20 April 2009

Second Opinion

Though I share with Luke a healthy cynicism about the manipulation of personal and familial introspection as a political marketing ploy, I have to admit it is an effective one, in that as a reader (1) I'm interested and (2) I can begin to form an image of who the next Prime Minister thinks he is. Both of which are to say more than I can about Stephen Harper, (1) about whom I am profoundly uninterested and (2) of whose self-image I remain consequently ignorant.

But more importantly, I have to dissent on Luke's negative or dismissive reading of Ignatieff on the freedom/community problematic.
From the little I can gather from the Globe interview and the book excerpt, I would say instead that Ignatieff can be read as having a properly late modern notion of both concepts that is, well, Liberal enough, but not too liberal. Immediately following from a quote Luke deployed:

Why I value these kinds of societies is actually not that I think they're godless, it's that they leave you the choice of your gods, the responsibility of choosing your gods, the responsibility of leading a moral and disciplined and purposeful life — faced with pluralism, faced with a series of choices, some good, some bad. I like that. I'm at home in this world. He [George Grant] was deeply and profoundly not at home in that world.
I actually think this is a very intelligent take on the condition that not only we Canadians, but all other Westerners are faced with today. Paired with Iggie's invocation of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, all this amounts to is an understanding that all that late moderns can hope for is, as Luke puts it negatively, to be "citizens [with] nothing in common but their need to imagine - without any commonalities regarding the capacity or content of their imaginings."

Good. Rather than pretending that we are one organic whole united by devotion to a common deity or reverence for a mythologized common past, what we share instead is an imperative to imagine ourselves as a community with the full knowledge that, at an ironic distance, this is all we can ever be - an imagined community. This is not distinctly Canadian, of course. Who today thinks that communities are anything more than imagined? More importantly: Imagined on the basis of what? We live in a disenchanted world in which God, our shared genetic roots, or our chauvinistic attachments to a self-image based on superiority, simply have lost all their plausibility as common meanings. Community is not automatic; and this is perhaps what is new about our lives - we need to actively seek - no, create - what marks off our difference in the context of a notion of universal human equality (that we thankfully do share).

I don't think anybody is arguing that an imagined community need exist only in individuals' heads (ontological atomism). But even if I were to argue that, individuals' sharing of community is still common because, even if one is wrong in her belief in some putatively common meaning, she must still by definition imagine that you also share it. This is still atomist, but the normative consequences are communitarian, in the sense that I identify collectively with you and so take your interests as my own. It is enough to generate a common good, even on atomist assumptions.

I think it's better, and more plausible, to read Ignatieff's contentions this way: Yes, the free market is chilly, but that chilliness only provides the opportunity for bringing ourselves consciously together to share in warmth. We still need to engage in that project. Indeed, market society is a constitutive condition of late modern community, not its overriding aim. Ignatieff may be wrong that the market is necessary for our freedom, but he is right in viewing the market instrumentally - a means not an end - which is encouraging enough for me.

No comments: