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MLK: Will His Legacy Be Honored? January 18, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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The occasions on which we honor our fallen heroes are an opportunity to assess our own willingness to sacrifice for a larger purpose.

Today we should be wondering whether we deserve Dr. King’s legacy.

Juan Cole writes:

We honor a man from a different age, when Americans seemed to care about social injustice enough to come out into the streets and risk police dogs, tear gas, and imprisonment. When depression came from being unable to ensure that no American child went to bed hungry, not from being unable to stay in Avatar-world. Those in King’s tradition stand on the verge of being routed, on health care, the environment, bank regulation, abolition of the ‘PATRIOT’ acts assaults on the constitution, and the rendering of warfare a permanent institution in American life, like interstate highways and social security. If we are routed, will we effectively protest? Will there be consequences for the insurance companies, the arms dealers, the warmongering ‘think tanks,’ the advertisers, the lobbyists who mobilized to preserve the unjust old order? Or in today’s world is it enough to put up a facebook page and text a dollar to our favorite causes? Is that the kind of thing that would have satisfied Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

As is evident in comment sections throughout the blogosphere, too many liberals are ready to abandon the fight because reactionaries won’t play nice.

Reactionaries never play nice. That is why they are in power.

This is a lesson Obama needs to learn. But his critics on the left also need to be reminded that fighting injustice is a perpetual task that requires great sacrifice and endurance.

Human beings have not yet discovered a way to prevent the accumulation of power; and that means we are always outgunned and always will be.

It is fashionable to sneer at Obama’s appeal to  “hope” during his campaign. But that is all liberals have because it supports the will to persist. Conservatives have the power and money. All we have is hope that through extraordinary effort some injustice can be removed.

That is Dr. King’s legacy.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


The Social Brain and Liberalism’s Revival August 24, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Political Philosophy, Science.
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Journalist Madeleine Bunting claims that contemporary science is demonstrating that our notions of free will and autonomy are “fairytales about as fanciful and as implausible as goblins.”

That is a bit hyperbolic but the general thrust of her article is right. Instead of claiming that free will and autonomy are illusions, it is more accurate to say that our definitions of these concepts in our tradition are fundamentally misleading. As Bunting reports:

There are two other areas of this new brain research which are arguably more important. First, we have much underestimated the social nature of the brain: how primed it is to recognise, interpret and respond all the time to the input of others and how that lays down patterns which govern our behaviour. We are herd-like animals who show a strong tendency to conform with group norms; what makes our brains so much bigger than other primates is this remarkable capacity for social skills such as empathy, co-operation and fairness. Instead of the old metaphor of individuals as discrete entities like billiard balls, we need to think instead of them as nodes in a relationship network.

This research doesn’t show that we lack autonomy. It does demonstrate that our capacity for self-governance is dependent on others. Autonomy is relational. We direct our lives through out capacity to respond to what we care about.

The second area of astonishing discoveries is in the plasticity of the brain. We talk of “hardwiring” (computers have generated many misleading metaphors for the brain) but in fact, the brain can be changed. Parts of the brain can learn entirely new tricks. Neural pathways are not fixed, and even much of the damage done by deprivation in childhood can be repaired with the right circumstances of example, support and determination. We can shape our own brains to create new habits that we might have thought we were not capable of – it’s a long, hard process but it is possible.

Notice that this doesn’t imply that we lack free will. It means that we have to define free will in terms of our capacity to learn. Learning modifies the brain in ways that enable new patterns of behavior to emerge. Unlike older notions of free will that require that free actions interrupt the causal influences of the past and the environment (which to my mind is an incoherent idea), newer versions of free will view our flexible responses to changing environmental circumstances as a product of our sensitivity to causal influence. We are not robots because of our sensitivity to causal influence, not in spite of it.

But this idea is not really new. Aristotle entertained a version of it; so did Hume. But until recently, it was not highly regarded—that is changing in part because of what we are learning about the brain.

