[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: Civil Society and Democracy: A Conversation with Michael Walzer

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Civil Society and Democracy: A Conversation with Michael Walzer
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture
Talbot Brewer, interviewer

Citizenship: A Lost Ideal?

          In your early book, Obligations, you argue that the ideal of
    citizenship portrays our highest political possibility, the
    possibility of obeying only laws of our own making. You note, however,
    that this ideal is often invoked as if it were already realized, and
    then it becomes the worst sort of ideological mystification. Still you
    find something redeeming in this ideology. As you put it, "Ideology is
    the social element in which ideals survive, and this may well be true
    even when the ideology is perfectly hypocritical. For if hypocrisy is
    the tribute that vice pays to virtue, then it serves at least to
    sustain the social recognition of virtue" (213). What sort of
    political potency do you think the ideal of citizens as self-rulers
    has today?

          Michael Walzer is a Professor in the School of Social Science at
    the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He has
    written numerous articles and over fifteen books, among them On
    Toleration; Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad; The
    Company of Critics; Interpretation and Social Criticism; and Just and
    Unjust Wars.

          Talbot Brewer is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the
    University of Virginia. His first book, The Bounds of Choice: Unchosen
    Virtues, Unchosen Commitments, is forthcoming from Garland Publishing

          It's not so easy to talk about those ideals and to talk about
    citizenship in a country where, in the last presidential election,
    less than half the people bothered to vote, and where rates of
    political participation in state and local and municipal elections run
    even lower. The old democratic vision, the Rousseauian vision, of a
    society of active citizens where people "fly" to the assemblies, where
    as Rousseau says, they derive a larger proportion of their happiness
    from their public commitments and activities than from any private
    concerns--that vision of democratic self-rule just doesn't seem
    evocative now in an American setting.

          And maybe it's worth speculating on the different meanings of
    "democracy" in a society that is also as committed as we are to
    liberal and individualistic values and to the pursuit of happiness or
    the development of private life. It may be that American citizenship
    is going to involve a fairly low scale of routine political activity
    interrupted occasionally by upsurges of popular feeling like the civil
    rights movement of the `60s, and that we can't hope within a liberal
    and individualistic environment to sustain the upsurges, so the aim
    should be to keep the routine engagement as high as you can and then
    to cultivate the opportunities for participatory eruptions on specific
    issues when those seem urgently necessary or simply properly

          Some people thought that environmentalism and feminism, the new
    social movements of the `70s and `80s, would produce a sharp increase
    in participation of the kind we saw in the `60s and the `30s. So far
    they haven't, but they have sustained themselves above the routine of
    citizen engagement and so they have also sustained the possibility of
    a larger-scale engagement on specific sets of issues. But the
    Rousseauian ideal, I think, is lost to us and I'm not sure that an
    effort to reproduce it--that is, to get 85% of the people to "fly" to
    the assemblies and to vote--is at all the right thing to do.

          When you get sudden increases in participation that don't arise
    out of new organizations and movements, then you have a dangerous
    influx of--I'm not sure what the right word is--of uneducated voters.
    The role of parties, movements, and the associations of civil society
    is to educate and to produce competent citizens. If you don't have
    organizations of that sort and you get an upsurge of new people who
    haven't voted before, who haven't participated before, the outcomes
    are more likely to be ugly than democratically beneficial. I think,
    for example, of the Nazi vote in the early `30s as the product of lots
    of new voters, people who hadn't voted before and hadn't worked
    through the union movement and the Social Democratic party or the
    Catholic parties, but were raw and open to demagogic appeals. The best
    protection against demagogy in democratic life is associational
    richness, and if you're lacking that, then it's not clear to me that
    your goal should be very high levels of participation.

          Perhaps our ideal of citizenship is different from Rousseau's
    ideal--more like citizen as recipient of benefits from the state--and
    the aspiration to self-rule has dropped out of our picture of what the
    status of citizen involves. Or, perhaps the public holds on to the
    aspiration to self-rule, but finds current political practices and
    structures resistant to their influence or will in a politically
    de-energizing way. It sounds as if you're favoring the first

          I think both are true, which isn't a very bold statement.
    Certainly the sense of citizenship as entitlement is now very powerful
    in American life. But the fact is that we still have a fairly
    large-scale engagement in the associations of civil society and in
    various kinds of single-issue political movements and organizations
    that come out of civil society, right now many of them on the
    right--anti-abortion, pro-capital punishment, prayer in the schools.
    These are issues around which people do mobilize, and even someone who
    disagrees with their goals has to recognize that those mobilizations
    are acts of engagement. So, the question is: Why isn't there more
    citizen engagement of that sort across the political spectrum, and
    particularly--where it used to be so strong--on the left?

