Sunday, December 26, 2004

Philosophers or Activists?

An acquaintance at the holiday party was quoting a talk by David Brooks who said that not one liberal he had questioned could ever cite a philosopher as the basis for his thinking. When pressed, the best they could come up with was "an activist, like Martin Luther King."

Why is that? she wanted to know. On the spur of the moment and the cusp of my third merlot, I didn't come up with a great answer. Nor did I come up with any philosophers of my own.

But since I happen to like Brooks, I came back to the question. (If the question had come from faux-erudite George Will, who employs research minions to dredge up the references he sprinkles through his columns, I'd have laughed it off.) Brooks is the only conservative commentator who's consistently rewarding to read. His Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There is a very funny and insightful book about how '60s bohemian rebellion and '80s bourgeois materialism has fused with conservatism in my boomer generation.

Embedded in the question is an assumption that basing your political philosphy on Edmund Burke, Aristotle and John Locke is somehow superior to being inspired by King, Gandhi, Saul Alinsky, Dorothy Day, Susan B. Anthony and Paul Wellstone. Was Jesus a philosopher or an activist? What about Jefferson?

Another assumption: Activists (like activist judges) are ruled by primal personal passions, not timeless, reasoned truths. They (gasp!) can't cite sources from the 18th Century. Well, the real world doesn't give extra credit for footnotes. We can learn through action as well as reflection.

Perhaps Brooks was getting at the difference between belief in fixed principles and the belief learning continues to evolve. This is one of the fundamental ridgelines along the Great Divide.


Blogger Mikayla Starstuff said...

It seems to me that a great deal of activists are also philosophers. It was their philosophy that prompted them to act.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Charlie Quimby said...

Thanks for making the point more directly than I did, Mikel. An activist acts. Once someone moves from the realm of thought to action, it's difficult to reclaim the mantle of "philosopher," no matter how deep the philosophy.

1:28 PM  

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