Yesterday, I posted about Wang Huning, the behind-the-scenes Chinese public intellectual whose philosophy is evidently immensely influential in that country, and whose six-month visit to the U.S. triggered his disenchantment with Enlightenment rationalism/liberalism.
Wang reportedly came to believe that culture is a vital component of political stability–that a society’s “software,” by which he means culture, values, and attitudes, shapes political destiny as much or more as the “hardware” (economics, systems, institutions) most of us consider far more influential.
Since I read only the article to which I linked, I don’t know whether Wang ever addressed the extent to which hardware–especially economic systems–influences and shapes or distorts culture. In the U.S., for example, sociological research tells us that capitalism has strengthened America’s cultural emphasis on individualism.
Be that as it may, Wang’s impressions of America, and the conclusions he drew from his observations, underscore one of the enduring questions of political philosophy: what is government for? What are the tasks that must be done collectively–through government–and what tasks are properly left to the private and voluntary sectors?
I don’t think it is an over-simplification to suggest that American Right-wingers agree with Wang in one crucial respect: the importance of culture and tradition. (In their case, the supreme importance of their culture and tradition.) The Right thus believes that it is government’s job to protect their culture–a culture which gives social dominance to White Christian males and facilitates a dog-eat-dog form of market capitalism.
The Left–which, in America these days, includes pretty much anything and anyone to the left of radical Right-wing Republicanism–sees the job of government very differently. For most of us, the ideal government is boring; it is (or should be) almost entirely concerned with building and maintaining the physical and social infrastructure that underlies and enables genuine human liberty–which we define as the ability to pursue one’s personal life goals. So we want government to attend to the public safety, build and maintain the structures that allow us to travel, communicate and collaborate, and–ideally–provide a social safety net sufficient to prevent poverty and a degree of inequality that endangers social stability.
What we label the American Left today includes a very wide a swath of opinion, so it is inevitable that there will be many “intra-Left” arguments about what that infrastructure should look like, how robust it should be, and how government should go about funding and maintaining it. But virtually everyone on the Left would define the role of government in terms that are utterly incompatible with those of the radical Right.
These incompatible views of what government is for have led to incommensurate demands on government.
In today’s America, the Left (pretty much across the broad spectrum of Left-of-Fascism opinion and despite disputes about how to achieve these goals) wants roads and bridges repaired, healthcare access expanded, and voting rights protected. It also wants the wealthy to pay taxes at the higher rates that were historically imposed. Today’s (far more unified) Right wants school history courses censored and trans students ostracized, women’s reproductive liberties curtailed, voting made more difficult for minorities, and White Christian privilege protected. it also wants taxes further reduced, especially on corporations and the rich.
The Bill of Rights, as I have repeatedly noted, is a list of things that government is forbidden to do; the nation’s Founders did not believe that government’s job included protection of a particular worldview, religion or status.
Wang’s belief in the importance of culture isn’t wrong. But cultures develop over time; they are the result of numerous factors that interact to influence social mores, attitudes and values. In the U.S.,over time, the culture has been heavily influenced by the values of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and by the other aspirations built into our constituent documents.
Most Americans have been “acculturated” to see government’s role as a provider of infrastructure (however narrowly or broadly defined)–not as a protector of privilege, which is what today’s Right demands in its breathtakingly radical effort to remake both American law and culture.
There’s a reason the Right wants to censor and distort the teaching of accurate history. Those who control the historical narrative control the culture–and the country.