          The standard response is the one you gave: Well, nobody is
    giving them something to vote for. That may be true, but it can't be
    the whole story because there are, in fact, organizers out there, some
    of them left over from the `60s, some of them newly mobilized by the
    revivalist leadership of the AFL-CIO; there are organizers in the
    field, and they are encountering a degree of resistance among people
    who ``objectively''--as we used to say--need to organize themselves.
    Why that is so is not at all clear to me.

          Hasn't the mobility of capital and the globalization of the
    economy objectively reduced the bargaining power of labor workers in
    this country to a degree where there may be some rational basis for
    being suspicious of organization as a strategy? Could that be part of
    an account of demobilization on the left?

          Economists disagree fairly radically about the impact of
    globalization, and the extent to which it undermines sovereignty and
    the ability of a single government to shape its own economy. Of
    course, I would like to believe those economists who say that it's
    still possible for a political movement in a country as powerful as
    the United States to shape the economy significantly. I hope they're
    right. But the most successful strike in the last couple of years was
    a strike in a non-globalizable industry, that is, UPS. They can't
    deliver packages in Mexico City. They've got to deliver them in New
    York. So that was an industry that couldn't threaten to leave, and it
    did produce the biggest union victory in recent years. Whereas in
    industries that are more mobile and more globally organized, unions
    have so far been less successful.

          Still, a stronger AFL-CIO would have produced a different NAFTA
    Treaty, and one which would have served the interests of both the
    American workers and Mexican workers better than the actual Treaty. So
    I'm not sure the rationale is gone, but something is gone. I think the
    factors are, in part, historical and cultural. The old working class
    was culturally distinct--perhaps less so in the United States than in
    Europe but here too--in its language, in its dress, in the
    cohesiveness of its neighborhoods, in the patterns of self-help, in
    the religious culture. There was a working class world, and it was the
    often-unacknowledged foundation of a great deal of political activity.
    That seems to have disintegrated with the impact of mass culture, of a
    certain degree of affluence, of geographic even more than social

Reinvigorating Civil Society

          In your recent book, On Toleration, you lament the fact that the
    poorest and politically weakest members of our polity have, as you
    say, "come to be spoken for and also exploited by a growing company of
    racial and religious demagogues and tin-horn charismatics" (98-9). I
    wonder if you could say a bit more about how this has come to be, and
    what the prospects for improvement might be.

          I probably wrote those lines in the aftermath of the so-called
    Million Man March organized by Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.
    Since I grew up politically in part with the civil rights movement in
    this country, and went South a number of times to write about it in
    1960, I have a vision of what the mobilization of Americans committed
    to racial justice ought to be like--in part because I have a sense of
    what it was like. Now, what caused the collapse of the civil rights
    movement in the `60s? Some people on the right say its success caused
    its collapse. It achieved much of what it aimed for and so it slowly
    disappeared, which is the right thing for political movements to do
    after they have achieved most of what they aimed for. There is a grain
    of truth, but only a grain of truth, in that. The more visible legal
    forms of discrimination were eliminated from American life, and we see
    the beginnings of a black middle class of a different kind than
    existed before. But in fundamental ways the movement didn't achieve
    what it aimed for. It didn't produce the mobilization among black
    Americans that it aimed for, or it didn't sustain that mobilization.
    It didn't produce the multiplicity of organizations that were a
    feature of working class mobilization in the 19th century.

          I think there was a clear aim of sustaining a whole
    organizational structure alongside the churches out of which many of
    the civil rights leaders came. They wanted better schools, they wanted
    newspapers of their own, they wanted magazines, they wanted drama
    societies, they wanted summer camps, they wanted athletic
    associations--the same kind of richness that social democracy produced
    for the European working class. They wanted all of that for black
    Americans and didn't achieve it. And the result was an increasingly
    radical polarization among black Americans between those who made it
    into the new middle class, and the larger mass, especially of urban
    blacks, and the emergence of new patterns of alienation from whites,
    which only looked like they were being overcome in the `60s movements.

          So it's in that context--it's in the context of the decline of
    cities; of black political leaders taking over cities at the depth of
    their decline, so that they were without the resources that office is
    supposed to bring and did bring to successive generations of ethnic
    immigrant politicians; the rise in crime; the drug culture; the
    weakening of the hold of the black churches in many communities--all
    this produced the situation that I described in the quotation with
    which you began. And I thought that there was an obligation on the
    part of black intellectuals to talk about what had happened, to
    acknowledge the failures, to speak out against some of the visible
    consequences of those failures, like Farrakhan, and to search for ways
    of redeeming the `60s vision.

