OK, Mr. Fukuyama, you’ve got my attention

I subscribe to an app for The New Yorker on my iPad, and it is through that that I read the magazine.

Through that, but not on that. I mean through the subscription, but not on the app. Although I read practically everything else — The State, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and sometimes The Guardian and the Post and Courier — via their respective iPad apps, I usually interact with this subscription through a completely different mechanism. Oddly enough, through email alerts. I read practically nothing else that way. In fact, I’ve recently embarked on a ruthless campaign of unsubscribing from every email list that I once, however fleetingly, had thought would interest me.

But not The New Yorker. I can’t explain it to you, but they seem to have hit on a formula that engages my interest where other emailers have failed miserably. One of the interesting features of this formula is that the articles the messages link me to are not all from the most recent issue. The emails mine the entire archive of the magazine; the items they lead me to read may have run months, years, even decades ago. And they tend to be fascinating. (Also, this approach supports the way I see the world of ideas: If it was worth saying last year, or in 1939, it’s worth saying today. Worthwhile ideas are timeless.)

Anyway, this week I was led by an email to read an item from back in September of this year, headlined “Francis Fukuyama Postpones the End of History,” with the subhed, “The political scientist argues that the desire of identity groups for recognition is a key threat to liberalism.”

Well, y’all know how I feel about identity politics, so I dug in eagerly, and after a brief rehash of Mr. Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis of three decades ago, I got to the nut grafs:

Twenty-nine years later, it seems that the realists haven’t gone anywhere, and that history has a few more tricks up its sleeve. It turns out that liberal democracy and free trade may actually be rather fragile achievements. (Consumerism appears safe for now.) There is something out there that doesn’t like liberalism, and is making trouble for the survival of its institutions.

Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama

Fukuyama thinks he knows what that something is, and his answer is summed up in the title of his new book, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The demand for recognition, Fukuyama says, is the “master concept” that explains all the contemporary dissatisfactions with the global liberal order: Vladimir Putin, Osama bin Laden, Xi Jinping, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, gay marriage, isis, Brexit, resurgent European nationalisms, anti-immigration political movements, campus identity politics, and the election of Donald Trump. It also explains the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Chinese Communism, the civil-rights movement, the women’s movement, multiculturalism, and the thought of Luther, Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, and Simone de Beauvoir. Oh, and the whole business begins with Plato’s Republic…

Which made me think, I need to go read that book. Even though I know that with such books, I tend to find satisfaction in the way the idea is presented in the first chapter (actually, more like the introduction, because the first chapter usually starts getting into the weeds), and then lose interest. I’m like, “Got it!,” and I want to move on before the explication drags on for the next 20 chapters or so.

In fact, in this case I may even be satisfied with the idea as set out in the two grafs above. You know how it is with those of us who are so “N” on the Myers-Briggs scale as to be off the chart: I perceive rightness in those few words and am immediately ready to applaud and move on to the next thing.

But not Louis Menand, the gentleman who wrote the article. In fact, the words I quote above are immediately followed by these:

Fukuyama covers all of this in less than two hundred pages. How does he do it?

Not well….

Frankly, I’m not enough of an intellectual, public or private, to follow Mr. Menand’s objections. They have to do with esoteric considerations of certain terms used by Plato, Hegel and an influential 20th-century dude named Alexandre Kojève.

Alexandre Kojève

Alexandre Kojève

Along the way, he sort of loses me the way, say, arguments between difference feminists and “do-me” feminists over which possesses the purest understanding of feminism. Or whatever. I like esoteric things. In fact, I was very excited back in school when I first learned the word “esoteric” because it gave me a term for describing some things that I liked. But even a good thing can be run into the ground.

All of the objections seem beside the point to me. They don’t really refute the idea that all those movements and phenomena described above are related to the identity impulse. Not so I can tell, anyway.

In fact, Mr. Menand helps me figure out a way to remove the fly in the ointment of the passage I like so much above. I was bothered somewhat by the fact that ideas and movements I tend to dismiss, or even abhor — such as campus identity politics and the election of Donald Trump — are described as springing from the same source as the civil rights movement.

But Menand helps me dismiss that concern, perhaps inadvertently, with this:

Wouldn’t it be important to distinguish people who ultimately don’t want differences to matter, like the people involved in #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, from people who ultimately do want them to matter, like isis militants, Brexit voters, or separatist nationalists? And what about people who are neither Mexican nor immigrants and who feel indignation at the treatment of Mexican immigrants? Black Americans risked their lives for civil rights, but so did white Americans. How would Socrates classify that behavior? Borrowed thymos?

Ah. Perfect. Those thoughts suggest to me a standard: The legitimacy of a movement or phenomenon linked to identity can be determined by the extent to which reasonable people outside the group can agree with it, even advocate it.

Nice. Neat. Perhaps too neat. Perhaps it appeals because it gives us old white guys a potential role to play. But I like it, and I think I’m going to stop while I’m enjoying it, before the objections that I sense are about to pounce on it from the shadows do their worst….

