Thanksgiving Book Recommendation

By , 25 November, 2010, 5 Comments

I’m surfacing briefly from my food coma induced nap to type out this post, and then I’ll be climbing right back into bed. Those of you who read this blog regularly (all five of you, that is) will know that I’m preoccupied–some might say obsessed–with the conflict between the communitarian and individualist strains in liberal politics. And I keep returning to the subject in large part because I feel I’m doing a lousy job of articulating what I think–or indeed, understanding myself well enough to be articulate. Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, is helping me work through it, and for that, I recommend it to you.

The best analysis of the novel I’ve read is over at Apostrophe, a lit blog by a former schoolmate of mine, Amelia Atlas. Here’s what she says,

There is a totality to what he writes that extends beyond its visible horizons, a moral universe as well as a visual one.  Whether or not one believes in the fundamental enterprise of realism—a conversation for another time—there are few equal practitioners of it working in America today.

… the entirety of Freedom could be taken as one long performance of everything that Mill, in his utilitarian idealism, got wrong.

…In On Liberty, Mill outlines a vision of freedom wherein the only constraints on the actions of any one person are those which entail harm unto others.  He is not so naïve as to believe in an automatic consensus of what constitutes harm, but he does believe that it’s possible for untempered individuality to exist alongside a sense of the common good

…I make no claim that Freedom is by any stretch a kind of one-to-one test of Mill’s harm principle.  What Franzen does do, however, is capture the difference between a conceptual and an experiential politics.  Like his nineteenth-century progenitors, he checks our moral compass against its reality on the ground (this, not simply mimesis, is the heart of the realist tradition).

Really, there’s not much to do except issue a huge +1 to the above.

What spoke to me most about the book is that it solves a problem I have had in explaining my preference for communitarian over individualist liberalism to friends, colleagues etc. What I find is that EVEN when I can make a legitimate case for why the communitarian approach produces a better policy outcome in some area of public life, I face a lot of skepticism for why anyone, personally, should be drawn to it. It always seems to my listener that I’m asking them to trade IN themselves for the community, when in fact the core of communitarianism is the notion that the self is MOST fulfilled when grounded in relationships to others. Very few people seem to buy that notion of positive freedom anymore. Franzen does a pretty good job of making the case in reverse, by showing not only what hollow social doctrines Millian individualism produces, but also–and more importantly–how soul-crushing it is FOR the individuals who participate in it. It is a book about people who believe that they are acting in the general interest by fulfilling themselves personally, and it is a book about the personal tragedy that comes from this delusion.

This makes for tough reading. The characters are unpleasant people, and get worse as the book–and their individualist experiment–progresses. There are no good guys and no light moments of relief from the ugliness the book sets out to expose. It will upset you. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea. One of my former colleagues thought it could have been a better novel if it gave us more lovable faces. But my favorite thing about it was its unrelenting tone, an urgency and desperation, as if Franzen were the last sane man in the asylum screaming to be heard before the individualist madness engulfs him too. The fact is, I’ve not read anything that felt so completely of–and in response to–its moment than this book in about ten years.

Read it. And Happy Thanksgiving!

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5 Responses {+}
  • Samuel

    The paradox of Liberalism to me is its affirmation of communitarian values but the rejection of social conservatism and nationalism.

    Non-authoritarian communitarian societies usually rely heavily on social norms that are enforced in their own way, and which tend to give rise to a strong community identity, or nationalism if the community is within a nation state. This should be uncontroversial, as communitarianism is essentially stating that you have special obligations for the people around you, and therefore, in effect, weaker obligations for everyone else — “America’s interests first.” And social conservatism is essentially placing value on the norms and traditions that keep society fulfilled and in order. Communitarian countries like Sweden embody this nationalism and conservatism.

    Nevertheless, American Liberalism is to large degree rooted in scepticism if not the outward rejection of social norms. The communitarian Liberal is thus someone torn by the reactionary predicate of their outlook and, at the same time, the intense desire not to seem reactionary. In the 21st century this manifests as trying to be at once integrative and multicultural at the same time — meaning genuinely different cultural assumptions, not simply a westerner with darker skin and a taste for Indian melodies. Yet the ‘common good’ and the ‘good in the uncommon’ are not so easily reconciled.

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    @Samuel, a point well taken. it’s something I think about a lot, whether anglo-american liberalism can ever reconcile itself to the cultural communitarianism of a place like Sweden. I don’t know if we can, but I agree that there’s an intellectual coherence to that approach that our liberalism lacks.

  • Samuel

    http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/11/thilo-sarrazin-germany-immigration-multiculturalism-review/

    Here’s a good case in point. The implications for “freedom” are quite obvious, and, in line with social conservatism, culturally oriented. The article Christopher Hitchens wrote on why he supported banning the burqa is a perfect example of communitarian liberal reasoning applied to this sort of situation.

    http://www.slate.com/id/2253493/

    I’m starting to think there is an inherent instability in organizing society, that these competing strains as you describe them are an unsolvable trade-off, around the balance of respecting ‘private individuals’ and fact of ‘living in public’. It’s like there’re many possible combinations but no equilibrium. I look at the success of great economically liberal countries like Poland, Sweden, Japan and see, at the same time, not-so peripheral racism in their mainstream culture. So, on the one hand you have xenophobia and racism in the cultural order, but cosmopolitanism and post-nationalism in the economic order. I for one want to live in a society that is both culturally post-national and economically post-national. But that’s the trade-off. The closest to a success I can think is my own country, Canada, but I can’t help feel that the trade-off is again evident in how generally anti-globalist the public is. It just happens that our parliament allows a minority of classical liberals to have substantial political power.

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    @Samuel, immigration is probably the issue that best encapsulates this tension. it’s definitely one I think about a lot in this context. I think there is a trade-off as you say, but I don’t know that it has to be as ugly as it currently is in several of these societies. Stay tuned–I’ll be writing more about it.

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