Thursday, September 23, 2010

Defining Progressivism

I tend not to talk practical politics here and more importantly I tend not to talk about polemical political articles. In this case, though, indulge me because I would like to wrangle over a definition. In Dissent Magazine, Conor Williams defends Progressivism.

Let me say it does not instill confidence when someone starts defining something by what it is not. Also, let us bear in mind two points from our discussion of argumentation a few weeks ago. 1) "a definition is a thesis." [Post. An. I.ii. 72a] 2) one may attempt to fashion a definition for rhetorical purposes, excluding all of the negative aspects of a word from your particular use of it and ascribing them to an opposing idea, instead of attempting to discover the essence of your subject.

Mr. Williams seems already to be off to a shaky start on point #1 with his non-definition.

I'll simply address some of his addressings of concerns in turn.

Much of modern progressivism is founded upon American pragmatism, a homegrown school of political thought.
Hmmm. Interestingly, the definition of pragmatism has interesting implications here. Since it means, in brief, that if an idea is practical, i.e. if it works, then it is moral to that extent. Ironically, built into that definition is a lot of wiggle room. What constitutes "working?" Williams adds, "a homegrown school of political thought." What do its origins matter? Does he mean to suggest that pragmatic ends are subordinate to some other considerations? It feels like he's saying that pragmatism is American and that somehow it can't be at odds with anything else which is American. That's quite cleverly written, I must say, since he does not say as a proposition, what he thinks someone who is not progressive would like to hear, "pragmatism is subject to finite values like liberty, freedom of speech, et cetera." Yet those who disagree are meant to read that into the statement. Very clever!

Mr. Williams in the same paragraph:

Rights are not “natural,” but they are still meaningful and extremely important. The pragmatists recognized that rights mean different things in different historical contexts. The meanings of “freedom of speech,” “citizenship,” the “right to vote,” and “property” have changed over time in the United States because of important shifts in public understanding.
This is a very interesting way to continue the line of thought. Again, he seems to be saying something so obvious as to be incontrovertible: the values come from the people. In fact he is capitalizing on his definition of pragmatism; this is logically honest but less so given his presentation. We asked above, "Does he mean to suggest that pragmatic ends are subordinate to some other considerations?" Now we have our answer: No. Political values are the arbiter of the good, and if they change, they change. Then he says, "Much of modern progressivism is founded upon American pragmatism, a homegrown school of political thought." He leaves himself more wiggle room with "much." Clearly some of progressivism is founded upon something else. This is a very handy definition of pragmatism: whatever you want plus the authority to do it "if it works."

We ought to note the obvious distinction between "Rights are not 'natural,'" vs. "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Yet by Mr. Williams' definition, clearly the former has precedent.

Mr. Williams goes on to say:

Thus, for most progressives, rights represent a wager we have made as a political community, a wager with our fellow citizens as to the sort of life we aim to live.
Notice the lack of distinction between society and politics. I postulated a few weeks ago that somehow some people seem to relate to one another without relationship to public law. As a result, manners, which are impossible to legislate, fell by the wayside because they weren't proscribed. Mr. Williams prompts me to a similar diagnosis. According to this proposition, there is no appeal to anything other than popular considerations.

Williams continues, consistently not appealing to natural rights:
In the United States, the right to vote has expanded over time to include American citizens of all races and of both sexes, because Americans came to believe that this was a better way to live as a political community.
 Progressives only argue that calling rights “natural” artificially fixes their meaning, often in troubling ways. After all, the “natural” right to property once meant a right to own other humans, and the “natural” right to vote originally was limited to white male citizens with a sufficient amount of property. Sanctifying rights as “natural” makes them convenient tools for justifying outrageous injustices.
This is the crux of the matter, the heart of "progressivism." His point is that pinning something down, defining it finitely, means you cannot change it, and you need to change things, according to pragmatism, when people think things need to be changed. This lack of acknowledgment of a finite end is what has caused and will continue to cause non-progressives to label progressives as nihilists. As defined, progressivism is nothing more than a broad appeal to "the good" without appeal to anything more definite.

Williams continues:

Progressive philosopher John Dewey asked Americans to consider the meaning of individual freedom through the following thought experiment: imagine an individual without property, education, or employment. Is this individual free to amass property? Would it matter if she was?
This hypothetical is significant because in Williams' argument it appears to flow from his discussion of pragmatism, but in fact it stems from a different definition of "freedom." We are meant to understand that the political status quo is a failure because the constitution wants to guarantee liberty and this woman cannot "amass property." The actual point is that our the founding principles of the United States rest on a different definition of freedom: the pursuit of happiness unencumbered by the government, not happiness as guaranteed by the government. This is a very clever slight by the author.

Williams continues:
PROGRESSIVES’ WILLINGNESS to challenge the hegemony of “neoliberal” interpretations of property rights law often prompts the most vituperative reactions from conservatives. They charge that reconsidering the meaning of various sections of the American Constitution represents a grave threat to its original intent. Against this accusation, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. maintained that the law was meaningful as a source for ongoing interpretation, not as a set of fixed principles. While the Constitution does not permit infinite interpretation, he argued that “in a civilized state it is not the will of the sovereign that makes lawyers’ law, even when that is its source, but what a body of subjects, namely the judges, by whom it is enforced, say is his will.” If progressives revisit the meaning of American ideals, principles, or rights in response to structural changes, they are only continuing in a long-running project of American self-critique and matching legal and political revision.
This is just another example of pragmatism: the people want to change the law and they change the law. Look at that last sentence: he's appealing to the tradition of "revisiting" American ideals for the right to revisit them. Again, this is consistent with his position, but notice the frightful trend in this article: there is no delimiting principle.

Williams puts forth a common objection to progressivism but does not seem to understand the nature of the objection:

. . . conservatives frequently claim that acceptance (and qualified endorsement) of changes in political meanings reflects the utopian optimism at the heart of the progressive intellectual tradition. If past meanings of individual liberty are constantly superseded by new and improved versions, doesn’t this imply eventual arrival at political perfection?
The second sentence is simply baffling. It would prompt one to say, "Of course not, not if they are being constantly superseded." Aside from also implying that all change is good change, i.e. progress, it implies an expects an undefined and unknown final end, which will come about by constant change. So apparently we won't know it when we see it, but when we see it we'll love it. In case we doubted the contradiction, Mr. Williams continues:
To be a progressive is to admit that dogmatic certainty has no place in a complex world with many moving parts, and that the best we can offer each other is a commitment to engage, experiment, and reevaluate our choices.
Wouldn't claiming to have found "political perfection" be very. . . dogmatic? So apparently we won't know perfection when we see it and we won't love it.

That would not seem to be the best argument for progressivism.

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