For years I taught on Capitol Hill at the American Studies Program. Semester-by-semester we would draw into Washington thoughtful, motivated undergraduates who had honest interests in public life.
Our curriculum was the city and the world. And so one semester might be welfare reform domestically, and the Middle East internationally. Our expectation was that the students would learn from the people of Washington and their debates over the nature of the good life for a good society.
At the end of every term I would lecture on the politics of self-deception, arguing that it was a human problem—not a particularly conservative or liberal problem, or one that the communist world suffered more than the capitalist world, or the southern hemisphere more than the northern hemisphere. As human beings, our greatest propensity is to lie to ourselves about ourselves—and there are public and political consequences for doing so.
In today’s New York Times there are three editorials that reflect on the social and economic crisis of Europe. Two of the pieces, the Times’ editors and David Brooks, one of their two more conservative voices, surprisingly share a common perspective. On the other hand, Paul Krugman, typically in lock-step with the editors, argues very differently. Reading them together would be a good conversation among friends and neighbors.
From the Times’ editorial: “What is lacking are politicians with the courage to tell their voters the basic hard truths — of how this crisis happened and what it will take to dig out….The challenge for Greece’s leaders — and all of Europe’s — is to find a way to encourage reforms and manage austerity without economic and social implosion.”
One of the ironies of American political history is that Barack Obama came to office representing a political vision long enamored of “Europe”—with its generation-long social and economic practices –at the very same time that Europe was stumbling badly over being Europe. Four years later we are all living more fully with that the weight of that hope—weighty word that it is –both here and there.
Who will we be? And why? These were the questions of the landmark “Habits of the Heart” done in the mid-1980s by a group of University of California professors, led by Robert Bellah. As they argued, they were important questions for Tocqueville, and they are still are for us.