Friday, July 29, 2016

Cory Booker on tolerance and the problem of using and understanding history

Corporate Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey spoke at the Democratic Convention Monday night, Sen. Cory Booker: 'We are called to be a nation of love' PBS Newshour 07/26/2016:

I was glad to see that he made prominent use of the Declaration of Independence, the proclamation from the Continental Congress formally initiating the American Revolution:

Time has the transcript of Booker's speech (Will Drabold, Read Cory Booker’s Speech at the Democratic Convention 07/26/2016):

Two hundred and forty years ago, our forefathers gathered in this very city and they declared before the world that we would be a free and independent nation. Today, we gather here again in this city, in this city of brotherly love, to reaffirm our values before our nation and the whole world. ...

Now, looking back to our history, looking back to our history, our founding fathers put forth founding documents that were indeed genius. But our founding documents weren’t genius because they were perfect. They were saddled with the imperfections and even the bigotry of the past. Native Americans were referred to as savages. Black Americans were fractions of human beings. And women were not mentioned at all.

But those facts and ugly parts of our history don’t distract from our nation’s greatness. In fact, I believe we are an even greater nation, not because we started perfect, but because every generation has successfully labored to make us a more perfect union. [my emphasis]
I've been disturbed recently at how wiling the Democrats and even the independent left in the US to cede any kind of patriotic imagery from the period prior to 1860 to the Republicans and their favorite pseudohistorians like David Barton. And my perspective is very much like what Cory Bookder expressed there.

Yes, Thomas Jefferson was a slaveowner, he believed black people were biologically inferior to whites, and called Native Americans savages. He was also a key leader of the American Revolution and a cutting-edge philosophical and practical advocate for revolutionary democracy in the 18th and 19th century. And all those things are important to understand if we're trying to have a meaningful grasp of that period in history.

If we think that democracy is a good thing, or that it represents some kind of historical progress, then it's hard to say that events like the American Revolution, the adoption of the Constitution and Jefferson's election as President in 1800 and his subsequent Presidency were all good things insofar as they were advances in democracy. Like all major historical processes, they were also contradictory and had their dark sides. From a democratic perspective, there are advances in human history. And also retrogressions. Both even can and do occur at the same time.

But the American left at the moment seems ready to abandon any positive democratic symbolism from the days of the Revolution until at least 1860 to conservatives. Republicans are actually good at using patriotic symbolic and invoking the Founders. And those symbols resonate with many people, not just conservatives. There's a reason that the organized, well-funded astroturf Republican mobilization that began in 2009 called itself the Tea Party. Instead of, say, Americans for a New Gilded Age. Or, White People for White Power.

We're talking here about that strange conceptual badlands area between history as intellectual discipline and history as politics and ideology. Neither of the two sides of that polarity should determine the other. History needs to be written and understood for what it is. And that task shouldn't be subordinated to passing political fads and current ideologies, though there can never be history written in isolation from the historical context in which the historian lives and writes. On the other hand, it's not necessary for a politician evoking a historical theme in support of a current cause to parse every significant issue debated in the professional historical literature.

I note that Barack Obama in his speech to the Democratic Convention also invoked the most famous document written by the slaveowner and Indian-hater Thomas Jefferson and did so to invoke American tradition and to democratize it further. Hillary Clinton also invoked the American Revolution. Although she evoked it to stress the importance of compromise. (What th ...?!?)

But Booker's invocation of love instead of tolerance strikes me as distinctly strange:

And so this is the high call of patriotism. Patriotism is love of country. But you can’t love your country without loving your countrymen and your countrywomen. Now, we don’t always have to agree, but we must be there for each other, we must empower each other, we must find the common ground, and we must build bridges across our differences to pursue the common good.

Let me tell you, we cannot devolve into our — to a nation where our highest aspirations are that we just tolerate each other. We are not called to be a nation of tolerance. We are called to be a nation of love.

That’s why that last line in the Declaration of Independence says it so clearly. It says that we must — to make this nation work, we must mutually pledge to each other our lives and our fortunes and our sacred honor. Tolerance is the wrong way. Tolerance says I’m just going to stomach your right to be different, that if you disappear from the face of the Earth, I’m no better or worse off.

But love — love knows that every American has worth and value, that no matter what their background, no matter what their race or religion or sexual orientation, love, love recognizes that we need each other, that we as a nation are better together, that when we are divided we are weak, we decline, yet when we are united, we are strong, when we are indivisible, we are invincible. [my emphasis]
This is in line with the Clinton campaign's distinctly non-populist theme of unity, Stronger Together.