And Bunting is exactly right about the political implications of this research.

This all may seem remote from politics, but it’s not. Jon Cruddas has a habit of startling audiences by arguing that the regeneration of the left requires a convincing new account of what it is to be human. Are human beings self-interested creatures or are they collaborative? The right’s argument for market capitalism is rooted in the former but the research on the social brain supports the latter. Put crudely, we are social creatures with an inbuilt tendency to co-operate and seek out each other’s approval and that is probably more important in determining day-to-day behaviours than narrowly conceived self-interest.

The rightwing emphasis on the individual’s capacity to triumph over their environment through willpower is undermined by the research which shows how childhood deprivation leaves such scarring on the brain. While the challenge to the left is to recognise that the myopic tendencies of the brain to privilege the short term has been held in check by institutions and traditions which can safeguard longer-term interests. Perhaps that requires greater understanding on the left of how such institutions operate and a revision of assumptions about why they restrict individual autonomy.

This is essentially my argument in Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America. We need to think of autonomy as relational and institutionalize the motive of care, which requires sensitivity to one’s environment and long-term commitment to the institutions on which we depend.

Philosophical theories don’t need empirical support for their intelligibility; but it is nice to have.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The End of Liberalism as We Knew It July 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy, politics.
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Jim DeMint (R, SC) said last week that health care was Obama’s waterloo. Republicans, who at the moment seem to lack resources, ammunition, and leadership, probably should not draw comparisons with Napoleon, but DeMint’s remarks were in one respect prescient.

Health care is unlikely to be Obama’s waterloo, but it may mark liberalism’s waterloo, at least the liberalism to which we have been accustomed.

Anyone paying attention to political news last week was aware of two events: (1) Health care reform is stymied in the House and Senate over disagreements about how to pay for the program, and (2) the California legislature passed a budget bill that contains draconian cuts to education, social services, and local governments.

These two events are related in that they reveal the essential outlines of political strategies going forward.

In Washington, the Democratic health care reform proposals are held up by intransigent Republicans, who want no part of health care reform, and conservative Democrats who worry about costs, taxes and the withdrawal of affection from insurance industry lobbyists and their money.

This despite overwhelming public support for health care reform.

Although it seems irrational to stand in the way of a popular program that solves problems, Republicans know that if Obama succeeds with health care reform, they lose the argument that government is always the problem, never the solution. If they lose that argument, they lose the war.

Meanwhile, in California, because budget rules give a minority veto power, a few Republicans along with the Governator were able to convince the Democratic legislature to vote for severe cuts to education, home health services, and local governments—all popular recipients of state revenues. And without question this budget will worsen the recession in California.

It seems a bit of madness for a struggling minority party to cancel popular programs that will hurt voters, but, unfortunately, there is logic to their madness. The common denominator in both Washington and Sacramento is the willingness of Republicans to make it impossible for government to function. This is the aim of Republican strategy and it is rational because a dysfunctional government benefits Republicans.

The political calculation is this. Roughly 30% of the voting public self-identify as conservative and reliably vote Republican. Republicans can count on them, but their numbers are not sufficient to win many elections.

However, Republicans also know that there are legions of voters, Republican, Independent, and Democrat who, while acknowledging the importance of government, fret about whether government is competent to do anything worthwhile.  Mistrust of government, politicians, and bureaucracy, along with doubts about whether they can really solve problems, runs deep in this country. Years of Republican misrule have reinforced those doubts. If that is followed by drift and inertia while the Democrats are in charge, voters will be even more demoralized and cynical despite Obama’s hopeful rhetoric.

Cynicism and demoralization always play into conservative hands because they reinforce the belief that government is powerless to do good—the antithesis of modern liberalism.

Thus, the Republican strategy in the U.S. as well as California is to gum up the works, make the Democrats own the mess, and hope that enough people will be arbitrarily angry at the party in power to put Republicans back in control.

This strategy makes liberalism as we have known it irrelevant.

