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Patrick Luciani: Utopian ideas always sound nice. But never underestimate the ugliness of human nature

Commentary

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani examines Free and Equal: A Manifesto for a Just Society (Knopf, 2023, 2024) by Daniel Chandler, which puts forth how the ideas of John Rawls can be implemented in our times for progressive political ends.

After the Second World War, countries in Northern Europe, the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. moved closer to what we know as democratic welfare states. Not all at the same pace, but there was a general belief that governments had an obligation to help the poor with programs that supported education and health, along with pensions when they retired. That momentum grew stronger over the years. 

With the spread of more programs, resistance came from those forced to pay for these programs with higher taxes, and they had a point. Classical political thinkers John Locke and American James Madison provided some justification for a small but limited government to protect property rights. Even Karl Marx provided a philosophical top-down justification for communism and the control of all capital and resources. But there wasn’t a philosophy justifying or underpinning a welfare state. 

In a transformative moment in 1971, Harvard philosopher John Rawls published A Theory of Justice, a work that would revolutionize political philosophy. Rawls’ argument was a profound endeavour to reconcile the seemingly conflicting ideals of freedom and equality in a pluralistic society, a departure from the conventional political theories. Rawls’ book would cement his status as the most significant political theorist of the past century. Five decades after its publication, it still dominates contemporary political thought and debate. 

Daniel Chandler’s book Free and Equal explains how Rawls’s thinking can still create “a more humane, equal, and sustainable society for our times” and a realistic utopia if only we had the courage to follow his lead. 

Rawls defended a greater role for the state through a thought experiment following the tradition of Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacque Rousseau’s social contract theories. He proposed we start from an original position where “we” as a society gather to design a system of government behind what he called a “veil of ignorance.” Behind this veil, we have no memory of our race, religion, family history, status in society, or whether we are rich or poor. We don’t even know our genders, ambitions, or intellectual capacities. Our amnesia is complete behind this veil. 

Under these conditions, what kind of society would we choose to live in? Rawls concludes we would rationally select a system that guarantees the highest level of political rights to pursue our goals in a free society and, second, what Rawls called the “difference principle” that inequalities in society are allowed if they benefit everyone. This system assures a level of income distribution that would secure a good life for all, especially for the least advantaged. We would choose that system because it serves our self-interest. 

Rawls further justifies sharing wealth and income because much of life is a matter of chance; no one truly deserves their intellectual or creative talents because they are distributed by nature randomly. Even the talent for hard work is an accident of chance. It is only fair that the neurosurgeon, brilliant enough to get into medical school and earn a million dollars a year, should share some of that income with the janitor earning $30,000 who never finished high school. Income should be shared so we all have the best chances to reach our human potential, starting with access to good schools and an income to round out the rough edges of life. 

Rawls isn’t an easy read. His arduous style requires a hard-backed chair to keep the reader’s attention. (Neither was he an easy listen, a fact I learned personally when attending some of his lectures in my own university days.) Chandler humanizes Rawls’ work by clearly explaining his ideas to the average reader while defending a democratic form of liberalism against what he believes is a dominant neoliberalism that puts markets ahead of compassion. Chandler spends most of his book arguing for progressive government programs—caused by the widening gap between rich and poor—including higher minimum wages, stronger unions, and a guaranteed annual income while abolishing all private education and riding elections of private money. 

Professor Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has agitated critics on both sides of the political spectrum over the 50 years since its publication. The extreme Left has attacked Rawls for defending private ownership even though society would be left poorer but better off under a system of greater equality. On the Right, any form of taxation is unjust if wealth is earned legally without coercion, as Robert Nozick argues in Anarchy, State and Utopia in his response to Rawls’s defence of the welfare state. Moral philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt argues that eradicating inequality is a false goal when our attention should be on diminishing poverty—two very different things.

Chandler’s book is subtitled “A Manifesto for a Just Society” in the spirit of Marx’s phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to need.” If you raise the cost of those with ability and lower the cost of those with need, don’t be surprised if you get less of the first and more of the second.  

Aside from underplaying the damage caused by identity politics and alienating many of the poor Rawls wants to help, Chandler’s greatest weakness is his underestimation of human nature. It may be true that those who enjoy the benefits of their gifts are the lucky ones, but many find it difficult to believe that all good fortune is undeserved or that effort plays no part in life’s success. Pushing that conclusion too hard will always get a strong reaction when most people see that determination and free will dominate how we lead our lives and the following benefits or costs. Diminishing earned accomplishments won’t bring us closer to a Rawlsian world searching for a “realistic utopia.” It will end up giving us the opposite.

Lisa Crawford: Loveship Griefship—What Alice Munro taught a generation of women about our lives

Commentary

Alice Munro, oracle of the lives of girls and women, master of Southern (Ontario) Gothic and the dispassionate literary gut punch, has left us.

Deeply sad for the literary community, it is a much deeper blow to my specific community—Canadian women who have always loved to write and who, thanks to Munro, believed that we could and even should. Women from Southern Ontario, who saw ourselves in the characters and the cadence of life and the place names, who believed the same. Who have carried love-worn copies of The Progress of Love or Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage around for years, hoping to absorb the brilliance by osmosis. Or perhaps just to remember the feeling of being seen.

