Rorty, Rawls, Oakeshott, Neuhaus

The Damon Linker-Matt Yglesias conversation about the scope of "political liberalism" is worth a few moments. Start with Matt’s latest post on the subject and read on back. I think Matt is right, by the way, although it’s been a while since I read either Rawls or Rorty. Both agree on this fundamental piece of non-fundamentalism, as expressed by Matt:

The goal is to hive off an autonomous political domain in which we bracket our views on broader, deeper questions and engage one another on the basis of a much-shallower but more widely held set of views about the conception of a citizen.

When I was studying political theory at Harvard, this was the big debate. For my part, I do not see why one cannot strive both to maintain the possibility of Truth or Meaning (or even one’s own private mastery of such), while treating political interaction in a liberal democracy as a necessarily shallower enterprise. But then, I think seeing politics as a lesser form of human activity is more conducive to traditional conservatives than to left-liberals. Oakeshott tackled all of this, more elegantly and more brilliantly, long before Rawls or Rorty (as Rorty belatedly saw). But Oakeshott was a "conservative" (boo! hiss!) and so ignored by most academics until the last few years.

Ross responds by arguing that Richard John Neuhaus and his theocon friends are only interested in persuasion and changing the culture, not using the levers of politics and the law to insist on their religious convictions. Please.

If Neuhaus et al were merely content, say, to voice their view that gay people are "intrisincally disordered" or that all abortions are morally evil, no one would be that exercized. But Neuhaus actually wanted to amend the constitution to make gay inferiority part of the meaning of America in its foundational document. And the theocons want to use the full power of the state to enforce their views on abortion – regardless of anyone else’s views. Ross’ apparent unawareness of the obvious distinction between Neuhaus’s position and pluralist, political liberalism/conservatism is – how to out this nicely? – unconvincing.

It is, moreover, remarkable to me that in America, it has been conservatism that has recently been captive to dogma, fundamentalism, moral absolutism, and the belief that politics can and must change the world. Just as Rawls was finally conceding the deepest conservative point about the limits of politics and human thought, the "conservatives" were abandoning it for utopianism, theological politics, and "ending tyranny on earth." Yes, that is the core argument of my book. It’s an argument that others seem more receptive to than they were last fall. Pity Ross appears to be stuck with the meddling certainty of the theocons.