’s important to remember that politics starts with a kind of deliberative effort. Who knows why some person actually goes out onto the street in protest? He may be angry that his sink does not function well, you know, all kinds of grievances build up, we go through emotional phases, moments of madness. But his reflection on what he’s doing, the intellectual agenda he is transmitting to himself – that is, as we say, “political”.

People have long wondered about specific kinds of knowledge, particular to certain professions. An axe-maker needs to know how to craft an axe, such things. Is there a kind of knowledge particular to politicians? And, I should add, is it a knowledge one should be proud of having?

(laughs) See, what you are referring to is art in the Greek sense. Techne. But I would offer that politicians are like artists in a more modern way. If you have three children, and the two elders have gone off to get jobs, they got reasonable grades, do sports, all those hallmark things, and the third one just sits and broods and doesn’t really do much at all, well, some parents can call him an “artist”, or an “artistic soul” anyway. And that’s because we commonly use the term “artist” today to vindicate someone’s intellectual and creative independence. Well, you don’t really need to create much in order to call yourself an artist. Politics is like that – a discipline that avoids brackets – politicians decide what it is that politicians should know. In this way they can be called bohemian… I mean, they’re unaccountable, and often lazy.

If your son goes off to study carpentry and he becomes quite good at it, you can reasonably call him a carpenter, even if he hasn’t worked on some grand project. But if your daughter is at the top of the class in her study of politics, she’s not a politician yet, is she? She may never be, she’s likely to never be, unless she’s officially initiated into their club. Carpentry students study what carpenters know. Students of politics interpret how politicians behave – to some effect, what they decide they do. So, asking what knowledge politicians should possess, you’ll get no straight answer. Politicians, as well as students of politics, largely know what past politicians have determined they should know. Again, we return to those distances – as a student of politics, I have often felt infuriated that the political functionaries just don’t seem to reason in the same way as I do. Philosophers, voters, activists – we’re all on the sidelines in a very salient, felt way. Of course, rulers have always argued that they’re the vanguard of history, that they understand its laws in some way that others do not. But I would argue that there is no knowledge that gives one the right to rule over other people.

Now, should politicians be proud of their epistemic independence? Well, I don’t have a single answer. You can tell from my tone that I don’t think it’s ideal. But, of course, this situation we’re in is in large part a creation of history. That history is quite complex.

On that history. A telos, a contemplation of what the purpose and function of the human life is – that has been exempted from politics.

Yes, but that is a feature of liberalism, and maybe of leftism – something many people, I suspect even you, treasure greatly. We think in terms of right and not of group. We entrust individuals with the right to determine how they want to live. We have a pluralist conception of the good. In that way, liberalism is the ultimate expression of humility. And even Socrates, or Plato – the people who first wrote down this end-based thinking you’re referring to – if you interpret their texts one way, they were supremely humble. I don’t buy into this Socratic alternative to liberalism, if that’s what you’re getting at. But please, continue.

Well, let me continue by pushing back. You so easily collapse leftism into liberalism, all under the “pluralistic conception of the good.” But some thinkers that interest me on this topic – C. B. Macpherson, for instance, or even Thomas Green – use leftist ideology, Marx, Hegel, to shift the terms of discussion. Yet they are not radicals, and I don’t think you can so easily dismiss them.

Perhaps my resistance to these criticisms flows from the amount of work I’ve done in the communitarian philosophy. But I do think Macpherson gives a very partial account of what’s really going on. He said we’ve become entangled in this sort of “possessive individualism,” where society is organized by the distribution and apportionment of people’s skills, and the material rewards that those skills garner. And he blamed Locke, Hobbes, James Harrington, and some others for creating this paradigm. I’m willing to grant this, maybe, that politics has lost sight of some other human faculties – friendship, reason, emotional expression. But not all the way. Not all the way. Nozick might have seen people as ends in themselves. Yet there’s a very substantive literature on interpersonal obligation, and social duties… a literature that I’ve contributed to.

Consider it this way. Political deliberation resembles a shell atop society… A rind. I do believe that a certain Malthusian calculus was always inherent to political philosophy. The Greek polis is perhaps a good example of this. Plato, even for all the transcendental qualities of his reason, could perhaps not imagine a world where the population is rising exponentially, where the richest and most well-educated societies are swiftly aging, where government debts are beyond any human arithmetical intelligibility. The current political reality is perpetual crisis. I’ll add this too – that crisis isn’t solely the product of individualism. Political religions, which we see now in revivalist mode, have a very overwhelming and totalizing spirit of obligation. Even Islam, which claims to be remarkably egalitarian, has the hierarchy of the learned and the ignorant. Hinduism has other features, but their effect is comparable. Liberal individualism is a useful form of critique and resistance against this.