Contemporary  liberalism has always tended to attribute good intentions to its adversaries. It has been much enamored with the task of achieving “overlapping consensus” * by invoking Deweyan notions of “come let us reason together” in order to achieve common goals.

The liberal assumption was that our political community shares sufficient commitment to liberty, equality, and a well-ordered society so that we all have an interest in finding fair rules of governance despite our substantial differences.

These philosophical ideas about public reason suggest that bipartisanship and the compromise of more “extreme” positions by occupying the middle ground is the most fruitful approach to politics because it enables opposing sides to discover points of agreement on which to move forward that exist because we share the goal of good governance.

This is the intellectual tradition inherited by moderate Democrats who congenitally  prefer to govern from the center and make a fetish of bipartisanship.

Yet, in both Sacramento and Washington, Republicans are playing moderate Democrats like a Stradivarius. The fact that Democrats cannot count on any Republican votes means the Dems need strict party discipline to accomplish their goals. But on health care, the so called “centrist” Democrats are eviscerating the real reforms in the progressive proposals, and in California, there was little stomach among Democrats for standing up to the Republicans and refusing to go along with their death march.

In both cases, the moderate Democrats enabled the Republican dream of destroying government.

The problem is that centrist Democrats are still playing by the old rules, trying to govern effectively in a context in which the opposition is no longer a loyal opposition but a cancer trying to destroy the body politic from within.

Once upon a time, common goals and a shared interest in governing did exist. In post-WWII America, most Republicans and Democrats were seeking widely distributed prosperity and debates were about whether that prosperity could be achieved by relatively minor shifts in the balance between public and private goods. Compromise along that single continuum was easy to achieve.

Many Democratic politicians and especially many journalists who report on politics (David Broder of the Washington Post and George Skelton of the LA Times in particular) still think these are the rules of the political game. But the rules have changed. Liberals want to use government to solve problems; Republicans want to destroy government.

But you cannot reason with a cancer or compromise with a predator. Thus, centrist Democrats face an existential choice. They can negotiate with themselves, try on the predatory garb which Republicans now display, or join their more principled liberal Democrats in solving problems. What they can no longer do is help themselves to the tranquil center of American politics where liberalism used to reside.

In the 60’s, the left had a slogan—you are either part of the solution or part of the problem. That smacked of youthful arrogance then—but it ages well.


* Political philosopher John Rawls coined this phrase to describe the aim of public reason in a liberal democracy.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com

Tea Party Wrap Up April 16, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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It has been fun watching the teabaggers babbling incoherently  about the commiefascist slave-master Obama.

But let’s get back to the facts. From economist Robert Reich:

  • The tax rates in the U.S. are the lowest of all developed nations.
  • The wealthy are not overtaxed. They pay more taxes than the rest of us because they have vastly higher incomes. In the 1950’s the marginal tax rate for the highest incomes was 91%. Today it is about 38%. Over the past 30 years, the after-tax earnings of highest income brackets rose more than 150%; the after tax earnings of families in the middle rose about 10%.
  • Property, social security, and sales taxes take a far bigger bite out of lower income people than high income people.
  • Obama’s tax proposals will cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans, by about $400 per person a year. Only the top 2% will have a very modest tax increase.
  • Government debt need not cause taxes to dramatically rise in the future. What matters is not total debt but the ratio of government debt to GDP. Reducing debt requires returning to growth.

If the Obama Administration had done what the “teabaggers” apparently want him to do—no bailout, spending freeze, and tax cuts for the wealthy—we would have millions of additional unemployed Americans, more cutbacks in government services, a longer recession, and larger budget deficits.

So why are there tax protests?

The so called “tea parties” were not a grassroots movement. The main impetus behind these protests was provided by Fox News and an organization called FreedomWorks led by former House Majority leader Dick Armey.

Our corporate masters are now hard at work keeping low-information voters focused on the big, bad “guvmint” hoping we won’t notice that they laid a big, fat egg and blocking any reform that helps average citizens.

