Monday, September 27, 2010

Barrington Moore and Martin Peretz

Brad DeLong gave an excellent talk on the "Barrington Moore Problem," at the 50th anniversary of Harvard's social studies program that's gotten so much attention of late. Barrington Moore attempted to explain how a Lincoln could arise in one situation, a Mao in another. Or, more closely related, an Adenauer and a Hitler.

Marty Peretz, who proclaimed recently that "Muslims" are not "deserving" of First Amendment protections was there.

DeLong decided that he could not avoid the implications.

Can the Barrington Moore problematic serve a role similar in the next generation to the one it has served in the past two?

Echoing Seyla, I would say not. For one thing, the era of modern history that the BMP was created to grapple with has indeed come to its end. For another thing, the Enlightenment preconditions for the BMP have not yet been secured.

First, Adolf Hitler is now sixty-five years in his grave. Societies in transition to urban-market-mass political-economic modernity and how to keep more Lenins and Hitlers from arising in them does not seem to be the globe's most urgent problem any more.

Second, our most recent modern monsters seem of a different and perhaps older kind: Saddam Hussein always reminded me more of the Caliph Uthman or of Mehmet II than of Hitler. Hamas, Al Qaeda, and Hezbollah seem more like updated versions of the Assassins of Syria plus plastic explosives rather than of the Comintern. Rwanda seems more like the Sicilian Vespers with radios than like the terror-famine of the Great Leap Forward.

Third, the Barrington Moore problematic assumes that we have consensus, at least within our own circle of debate, that the hard-won victories of the Enlightenment are the bedrock that we seek to protect and advance. Roosevelt had four freedoms. Freedom from want--that is, freedom to earn a living, freedom to not have to spend one's life frantically trying to avoid penury, what Locke called the right to property. Freedom from fear--that is, freedom from arbitrary arrest, from being beaten up on the street corner by people who don't like who one is, or who don't think you have a right to live here, what Locke called the right to life and liberty. Freedom of speech and expression--saying what you think and making the laws.

And, of course, there is the first of Roosevelt's four freedoms, the oldest of the Enlightenment freedoms, perhaps the most hard-won in the seventeenth century and the pattern for the others, John Locke's toleration, freedom of religion--freedom to peaceably assemble with one's fellow believers to worship one's own conception of God. You cannot even start thinking in the Barrington Moore problematic unless you start with consensus that the Enlightenment freedoms are the bedrock of what we want to protect and advance.

It is at this point in my argument that I found that I could not not notice Martin Peretz. Do I have to pretend," he asked, "that I think Muslims are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which they are so likely to abuse?" That is a speech act that not only asserts that people called "Muslims" don't "deserve" the "privilege" of Lockean toleration, but also that he will be pretending if he ever says that they do.

To this the only appropriate response is: "What the fracking frack?"

So not only are the problems the BMP addresses not our biggest problems here in the North Atlantic--they appear to have been largely solved--and not only are our current monsters arising from other sources than contemplated, but we don't even have consensus in this room on the basic Lockean bedrock which has to serve as the foundation on which the whole structure was built. We thus need something more advanced--that deals with problems we have not yet solved rather than those we have--focused on very real but lesser threats to liberty and prosperity than the high totalitarianisms--but also something more basic as well. We are thus, historically, both too late and too early for that intellectual project to make sense. In his contribution to "A Critique of Pure Tolerance" Robert Paul Wolff could claim that basic Enlightenment issues were settled, that mere Lockean tolerance was not something at which we should aim--that we should aim "beyond pluralism and beyond tolerance." But surely we cannot aim beyond tolerance until and unless we have at least gotten into its neighborhood?

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