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American Character - Ch. 1: Maintaining Freedom 
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 American Character - Ch. 1: Maintaining Freedom
American Character - Ch. 1: Maintaining Freedom

Please use this thread for discussing the above chapter.



Wed Aug 21, 2019 10:41 pm
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 Re: American Character - Ch. 1: Maintaining Freedom
Hey, I know it's early, but I might not be able to check in to the discussion in the next week or two. My reaction to the introductory chapter is mixed. Basically, Woodard has a good platform for an extended look at an important topic: the future of our liberal democracy. I found his discussion a little confused, though, in a couple of ways.

Woodard says we're hard-wired to have this conflict between individualism and communitarianism. However, he says that in homo sapiens' earliest days, we were all about the group. Then, under the Church for a thousand years, our individualistic instinct was buried under a rigid social order. Assertion of individual rights began slowly, first with the Magna Carta in 13th C. England. That the United States has always evidenced a strong conflict between individual freedom and strong community doesn't therefore seem to be a matter of hardwiring. It has more to do with our circumstances, such as availability of land, and notions of Manifest Destiny.

Is there really an opposition of the freedom of the individual and the freedom of the community, as Woodard says? This seems forced to me. When we talk about valuing community, we're implicitly talking about reducing the value placed on everyone doing whatever they might want to do. Only then can community exist. We're saying that there's a better way to look at living than as a binge of individual freedom. Rampant freedom can endanger community.

The best point Woodard makes is that to have community, including the larger community of a democracy, individuals must have certain virtues, such as literacy and a concern for common good. Without those qualities, a nominal democracy isn't necessarily a better form of government. Another good point, very relevant for today, is that lack of a central government, far from promoting general freedom, can instead enable the powerful few, who will shut out or even oppress the many. Writing a few years ago, Woodard thought that libertarianism was the great threat. He refers to the Randian speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. How quickly things change. Ryan is gone, and now there is something called national conservatism, which appears to be activist government set up to ensure things like white majority (which national conservatives would deny) and zero-sum attitudes with regard to trade and defense (which they'd probably acknowledge). This is Steve Bannon's baby.

No doubt others will want to bring out points I've missed, or to disagree (please!).



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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 1: Maintaining Freedom
DWill wrote:
Is there really an opposition of the freedom of the individual and the freedom of the community, as Woodard says?

The two aren’t diametrically opposed, but perhaps are antagonistic forces. Traditionally the community was the basic building block of society. In modern times we put a lot of stock in individual glory. I wonder if anti-intellectualism itself is something of an offshoot of individualism. We pay so much attention to celebrities and in obtaining wealth (“bling”) and prestige, while reading books and learning are almost hidden away as something embarrassing.

As Woodard discusses, individualism would have been a strange concept to our ancestors. Today we seem to be out of touch with how much we need each other, especially since almost all food production is now done by mega corporations. Many if not most people have never seen a chicken or cow butchered. Everything we eat is pre-packaged and found in grocery store aisles. Our alienation from nature—lamented by the Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley in the early 1800s—has reached new extremes in the modern era.

But maybe it’s kind of a chicken-egg scenario. Perhaps both individualism and the fragmentation of community are symptoms of a larger problem.

I was especially interested in Woodard’s discussion of triangular oppositional forces.
Woodard wrote:
The struggle for freedom is not bilateral, but instead triangular. The participants are the state, the people, and the would-be aristocracy or oligarchy. Liberal democracy, an incredible historical and cultural accomplishment that allows for mass individual freedom, relies on keeping these three forces in balance.

Maybe the “would-be aristocracy or oligarchy” that Woodard refers to here is represented today by corporations and other special interest groups, who pay big bucks to members of Congress, at the expense of the American people. The NRA seems a very good example of this kind of influence. I look forward to seeing where Woodard goes with this discussion. I like that he touches on the political philosophies of Locke and Hobbes.


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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 1: Maintaining Freedom
geo wrote:
DWill wrote:
Is there really an opposition of the freedom of the individual and the freedom of the community, as Woodard says?

The two aren’t diametrically opposed, but perhaps are antagonistic forces. Traditionally the community was the basic building block of society. In modern times we put a lot of stock in individual glory. I wonder if anti-intellectualism itself is something of an offshoot of individualism. We pay so much attention to celebrities and in obtaining wealth (“bling”) and prestige, while reading books and learning are almost hidden away as something embarrassing.