Apparently, it’s not working. People are relatively satisfied with their income tax level—about 48% believe the amount they pay is “just about right,” and 61% regard the amount of tax they pay as fair.

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Student Loans and the Banks April 13, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Currently, many students who apply for a student loan are directed to a private lender who loans the student the money and collects the interest. The federal government guarantees the loan, if the student should default, so there is no risk to the private lender. The banking industry is therefore subsidized to provide a service that the government could provide for less. Why is there a middleman in this process? The government could make the loan, with no bank involved, and save billions.

This is precisely what the Obama Administration has proposed—a program to make direct loans to students and bypass the banks.

Predictably, conservatives (both Republicans and Democrats) are up in arms, complaining that it is more “big government”. Apparently, it is OK to waste taxpayer’s money as long as private businesses can benefit.

And of course the banking industry and their lobbyists are hard at work trying to pick off enough Democrats to scuttle this proposal. And they may well succeed.

This is why I argue, in Reviving the Left, that traditional, moderate, middle-of-the road liberalism is complicit in the disasters that conservatism has wrought and must be radically revised. Moderate liberals want to give everyone a seat at the table and coddle every interest group, even when the interest being served is plainly wrong and contrary to the public good.

Why do the bankers have any standing at all to govern the administration of student aid?





Reviving the Left March 29, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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As some of you know, I have been working on a book for the past few years. It is entitled Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America. The book has just been released.

The aim of the book is to describe a new moral vision for liberalism, one that rests less on social contract theory and more on the ethics of care. It is a book of popular philosophy intended for philosophers and non-philosophers alike. Hopefully, a quick but informative read.

I have a new website devoted to the book that includes two new blogs—one devoted to liberal theory, values, and politics, and the other devoted to liberal activism (maintained by my son who has considerable activist experience). So head on over and check us out.

I will, of course, continue to blog here, but with some of the more political material moving to the new site.

With two blogs to feed, when will I sleep? I’m not sure.

Its the Morality Stupid March 12, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.
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The Bush Administration’s 8-year ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research was finally overturned by Obama on Monday.

Stem-cell research has the potential to cure a variety of diseases including, especially Alzheimer’s Disease. We do not yet know whether stem-cell research will pan out, but if it does, countless lives will be saved and much suffering avoided.

But if this research is successful, we will have wasted 8 years. As Juan Cole argues, in that case, George Bush will have been responsible for the death and/or suffering of millions.

In fact, by 2010 there will be nearly 500,000 new cases a year, and in the foreseeable future there will be a million new cases a year. That is, if Bush delayed the research 8 years, and if a cure really does come from that quarter, Bush will have condemned at least 4 million persons to the debilitating disease.

There is no good argument for the claim that life begins at conception or that embryos are persons. Even if one’s sympathies or intuitions lead one to care for embryos, there is no excuse for ignoring the fate of millions of genuine persons. The people who supported this ban are incapable of moral judgment.

Thus, it is disappointing that Obama’s remarks announcing the removal of the ban, as well as the executive order he signed, made no mention of the moral consequences. He argued that the ban was a rejection of the “promise of science” and that his administration would “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,” as if the only issue was whether the research was worth supporting with federal dollars or not. (See Yuval Levin in the Washington Post for a similar point.)

I have no idea why Obama chose to leave out any discussion of the moral issue. But the tendency to push ethical matters under the rug, and talk instead about science or the economy,  is a liberal “tic” that has done great harm to liberalism. It sends the message that liberals don’t care about ethical matters, and it has, over the years, allowed the right wing to claim the mantle of “values voters”.

This decision to overturn the ban was ideological and profoundly moral and we ought not run away from that fact. Ignoring the ethical dimension doesn’t fool the people who supported the ban, and it leaves the impression that our ethical position is weak when it is, in fact, anything but weak.

If the opposition doesn’t have a leg to stand on, why give them a stool?