But it's worth remembering here that Booker is not only a loyal Wall Street Democrat. He's also kissed up to the Christian Right. So it's worth paying attention to what the implications of his love-not-tolerance rhetoric, which superficially invokes Christian themes of loving your enemies and turning the other cheek.

The Young Turks raise a question about the political effectiveness of Cory Booker's approach, which Cenk Uygur mocks in this context as, "Oh, I'm going to smother the fascists with love." Does Donald Trump Have Dirt On Cory Booker? 07/26/2016:

That report points out how easily Booker's love-not-tolerance slogan can function not just as a willingness to give someone who's wronged you another chance but also as yet another excuse for corporate Democrats to refuse to oppose Republicans or even to offer an alternative framing of political issues.

Here is the full Cory Booker speech, Watch Sen. Cory Booker’s full speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention PBS Newshour 06/25/2016:

That report points out how easily Booker's love-not-tolerance slogan can function not just as a willingness to give someone who's wronged you another chance but also as yet another excuse for corporate Democrats to refuse to oppose Republicans or even to offer an alternative framing of political issues. Bipartisanship!

Returning to Mr. Jefferson, this is the text of the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom of 1786 Whereases) which he considered one of the greatest achievements of his life (Digital History 2016):

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

And though we well know that this assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act shall be an infringement of natural right. [my emphasis]

That is one of the great statements of the classical liberal principle of religious tolerance and freedom of religion. It frames religious tolerance in the Enlightenment version of natural rights, which is not so common today.

But the basic democratic principle of religious tolerance and religious freedom is the same today. We also talk about intellectual tolerance in terms of being open to hear other ideas and treating them fairly. But the political/juridical version in the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom and the First Amendment is not about intellectual openness or personal politeness. It’s about the right to not be put in jail or otherwise legally punished for expressing religious beliefs different from those of the party or faction in power.

It’s also about the obligation of the government to prevent people from being physically harmed or persecuted because of their religious beliefs.

Karl Marx gave a rather cynical definition of religious freedom in his Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), “Everyone should be able to attend his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in.“ Impious wording aside, there is nothing distinctly Marxist about this definition of religious freedom. On the contrary, Marx there was expressing his own support of classical liberal-democratic, Jeffersonian/Madisonian version of religious tolerance and freedom of worship expressed in the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom.

In other words, the democratic principle of religious tolerance, as well as tolerance for various kinds of non-religious speech, could be characterized this way: "Tolerance says, I’m just going to stomach your right to be different, that if you disappear from the face of the Earth, I’m no better or worse off.“

Fundamentally, that is exactly what tolerance as a historical, democratic, liberal concept is: I may think you’re worthless and your soul will burn in Hail forever because you don’t worship God the way I do and I’m never going to invite you to have dinner with me to discuss your despicable ideas, but I have to respect and defend your right to be as horribly wrong as you are.

The Western democratic concept of tolerance was decisively influenced by the bloody Wars of Religion of the 1500s in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. Rainer Forst writes in Toleration and Conflict (2013 English edition, pp. 138-9)

Sixteenth-century France provides the backdrop for the decisive further development in the discourse of toleration as political thought and action became increasingly independent of religious authorities. This development was triggered by fierce religious wars leading to a secular understanding of the state, whose counterpart was the increasing autonomy ofindividuals and their revised self-understanding. '

With increasing religious plurality, followed by the Reformation and the ensuing conflicts, the traditional constellation of church and state collapsed and the political question of how to uphold the unity of the state and, most importantly, to preserve peace acquired central importance. The state- or, more precisely, the sovereign understood as an increasingly neutral authority situated above the religious denominations, was proposed as an answer to this question. Thus, out of the crisis of the Wars of Religion there developed a discourse of sovereignty and toleration in which the latter features as the only rational option for securing peace, a discourse in which a 'secular' legitimation of the state, which enjoys sovereign authority above the parties to the religious confiicti (even though it remains bound to the dominant religious denomination), took shape. This idea was first developed by the politiques, a heterogeneous group of politically minded lawyers in France during the second half of the sixteenth century, and in particular by [Jean] Bodin, and it would acquire a distinctive expression in the seventeenth century in the political philosophy of Hobbes.
Our concept of political and religious tolerance developed out of a context in which people had experienced how massively destructive killing each other over religious beliefs could be. Or to go back to Cory Booker’s contemptuous formulation, it was a big advance in freedom and civilized behavior when Europeans decided it was not a good thing for one kind of Christian to think of another that if you disappear from the face of the Earth, I’ll be better off.

Cory Booker essentially sneered at that notion. But both historically and conceptually, that’s the most essential part of what freedom of speech and religion actually mean!

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