So yes, there are worthwhile ideas of positive liberty. You know, positive liberty that frees up and inspires our communal actions, as contrasted to the negative liberty that removes legal constraints. Idealist communitarianism is something I have a lot of passion for. But Macpherson is very much within the fold of Canadian idealism. And Canada has long been a source of envy and perplexity for us Americans. (laughs)

Is the social contract still a useful concept in modern politics?

In some ways it is clearly outmoded, because we can no longer opt to leave the normative hold of our societies in any serious way. Movement is easier than ever, but escape I’m not sure about. And there are many obligations that do not depend upon my agreement. For instance, I cannot murder my neighbor. I may want to, but cannot. Yet I think of the social contract differently, as a longstanding feature of our political mind. For me, that idea goes way way back to the Biblical idea of the covenant. Certainly, in Jewish thought, the idea of a commitment, originally voluntary, is very very powerful. The legitimizing account of legal obligations started with the covenant. I do think it’s still a useful tool to think about politics as something that is rooted in the past. People need to be constantly reminded that the past, in some ways, is more powerful than their political will. You can’t just shake it off.

Going back to your years of dissidence, did you feel you were in a covenant with the left, or with society as a whole? Because I agree – society has escaped the Malthusian trap so thoroughly and grown so large that it’s difficult to typify with the whole of a country’s population. You can’t be doing something for America, only an America.  

I felt solidarity with my fellow activists, but I felt an obligation to my fellow citizens. And these are different things, it is essential for them to be separated. This is how we derive the concept of civil disobedience, how we keep it “civil”. I don’t feel alienated from— I’ve written a lot about social criticism and I’ve always seen social criticism as an ode to the society you’re criticizing. It’s an expression of fellowship.

You introduced a motif of distances. I was wondering, given your distance from many of the people the left claims to represent, how can you claim to speak for them? Do the suffering ask you to represent them?

This is a major political problem today, and it has a lot to do with the left’s marginalization. People have been speaking for each other, over each other. Again, this is why we’re right to stress the importance of communitarianism. When I say I felt solidarity with my fellow anti-war protesters, that’s because we had agreed on an end – stopping the Vietnam war. We could be academics, businessmen, artists, vagrants, anyone. But when I say that I feel solidarity with the suffering, the destitute, well, that’s a bit different, because I cannot internalize their struggle. How can I really know, here in Princeton, what people in Kentucky, or in the south side of Chicago, think and feel? Communitarianism, as we’ve talked, isn’t a panacea, but it constitutes a step in the right direction. If the public discourse promotes the importance of the well-being of our society, we have a common end. As you said – a telos. That’s another limitation of absolute liberalism – it makes it difficult for people to stick up for each other in a genuine way. A lot of the recent violent protests around America have been very troubling for me. They represent a partial breakdown of civility, a degradation of the threads of our community.

In its earliest stages, political philosophy was largely an extension of ethics. Is that still the case?

Political theory has largely been a slave to history. If you want to see this in a clear way within the traditional continental canon, observe the writings of Machiavelli or Montesquieu. That tendency is very clearly forming there. Throughout time, all kinds of societies yielded all kinds of political philosophies – feudal philosophy, democratic philosophy, communist philosophy. We think of the ancient Greeks as very humane, so to speak, political philosophers, but they also evoked, very forcefully, the political culture of Classical Athens. I mean, the trial of Socrates, represented, among other things, some very deep political tensions of that society… The Athenian invasion of Sicily was a great topic of contention among the young and old of Athens… as in that play [The Wasps] by Aristophanes.

I do, however, think that it is important to remember that much of the political philosophy we now value was actually very heterodox for its time and place of composition. So the great masterpieces of political theory sit atop mounds of more conservative writings.

That’s certainly true for some thinkers. Thomas Hobbes is now, in more ways than one, a very standard conservative thinker, but he was heterodox, as you say, for his time. Plato and Aristotle were, of course, creative minds. I’m not sure I would apply this to many liberals, such as John Locke. I suspect that his way of thinking about politics, especially in the Letter Concerning Toleration, was very close to some of his fellow Protestant and Puritan thinkers, ordinary Protestants and Puritans. Maybe at a higher level of sophistication or coherence, but I doubt that he was all that different.

