Writing About Policy, Cont’d.

Hesitant though I am to reply to Max Novendstern’s reply to my reply to Mark Greif (got that?), I think there are two points worth making.

The first is the point I made back in January, which is that theorizing about the demands of justice in the abstract, without reference to empirical realities, is really neither here nor there to the leftist political project. In the trenches of real politics, everyone on the left–Rawlsians, luck egalitarians, and utilitarians–wants roughly the same things. If you had a Senate composed of Jerry Cohen, John Rawls, and Peter Singer, and put health care reform, food stamp funding increases, unemployment benefits extension–that is, the sort of thing that lies on the border between mere proposal and reality–before them, they’d all vote yes. If you made any one of them an omnipotent dictator and they reshaped the world completely to their ideals, all three would see it as a vast improvement. The left would have to make monumental, unimaginable progress before different philosophical factions start to differ on practical next steps. These intra-left spats are fun to have, sure, but they’re basically irrelevant to politics as such.

This is why I was unpersuaded by claims that Mark Greif was just making a theoretical argument about the moral costs of income inequality. I don’t have a problem with income inequality in and of itself the way Greif does, but both of us, and all of the left, would like to see the US’ income distribution narrow. So I’m inclined to skip our philosophical differences and start talking about next steps. And there, Greif’s got nothing. Robert Frank has useful things to say about how we should go about tackling income inequality. Greif really doesn’t. Max quotes Tony Judt’s lament that questions like, “Is it fair? Is it just? Is it Right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world?” no longer occupy the left’s time. That’s because the left agrees on those questions, and where it doesn’t, we’re not yet at a point where we need to care. In the meantime, thinking about Social Security’s finances has a lot more to do with making a better society or a better world than whatever Greif’s doing.

My second point has to do with this section of Max’s post:

Being an intellectual means asking these sorts of questions. It means helping us ordinary people figure out what, in a morally heterodox world, is worth fighting for. This service is rendered in different ways, of course, but we always sorta know it when we see it. Lionel Trilling, Richard Rorty, Arthur Schlesinger, Maya Angelou, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fredric Jameson, Yochai Benkler – all of these folks are part of our varied leftist discursive tradition; they all write and speak about “policy” in the broadest sense, in the sense of “what society ought to be doing”; and they all sound very much different from Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein.

Let me be blunt: there is no such thing as an “ordinary person” who knows who Fredric Jameson is. Or Yochai Benkler. Or Trilling or Rorty. None of these people are talking to the average American. All of these writers’ primary audiences, with the possible exception of Angelou, are college-educated liberal whites. They’re not taking common people by the hand and patronizingly instructing them on what principles to hold. They’re talking to people who have read the same things they’ve read, and hold the same core values they hold before the conversation has even started.

The question, then, is how to use this dialogue. Roosevelt and Schlesinger, of course, became full-on political activists; The Vital Center and Americans for Democratic Action are very much connected to the kind of legislative debates Greif thinks intellectuals should shun. So too was the most effective act of public intellectualism in recent times, Dwight MacDonald’s New Yorker piece on poverty, which engaged deeply with the empirical literature on poverty and helped spur the War on Poverty. Obviously no blogger has had MacDonald’s impact yet, but this is the kind of writing to which I think young liberal writers should aspire, and the kind I try to do: writing that takes our readers’ values and connects them with concrete means of improving society.

People like Jameson and Greif, by contrast, have decided to hole away in the academy (or a small literary journal) and write in Theory-talk accessible only to a particular caste of liberal arts students. If that gives them happiness, then so much the better. They should keep fucking that chicken. But to think it’s helping the left at all is laughable. If Max thinks saying that is “censorious”, whatever. It at least has the virtue of being true.

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