First, the Liberal Ironist would like to wish you all the very happiest of Confucius’ Birthdays (September 27th).
Yesterday’s Sunday Washington Post had a long column hazarding a brief answer to a hazardous question: Is it possible to scrutinize our current political, economic and social arrangements and identify those which will leave our descendants wondering, “What were people thinking?” Author Kwame Anthony Appiah raises 4 examples of practices of our society that are indeed inhumane or outrageous. The Liberal Ironist thinks that most of the practices which Appiah suggests will someday be abolished are facilitated by (though not essential to) commercial logics.
Of note are the basic criteria Appiah thinks applies to social practices which future societies will decry, disavow and abolish:
1.) The moral objection to the practice is actually old and familiar;
2.) Defenders of this practice themselves don’t conceive of the practice in moral terms, instead invoking vacuous and yet always narrowly-conceived terms like “tradition, human nature or necessity.”
3.) Supporters or beneficiaries of the status quo practice don’t think about what they’re doing, or about the nature of the system they’re supporting. “Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn’t think about what made those goods possible,” Appiah says.
It is at this point that one should realize that this column isn’t just an invitation to a thought experiment but to action against injustice where perceived. The present practices which Appiah thinks are good candidates for future abomination are:
1.) Our large incarcerated population: The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate of any state on Earth. Appiah doesn’t make a radical point here about law-and-order politics here; he does point out that most of our inmate population are in jail for nonviolent offenses such as drug possession or use (and implies that our criminalization of drug use might be reason-enough to “call us crazy”).
2.) Industrial meat production: Appiah notes the filthy, cramped and cruel way millions of meat livestock animals are warehoused to save money. His graphic but eloquent description of the treatment of cows and pigs in our country warrants reading. Again, Appiah doesn’t make some radical, abstract plea for animal liberation, but raises an objection to the intense and unmitigated suffering that livestock in the mean-producing industry are sometimes subjected to. These harsh conditions, of course, follow a commercial logic that, as Appiah and Jeremy Bentham put it, thinks in terms of profit margins for the (rational) producer to the exlusion of the quality of life of the (merely-emotive) animals.
3.) The institutionalized and isolated elderly: “Is this what Western modernity amuonts to–societies that feel no filial obligations to their inconvenient elders?” Appiah’s usual circumspection gives way here to volunteered disgust. This situation appears to be another symptom of the self-involvement encouraged by the mobility of our culture and economic practices. The Liberal Ironist hopes that this slaking-off and sequestration of senior citizens by their family will come to an end, but notes Appiah offers no ideas what kind of movement or social change could rectify this shameful problem. The growing proportion of the elderly in Western countries–and hopefully, a growing number of the elderly who remain mentally-capable as a result of prudent dietary and lifestyle choices–may bring this issue of the disowned elderly to the open. We can only hope as much, because nothing less than affirmation of the force of love in our lives, and our ability to come to terms with our own mortality, is at stake in whether we continue to accept the aging as part of our family.
In any case, this would be a worthier pursuit for our senior citizens than opposing attempts by the Federal Government to make Social Security and Medicare solvent again.
4.) The environment: This is where Appiah’s lack of recognition of Capitalism as both a series of economic arrangements and a social movement is most-apparent. He discusses only desertification, probably due to space constraints. But many issues here that pit different countries’ practical interests against one another, and some are debated on moral terms. In the case of global warming, the concern of the Chinese, Indian and US governments with economic growth reveals a bargaining problem–as well as Appiah’s oversight that here, in fact, is a timely issue where the opponents of prudent change do have (and use) a plausible moral rationale for continuing to burn fossil fuels in spite of its impact on the climate: These governments want to achieve the rapid resource exploitation that will allow them to lift millions out of poverty.
Appiah offers 4 suggestions of future sources of moral outrage that currently retain an undeserved obscurity; the Liberal Ironist sees 3 (industrial meat production, the institutionalization of the elderly, and the environment) which are in essence commercially-driven social problems. This observation is not intended to decry Capitalism as an ideology but to identify that it is not in practice rising tide that lifts all boats–and to offer a way of thinking about whether or when the contest over ideas results is fruitful for liberals. To close I’d like to highlight one other established institution that makes us look crazy, or at least cruel:
The War on Drugs: This is an obvious one, and Appiah indicated it in passing, but he didn’t being to cover the sweeping harm done by our current drug policy. As ongoing violence in Colombia, Afghanistan and now Mexico attest, the War on Drugs doesn’t simply result in the consignment of a “lost generation” of black and Hispanic youth to long prison sentences. Entire countries are on the brink of political collapse and subject to bloodshed because of the social discipline and logistical efficacy required by those smuggling drugs to markets in Europe and the United States. It is quite true, as DEA advertising campaigns claim, that purchasing illicit drugs of funds terrorism and civil war violence abroad, yet remarkably this hasn’t inspired a national political discussion on the advisability of the War on Drugs itself. We have had the Controlled Substances Act since 1970, and outside of the violent deterioration of key developing countries used to grow or transport the drug crops, it isn’t clear what the impact of this modern-day experiment in prohibition has been.
The Liberal Ironist finds the idea of trying to think one’s way out of the presumed objectivity of an uncritical take on the present to find the moral mundane . To the end of representing something more than just status quo Liberalism, this blog will at times try to discern the ways in which we’re all crazy today.
In closing, consider the state-by-state proportion of black and white male inmates incarcerated for drug-related offenses, as presented by Human Rights Watch:
Prison Admissions for Male Drug Offenders by Race
Source: Calculated from National Corrections Reporting Program, 1996, and Bureau of Census, 2000 data.