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History as an Academic Discipline 30 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, History, Modernity and Modernism, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism.
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Last fall, a former student of mine, now in graduate school, asked me to give my impressions of the state of History in the academy. As a sociologist who’s first research project was historical (the book is almost done, damn it!), I see history as both an insider and an outsider. As I recently learned the hard way from a couple of brutal peer reviews on one of my articles, historians are often baffled by sociological methods of dealing with the past. Anyway, here are the five observations I made about History’s development over the past 35 years or so:

1. I think that the move to “social history” in the late 60s early 70s was a key development, as historians moved to write histories of populations, lifestyles, and cultures using some really creative applications of quantitative method. It was the culmination of a trend that had started in the 1950s (or earlier), but using the methods of sociology to answer historical questions broadened the scope of what we considered “history” in ways that, in my own bias, I find key to our understanding of how societies and cultures move through time.

2. The move to environmental history, seeing the environment as a historical actor, and as constraining the choices of historical actors transformed the possibilities for how we understand the ultimate and proximate reasons for cultural change.

3. I like that for the most part, during the 1980s, history avoided the most irritating parts of the “linguistic turn” (i.e., poststructural criticism/theory), but am irritated that in the history of sexuality, it was overly influenced by postmodernism (especially by Foucault) and has yet to extricate itself from the most problematic parts of postmodernism’s assumptions, which actually use historicism to make unhistorical claims.

4. I think the historical profession is doing the best of all the social sciences at reaching the public. But I find academically that, like many of the social sciences, the tightening of the job market for academic historians and the glut of PhDs has produced a lot of mediocre work, as new professors are under extreme pressure to publish at all costs (like I said, I think this is a problem in all the social sciences, not just history).

5. Despite what I just said in No. 3 above, I’d like to see historians engaging more in sociological and anthropological theory and methods (again my own bias), because although I love historical method, I often find basic mistakes in historical analysis of cultural and social phenomena, given what other social scientists have been researching about how societies and cultures function. [To be fair, I likewise think that sociologists and anthropologists should be required to understand the basics of historical method and especially the researched history of their areas of research, as I often find astounding historical ignorance in social scientific research. I’m not a believer in interdisciplinary utopias, but I deifnitely think that overlapping disciplines need to be aware of the research in the other social sciences.]


I Hate Hillary Clinton 29 June 2007

Posted by Todd in HIV/AIDS, Political Commentary.
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In the most recent round of babbling Democratic presidential hopefuls, Ms. Clinton let loose this gem, yet another in her long line of back-handed, veiled anti-gay-to-get-the-anti-gay-vote bullshit (quoted in Salon.com):

–On the number of black teenagers diagnosed with HIV/AIDS: “This is a multiple-dimension problem. But if we don’t begin to take it seriously and address it the way we did back in the ’90s when it was primarily a gay men’s disease, we will never get the services and the public education that we need.”

So in addition to prevaricating her position on gay rights over the past couple of years and speaking out of both sides of her mouth, and saying downright homophobic things about same-sex marriage and then appearing at gay events expecting gay people to fawn all over her–in addition to all of that, she misremembers history.

Who is this “we” who paid attention to AIDS, Madam Senator? It was the gay men and women who were in the streets, protesting, shouting, and demanding to be heard. It was the gay men and women who started the very organizations and research projects that are now addressing the global problem, even though gay men’s issues were basically shut out of the most recent world aids conference in Canada. It was not the government and it was barely any “liberals” in America. The “we” who paid attention to AIDS were the “we” who were dying. You, Madam Senator, don’t get to say “we” when talking about AIDS, no matter how many of your hair dressers or interior designers died.

She’s a panderer. She panders to the black vote by appealing to their homophobia; but tomorrow she’s be pandering to gay people talking about how much she loves them; then the next day she’ll be pandering to the anti-gay-marriage bigots but affirming her belief that “real” marriage is between a man and a woman.

Why gay people (let alone blacks and marriage-fascists) still even give this woman the time of day is beyond me.