But I should say that I do worry sometimes about the distance modern thinkers assume from the more traditional political questions. Because sometimes, when I read the academic journals today, I think that the subject of political theory is political theory, whereas the subject of political theory ought to be politics. I see this especially clearly in the arguments about just war theory. You must know that there is now a major revisionist critique of orthodox just war theory, of which I am sometimes considered a part. When I read critics, they are very smart, they are mostly philosophers, and they are interested in just war theory, but they’re not very interested in war. Before I wrote Just & Unjust Wars, I spent five years reading military history, and the memoirs of various generals and soldiers, and journalistic accounts of wars. You look at the books and articles of my critics, and almost all the references are to just war theory, to moral philosophy. Virtually no reference is made to accounts of war. So that’s a disconnect that I think is pernicious.

I had a person call me a right-winger recently. It reminded me of that Laozi quote: “We look at it and do not see it; Its name is The Invisible. We listen to it and do not hear it; Its name is The Inaudible. We touch it and do not find it; Its name is The Subtle.” Is there a point to these labels still?

Well, there’s two questions there: how relevant is the left-right dichotomy to our current state, and how useful it is to have one? Well, on the latter, I think it is useful. There’s a book by the Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio, where he outlines the – I don’t want to say it because it’s not allowed – the essential distinction, so to call it. The left believes in equality, he says, and the right believes in hierarchy. And that does, in some very broad way, that does distinguish most leftists from most on the right. You can be a defender of equality and you can be a defender of authoritarianism. So there are many more things to be said, but I think that fundamental division holds, and it is useful. As for the American system, I think your Laozi quote fits. There are deeper cultural allegiances that people with power hold in this country. A left-right continuum won’t do you much good if you wish to understand the Supreme Court.

When we talk about equality— well, what’s interesting is that it is, in some way, against our nature. By this I mean that I haven’t encountered a rudimentary society – you know, aboriginal peoples, so and so – that tends toward equality.

It’s easy to get confused in the many equalities – equality in opportunity, equality in outcome, equality of process and labor… I think whatever accounts we make of political possibilities, and whatever accounts we give of political realities, we are assuming certain basic features, as I was doing when I said there have always been struggles for power, and resistance to domination. Those are probably eternal features of the human character. When I defend humanitarianism, whether that is humanitarian aid or intervention, say to stop a massacre, I am assuming some basic human empathy for people in need or trouble. It is a possible human response, and because it is a possible human response, we can try to evoke that response.

I don’t think there is an innate desire for equality. I do think there is an innate desire not to be unequal. So when people on the left attack rising inequality, we are appealing to something in human nature…

Jealousy?

Well, the desire not to be in a relationship of inferiority with some other group, or person. And I think it’s very important to make that appeal. But you have to connect it to a fellow feeling. I guess what you’d call empathy.

Empathy has been under significant attack recently, you know.

By whom?

You’ve heard of the effective altruists. The people who look for efficient, though not necessarily intuitive, ways to help people.

That’s not so recent. Peter Singer has been writing about that for a long time. There’s that example of a baby in a well. Well, you may spend time getting it out of the well, but there might be a well with three babies just around the curve of the road. So I guess you keep walking and checking. It has always seemed slightly frivolous as an argument to me. I don’t think our problem is that we’re overloaded with empathy.

Empathy is not a sufficient moral compass, certainly. Jack Rawls says somewhere that there’s an ‘obligation to mutual aid’. I’m not sure he talks about the mutual psychological grounding for that obligation, but there must be one – it cannot be a strictly philosophical construct.

Why do you say that people detest authoritarianism?

I really don’t believe in the happy slave, or the existence of false consciousness among large numbers of people who don’t realize that their authoritarian leaders are actually working to harm them. This theory of false consciousness, propounded by many, including Noam Chomsky, has been a great impetus for many left wing intellectual traditions. Of authoritarian leftism, in fact, of vanguard politics. But, as I see it, there’s an obvious flaw in that theory. If we agree that there’s a false political consciousness and a true political consciousness, we’re automatically making a value argument for a rulership of the truly conscious. That premise is not very helpful to principal exponents of this belief, but, as far as I’m concerned, it is sound.