Munro didn’t wholly belong to us, of course. She was an international literary star, the subject of unrestrained critical praise and reverent academic study. Famous and yet not (I have spent the last few days explaining her significance to a host of Americans), she made writers everywhere understand how sparse, simple language could ring with the howl of human pain. She made us understand, frustratingly, that the nearly unreachable gold standard was to achieve the same. 

(I have debated whether she should be referred to as Alice or Munro and landed on Munro—Alice is too intimate, too familiar, for one who knew me intimately without knowing me at all.)

More than literary aspirants, Munro’s women were once young girls, eager acolytes, who learned what being a woman was and would be from Alice Munro’s stories. 

There was a darkness to this, you understand. There was nothing that you couldn’t read in Munro without discovering what was waiting for your adult self. Sometimes that was terrifying. 

Munro saw us. She taught us. She warned us.

She saw our desires and our frustrations and our limitations, our relationships with our lot in life, and our free will or lack thereof. She saw the inner wars that our ancestors, our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, fought with their own lots in life. And where we (erstwhile) newer women stood in this generational chain reaction.

Munro saw us in our weakness and our shame(s) and our strength.

She saw the relentlessness of women, our obligation to keep going no matter what, to keep others going no matter what. She saw the toll it took on us all. Munro understood epigenetics before it was a thing we talked about.

She taught us, also, that there was nothing to be done.

She taught us that the fix was in. Our responsibilities and our pain were to be borne, to be accepted. Sometimes cheerily, sometimes not. Underneath but never answered was the question of what it does to us to bear things, cheerily or not, but especially cheerily.

There was also the question of how the mundane could be sacred and stabilizing and also toxic. 

That was our cultural heritage, the lineage of hardscrabble Protestant settlers, of (usually) United Empire Loyalists who opposed manifest destiny and big ideas for the tradition of the Crown. Southern Ontario Gothic, indeed.

Munro taught us that our cultural and familial repression would save and sustain and scar us.

But that’s too cerebral. Munro got us in the gut. She warned us of what was coming.

She warned us that being a woman was an occasionally glorious, usually mundane, ripoff. That womanhood was a journey of physical gore, the painstaking management of unmanageable emotions, and the tiny but weighty (or giant) emotional betrayals of our loved ones—men, parents, children.

She warned us with the Lives of Girls and Women’s Del, Lichen’s Stella, and, my God, Dimensions’ Doree.

This is the darkness of which I speak.

For her trouble, she faced protest and the dreaded threat of book-banning—an experience in which she was (be still my heart) apparently supported and mentored by no less a literary gut puncher than Margaret Laurence, whose opus The Diviners titillated curious young minds (including and especially mine) with its naughty bits and then-radical presentation of a woman living freely and on her own terms.

Munro was supremely us and not of us at the same time.

A writer’s writer and Canadian’s Canadian, she was regarded by the world in a series of contradictions—even and especially in death. Her recognition was global, her work specific in location but universal in humanness. Though Munro was beloved by the Canadian cultural establishment, even its often self-hating gatekeepers, her stories were most often published as stand-alones in the New Yorker.

Nobel Prize-winning Canadian author Alice Munro attends a ceremony held by the Royal Canadian Mint to celebrate her win where they unveiled a 99.99% pure silver five-dollar coin at the Great Victoria Public Library in Victoria, B.C., Monday, March 24, 2014. Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press.

Better known in some quarters for the screen adaptations of her work (Sarah Polley’s dazzling film Away from Her, from The Bear Came Over the Mountain; the Kristen Wiig-starring Hateship Loveship from, well, the one with the long name), Munro was remembered by entertainment trade Variety with this headline: “Alice Munro, Nobel Prize-Winning Canadian Author of ‘Away From Her,’ Dies at 92.”

(A word of warning: if you haven’t seen Away from Her, don’t follow my example and watch it on a plane. You will find yourself blubbing uncontrollably before an audience of strangers, likely from the indignity of a middle seat.)

World-class but of a curious place unheralded to the rest of the world, the Munro depicted in the media (and in many an obituary) writes of a mostly poor constituency located in dusty small towns. That seems wrong to me. And her characters were no different in soul, I am sure, from those in Wisconsin or the Dakotas or Mississippi or several other places I could name. 

But Munro gave us a sense of place. She didn’t write for the big red push-pins on the map. She wrote for the places with a dot the size of a regular old period. 

I write this from my adopted Californian home, surrounded by the ubiquitous desert dust in the land of Joan Didion, with the dirt of Kent County still under my fingernails.

Munro gave us an emotional journey of ancestors and place and sense memory. When I read the description of Munro’s forebears, Protestant settlers in Huron County, which takes up fully a third of her official Nobel Prize bio, I wept. 

In Munro’s Gothic Ontario I saw my own ancestors—the Crawfords with their farmland in the Huron-adjacent Kent County (a few of them teachers, naturally), generations of men named Peter Roy, including my grandfather. The protagonist of a Munro-style story about my family would, rightfully, centre on the displacement felt by our matriarch, my grandfather’s hot-blooded Italian wife, whose Southern Ontario Gothic experience reverberated with an undercurrent of rage. 

In their lives, and all of our lives, there are potential Munro-style stories everywhere. But only she could execute in her way. Only she could see us, teach us, warn us about who we really are.

Alice Munro taught us how to see. We are ever in her emotional wake, Munro’s women and her writers both, and we are ever in her debt.