Combatting the Anti-Gay Agenda 28 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Sexuality.
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Many parents of gays and lesbians, or friends, or even the closeted queer him- or herself might be inundated with bad information, or more accurately, with falsehoods about homosexuality and gay life. The quasi-religious anti-gay machine has deftly spread its propaganda for more than 35 years now, and in some quarters of American society, it is still the dominant cultural view of homosexuality. This is not only bad for gay men and women around the country still locked in the ongoing battle for equality before the law, but also for gay folks who live in those contexts that lead them to self-loathing, shame and rage, not to mention their friends, family, co-workers, clergy, etc., who often unintentionally reinforce the self-hatred.

Through a rather circuitous route that started at Joe.My.God, I stumbled upon at the Box Turtle Bulletin, a group whose mission it is to fight the misinformation about homosexuality spread by anti-gay groups such as Focus on the Family, Eagle Forum, Heritage Foundation, etc.

In its mission statement, BTB lists these groups as those it wants to serve:

  1. Those who are questioning their sexuality and are concerned about some of the misinformation that they are hearing.
  2. Those who are friends or relatives of someone who is gay or lesbian, and are seeking accurate and reliable information about the issues facing them.
  3. Those who support equal rights for gays and lesbians and seek accurate, reliable information on which to base their arguments.
  4. Those who oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians, but wish to avoid the pitfalls of the massive misinformation coming from all sides of the issues – from gay-rights opponents as well as gay-rights advocates.

If not only the battle for political equality for gays and lesbians interest you, but also the damaging effects of anti-gay rhetoric on the individual psyches of gays and lesbians, BTB is an amazing resource. I ended up spending about an hour perusing the site and found some amazing articles. Here were the two I found the most intriguing so far: Are Gays a Threat to Our Children? and the only mildly tongue-in-cheek but crammed with good argument The Heterosexual Agenda.

Most recently, the BTB has been covering the ex-ex-gay (i.e., formerly ex-gay, now just gay) conference in Irvine this week, which coincides with the Exodus Freedom Conference (i.e., Exodus International’s ex-gay “ministries”) just down the street. Of especial interest, for those who didn’t hear, three former leaders of Exodus International have issued public apologies for their actions, which they now see as having done great harm. The L.A. Times story is here, and BTB’s videos of the apologies are here.

Placating the Religious Right 25 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, Islam, Multiculturalism, Religion.
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I’ve often mentioned here my discomfort with some forms of multiculturalism. Whereas I believe that a democratic, free society should protect an individual’s right to free association and expression, I do not believe that all cultures or identities are of equal value, and indeed, it is obvious that some are even dangerous to the very tenets upon which a free society is built.

In the United States, we have a minority of conservative Christians called “dominionists” who do not believe in tolerance or rights, who explicitly desire to constrain and limit the assembly and expression of many of their co-citizens (not least of whom, “the gays”). While these people’s rights to believe what they believe (i.e., that the U.S. is evil and that they are called of God to overthrow the government) should be protected, they should not be allowed to actually harm other people (i.e., infringe on others’ rights). So far, this is a no brainer in the United States, but not so elsewhere (and the U.S. has other problems, to be sure).

There is much to admire in the ways that Canada and many European nations (mostly the Western, Atlantic EU members; not so much the Eastern European states) deal with cultural diversity, but as I’ve said many times before, there are also some dangerous trends, not least of which is the belief that pluralistic tolerance should actually mean respect, that there is no way to judge the relative value of various beliefs and practices, and that a democrat is obliged to “respect” intolerance. I have called bullshit on this idea on more than one occasion.

Nick Cohen in this weekend’s Observer comments on British foreign and domestic policy of the Labor government, which has followed a policy of playing nicey nicey with anti-liberal loons whose explicit purpose is the destruction of the core values of democracy. Cohen’s commentary gives reason to hope that British politics have, at least, turned the bend in this regard. (I’m still reeling from the German court decisions that have basically disenfranchised Muslim women in a wrongheaded effort at multicultural understanding; and the fact that Canada even considered allowing Muslims to be subject to separate shariah courts.) But Cohen points out that the change is still fragile, and if the comments section following his commentary are any indication, we’ve got a long way to go in educating people about what democracy really means and what the limits of tolerance must be for democracy to survive.

Government policy is now to support British Muslims who uphold liberal values and oppose those who do not. Rushdie’s knighthood was a sign of the changing mood. Labour politicians might have tried to impose a veto a few years ago; instead, they said: ‘Are we going to allow British policy to be decided by dictatorial bigots, who want to inflame religious passion to divert attention from their own corruption?

