Friday, February 16, 2018


In what turned out to be his last public lecture (at NYU, October 19, 2009), the late Tony Judt said: Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past. The first task of radical dissenters today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them. ... the rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.

The twentieth century - as Judt well understood - was a century of unparalleled horror. It was, however, also a century (especially the latter half of it) of great progress. Between 1945 and 1965, for example (as David Goldfield has shown in The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good), America certainly became a better and more just society. And, just as it was Europeans who experienced the horrors much more directly than most Americans, it was Europeans who made greater social progress overall. The perversely American preference for privileging private profit over the public good has long limited our society's moral and cultural advancement and accounts for our moral and cultural backwardness compared with much of Europe. Still there were real accomplishments in advancing the common good in the United States in the 20th-century, which makes the regression that began with the disastrous election of 1980 that much more lamentable. 

In that same lecture, Judt quoted Tolstoy that there are "no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him." That certainly increasingly describes the sad state of American society today.

There is hardly a better example of this than our continued passive acquiescence in yet another tragic mass shooting - as if such events were some sort of natural disaster that just happens randomly to afflict us, leaving us with no better response than hypocritical "thoughts and prayers.".

Undoubtedly multiple factors could have contributed to the Ash Wednesday attack on students at a school in Florida. One factor, however, had the effect of making the event so fatal - the killer's access to a gun. It is a distinguishing mark of civilized society that society itself - through the agency of the State - exercises a monopoly on the use of deadly force, bearing the "sword," as Saint Paul put it, to execute wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:14). 

The individual private possession of deadly firearms for private disconnected from the public mission of law-enforcement is incompatible with what it means to be a seriously civilized society. But, once again, we have become accustomed to - and thus accepting of - the privileging of what is private over and against the common good.

Had there not been another mass murder on Ash Wednesday, this week's pre-eminent example of our "heedless rush to dismantle" some of the 20th century's more notable achievements would have been the failure - yet again - of Congress to come up with a solution to our conflicted response to immigration. 

Admittedly, immigration is a less clear-cut, more morally complex question than the problem of private persons' access to guns for private purposes. A "land of immigrants" we may be, but American history highlights the challenges - as well as the many benefits - that can accompany large-scale immigration and rapid ethnic-demographic change. The United States took a breather from massive immigration in the 1920s. and, while the motivations underlying that pause were wicked, for the most part, the pause may have served America well, allowing time for assimilation and putting the lid on a contentious and divisive issue in time for the stresses of Depression and World War. Then, in a time of renewed prosperity, post-war America's more ethnically diverse but culturally more united society successfully reopened Lady Liberty's "Golden Door" to new populations of immigrants, who have since enriched our society well beyond the expectations of the post-war era.

Inevitably, another stress-point seems to have been reached, beneficially increasing American society's ethnic and cultural diversity but with the problematic downside of dangerously explosive cultural disunity. As Judt himself noted in that same final lecture (and others have made the same point since then): it is not by chance that social democracy and welfare states have worked best in small, homogeneous countries, where issues of mistrust and mutual suspicion do not arise so acutely.

The challenge on immigration policy is to negotiate the kind of compromise which will reduce some of that stress without dismantling more open immigration's great late-20th-century achievement. Whether there may be any realistic hope to negotiate such a compromise remains to be seen. That we have grown accustomed to and everyone seems to have accepted the structural dysfunctionality of our legislative process and the polarized politics that have produced it suggests little basis for any such hope - on immigration any more than on the issue of guns.

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