7 thoughts on “OK, Mr. Fukuyama, you’ve got my attention

  1. Richard2

    Is it just me, or did Brad’s break from this blog kill this thing? Daily comments are struggling to break single digits.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      It’ll take awhile to get going again. If it ever does.

      I knew that would happen. In the past, any time I’ve taken a break of even a few days — because I’m sick, or traveling or whatever — it can take weeks, even months, for traffic to get back to where it was before. After a few days, people just get out of the habit of looking to see what I’ve posted.

      One thing at the back of my mind during the campaign — a four-month-plus hiatus — was that I may never get the blog back to what it was. In fact, I realized that if we WON the election, I may never post again. In the first days and weeks of the campaign I realized that you can’t be the spokesman of someone in public life and speak your own mind, without compromising the person you were trying to help. That was driven home by an incident involving Twitter. I had posted something I thought was innocuous, and it stirred a minor storm that was VERY weird. I started to try to answer some of the comments, but realized what I had to do was ignore them entirely, because it was just going to get worse. I had to efface myself; Brad had to disappear from public view. At that point I basically quit using my own Twitter account, except to occasionally reTweet something I had put out on the campaign account.

      Besides, I had NO time for expressing what Brad thought about things.

      But I digress. The thing is, I was pretty sure my audience would evaporate while I was out of action, maybe to never be built up again.

      But I considered the cause worth it…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        There’s the additional problem that I’m just not all that interested in my usual blog topics. After being on the inside of politics, observing from the outside is really dull. So much of it is SO stupid that it’s hard to convince myself that it’s worth my time or energy…

        1. Doug Ross

          I’d be interested in hearing how you tempered your personal opinions when they were in conflict with Democratic principles or even James’ own opinions. Seemed like there wasn’t much talk about pro-life issues…

          Did you ever put out something for the campaign that you personally disagreed with?

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Not as a matter of principle.

            On abortion… the only way that came up was with Henry’s unconscionable veto of $16 million in healthcare funds, just so he could get at about $82,000 that went to Planned Parenthood.

            Only an idiot would think that was a morally acceptable way of defunding Planned Parenthood. We even had Nikki’s former Medicaid guy saying what Henry did was likely to lead to MORE abortions, not fewer.

            So my outrage over what Henry was doing was completely unfeigned, I assure you.

            The only time there was disagreement was on smaller points, ones I don’t consider high principles.

            For instance, James and Mandy decided to back the plan put forward by the SCEA and the state employees’ association to spend the state surplus on one-time bonuses for their members.

            I didn’t think that was the best use of the money. I wanted to raise teacher pay(which was a signature issue for James), and perhaps state employees’ as well, but I didn’t like the idea of a bonus. I preferred to spend that windfall on a need such as school buses.

            I mentioned that, but didn’t press it. I was OK with giving the bonuses; it just didn’t seem to me the best way of doing either thing: making best use of the surplus, or adequately compensating teachers and other state workers…

            Now if they had proposed using the surplus for RAISES, I’d have had a real problem. You don’t use one-time money for recurring needs. But James and Mandy would never have advocated doing anything like that. If they had, I wouldn’t have been working for them. Not that proper budgeting is a high moral principle or anything — you know how little I care about money matters. But they’re good-government people, and good-government people don’t spend one-time money on recurring needs…

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              I have a better story than that, and I’ve just thought of a way I can tell it without betraying confidences. I’ll just leave out the names.

              One day when the healthcare-veto thing was at its height, I walked into a room in which two people were talking about it. One of them — someone who was no longer employed by the campaign, but had just dropped by to visit — was talking about someone who WAS still intimately involved in the campaign, and said something dismissive: “Well, you know, she’s anti-choice.”

              You know me — I immediately butted into the conversation, to say, “Yeah? Well so am I. And that has absolutely nothing to do with why Henry’s veto is outrageous…” and I went on to explain all the things I said about it above.

              What she’d said had sort of ticked me off, but it was a teachable moment for explaining why the veto was wrong, and why it should be seen as such by anyone, regardless of where they stood on abortion.

              Doug, if anything, I went overboard in making sure people knew what I thought. For instance, I probably reminded people more than I needed to that I was not a Democrat, and that I was there in large part to explain to OTHER people who were not Democrats why they should vote for James and Mandy…

  2. Larry Slaughter

    Please excuse this mashup of your two most recent posts, Brad.

    I agree with you that I don’t think “I am a scientist” should be a qualification for political office. But shouldn’t an agreement that scientific process is the way to determine truth? I was first tempted to word it “belief in science should be a qualification for office” but I can’t put “belief” in the qualification, because truth is truth whether you believe it or not. But I’d like to hope that one day, we as voters will return to not electing a candidate that gives permission for people to believe “the truth is what I want it to be.”

    It is convenient to explain the election of 45 as demand for recognition, but whose recognition? Is it those who feel beset upon by facts, by science? Every day as president, and every day as a candidate, 45 blasts out something so demonstrably false one would think no one would believe it. But it seems to me there is some amount of voters I hear from that feel they finally are “recognized,” instead of being marginalized for opinions that are demonstrably false. It’s just too darn hard for some to sort through facts!

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