Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Liberal, Radical or Prophetic Pragmatist

I have taken great interest in recent blogosphere discussions surrounding the nature of radicalism in contrast to liberalism and conservatism. All participants agree, I believe, that these ruminations reflect potentially dangerous generalizations, but nevertheless contain the theoretical frameworks necessary to process contemporary ideological heuristics and methodology. Much has been made of Terry Eagleton's categorization originally posted here:

Radicals are those who believe that things are extremely bad with us, but they could feasibly be much improved. Conservatives believe that things are pretty bad, but that’s just the way the human animal is. And liberals believe that there’s a little bit of good and bad in all of us.

My initial reaction was to throw Unitarian Universalism in the boat of liberalism, as I locate a certain willingness in dominant U*U circles to acknowledge, at times celebrate, brokenness as a fundamental reality - much as Slovenian Marxist theorist Slavoj Zizek calls for a new aesthetic of trash, so too, I would argue, U*Uism embraces the beauty of fragmentation. In many ways, I see this as a liberating and inspiring move.

And yet, just as I was beginning to get comfy with my newfound truism, Stephen Lingwood made the following accute observation: "The problem with liberalism can be seen as it's tolerance of opposition. For example there were plenty of Unitarians fighting against slavery (and we rush to celebrate them today) but there were plenty of Unitarian slave-holders, and we never insisted they cease their involvement in the slave trade." The liberal category, while perhaps an accurate description, cannot serve as the most apt prescription.

It seems there must exist a position between the often belligerent anthropocentrism of radicalism and dangerously complacent neutrality of liberalism. It would affirm the urgency and possibility of communal change, while simultaneously acknowledging the inherent limitations and fragility of the human condition. To my knowledge, Cornel West's 'prophetic pragmatism' comes closest to this description. West carefully balances between tragedy and revolution, tradition and progress, grounding reformist actions and a visionary outlook (Niehburian in tone) in the harsh reality of structural tragedy (reminiscent of Augustine and Du Bois). We must work for justice, but we will only get so far - yet, we keep moving.

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