The point I’ve always made to Ta-Nehisi, the point I sometimes make to Michelle, the point I sometimes make to my own kids — the question is, for me, “Can we make things better?”
I used to explain to my staff after we had a long policy debate about anything, and we had to make a decision about X or Y, “Well, if we do this I understand we’re not getting everything we’re hoping for, but is this better?” And they say yes, and I say, “Well, better is good. Nothing wrong with better.”
Ibram X. Kendi:
There’s no saving America’s soul. There’s no restoring the soul. There’s no fighting for the soul of America. There’s no uniting the souls of America. There is only fighting off the other soul of America.
Obama and Trump did not poison the American soul any more than Biden can heal it. Trump battled for the soul of injustice, and the voters sent him home. Soon, President Biden can battle for the soul of justice.
Our past breaths do not bind our future breaths. I can battle for the soul of justice. And so can you. And so can we. Like our ancestors, for our children. We can change the world for Gianna Floyd. We can — once and for all — win the battle between the souls of America.
This morning I’m doing my weekly reading of the news, and I’ve just read these two stories, from the same magazine, back to back. The contrast is illuminating. One sees politics as the hard slow work of improving the world; the other see politics as the movement towards a final confrontation, on the plain of Megiddo I suppose, between the forces of Righteousness and the forces of Evil.
Samuel Moyn, 2018:
In the face of an enemy Supreme Court, the only option is for progressives to begin work on a long-term plan to recast the role of fundamental law in our society for the sake of majority rule—disempowering the courts and angling, when they can, to redo our undemocratic constitution itself. This will require taking a few pages from the conservative playbook of the last generation. It is conservatives who stole the originally progressive talking point that we are experiencing “government by judiciary.” It is conservatives who convinced wide swathes of the American people that it is the left, not the right, that too routinely uses constitutional law to enact its policy preferences, no matter what the text says. The truth is the reverse, and progressives need to take back the charge they lost. To do so, they need to abandon their routine temptation to collude with the higher judiciary opportunistically. Progressives must embrace democracy and its risks if they want to avoid the stigma of judicial activism that still haunts them from the past.
The editors of First Things, 1996:
With respect to the American people, the judiciary has in effect declared that the most important questions about how we ought to order our life together are outside the purview of ‘things of their knowledge.’ Not that judges necessarily claim greater knowledge; they simply claim, and exercise, the power to decide. The citizens of this democratic republic are deemed to lack the competence for self-government…. The courts have not, and perhaps cannot, restrain themselves, and it may be that in the present regime no other effective restraints are available. If so, we are witnessing the end of democracy.
A vigilant, eyes-wide-open embrace works much better. My intent in this book is to uncover the roots of digital change so that we can embrace them. Once seen, we can work with their nature, rather than struggle against it. Massive copying is here to stay. Massive tracking and total surveillance is here to stay. Ownership is shifting away. Virtual reality is becoming real. We can’t stop artificial intelligences and robots from improving, creating new businesses, and taking our current jobs. It may be against our initial impulse, but we should embrace the perpetual remixing of these technologies. Only by working with these technologies, rather than trying to thwart them, can we gain the best of what they have to offer. I don’t mean to keep our hands off. We need to manage these emerging inventions to prevent actual (versus hypothetical) harms, both by legal and technological means. We need to civilize and tame new inventions in their particulars. But we can do that only with deep engagement, firsthand experience, and a vigilant acceptance.
— Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future
“A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Númenor. This then is one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.”
— Saruman, in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
The problem of meaning is created by limits, by being just this, by being merely this. The young feel this less strongly. Although they would agree, if they thought about it, that they will realize only some of the (feasible) possibilities before them, none of these various possibilities is yet excluded in their minds. The young live in each of the futures open to them. The poignancy of growing older does not lie in one’s particular path being less satisfying or good than it promised earlier to be — the path may turn out to be all one thought. It lies in traveling only one (or two, or three) of those paths. Economists speak of the opportunity cost of something as the value of the best alternative foregone for it. For adults, strangely, the opportunity cost of our lives appears to us to be the value of all the foregone alternatives summed together, not merely the best other one. When all the possibilities were yet still before us, it felt as if we would do them all.
— Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations
We live out our lives, both individually and in our relationships with each other, in the light of certain conceptions of a possible shared future, a future in which certain possibilities beckon us forward and others repel us, some seem already foreclosed and others perhaps inevitable. There is no present which is not informed by some image of some future and an image of the future which always presents itself in the form of a telos — or of a variety of ends or goals — towards which we are either moving or failing to move in the present. Unpredictability and teleology therefore coexist as part of our lives; like characters in a fictional narrative we do not know what will happen next, but nonetheless our lives have a certain form which projects itself towards our future. Thus the narratives which we live out have both an unpredictable and a partially teleological character. If the narrative of our individual and social lives is to continue intelligibly — and either type of narrative may lapse into unintelligibility — it is always both the case that there are constraints on how the story may continue and that within those constraints there are indefinitely many ways that it can continue.
— Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd. ed.
It is not that I wanted to know a great deal, in order to acquire what is now called expertise, and which enables one to become an expert-tease to people who don’t know as much as you do about the tiny corner you have made your own. I hoped for a bigger fish; I wanted nothing less than Wisdom. In a modern university if you ask for knowledge they will provide it in almost any form – though if you ask for out-of-fashion things they may say, like the people in shops, “Sorry, there’s no call for it.” But if you ask for Wisdom – God save us all! What a show of modesty, what disclaimers from the men and women from whose eyes intelligence shines forth like a lighthouse. Intelligence, yes, but of Wisdom not so much as the gleam of a single candle.
— Maria Magdalena Theotoky
Lots of youth in a university, fortunately, but youth alone could not sustain such an institution. It is a city of wisdom, and the heart of the university is its body of learned man; it can be no better than they, and it is at their fire the young come to warm themselves. Because the young come and go, but we remain. They are the minute-hand, we the hour-hand of the academic clock. Intelligent societies have always preserved their wise men in institutions of one kind or another, where their chief business is to be wise, to conserve the fruits of wisdom and to add to them if they can. Of course the pedants and the opportunists get in somehow, as we are constantly reminded…. But we are the preservers and custodians of civilization, and never more so than in the present age, where there is no aristocracy to do the job. A city of wisdom; I would be content to leave it at that.
— The Warden of Ploughwright College
(Both quotations from The Rebel Angels, that wicked and wonderful novel by Robertson Davies. There may be found in the book a third description of what a university is, and who its ultimate patrons are. But that the enterprising reader may discover.)