The quotation below is taken from a paper written by Alasdair MacIntyre, an Irish Catholic philosopher and social thinker who has authored 30 books and taught at many prestigious universities throughout his career. He is now in residence at the University of Notre Dame. I listened to a recording of him reading it a couple of weeks ago and it has stuck with me.
In his paper, he discusses what he calls “heedlessness,” which he defines as the act of ignoring structural problems in society and refusing to confront them. He proposes solutions, but stresses that such solutions presuppose an end to our collective heedlessness.
The following quotation from his paper concerns our current conception of politics in the United States. It reflects what I’ve been thinking myself on that subject for about 10 years now:
“This conception of politics is itself one more source of the heedlessness with which I have been concerned throughout this paper. On this view of politics, there are, on the one hand, “them”, the needy and deprived […], and on the other hand, us, who have as our task, among others, the task of solving, or at least alleviating, this problem.
But when politicians try to say what the problem is, they falter badly. And they do so because they are in the grip of an ideology, what I will call the “liberalism vs. conservatism” ideology. The notion is that there is a spectrum of possible views running from a liberalism that sets no limit on government intervention in the economy to a conservatism that, so far as is possible, favors a limited government that upholds law and order and security from external threats. Liberals define themselves by their opposition to conservatism, conservatives by their opposition to liberalism. Extremism and moderation are defined in terms of this spectrum.
Each set of opposing views comes to politics with its own set of solutions to social problems, but each defines the problems in terms of its own particular proposed solutions, so rendering the actual problems invisible.
What, then, is wrong with this dominant but absurd ideology?
First, it frames political solutions in terms of the State in one hand and the market on the other, as though these could still be contrasted as they were in the 19th century.
But what we confront today is a new leviathan, the State and the market, a monstrous amalgam of the public and the private, of interlocking and interacting corporations and government agencies of heterogeneous relationships. The largest unsolved problem, or rather set of problems, is how to make the various parts of the leviathan, which in the United States includes the Congress, accountable.
Secondly, the dominant ideology lacks any adequate conception of common goods as they have been characterized in this paper, and therefore of the kind of justice that is required if such goods are to be achieved. It’s because it lacks an adequate conception of justice that this ideology so largely ignores the facts of structural injustice. And it’s because it ignores those facts that it contributes to the general heedlessness.
Presently, American political debate is the opium of the American people.”
That last line is, I think, particularly on point.
I don’t know how many of you used to read Calvin and Hobbes in the paper back when it was still in print, but I did. I have several books full of its old strips. There is one that I remember particularly well. In it, Calvin and Hobbes are reading a book. Calvin looks up at Hobbes and says, “Karl Marx says that religion is the opiate of the masses. What do you suppose that means?” Hobbes shrugs his shoulders and they both walk away. The TV set, which has been sitting in the background, then says, “It means Karl Marx hasn’t seen anything yet!”
I don’t watch cable news precisely because of what Professor MacIntyre says about current American political debate, but if I’m out somewhere and I see it on TV I almost always think of this comic strip as I watch it, especially if it’s MSNBC or Fox News.
Marx really hadn’t seen anything yet.
‘Til next week.
Caleb Baumgardner is a local attorney. He can be reached at [email protected]