‘There is only one possible answer to that question and it remains astonishing how many people who profess liberal sympathies refuse to grasp it. […]

If a liberal intelligentsia that is neither liberal nor noticeably intelligent and a Liberal Democrat party that can’t stand up for liberalism and democracy want to attack the government [for refusing to placate religious fascists], let them. They will pay a price for their moral cowardice one day.

Homosexuality Is a Spandrel 20 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Biology, Evolution, Homosexuality, Science.
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There’s a great redux of the research about the differences between gay and straight people in last week’s New York Magazine, “The Science of Gaydar.” It seems that the differences are actually mounting the more we study these things, and the evidence is just piling on that homosexuality is biological. Of course, in my own experience, I already knew this, as I don’t remember ever not being gay (although as a child, I didn’t have a language or a way to understand how I was different, I just knew that during kissing tag, I really wanted to kiss Trent, not Jenny.)

Anyway, it’s a great article, if it makes the typical journalistic mistake of simplifying biological issues and misrepresenting others (although only slightly) to create a “controversy.” This article, however, does a good job of just guiding you through the evidence.

The one repeated argument in the article that really irritates me, which I have talked about here, is the idea that homosexuality is maladaptive evolutionarily. Since I’m only an armchair evolutionary biologist (I’m actually a sociologist), I could be misunderstanding things, but there are actually three measures of survivability in a trait: maladaptive, neutral (a “spandrel”), and adaptive. The idea that homosexuality is maladaptive relies on a narrow reading of Richard Dawkins notion of the selfish genes, that it is maladaptive trait because it creates a reproductive dead end for the individual genes. But evolution works population-wide in sexually reproducing species; that is, it’s about the spread of adaptable traits in the population. A maladaptive trait decreases survivability of the species, and in worst case scenarios lead to extinction. In any case, maladaptive traits are selected against. Yet homosexuality appears in all mammal species and most bird species. So there seems to be something else going on.

For a trait to be adaptive, it must increase survivability (and fitness, or differential reproduction) of the species as it spreads through the population. Although the hypotheses are intriguing explaining homosexuality as adaptive (since it appears universally present in human populations), I actually find the evidence to be lacking. It doesn’t appear, with the evidence I’ve seen, to enhance the survivability of the species.

That leaves homosexuality as a spandrel, or an accidental side effect. Because evolution is stochastic, arising out of multiple simultaneous causes, and because traits work in conjunction or interaction with all other traits, the mathematics of determining adaptability require seeing how traits arise from or interact with other traits. Spandrels are unintended consequences of evolution, traits that arise out of other traits. To me, it seems clear that sexual reproduction (with its massive advantage of mixing gene pools) produces the conditions underwhich some individuals can be born with their sexual desires “misdirected” (biologically speaking), but that the advantages of sexual reproduction far outweigh the disadvantages of having some individuals sexually unreproductive. In otherwords, homosexuality seems to me to be an unintended by-product of other mechanisms that are incredibly adaptive. Homosexuality is a spandrel. It is neither maladaptive (it has no negative effects on survivability of the species, or it would have been selected against thousands of years ago; nor is it particularly adaptive. It is, evolutionarily speaking, neutral.

I’m speaking here only of human homosexuality. In other species, I think it could be more easily argued that it is adaptive (for example, bonobos’ pansexuality; dolphins life-long same-sex partnerships). But I think in most species where it exists regularly, it is not maladaptive, or it would have been selected against.

At the end of the day, however, this question only concerns the origins of homosexuality in our evolutionary history. It tells us nothing of the value or meaning of homosexuality.

Population, Immigration, and Environment 20 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Environment.
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I’m posting this partly to be provocative, to explore an idea which may feel offensive. But I sincerely have this question and I do think it needs to be discussed openly and seriously.

Over the weekend, I watched an interview with Laura Dunn, documentarian, on PBS’s “Now“. The interview has been haunting me for the past few days. I’m teaching a course this summer about the relationship between human culture and their ecologies (i.e., their physical environments), so some issues have been front and center the past few weeks. Dunn’s most recent documentary, The Unforeseen, covers the massive upsurge in development around Austin Texas, especially the degradation of the watershed, vital to the ecology of the region. Dunn has a gift of treating all sides with respect and compassion, and although it’s clear what the environmental (and ultimately social) outcome of uncontroled growth is, there is a brilliant even-handedness in her presentation.