          At the beginning of On Toleration, you write that toleration is
    "the work of democratic citizens." But on completing the book, it
    seemed to me at least that you were calling for something more
    demanding than toleration. You believe that we ought to use political
    means self-consciously to reinvigorate a diverse civil society. This
    involves not merely toleration of diverse political voices but an
    active effort to promote associational membership, ethnic and
    religious affiliation, unions, neighborhood groups, youth centers,
    charter schools, community arts, and so forth--many of the things that
    you just named as original goals of the civil rights movement. I can
    imagine some critics objecting that this would represent a deep strain
    on the public political culture, not to mention an abandonment of the
    liberal ideal of neutrality. What do you think of such worries?

          Let's begin with the worry that led to this argument before we
    get to the worries produced by the argument. Toleration is supposed to
    be the solution to a problem posed by seemingly irreconcilable
    differences--religious, cultural, ethnic, whatever. So the original
    structure of the argument is: "difference requires toleration." I
    have, so to speak, been born into a highly successful regime of
    toleration, within which difference has begun to be blurred, and the
    argument now takes not the form "difference requires toleration" but
    "toleration requires difference." If you're to have a liberal regime
    of toleration, there have to be diverse groups--with significantly
    different conceptions of the world, the good life and the good
    society--to be tolerated. If the regime of toleration is so bland that
    it blurs all the differences, or if difference comes to name
    individual idiosyncrasy rather than group culture, then there's
    nothing to tolerate.

          I think the ideal of a liberal regime of toleration, one that
    makes it possible to live with significant differences and in a single
    political community, is very attractive. And looking at the decline of
    difference, and the decline of the organizations--cultural and
    religious--that have sustained it, I'm led to the proposal that you
    just described: Maybe we need now consciously to support difference,
    and to support the organizations that sustain it.

          Take, for example, the argument of Robert Putnam's very famous
    article--every American social scientist dreams of writing an article
    that becomes that famous--"Bowling Alone," a description of
    associational life in the United States. Many of its details are
    disputed quite fiercely, and it's possible he got some things wrong.
    But it's a description of associational life accompanied by a series
    of graphs, and all the graphs have the same straight line moving down
    from left to right on the page. There are something like 16 graphs and
    they all look the same. They describe membership in unions, attendance
    at meetings of parent-teacher associations, participation in the old
    fraternal organizations--Kiwanis, Lions, Elks, and those kinds of
    groups--reading a daily newspaper, voting; and it's the same line. A
    study of that sort simply documents the anxiety that I was feeling
    that the kind of associational life that sustains cultural difference
    and gives it potency is in decline. Now, exactly how radical a decline
    we can argue about, but it's in decline.

          It seemed to me that there were already some precedents for
    remedies. The public subsidy of the civil/social realm, the public
    subsidy of associational life, including religious life, in the United
    States (despite the so-called wall between church and state) is
    already very well advanced. It provides, in fact, a model for what we
    should be doing, but doing more extensively and more self-consciously,
    because there is so much denial in the United States, so much

          When the Republicans came to power in `94 and started cutting
    the welfare budget, the loudest screams of protests went up from the
    religious organizations--the Catholic charities, the Jewish
    federations, and so on--and The New York Times ran an extraordinary
    article with graphs showing the portion of the budget of Catholic
    charities and of Jewish and Lutheran charities that came from tax
    money, and the percentages were very high. I think close to 60% of the
    money Catholic charities spend is tax money, and it comes in all kinds
    of ways. For example, we have a voucher plan for nursing homes. We've
    rejected vouchers so far for parochial schools, but we have vouchers
    for parochial nursing homes. My wife's mother is in a Jewish nursing
    home near Trenton. The budget must be 60% tax money because people
    bring in Medicare benefits, and Medicare entitlement is a voucher. You
    can bring it to a Jewish or a Catholic or a Lutheran nursing home, and
    it's perfectly all right that a rabbi comes on Saturday, and they
    celebrate the Jewish holidays, and there's a kosher kitchen. The tax
    money flows in. I think it does mean you couldn't turn away a
    non-Jewish applicant, but you don't get many non-Jewish applicants for
    a nursing home of that kind. So in effect, we are sponsoring, with
    federal money, religious welfare organizations.