Hey geo. My objection to the two freedoms in opposition was only that I couldn't see the freedom of the community as what is often argued over. It's more like the integrity or cohesiveness of the community that has to suffer when individualism is no. 1 in respect. Maybe my concern is mostly semantic.
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As Woodard discusses, individualism would have been a strange concept to our ancestors. Today we seem to be out of touch with how much we need each other, especially since almost all food production is now done by mega corporations. Many if not most people have never seen a chicken or cow butchered. Everything we eat is pre-packaged and found in grocery store aisles. Our alienation from nature—lamented by the Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley in the early 1800s—has reached new extremes in the modern era.

That's really true, and if we had personal contact with those who produced our food, we'd have to care less about how they stood politically! We also live behind closed doors for the most part, often retreating into our bastardized "communities" that we find on various media.

geo wrote:
Woodard wrote:
The struggle for freedom is not bilateral, but instead triangular. The participants are the state, the people, and the would-be aristocracy or oligarchy. Liberal democracy, an incredible historical and cultural accomplishment that allows for mass individual freedom, relies on keeping these three forces in balance.
Quote:
Maybe the “would-be aristocracy or oligarchy” that Woodard refers to here is represented today by corporations and other special interest groups, who pay big bucks to members of Congress, at the expense of the American people. The NRA seems a very good example of this kind of influence. I look forward to seeing where Woodard goes with this discussion. I like that he touches on the political philosophies of Locke and Hobbes.

I often feel hesitant to slam corporations, I suppose because it feels a little knee-jerk leftist to me. Maybe Sanders and Warren are correct, but I also respect those who doubt that government can do much better. A real oligarchy might be a situation with much less accountability to law and the public than is usually the case with corporations (see Russia). But I quickly get out of my depth here. The NRA might be a special case of a super-powerful non-profit corporation. It does its work to influence law-making (usually to prevent laws), so as much as I dislike the organization it seems to operate not much like an oligarchy.



Mon Sep 02, 2019 7:47 am
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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 1: Maintaining Freedom
DWill wrote:
Hey geo. My objection to the two freedoms in opposition was only that I couldn't see the freedom of the community as what is often argued over. It's more like the integrity or cohesiveness of the community that has to suffer when individualism is no. 1 in respect. Maybe my concern is mostly semantic.

Hey, DWill. I completely missed the semantic nature of your question. I assumed Woodard meant individual freedom versus cohesiveness of community. But I see the quote in question. (Emphasis is mine).
Woodard wrote:
American Character will argue that sustaining liberal democracy requires balancing those two essential aspects of human freedom: individual liberty and the freedom of the community. Sacrifice one, and you are on the road to oligarchy or anarchy; lose the other, and the shadow of collectivist dictatorship looms. You simply can’t have one without the other. The reasons for this go deeper than logic and philosophy. They’re literally encoded in Homo sapiens’s DNA.

I would agree that Woodard's use of "freedom" is confusing. Is it loss of freedom of the community that leads to oligarchy or anarchy? In the ensuing discussion, it seems to me that Woodard frames the discussion more in terms of individualism versus collectivism, meaning giving one priority over the other. He says: "Human nature is not fundamentally individualistic or fundamentally collectivist. It’s both."
DWill wrote:
I often feel hesitant to slam corporations, I suppose because it feels a little knee-jerk leftist to me. Maybe Sanders and Warren are correct, but I also respect those who doubt that government can do much better. A real oligarchy might be a situation with much less accountability to law and the public than is usually the case with corporations (see Russia). But I quickly get out of my depth here. The NRA might be a special case of a super-powerful non-profit corporation. It does its work to influence law-making (usually to prevent laws), so as much as I dislike the organization it seems to operate not much like an oligarchy.

Well, I guess the Koch brothers are a much better example of the oligarchal/corporate influence in modern politics. Our would-be oligarchs tend to get too much money and power by virtue of their success in the corporate world, and I seem to be blurring the lines there. Woodard discusses the Kochs in ch. 2, along with Ayn Rand. Interesting stuff. That background information is quite informative.

By the way, I must be very sensitive to claims of political bias these days. But I can easily imagine that conservatives would argue that Woodard has a fairly strong liberal bias. He certainly makes no bones about Donald Trump's glaring faults in the introduction. Personally, I feel like I'm more or less on Woodard's wavelength and, yet, I like to be challenged too. What's your take on that? How fair-minded is Woodard? To his credit, he makes it clear that collectivism is as dangerous as individualism.


