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September 12, 2005

Memo to Progressives: Cooperation is Good
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Speaking of features of the landscape we'd never have imagined, how about turning on the network news Saturday night to see b-roll of Mexican and Dutch sailors in Biloxi?

I'm cautiously optimistic that those who predicted a backlash of new American isolationism (including some reader responses to this post of mine) were wrong.  Mind you, I think the European commentators who predict a new US humility and re-engagement with the world are also over-optimistic.

But now progressives have to be careful not to fall into the trap that the President has quietly backtracked out of.  I caught a progressive policy adviser who shall remain nameless on tv Saturday as well, blaming Bush Administration ineptitude for our inability to weather this alone, without international support.

Wrong.  Remember, progressives are about community, smart mutuality, and the argument that we build international institutions not out of altruism but because they will be there for us as well.  Suggesting that we should have been able to go it alone, fun as it might be, just buys into the frame (forgive the Lakoff-speak) that somehow out there somewhere there's a way we could go it alone all the time.  Public opinon experts like Steven Kull tell us that 75-85 percent of the public knows that's not true and wants stronger arguments in support of international cooperation, rule-making, etc.  Let's not cut our own arguments out from under ourselves.  We're the beneficiaries of international goodwill and cooperation working in spite of ourselves.


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I really don't understand this reasoning Heather. Just because progressives favor community, it doesn't follow that progressives should hold that every offer of cooperation should be accepted in the name of community. Nor does it follow that there is no such thing as individual responsibility, or a blameworthy failure to provide prudently for one's own needs. Even progressive communitarians must accept that there is such a thing as sponging and shiftlessness.

But in any case, we are talking here about the failure of the American community to provide for the needs of Americans who belong to that community. Shouldn't progressives, who believe in social and community responsibility, call attention to this massive community failure?

Suppose you and your spouse are a fairly successful 40-something couple and your refrigerator breaks down. You find out you need a new transmission. Suddenly your retired mom and dad show up. They want to give you $500 bucks toward the fridge, even though they live on a meagre fixed income drawn mainly from Social Security. Then the guy from the homeless shelter where you volunteer shows up. He was going to buy his kids new pairs of sneakers, but wants to give you $100 instead. Then your neighbor comes over. He's doing just about as well as you financially, but heard about your tough luck and wants to make a substantial contribution toward your new refrigerator.

Would you take this money? I should think not. You would say something like "These gestures are certainly much appreciated, and we are indeed lucky to have so many people who care about us. But we couldn't possibly accept your offers - our need is not desperate, and we can take care of our own expenses in this case." Someone who took advantage of these generous offers would be a sponge, a leech, a selfish exploiter of others. Would you say, "Yes Mom and Dad, yes Mr. Homeless Man, yes neighbor Joe, we are taking your money because we believe in community"?

Of course, if your house burns down and you are uninsured, then the story is different. One should not have so much pride that one refuses to take help graciously when one desperately needs it. But one should have enough self-repect and respect for others that one doesn't take from people who need what they are giving more than you yourself need it.

Despite the size of the Gulf Coast disaster, its cost to the US relative to US wealth is more like the cost of a new refrigerator to the successful couple than a catastrophic fire to the uninsured couple. With a small exertion of political will, we can easily cover it.

We have people and corporations in this country who are swimmming in money, and yet they have been treated in recent years to massive tax cuts. To sponge off the rest of the world for relief, when we are easily capable of meeting our own needs, is disgraceful. If, on the other hand, ten or twenty major cities had been destroyed, and we were on the verge of total economic collapse and bankruptcy, then by all means we should take the money.

Since Katrina, we have all been forced to acknowledge the fact that there are a lot of desperately poor people in New Orleans. But America isn't desperate - America is rich. The many do without, so the gluttonous few can consume their magnificent and obscene wealth.

I caught a progressive policy adviser who shall remain nameless on tv Saturday as well, blaming Bush Administration ineptitude for our inability to weather this alone

Anyone who believes that the Iraq war was a good idea and that we should have done it alone has no right to call himself a progressive, IMO. His/Her position is indistinguishable from Richard Perle's.

Suggesting that we should have been able to go it alone, fun as it might be...

That is an incredible statement, and illustrates the problem with today's Washington, IMO. Only someone totally removed from the cost of this war could think that unilateralism is fun. The majority of soldiers and taxpayers doing the dying and paying could never hold such a position.

Suppose you and your spouse are a fairly successful 40-something couple and your refrigerator breaks down. You find out you need a new transmission.

Sorry about the confusion this might have caused. I switched examples in the midst of composing my comment. (I know that my own refrigerator, at least, doesn't come with a clutch and stick shift.) Dump the "transmission" sentence, and use the example of refrigerators throughout.


I agree with you on the general spirit of cooperation, but I think when one tries to articulate what's entailed by the cooperation paradigm, it gets tricky. And I don't get why you have to appologize for using "Lakoff-speak" since he didn't invent frames or the idea of moral frameworks (I personally prefer Charles Taylor on frameworks) and the concepts are useful.

If we are going to try to build a sustainable America, progressives need to start using frames that say "we can't depend on anyone else" (except not in such an alarmist way).

Americans need to begin to understand how the world is interconnected, but most Americans just don't seem to get that. Maybe it can be taught, and most should be told about it, but you can only ever hope that it will take hold as a sort of value... the way many Americans don't really care for or understand 'tolerance' as a concept, but many know they it is a value of the culture and so they espouse it publicly (i.e. PCism). I hope I didn't move too fast there.

Here is what I'm saying: Whether or not Americans will understand and embrace the theory of connectivity, tell them that we must develop an internally coherent model and plans for sustainability and long-term development because we can't expect other nations to bail us out if we have created most of the damage.

Most Americans think that things like our over-consumption will be offset by the lack of consumption by others in the world. That's not the captains of industry, who see more consumption everywhere as the expansion of... I don't know.. but they definitely see it as something good.

Seriously, most Americans don't probe very deeply enough unless some proverb they come across causes them to feel the need to re-examine some of their other beliefs and to think a bit more slowly about the problems. The possiblity that we'll eventually be abandoned sounds like it might work, like it might help America get its act together. Wasn't that Reagan's argument for trying to can welfare?

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