          Now, if you look closely, you will immediately see that the
    communities that get the most federal money are the best organized,
    already the strongest politically in the United States. Black Baptists
    get some federal money and run some programs, but they get a lot less
    than white Lutherans, say, because they are politically weaker and
    have fewer trained professionals who know how to get at the available
    money. So if you want a vibrant associational life, and one that
    sustains cultural difference--that means it also has to provide
    life-cycle services, because that's the crucial way that you sustain
    cultural difference, from day care centers to nursing homes. They have
    to be provided in a universal fashion for everybody. But there also
    has to be a capacity within civil society to provide them in a more
    particular way. And this has to be subsidized. In a society where all
    of the communities are dispersed and lack the coercive power to
    tax--and they also lack, because of their dispersion, the forms of
    social pressure that once existed within these communities--they have
    to be helped, and I don't see anything wrong with helping them.

Liberal and Communitarian Fears

          I want to talk in general terms about the liberal-communitarian
    debate in which you've been a key figure for many years. One way to
    characterize the wellspring of this controversy is as a conflict of
    intuitions about what is most to be feared. The primary fear of
    communitarians seems to be that we might lose our capacity for worthy
    and life-animating convictions in a swamp of consumerism, careerism,
    television addiction, etc. The primary liberal fear seems to be that
    our life-animating convictions might be so thoroughly at odds with
    those of others, and have such a strong grip on us, that we'll be
    unable to sustain any common life at all, or to find any common ground
    for political decisions. If we view the debate in this way, it does
    alter what some have taken to be its fixed points, since it portrays
    the communitarians as rebels against an increasingly widely-shared but
    debased common culture, rather than as champions of a common culture,
    and it portrays liberals as would-be forgers of a not-yet-established
    political community, even though this would be a very thin one.

          You seem to understand both of these fears and to have an
    interest in both of these projects. I have a nest of questions here.
    Do you think that the liberal/communitarian categorizations are
    useful? Where would you locate yourself in the context of these

          I'm sympathetic to both of these anxieties, and I feel them
    differently in different times and places. The issue, exactly the way
    you posed it, was best expressed for me by an Israeli friend at a
    conference in Jerusalem, who said to an American communitarian
    political theorist (not me but a friend): "For you community is a
    dream; for us it is a trauma." Living in Israel with ultra-orthodox
    political parties--not just religious communities but politically
    mobilized religious communities--I think the vision that you
    attributed to liberals, the fear of the loss of any kind common
    culture, is very powerful. And there's another fear that liberals also
    express, which is also justified, that communities of that kind (I've
    just spent six months in Jerusalem, so I have a very vivid conception
    of a mobilized ultra-orthodox hard-core fundamentalist community) are
    not only a threat to the unity or the civic culture of the country;
    they are also oppressive to the weakest of their own members, and
    above all to women. So, many liberal critics of communitarianism are
    simply supporters of the individual rights that these communities
    trample on. And increasingly feminist critics of communitarianism are,
    so to speak, driven to where perhaps they didn't want to be--that is,
    to a liberal politics--in order to defend women who have no chance to
    defend themselves in these communities. So those fears are very real.

          One of the questions that any communitarian has to address, and
    many of them don't, is the question: "At what point do you call for
    state intervention to protect individual rights?" It's a small version
    of the larger question of intervention in international society, and I
    would not want to turn away from that question. I think that at a
    minimum--maybe we should not stay at the minimum, but at a
    minimum--you've got to preserve the right of exit from these
    communities. I'm not exactly sure how to do that, but there has to be
    a way of getting out.

          Would you say further that the way of getting out has to be
    relatively palatable or not very costly? I take it you don't think
    it's sufficient for apostasy not to be a crime.

          No, that's not sufficient. Since leaving these communities
    commonly means a complete break with family and friends, you can't
    make it costless. It'll always be costly, but you have to make sure
    that there are no civil penalties, no disabilities, no discrimination
    after the fact of leaving--in all those ways you've got to protect the
    people who break away.

          Now the harder questions--we've so far avoided these--are the
    questions of schools. You can protect people who leave, but those are
    going to be grown-ups or at least adolescents. But what about
    children? There are some of these communities that teach the boys how
    to pray and something of the religious culture, but teach the girls
    nothing at all. So what do you do? Do you refuse to pay for the
    schools? Do you insist on regulating the schools? Do you enforce a
    certain curriculum? You can prescribe a curriculum, but if you don't
    go in and teach it, it will be taught with a nod and a wink.

          In the Israeli case, the religious schools do not teach secular
    history. They don't teach anything about democratic government,
    although these kids are going to grow up to vote. They are taught
    nothing about democratic values or the right of opposition. That's
    where the hardest questions arise, it seems to me, in the degree of
    control over cultural reproduction that the state is going to
    exercise, or parents are going to exercise.