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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 1: Maintaining Freedom
geo wrote:
By the way, I must be very sensitive to claims of political bias these days. But I can easily imagine that conservatives would argue that Woodard has a fairly strong liberal bias. He certainly makes no bones about Donald Trump's glaring faults in the introduction. Personally, I feel like I'm more or less on Woodard's wavelength and, yet, I like to be challenged too. What's your take on that? How fair-minded is Woodard? To his credit, he makes it clear that collectivism is as dangerous as individualism.

I'm not seeing anything about Trump in the intro. He's not listed in the index, and I was assuming that with the pub date of 2016, Woodard did most of his work pre-Trump. I can't see bias in his writing so far. If he slams radical libertarianism, he also comes down as hard on its opposite, collectivism. He's about maintaining balance.



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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 1: Maintaining Freedom
DWill wrote:
I'm not seeing anything about Trump in the intro.



Geo may have, as I do, the Penguin paperback edition. In the Preface to this edition, he states that he is writing this just weeks after the 2016 presidential election.

After listing an extensive list of "Trumpisms" that we have become all too familiar with, Woodard ends the Preface with, "Trump also effectively followed the playbook of European right-wing nationalists, advocating government on behalf of "good" citizens and state-sponsored retribution against internal enemies, for whom constitutional protections might not apply. Without such protections for individual liberties, however, the pursuit of the common good can turn very ugly.

The Republic is in turmoil. As I write this, tens of millions of Americans fear that their democracy is under threat, that racism and bigotry are on the ascent, and that regional differences are hardening in a way that makes consensus building difficult to imagine. People of good faith from across the political spectrum wonder where we go from here."

The full Preface reads like it could have been written yesterday.



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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 1: Maintaining Freedom
American Character
I just got a copy of this book today and read the first fourteen pages and front matter. It looks to be an excellent and fairly well balanced study of the key problem of politics, which I would characterize as the balance between freedom and equality.

One problem though, arising from DWill and Geo's comments on page 9, I agree it doesn't make sense to for Woodard talk about “freedom of the community”. That means the power of the community to do what it wants, which in practice is about the boundaries of the power of the state to compel individual action, something that is not usually addressed under the heading of freedom.

It seems to me much more focused to analyse the problem in terms of the equality of the community. The first example that Woodard gives, the initial agreement of the Mayflower pilgrims to have equal shares, and how then allowing individual ownership of food generated more productivity, illustrates that the tension here is between individual property rights and enforced equality.

As I have argued at booktalk.org several times before, I find the moral framework presented in the Gospel of Matthew in Chapter 25 is the most cogent statement of this tension, between competition as the ethic of freedom and cooperation as the ethic of equality. The parable of the talents is a hymn to competition, to individual rights to prosper and the centrality of entrepreneurial risk to productivity. Then the Last Judgement, with its argument that works of mercy are the entire basis of salvation, celebrates the dignity of equal rights and social cooperation with its assertion that we should treat the least of the world as though they are Jesus Christ. The point here is that freedom creates wealth, while equality manages it, and a balance between the two is essential.

Woodard cites a great practical example on this balance between freedom and equality, how Hungary’s failure to ensure equality in feudal times, due to the excessive freedom of the oligarchs, let to state security weakness that enabled Ottoman invasion.


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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 1: Maintaining Freedom
LevV wrote:
DWill wrote:
I'm not seeing anything about Trump in the intro.



Geo may have, as I do, the Penguin paperback edition. In the Preface to this edition, he states that he is writing this just weeks after the 2016 presidential election.

After listing an extensive list of "Trumpisms" that we have become all too familiar with, Woodard ends the Preface with, "Trump also effectively followed the playbook of European right-wing nationalists, advocating government on behalf of "good" citizens and state-sponsored retribution against internal enemies, for whom constitutional protections might not apply. Without such protections for individual liberties, however, the pursuit of the common good can turn very ugly.

The Republic is in turmoil. As I write this, tens of millions of Americans fear that their democracy is under threat, that racism and bigotry are on the ascent, and that regional differences are hardening in a way that makes consensus building difficult to imagine. People of good faith from across the political spectrum wonder where we go from here."