There are many people that accommodate to submission, to subordination. And there is a considerable literature, an anthropological literature, about the forms that accommodation takes, and the patterns of evasion and local, small-scale, everyday resistance, that go along with it. I think if you were to write a history of female subordination in patriarchal societies, you would find not a great joy in being subordinate, but patterns of evasion, and resistance, at the very very local, intimate level. And that’s a history several people have written; James Scott, the anthropologist, is one of them. He’s written a lot about this. He wrote a book where he coined the term infrapolitics to describe the means by which subordinate groups resist authorities in ways that go unnoticed by the dominant power. There’s a “public transcript,” he wrote, which seems to show a history of people accepting their oppressors. And then there’s the “hidden transcript,” which depicts how we are truly, though more subtly, inclined to be free. But I believe that the great book on insubordinate subordination has yet to be written.

I wanted to ask if there is room for Marxism still, in today’s political theory?

There’s room for Augustinianism, there’s room for Confucianism… You can make useful arguments in Marxist terminology. And there are aspects of class analysis, which are, I think, worth working through. There are conceptions of human freedom in those famous manuscripts of the young Marx that can still produce excitement. One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is precisely the value of class politics versus identity politics. If you think about the past fifty years of American history – fifty, maybe more, seventy – you can see that there have been particularist struggles – civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, which have made America a more egalitarian society for blacks, for women, for gay people. And yet, overall, America has become less egalitarian. So you need an analysis. And, in that sense, some rough version of Marxism is still a useful part of the theoretical toolkit.

You mention the theoretical toolkit, but Marxism, as I’ve understood it, depends upon maybe two essential things: action, and a belief in the inevitability of certain kinds of change. Those two things have been eliminated. I don’t think people believe they can easily create change anymore. And everyone, at this point, must be questioning their presumptions about where the world is heading.  

I agree with you. The total inapplicability of Marxist essentialism to our time is informative in itself. We certainly no longer believe we know the course of history. Certainly we don’t believe in the liberating mission of the industrial proletariat. Although many of us still believe that the labor movement is still a necessary part of any left political campaign. But it isn’t the part that is going to lead us to some ultimate victory. There are fewer people now who believe in a communist society, than the Messianic age.

As for action. Again, there’s no authoritative account of what to do. But if you talk to the people who now march in New York, or Washington, they believe they’re doing something worthwhile. And they’re asking the usual question: what comes next? Certainly, this is something we can still talk about.

In nature, things tend toward an eventual, ultimate equilibrium. Do you think that can be extended toward political history?

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people believed, many of my friends believed, that we were in the advent of the liberal age. Fukuyama is certainly a famous example of this. And that did not happen. And doesn’t seem to be a near prospect. The kinds of victories that the left was able to win – the achievement of social democracy after World War II – took place only within the confines of particular states. It was only the state that provided the space for the left’s mobilization and for social democratic achievement. In a globalizing universe, that achievement is under threat. And the threats have produced specially– the fact that— well, to be very simple, and simple-minded perhaps, that capitalism can function within global society and socialists can’t, yet. That the world— that the capitalists do very well in a world of relatively free movement of capital and commodities and maybe, also, labor. And that the left can’t do well in that world, and that the people who are under threat in that world, under the threat of globalization, are turning now to a populist-nationalism.

A lot of states, as they drift toward democracy, tend to get caught up in illiberal policies. Part of that has to do with leadership – Nigerian leaders have historically been quite bad. India and South Africa have done quite well in that respect. It is also institutional – the institutions of underdeveloped countries don’t have the time-worn cultural capital and the efficient depth of Western institutions. People call such cases illiberal democracy; I’m not sure how long it will be democratic. Even in pretense. This is the politics of people who are in trouble, for whom the promise of prosperity and welfare has not been fulfilled.

And we’re reminded now, continuously, that our states contain these people. That our democracies can decay from within. To route back to what we were discussing before, is it true that democracy depends largely upon a spirit of communitarianism for its institutional survival?

Exactly right. Tocqueville described this when he visited America. Our democracy is enshrined in our institutions. The Founding Fathers took great precaution with that. But the stuff of democracy is between the government and the person; clubs, friendships, various sorts of clubs and unions, businesses – even something like lobby groups! A political culture inhabits these intermediary associations. I don’t think Macpherson was a kind of sage, but he could be right that—well, maybe Lockean “common sense” political philosophies resist complexity. That tends to be a good thing, to keep things efficient. But simplicity is dangerous; free markets lose culture and become war zones, and party cultures are overtaken by one-time populists. So we must not be idealistic. But it doesn’t take a Canadian communitarian idealist to see that there’s an insufficient group effort in today’s free-market, big-party society.

And illiberalism feeds off of this. As I see it, what we’re arguing for here is a kind of Aristotelean “mixed regime”. Just in a modern way.