          This issue is addressed in the Supreme Court case Wisconsin v.
    Yoder, where Justice Burger argues that Amish children ought to be
    exempted from certain mandatory school requirements, in part because
    of the distinctiveness of the Amish belief system and the presence in
    the public schools of an "hydraulic pressure towards conformity" with
    an alien mass culture. Increasingly, it seems, this is becoming not
    merely an Amish problem but a general problem: mass culture has a grip
    on the socialization of our children that significantly infringes on
    the capacities of parents to shape their children's conception of the

          I'm sympathetic to that Supreme Court decision. I think that was
    an example of judicial wisdom, though possibly not of principle. It
    may be that they effected a compromise, which is not what courts are
    supposed to do, on the Dworkin model that distinguishes what courts do
    from what the legislatures do. But it was a wise decision. One of the
    things that made it possible is the general Amish withdrawal from
    political life. It's much safer to accept the exemption in the case of
    the Amish because these children are not going to vote in our
    elections. They're not going to determine, along with our children,
    the general fate of the country. If they were, we might be a little
    more insistent on shaping their education and making sure that they
    know at least some of the things that we think citizens ought to know.

          Now, the general weakness of American cultural communities is
    partly a consequence of liberal culture, and of social and geographic
    mobility, and of the nature of immigrant communities cut off from the
    territorial base that turns out to be very important in sustaining a
    common culture. The weaknesses of these communities are, I think, a
    peculiar feature of American life. It's not a universal feature. It's
    a particular problem, it seems to me, of immigrant societies and of
    large-scale states spread across vast distances. This gives rise to
    the communitarian anxiety about the loss of cultural particularity and
    the thinness of the common culture.

          What young people educated in this world of mass culture,
    commercial culture--what they're going to be like is unclear to me. I
    think that the short-term impacts are probably exaggerated. We have
    good reason to believe in the capacity of families to sustain
    religious and other particularist cultures over very long periods of
    time, without the support or even against the pressure of mass media
    and commercialism. So I just don't know how great the danger is.

          But what we see is weakness in cultural communities, high levels
    of intermarriage, low levels of participation in the core activities
    of the communities. You may know John Higham's image of the ethnic
    communities in the United States as having a core and kind of
    spreading periphy. The core struggles to hold the periphery. The
    periphery rides free on the work of the core. The core will often
    sustain, for example, religious services that people on the periphery
    will use at birth and death and maybe once or twice in between; they
    count on the core to provide those services, but they're not willing
    to pay for them. Participation in the core seems to be less than it
    used to be. More and more people live on the periphery, and the
    peripheries are spread wide and they overlap with the peripheries from
    other cores. And there's general confusion about identity.

          All that leads me to look for some sort of remedy in the
    strengthening of associational life--and because of the free-rider
    problem, in subsidizing the cores. But exactly how great the danger
    is, and what's really happening out on the peripheries, where the
    peripheries overlap, I don't know.

Post-Modern and Cosmopolitan Selves

          You've used the phrase "the post-modern self" as a place-holder
    for whatever's happening on the peripheries. And this idea of free
    ridership surfaces in your discussion of the rise of post-modern
    selves. You argue that it can be fulfilling for isolated individuals
    to pick and choose amongst elements of cultures that aren't their own,
    incorporating bits of cultures into a cosmopolitan identity, but that
    cosmopolitanism can only be vibrant where it is free riding. That is,
    the elements that the cosmopolitan self picks out of traditional
    cultures would be pallid if the cores weren't holding. So universal
    cosmopolitanism is not nearly as attractive as isolated cases of

          Right. I was once involved in a public debate with a strong
    defender of cosmopolitanism, who described his own life. He was a
    cosmopolitan intellectual, born in one place, educated in another, now
    living in a third, and continuing to visit the three places and
    celebrating his peripheral engagement in all three--and, it seemed to
    me, forgetting that his peripheral engagement in all three was
    dependent, was parasitic, on other people sitting still in each. He
    could not enjoy his cosmopolitanism without the parochialism of some
    other people. There's a lot that is very attractive in cosmopolitan
    intellectual life, but I find it less attractive when it doesn't
    acknowledge the value of the particularisms that make it possible.

          So when it celebrates itself as an exemplar of autonomy and
    denigrates embeddedness in traditional ways of life as instances of
    failure to be autonomous or something of that sort, then this is when
    you find it unpalatable?

          Right. I become most communitarian in the face of that version
    of cosmopolitanism.

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