Ah-- thanks for clearing that up! My edition is hardcover from the library.



Last edited by DWill on Wed Sep 04, 2019 7:11 am, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 1: Maintaining Freedom
LevV wrote:
Geo may have, as I do, the Penguin paperback edition. In the Preface to this edition, he states that he is writing this just weeks after the 2016 presidential election.

I have the Kindle version, which includes the updated preface. Thanks, LevV, for straightening that out. for I could post the preface here in its entirety if that is desired.


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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 1: Maintaining Freedom
The discussion of Locke, Hobbes and Smith in the construction of the modern myth of the individual is valuable and important. These British Empiricists developed an ideology of personal identity that directly served the interests of the British Empire in isolating its victims as individuals and preventing them from organizing collectively. The absence of any shared faith except imperial expansion generated a sense of the meaning of life that worked for an expanding empire but not for a stable society. Stability requires a much stronger respect for dignity and equality than is generally evident in British thought.

As Woodard explains, the anthropological fantasy of these English writers bears no resemblance to actual social evolution. The Hobbes model of solitary existence before the evolution of kings is absurd, and entirely motivated by a political desire to justify monarchy, regardless of historical facts. Simply comparing human society to other primates illustrates the intensely social nature of all human life. Perhaps Hobbes wanted to say that individualism is natural, and can only be restrained into order and stability by a king. In any case it is a completely false example of motivated reasoning, oblivious to the clan structure of all early human societies, and designed to reconcile the emerging economic theme of individual bourgeoise mercantile freedom within a stable imperial framework.

Woodard’s point that modern individualism in philosophy challenged many centuries of collective identity is a good one. It illustrates that collective identity can be stable, while individualism is disruptive, but that like with plate tectonics, a stable social order gradually builds up tensions which can only be eased by an earthquake.

Locke and Smith overthrew the stifling conformity and social stagnation of what Hume called ‘monkish virtues’ in favour of dynamic capitalist freedom. Locke’s false imagination of the first men as free solitary property owners supported this social transformation, but is so entirely removed from actual anthropological findings as to be entirely mythological. Yet Locke’s ideas about property remain absolutely fundamental to modern capitalist law. The myth of individualism as natural helps explain the dysphoria generated by modern capitalist society, its elitist dehumanization of the poor, whose interests depend on a strong state that defends the moral value of equality under the law.


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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 1: Maintaining Freedom
Interesting stuff. I may not be able to join in for a while, for lack of reading time, but I want this to show up on the feed I usually check, so I am "contributing". First time I ever heard of a triangular tension, but it made some sense to me.



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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 1: Maintaining Freedom
Robert Tulip wrote:
As Woodard explains, the anthropological fantasy of these English writers bears no resemblance to actual social evolution. The Hobbes model of solitary existence before the evolution of kings is absurd, and entirely motivated by a political desire to justify monarchy, regardless of historical facts. Simply comparing human society to other primates illustrates the intensely social nature of all human life. Perhaps Hobbes wanted to say that individualism is natural, and can only be restrained into order and stability by a king. In any case it is a completely false example of motivated reasoning, oblivious to the clan structure of all early human societies, and designed to reconcile the emerging economic theme of individual bourgeoise mercantile freedom within a stable imperial framework.

Yes, it could be argued that in more complex social arrangements, life might be more nasty and brutish than in the early, small, tribal societies. But though Hobbes doesn't have a sound historical base for his theory, it nevertheless seems true that by the time we get to large human populations, a stronger, more central authority is inevitable. Perhaps at a certain point of development, when competition
for space and resources is more intense, people then do begin to fear violence from neighboring groups and seek powerful authority to protect them. I tend to appreciate Hobbes' pragmatism in the matter of kingship. He didn't go in for kings occupying thrones by divine right; it was a contractual affair in which the king needed to uphold his end in exchange for the privileges he claimed.
Quote:
Woodard’s point that modern individualism in philosophy challenged many centuries of collective identity is a good one. It illustrates that collective identity can be stable, while individualism is disruptive, but that like with plate tectonics, a stable social order gradually builds up tensions which can only be eased by an earthquake.

What has been called the Great Divergence, when the West finally zoomed past China in the 18th Century, has been attributed to China's lack of enthusiasm for the individual initiative that was potent for the West. Probably simplistic, and possibly now China is demonstrating new powers of collectivism that expose limits to individualism.



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