But it was precisely the massive impact that such a huge population growth is having on the Austin area that stuck with me. Populations have differential effects on their enviroments, depending on their “footprints”, which is their patterns of consuming resources. But in America we are left with a culture that values space, which is paradoxically reflected in our tendency toward sprawl and away from density. And yet, as Dunn points out, our desires for space are actually consuming the space we desire.

Population increases, especially given the way that Americans consume, are changing our landscape, indeed, destroying it. Native-born Americans only reproduce slightly more than enough to replace the population; and yet the population of the United States has doubled since I was born. The wild spaces I used to go to as a child no longer exist. Our suburban sprawl has more than doubled since I was born.

Regular readers know that I’m not politically opposed to immigration and think most immigration hysteria is absurd. Yet you also know that as a sociologist, I believe we must face honestly the social costs of immigration. Immigration does indeed impact the social structures and economies and cultures of the nation. It does no good to pretend otherwise.

But I have never seen anyone talking about the environmental impact of immigration or, by extension, the massive population increase of the U.S. over the past 40 years. In California, we just keep talking about how the state will have 50 million residents by the middle of the century. Why aren’t we talking about the impact 20 million more people will have on our land? Why aren’t we talking about how to curb that population growth? Loss of land, degradation of air and water, loss of wilderness, loss of space, lass of species will ultimately harm everyone. And uncontrolled population growth must be considered as a major culprit. And given where most of the American population growth comes from, we have to be talking about immigration when we talk about sprawl, environment, and population.

Free Speech & Insulting Religion 20 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Multiculturalism, Religion.
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I have often spoken here on the hammer about a fundamental principle of free speech:

You do not have a right to be sheltered from insult. In a “marketplace of ideas” or a “free public sphere” (however you want to frame it), ideas, all ideas, including insulting, infuriating, degrading ideas, may be expressed; and protection falls to the side of the expressor. Real harm is not “hurt feelings” or “insult to faith” or even “racism”. Harm is in the abridgment of substantive rights.

The recent renewal of the fatwa against Sir Salman Rushdie and the whining of people who say he insulted them is childish on its face and an extreme misapprehension of what freedom of speech and rights mean. Although someone may have ethical qualms about “hurting someone’s feelings” and that is a legitimate conversation to have; it is not nor should it ever be part of the debate about free speech. [See Oliver Kamm’s great discussion here.]

This is for the good of society. The radical free expression of ideas allows a society to continually evaluate itself, confront falsehood and dangerous ideas head-on, prevent stupid people from becoming martyrs for their squelched stupid ideas, and allows us to be constantly vigilant against becoming too comfortable in our received beliefs. Radical free speech, in fact, claims that making people uncomfortable is precisely the GOOD that comes from having free speech in the first place.

Do not allow religious or any other kind of fundamentalists reframe this foundational principle of a free and open society. Free speech must be held sacrosanct. Full stop.

Restore Habeas 19 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Law/Courts, War & Terrorism.
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People for the American Way is conducting a petition campaign for Congress to enact legislation to restore “the Great Writ” to American jurisprudence. The right to confront your accusers and to know the evidence against you (a process most states call “indictment”) and for a judge to decide if there is sufficient evidence to hold you over for trial have been eliminated by the Bush administration. These are basic rights for which the Revolutionary War was fought. George W. Bush (et al.) has asserted the right of “unitary executive privilege”: the adminstration argues that the president can basically ignore acts of Congress through “signing statements”, which boils down to a refusal to enforce the law, the fundamental purpose of the executive in the first place. More importantly, however, using a sweeping reading of the constitution’s war powers clauses, the Bush administration argues that it is above constitutional constraint in waging war.

Whether you love or hate PFAW, please, if you believe in Civil Liberties and the very foundational rights upon which democracies were founded (these go back to the Magna Carta), then sign the petition here.