Aristotle lived in a time of very complex civic associations – of guilds, for example. That’s one reason for why he could have the understanding of “art” that he did. The Hippocratic Oath is taken out of service to the notion of a doctor’s art. Today that concept seems much like an atavism. Doctors don’t betray their patients for much more clearly practical reasons. One thing to note here is that violence has been decreasing tremendously in the democratic world. At all levels. There’s research showing that this “liberal democratic peace” is a consequence of these communitarian bonds that are fostered in social democracies. The world of illiberal democracy may be more violent. A non-democratic world would almost surely be. The threatening idea is that international society may be a space within which socialism cannot work. And then we’re going to live with the consequence of that.

After the US presidential election, I was fascinated by some lines recurring in the media. I had previously seen something similar in the European conversation about jihadism. It’s a recurrent surprise: “we didn’t expect so many college-educated people to vote for him, we didn’t expect so many Hispanics to vote for him, we didn’t expect so many women to vote for him,” and so on… Just as they would say about Danish or British jihadists… An often-purchased book among Islamic State recruits was Islam for Dummies. The 9/11 hijackers went to a strip club. There’s a wide-eyed reaction of surprise triggered by these forces.

Do you think there is a way to interpret jihadism and American right-wing populism in the same terms?

My personal, perhaps moronic, interpretation is that a lot of these voters, and a lot of these jihadists, feel completely fed up with and abandoned by the dominant political philosophy of their societies. Again, the distance between them and any political commitment is so great, that they want to feel emotionally involved— It’s like the Byron effect, when he went off to fight for Greek independence. You know, for romance.

I find it hard to accept this. It just doesn’t sound right to me. I’m not sure philosophy or Byronic romance looms very large in the thinking or feeling of people in the Rust Belt. The global religious revival was certainly unexpected, and is certainly not understood. The secular left has had a lot of difficulty in understanding Hindutva, or Buddhist militancy, or Messianic Zionism, or jihadi Islam.

There are some convincing arguments made to frame Islam as a unique religion in its political force, and conservative staunchness.

That may be. It’s true, perhaps, that Islam is a very romantic, personally-involving ideology. But we lack rigorous psychological accounts on these issues. There are a lot of people who do field work, who actually talk to the people involved in these revivalist movements. Yet that is an important aspect of the contemporary world that we don’t have a handle on. But that’s not the same as the resentments of many American workers, who feel that they have been abandoned precisely by the politicians, who claimed to be defenders of the working class, and defenders of the poor. There is some higher journalism now, there are some very good journalists who have gone to the Rust Belt and actually spoken to the people who are causing and mirroring these grand shifts in the Western political culture. And what they talk about is not strictly irrational.

I’ve been thinking about this notion of a bottleneck in political history. We believed we were converging in our political interests. And now, as liberal democracy is perhaps receding, I’m wondering if educated people will begin to conceptually move past globalist democracy. You’re visibly doing so in our conversation here, by talking about the importance of intermediary bonds, by isolating a form of Idealism to Canada, by questioning the potency of socialism on the world stage… I’m wondering if we’ll have a Burke moment now in history, where we look again to individual states as places of unique, gradual, inimitable progress. I think people should be allowed to ask this without being labeled bigots. Perhaps I don’t want a France for the French, in the sense of the “French” being white, Jules et Jim types, but maybe I do want a French politics, an American politics, a Canadian politics?

The reason this argument is susceptible to the pitfalls of bigotry and racism is because political culture is so profoundly intertwined with the general culture, as we’ve already talked. So while arguing for a “French politics”, you’re arguing for strong cuts to immigration, and thus, in effect, arguing for exactly white, Jules et Jim types. But I will grant you this. I think we can both agree that the modern political theorist has to be a defender of limits. Limits to how much our democracies can be altered by populist whims, and also, perhaps, limits to the cultural change that political change is rooted in.

I have a younger brother whose political consciousness will be formed in a very different world than my own. Do you see any value in asking the broad question: “do we live in the best possible world, or the worst possible world?” at the start of one’s political reasoning?

(long pause) I came of age politically in an age of optimism. Since some point in the 70s, I have lived in a country that has drifted steadily rightward, in which leftist politics has grown more and more defensive, and more and more grim. I have moved in my lifetime from great optimism, to, well, perhaps it’s not yet desperate pessimism. I feel under threat. I feel we live in dangerous times. Which wasn’t supposed to happen.

I recently read Chesterton’s tract What I Saw in America.  There he writes about the wild unpredictability of the American life. He gives the example of how you wouldn’t expect an Oxford tutor for your children to just randomly blow up your home. But an American might, and declare himself an anarchist.

