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Posts Tagged ‘liberalism

“Philosophy fails to give injustice its due”*…

 

I am an American Sklar

“Following evacuation orders, this [Oakland] store, at 13th and Franklin Streets, was closed. The owner, a University of California graduate of Japanese descent, placed the I AM AN AMERICAN sign on the store front on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration.” Photo/caption: Dorothea Lange (3.13.42)

 

An astute commentator recently suggested that Isaiah Berlin would be Riga’s greatest political thinker ‒ if not for Judith N Shklar. We are seeing the beginning of a rediscovery of Shklar and her contribution to 20th-century intellectual life, but she remains something of an insider’s reference. Who was she and what did she have to say that is so important? How did this Jewish émigrée girl from Latvia come to be regarded by many legal and political theorists as one of the 20th century’s most important political thinkers?

Shklar is most often cited as a critic of mainstream liberal thought. During the Cold War in particular, liberalism served as an ideological weapon against the totalitarian threat of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states. But Shklar was concerned about the stifling dimensions of this kind of Western intellectual defence mechanism: it served merely to protect the status quo, and was very often a mere fig leaf for the accumulation of material wealth and for other, more problematic aspects of Western culture. It didn’t ignite any critical reflection or assist any self-awareness of how the liberties of Western democracy had arrived at such a perceived high standing. It was also silent about the fact that fascism had developed in countries that had been identified as pillars of Western civilisation.

In contrast to such self-congratulatory rhetoric, Shklar’s criticism aimed primarily at checking the easy optimism of Cold War liberalism, which, despite challenges to its authority, continues to maintain the inflated image of Western democracies. In Shklar’s view, liberalism is neither a state nor a final achievement. She understood, better than most, the fragility of liberal societies, and she wanted to preserve the liberties they made possible. Shklar saw the increasing availability of private consumer choice and the ever-expanding catalogue of rights often propounded in the name of liberalism as threats to the best achievements of Western democracies. In contrast to orthodox liberal arguments that aim at a summum bonum or common good, Shklar advocated a liberalism of fear, which holds in its sights the summum malum ‒ cruelty. Avoiding cruelty, and the suffering it causes, is the chief aim. Other vices such as hypocrisy, snobbery, arrogance, betrayal and misanthropy should be ranked in relation to this first vice…

Sklar

Shklar in her Harvard office

Judith Shklar and the dilemma of modern liberalism: “The theorist of belonging.”

* Judith Shklar

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As we muse on morality, we might spare a thought for Robert Maynard Pirsig; he died on this date in 2017.  A philosopher, professor, and author, he is best remembered for two books Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (an exploration into the nature of “quality” in the form of a memoir of a cross-country motorcycle trip) and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (the account of a sailing journey on which Pirsig’s alter-ego develops a value-based metaphysics).

Pirsig2005_(cropped) source

 

“It’s not an effective protest if it’s not pissing people off”*…

 

extinctionrevolution

 

In 1986, millions of Filipinos took to the streets of Manila in peaceful protest and prayer in the People Power movement. The Marcos regime folded on the fourth day.

In 2003, the people of Georgia ousted Eduard Shevardnadze through the bloodless Rose Revolution, in which protestors stormed the parliament building holding the flowers in their hands.

Earlier this year, the presidents of Sudan and Algeria both announced they would step aside after decades in office, thanks to peaceful campaigns of resistance.

In each case, civil resistance by ordinary members of the public trumped the political elite to achieve radical change.

There are, of course, many ethical reasons to use nonviolent strategies. But compelling research by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, confirms that civil disobedience is not only the moral choice; it is also the most powerful way of shaping world politics – by a long way.

Looking at hundreds of campaigns over the last century, Chenoweth found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. And although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors, she has shown it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change.

Chenoweth’s influence can be seen in the recent Extinction Rebellion protests, whose founders say they have been directly inspired by her findings

… despite being twice as successful as the violent conflicts, peaceful resistance still failed 47% of the time. As Chenoweth and Stephan pointed out in their book, that’s sometimes because they never really gained enough support or momentum to “erode the power base of the adversary and maintain resilience in the face of repression”. But some relatively large nonviolent protests also failed, such as the protests against the communist party in East Germany in the 1950s, which attracted 400,000 members (around 2% of the population) at their peak, but still failed to bring about change.

In Chenoweth’s data set, it was only once the nonviolent protests had achieved that 3.5% threshold of active engagement that success seemed to be guaranteed – and raising even that level of support is no mean feat. In the UK it would amount to 2.3 million people actively engaging in a movement (roughly twice the size of Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city); in the US, it would involve 11 million citizens – more than the total population of New York City.

The fact remains, however, that nonviolent campaigns are the only reliable way of maintaining that kind of engagement…

Nonviolent protests are twice as likely to succeed as armed conflicts – and those engaging a threshold of 3.5% of the population have never failed to bring about change: “The ‘3.5% Rule’: How a small minority can change the world.”

* John Scalzi, Lock In

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As we take it to the streets, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to John Stuart Mill; he was born on this date in 1806.  A philosopher, political economist, civil servant, and reformer, he was a founder of what we now call “Classical Liberalism” and a major contributor to the development of Utilitarianism.  Mill reputedly learned Greek at the age of three, Latin and arithmetic at eight, and logic at twelve. He studied with Jeremy Bentham, and followed Bentham’s Utilitarian lead, though Mill both extended and deviated from his mentor’s thinking.  His conception of liberty was– and remains– an oft-cited justification of individual freedom in opposition to unlimited state and social control.

220px-John_Stuart_Mill_by_London_Stereoscopic_Company,_c1870 source

 

“Whatever we may think or affect to think of the present age, we cannot get out of it”*…

 

John Stuart Mill, the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century, is today best remembered as the author of On Liberty…  in which he argues, relentlessly and over the course of around 50,000 words, that there should be no interference with the thought, speech, or action of any individual except on the grounds of the prevention of harm to others.  That prohibition applies to legislative or state action, but also to those informal modes of coercion that can be practised by society itself. And the ban is total. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Though occasionally challenged by the collectivist left, the position Mill argues for has become orthodoxy in modern Anglo-American political thought.

But while liberalism itself remains pre-eminent, Mill’s arguments for that position have fallen out of sight in recent discussions. In contrast to many contemporary thinkers, Mill’s defence of liberal principles is historical and local – not abstract and universal…

Part of a wonderful series in the Times Literary Supplement, Footnotes to Plato— an appreciation of the relevance of Mill’s thought in our time: “John Stuart Mill: higher happiness.”

* John Stuart Mill, “The Spirit of the Age, I

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As we get in touch with our inner Utilitarian, we might recall that it was on this date in 1859 that the “temporary insanity” defense was first successfully deployed in the U.S., when it was used as a plea by U.S. Congressman Daniel Sickles of New York in his trial for the shooting of his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key— for which Sickles was acquitted, though he’d been witnessed executing his rival and had confessed.  Sickles went on to serve as Sheriff in New York in 1890.

 source (and larger image)

 

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