Muslim Victims or Paranoid Victimhood? 16 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Islam, Multiculturalism, War & Terrorism.
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Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-Egyptian muslim, recently denied a visa to live in the United States while he was a visiting professor, wrote a piece for the Guardian last week in which he argued that Britons should stop looking at British Muslims for the answers to violence and start examining their own liberal values. He argues that integration is not the answer and that Muslim violence is the fault of the actions of the majority in Britain and elsewhere in Europe and America.

In response, David Goodhart, editor of Prospect and longtime defender of Ramadan against his alarmist critics, takes the European-Muslim intellectual to task for falling into simplistic clichés, victimhood, and misplaced identification. Goodhart acknowledges the difficulties faced by strangers (i.e., minorities) in any culture, as humans tend to distrust the unknown, but argues that British Muslims enjoy a degree of freedom and prosperity unknown to them virtually anywhere else in the world, including in Islamic states. He further argues that Ramadan falls into tired habits of mind that see muslims as perpetual victims and refuses to take responsibility for its own actions.

In all, it’s a great pair of readings and raises some of the most important questions of our time about multiculturalism, religious pluralism, and democracy. In the past, I have been mostly impressed with Ramadan and have seen him as a possible hero for European muslims. But this latest piece gave me pause and concern. The continued identification with outsiders instead of co-citizens is disastrous for liberal democracies. Goodhart does an excellent job of pointing out the weaknesses in Ramadan’s latest arguments and calling for a rational discussion of responsibility and social integration.

Foreign Policy in the 21st Century, American Democracy, and de Toqueville 16 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Democracy, Democratic Theory, History, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Reviews, War & Terrorism.
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[This is Part One of Three entries considering Claus Offe, Reflections on America: Tocqueville, Weber & Adorno in the United States, trans. by Patrick Camiller (Malden, Mass.: Polity, 2005 [2004]).]

In a world dominated by the United States, many people around the world, scholars and laymen alike, are trying to understand what America means, why it behaves as it does, and how its actions in the world can be controlled or mitigated in some way. To this end, Claus Offe goes back to three key European sociologists, Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, and Theodor Adorno, who visited the United States and wrote analyses of American society, culture, and politics. Offe creates a kind of four-way rubric to judge where a European critique of the United States may come from. Basically, it can either see America as a kind of avant-garde of democracy and democratic social organizer, the experimenter that allows the European to look into its future; or it can see America as a “latecomer society,” as under- or undeveloped, immature. Either of these views can then be given a positive or negative moral value.(1)

Starting with de Tocqueville (hereafter dT), Offe seeks to explain American society in the 21st century and especially the actions of its federal state in the global arena since 9/11. Are there characteristics that dT observed in the 1830 that could explain the War in Iraq, the hostility toward state-sponsored social programs, and the U.S. domination of international economics? Offe argues that for the most part, dT saw America in the first vein, as an avant-garde of what was to come in other democratizing countries in Europe. DT spent much time in his two-volume Democracy in America comparing the U.S. to France and Europe in general; dT’s primary focus was perhaps more about understanding Europe than America.

Although he had a broad view of the multiple causes of American social outcomes, dT concluded that the key to the relative stability of American society lie in customs, or as Offe refers to them, referring to Belah’s now famous turn of phrase, “habits of the heart.” For dT, it was the particular aspects of American life and experience that created a taken-for-granted, or unconscious way of being in American interaction that produced the stability of the society. Mainly, Americans believe that they are all free and equal (dT does address the contradictions of Indians and Slaves as well); they are accustomed to a cacophony of divergent opinions and ideologies, but they settle upon a sort of general consensus that they treat as provisional; and they set up their country to allow a constant “learning by experience” in the government, where if something doesn’t work, they tweak it. All of these allow the American society to flow relatively smoothly and foster a deep kind of liberty, or self-government without hereditary hierarchies or powers. (11-18)

Offe focuses on a handful of key parts of dT’s argument to show the fundamental argument that he made in 1835: The greatest threat to American democracy is from possessive individualism, a particular kind of ‘equality’ that Americans embrace and live for: economic equality. Offe makes the careful distinction between actual economic equality and the American cultural notion of equality, which is that you may be rich today, but you could be poor tomorrow; and I may be poor today, but tomorrow I could be richer than you. Or to put it another way, Americans believe in the possibility of economic equality and accept the capriciousness of markets, making and breaking fortunes, as a matter of fact.

