Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Changing Nature of Equality

Adam Garfinkle at the American Interest has posted some thoughts on the what the election means. Like what Rush Limbough and others (including myself) have said, this election was essentially a plebiscite on "bread and circuses" with the mob having won. However, Garfinkle also brings up some underlying issues about the changing perception of equality. He writes:
Closely related, and also not especially obvious judging from what’s on offer to read these days, is that American society doesn’t know what it’s for anymore. In the absence of a worthy national challenge or ambition, we have defaulted to a pale imitation of a “moral equivalent of war”, to recall William James’s famous locution. (I’ll tell you what that pale imitation is in just a moment.)

At one point early in our national history we were really possessed with the idea that the American experiment was something very special: an unencumbered embodiment of Enlightenment rationality, something new under the sun in a vast and rich New World. We also had a continent to conquer and an overarching attitude to justify it: developmentalism. We had to subdue nature, build up the land, become prosperous. We also had something to show to the world in our manifest destiny, and as American power waxed we moved from being merely an exemplar of political best practice to being a far more active agent of global change. We then spent six straight decades dealing with Depression and existential threats from totalitarian enemies, even as we lugged our exceptionalist baggage with us, embellishing its history along the way.

And now? For most people in this country the innocent joys of Enlightenment optimism have long since evaporated in meaningless abstractions and unanticipated latter-day complications. The continent is long-since conquered, prosperity is ours beyond the wildest dreams of our forefathers, and most of us seem to get increasingly less kick out of each new gadget and electronic tchotchke that comes along. There are no monsters abroad breathing down our necks, try as some might to find one or two. We’ve soured on the idea of building other people’s nations for them and on teaching them how to be good democrats. We don’t even care much for space exploration. The result is that we don’t know what to do with ourselves anymore. So, many people do what comes naturally: They take what seems to be an unalloyed good idea, one seemingly ratified by the virtuous narrative of American history, and proceed to mangle, misunderstand and misapply it. That good idea, of course, is equality.

American history can be read as the continuous extension of the equality principle. American society originally enfranchised only propertied males of a certain religious conviction, but, as everyone knows, over time citizenship, voting rights and an increasingly explicit array of civil right were extended to those of heterodox religion, to people of color, to women and now, evidently, to those of every possible variation of sexual taste.

So what’s the problem here? The term “equality” in American political discourse always meant, until quite recently, equality of opportunity in the broad sense of life chances, not equality of outcomes or status in a narrow, materialist sense. It also meant equality before God and before the law, so that no human being could be justifiably instrumentalized or robbed of basic dignity. But now the simple distinction between equality of opportunity, understood as a broad description of human potential, and equality of outcome, seen in narrow material status terms, has been muddied.

It has been muddied with no little help from an activist, post-modernist academe whose legions of earnest assistant professors can prove to you that a person’s circumstances have nothing to do with his own behavior or judgment based on anything like right and wrong, but that everyone is essentially a victim of their genetic endowment and social circumstances. (That this pseudoscientific form of predestination tracks exactly with a certain theological tradition that is rarely if ever mentioned, but never mind.) For way too many people, the “natural aristocracy of talent and virtue”, as Jefferson called it as he wrote to John Adams, has given way to a kind of embarrassment that anyone might actually be better at anything than anybody else.

One can see this at play in one of the Obama campaign’s secondary slogans visible at Chicago headquarters Tuesday night, where the term “equality” sat alongside “hope” and “justice”, entirely without context. One can see it in the blithe, closely related insistence that discrimination against homosexuals (in the military, with respect to marriage and particularly with regard to child-rearing) is exactly the same, historically, morally and otherwise, as racial or religious discrimination. It isn’t exactly the same (which most emphatically doesn’t mean that most forms of discrimination against homosexuals are justifiable). Yet all nuance, all distinctions, get washed away in the headlong and apparently accelerating embrace of a completely undifferentiated egalitarianism. Such was evident in the results of so-called gay marriage plebiscites in Maine and Maryland, which might not have passed (like 32 such efforts before) had not President Obama endorsed the notion under the duress of his Vice President’s flapping yap back on May 7.

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