You mentioned Burke earlier. I think he was very right to caution that change made rapidly is change made sloppily. America, in that sense, has been a sloppy country. There are still nation-states. And when you encounter people from them, you see a shared character – in the jokes people tell, the tones in which they speak, even in how they love.

You wrote a book called What It Means to Be an American.

It’s a book about hyphenated identities – a defense of the hyphen. I argued that Americans shouldn’t aspire simply to be a nation. I wrote that Americans should embrace those cultures – Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Chinese-Americans. My thesis was that what holds us together is a certain understanding of politics.

You seemed to question that very idea just a moment ago.

Well the American politics I wrote about is based on sacred texts – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution. Most countries don’t have that. My thesis, as it was expounded in that book, is jeopardized by political turbulence.

I’ve heard the argument that the German Constitution is superior to the American because it’s more easily amendable.

It is more efficient, I would imagine.

No bullshit.

(laughs) You know, it feels like I wrote that book a long time ago. Its ideas came in large part from the Jewish experience in America, which was one of unprecedented hospitality.

Is this a common joke in America? – “the essence of any Jewish holiday can be captured like this: “someone tried to end us — he failed — let’s eat!”

(laughs) America was a place where Jews could be socially, economically engaged, while remaining Jewish. France has aspired to be a much more assimilatory culture than America is.

I had the thought. Russia, Turkey, Poland – these places would survive totalitarianism. I’m not sure America would.

I wouldn’t dare to think about that. (pause) The country would not disappear. The country would not disappear, and it if it ever emerged… I suspect, it would look a lot like it did before… (long pause, laughs)

Can you tell me about the Jewish political experience? The early Jews did not care much for politics.

No early people really cared for politics. They were preoccupied… and generally, a lot of political theorists in history have not seen deliberation as a worthwhile aspect of politics, because it draws you into empty, spiraling disputes. My wife’s parents come from Lithuania. Vilnius was one of the great centers for Jewish thought in the world. My parents came from Belarus, then the Tsarist empire. What is perhaps most interesting for non-Jews in the Jewish political experience is the experience of living for two thousand years, without a territory, without coercive power most of the time, and yet sustaining a common, a kind of national existence without sovereignty, without the usual things. One of the amazing features of Jewish life in the intermediary period after the fall of the Jewish commonwealths and before the dawn of Zionism, one of the amazing features was the ability to maintain taxes, even foreign policies of some sorts. If anyone really believes that there’s going to be a post-Westphalian politics, then the Jewish experience can be a very edifying example of that.

How important to that example is Jewish theology? I’ve heard several political theorists claim to draw from Talmudic philosophy in creating political images.

I don’t think there’s much political wisdom that can be drawn from Jewish theology. The Jews were never really high on theology or philosophy; we were a people of law and the interpretation of law. The kind of bond that the Jews have sustained may be rooted in covenantal thought, but I believe that the key lies in the communal experience of precariousness. Which is something that fortifies people, and perhaps something we could use today – looking to community in event of uncertainty. If you look at Jewish community in the Middle Ages, it was governed by a kind of oligarchy of the rich and the learned, intermarried families of the merchants and the rabbis, and it was so vulnerable to outside pressures of all sorts, that solidarity was a necessary response. So the wealth of the wealthy was a communal resource, because it had to be a communal resource, because the gentiles had to be bribed, and whose money could you bribe them with?

Tell me, why do you think your idea of complex equality has had such traction?

In a sense, it hasn’t had that much traction. Rawls, and Dworkin, and Nozick, have gotten much more play. I think partially because their ideas are much more anthropological, and historical, while mine is truly philosophical. The central idea of Spheres of Justice was that success in one sphere of human activity – making money is the obvious one – should not bring with it success in another sphere. You shouldn’t be able to buy justice in the court room, you shouldn’t be able to buy a place for your child in an elite university. Similarly, if you win political power, that power shouldn’t translate into great wealth, or better medical care, and so on. If each of these spheres of life were autonomous, if all the spheres were autonomous, the overall society would be one of complex equality. That is, there would be localized, merited inequalities. One can obviously see how this theory would be questioned by more practical, for lack of a better term, thinkers. What about the people who are successful in one, or two, or three spheres? But it was a gentle idea, and one that connects well with a fair-minded mentality. You told me it’s beautiful. I appreciate that. I think there is still a place for beauty in politics.

Princeton, New Jersey, January 2017
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