For dT, the lack of hereditary hierarchy leads to a generalized greed in the American consciousness, where the possibility of of gaining economic advantage over your neighbor becomes a kind of passion for equality, governing American life. Because this passion for equality occurs in an unpredictable market with uncontrolled upward and downward mobility, it is infused with fear, creating what Offe calls a “micro-tyranny,” or a self-imposed internalized tyranny, where personal decisions in the market slowly begin to overshadow all other kinds of freedom and all other social actions. (19-20)

A drawback of commercial activity based on possessive individualism is the monotony o flife, the melancholy and ‘strange unrest’ of business people, who cannot enjoy what they have earned, and the loss of republican virtues. (21)

In this context, political liberty becomes a burden, so that the drive for ‘economic equality’ ultimately leads to a gradual relinquishing of political and social power to the state. But because the state is set up to respond to the majority’s will (based on what is “most” rather than what is “best”), the state will ultimately focus its attention on the market as well, being primarily an instrument of the pecuniary interests of the misplaced equality. In this way, America was set up in 1835 for its people to literally chose despotism in order to live in their economic environment of possible economic equality. For dT, this creates an America of undifferentiated individuals who are, in fact, actually conformists in the market, and who have no care for their past or their future, nor for their social relationships in the present. All that matters is their economic lives. (22)

Most problematic for dT is that the rule of the majority ultimately means that culture and politics, the realm of values, ideas, and intellect, is subject to the a flattening, a dumbing down, a forced conformity to the will of the majority (whom he presciently calls the ‘middle class’). One hundred years before Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment, dT was theorizing the “culture industry”; and several years before Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, he predicted the concentration of capital and the dehumanization of the workers in America. (23)

His theory of the culture industry foresee’s Adorno’s in stunning accuracy: equality in possessive individualism leads to cultural conformity. Artists produce for the market or for bosses rather than for art’s sake. Utility outstrips aesthetics or meaning as the motivation for artistic production. The democratic aesthetic sense is reduced from the “great” to the merely “pleasant or pretty.” His theory of the concentration of capital simply sees workers native abilities and desires subordinated to the will of their employers; and the concentration of economic power transforming the state to the protection of the wealth of the owners. In this situation, the newly wealthy class have no social obligation to the rest of America, and act out of the socially acceptable possessive individualism. Ultimately, the majority are wage workers who are dependent upon employers for the livelihood and social status. (24-28)

DT argued that American culture had one major counter-valing force that prevented the demise of the democratic society: its “habits of the heart” as produced in religious communities and in voluntary associations. Simply put, dT believed that without centralized government, Americans were forced to interact with each other in voluntary associations; but that these associations were incredibly flexible, forming around the changing needs and opinions of their members. This, combined with the voluntary nature of American Christianity, acted as an ethical check to the worst possible effects of “equality”: possessive individualism and the passion for equality (29-34).

Offe’s critique of dT and his theorizing from the present (eminent critique) arises from a world quite different from that of 1835, wherein the United States dominates the political and economic scene for the entire globe. For Offe, dT could not have seen some key historical developments in American society, especially in the 20th century. First, Americans have gradually lost their attachment to voluntary association; Offe gestures to the large and growing body of communalist sociology, which documents and often bemoans the loss of community in American life. So the primary check on “equality” is eroding or, by some alarmist accounts, actually already gone. Second, Offe argues that associations in American society are, as often as not, instruments of social control and enforced conformity. In other words, associations can be used to counter-democratic ends as easily as they can uphold and undergird democratic societies. And third, Offe points to the actual structure of American democracy, where power is vertically diffused among state and local agents and agencies, such that the federal state lacks the power necessary to integrate the society as a whole. Offe says that the American state is blocked by communitarian localism: that is, local associations are communal, but rather than undergirding the democratic society, the serve to fragment it. (34-35)

Offe’s assessment of American cultural trends underlying the state are breathtaking in their clarity: American cultural history began with a distrust of the state, and from its founding in the Constitution, American institutions have had as their modus operandi protection of the individual from the state (rather than from other individuals). For Offe, this led to a misplacement of community in religion, where religion became historically the locus of lasting American communities. The mistrust of the state combined with the necessity of having a state led to what Offe calls “nation-building without state-building.” If nothing else, Americans are as a lot anti-state. Offe points to the frontier history and colonization as the sources of these mindsets, where people had to live together and survive without the presence of a state. (37-8)

The federal institutions (state-building) — as Madison, et al., created them — strip power from the federal government necessary for social integration (nation-building). The social and cultural powers left up primarily to local authorities or more commonly left out of the law at all, gives huge power to the courts who must arbitrate social interaction with only a minimum of actual law to guide them (hence the huge body of case law in American jurisprudence). So both the legislative and executive are left only with regulating the economy and dealing with foreign affairs and conflicts. Offe argues that the location of American community in religion and voluntary associations created a society where the government must effect social integration but lacks the necessary powers to do so. (38-40)

And so, Offe argues, the executive and legislative seek enemies outside the boundaries of the United States, extending the frontier of yesteryear out into the global scene. To say it another way, because the American state is so feeble domestically, it must exert itself outward on the non-American world.

But Offe goes a step further to argue that because American religion, the locus not only of community but of social morality, is outside the purview of the state, it exists pre-reflexively. That is, morality of the American society is literally a habit of mind, a self-evident truth; so that in the foreign policy sphere, unexamined moralities are enacted upon the world with America as missionary, savior, democratic hero. There are no social formations set up for society-wide discussions of morality, for critical examination of social morality and collective argument. All such arguments happen in local communities (usually but not exclusively religious) and are then enacted unexmained in the public sphere.

As current developments since 11 September 2001 have illustrated, in all these projects this dominant power proceeds in its (now for the first time structurally unendable) war against ‘evil’ and for ‘good,’ not by rule-bound but by decision-bound principles, not in the framework of recognized international law and human rights norms, but unilaterally, even if supported at the time by an alleged ‘coalition of the wililng’ of individual staes. This policy of voluntaristic coalition-building may be understood as precisely a resurrection of the spirit of voluntary sects and local associations on the plane of international politics. (41)

Connecting ‘habits of the heart’ or customs of a society to the behaviors of its federal state and its government is a tricky endeavor. Inevitably the generalizations can serve to overwhelm the specificity and, especially in America, the diversity and conflict among competing ideas. On one hand, I found myself nodding in amazement at Offe’s analysis: yes, dT saw the possible weakness or tendency toward despotism (loss of liberty) in American ‘equality’ but his antidote was too weak. But something about Offe’s focus on religious community is bothersome to me. Indeed, in what I wrote above, I’ve already gone beyond Offe’s actual argument and expanded it in ways that move past religious communities in terms of the location of morality-formation. What I suppose bothers me is the tenuous connection between the religious communities and voluntary associations and the enactment of that morality. It seems particularly clear in George W. Bush that he is uncritically enacting quasi-religious moralities in his conceptions of America’s role in the world. And while I agree with Offe that American electorate likes (for the moment) its religiosity in the Executive, I also think this represents a particular historical moment in American history, post 1973.

Obviously, the American state lacks the power to enact major social programs that would or could serve to integrate the society; and its legislature and executive are limited in ways that are regressive from a European perspective. But equally obviously, at the empirical level, the kinds of moralities that get enacted in the government are hotly contested. Even GWB’s war on terror, though initially immensely popular, was contested from the beginning. While the system may allow someone like GWB to emerge, I’m not sure that it necessarily would have led to those particular values.

On the other hand, I can see the frontier mentality and Manifest Destiny enacted throughout American foreign policy since the 1850s, leading to America’s particular kind of imperialism, a kind of indirect empire. And I definitely see the values Offe critiques (i.e., America as missionary of democracy, as the scion of ‘the good’) as having been continually enacted for 150 years now–but never unilaterally and always with a great deal of controversy and cultural battles, beginning with the Mexican War and coming all the way forward to the War in Iraq.

Ultimately Offe’s theory fails to explain why, despite the massive resistance from the people (often the majority of people, as in the Spanish-American War, World War I, and Vietnam), those particular values get enacted by the government. In other words, it doesn’t explain why the American executive behaves as Offe accurately describes, despite the fact the morals arising out of the people don’t necessarily match or support its action. Yes, we have the habit of the heart of our voluntary association, yes that leaves a void where social integration is concerned; but why did one particular set of values become the dominant one expressed in the foreign policy of the American state, even in the face of opposition from its people?