From the category archives:

Danielle Allen Seminar

Danielle Allen seminar

by Henry on June 26, 2015

The seminar on Danielle Allen’s recent book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, which is available from Powells, Amazon and Barnes and Noble is now concluded. The entire seminar can be found at this link. The participants in this seminar and their posts:

  • James Miller is a professor of political science and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research. What Is To Be Done?

Sam Goldman’s analysis of my treatment of religion in the Declaration is the most astute I’ve seen to date. Consequently, his criticism is also the most subtle. He rightly recognizes that the core of my argument is that the Declaration can be the object of an overlapping consensus in which citizens endorse the same basic laws or principles for different reasons. He then raises questions about the value of the secular component of that overlapping consensus, which is to throw doubt on the value of overlapping consensus as such when it comes to matters of religion. [click to continue…]

Response to Gerken, Winant and Lebron

by Danielle Allen on June 25, 2015

Response to Heather Gerken

Heather Gerken has launched this seminar on Our Declaration with an elegant exposure of my method. Like Constitutional lawyers, I focus on a single fragment, one utterance, crafted in a particular moment of time under the most unusual and trying of circumstances, and develop “a robust set of democratic commitments from a thin textual guarantee.” How did the words of the Declaration come to be expressed? How can we still access the intentions of those who wrote these words and interpret their evolving meanings for our own generation? “When constitutional lawyers turn to a text, they look not for precision,” Gerken writes, “but what Ronald Dworkin calls ‘fit’ and ‘justification’ – a normatively attractive account that fits within the extant interpretive landscape.” As in the work of constitutional lawyers, there is a marriage in my book of historicism and pragmatism (by which I mean the school of philosophical thought bearing that name). This marriage is effected through a theory of language and its place in politics.

Language has always been, for me, the strangest and most cunning unifier of past and present, a deep ever-flowing stream passing from mouth to ear and ear to mouth and on again, across millennia, shifting yet durable, transporting visions and perspectives from the deepest recesses of history to the present, under layers of silted accretion, accumulated through a confounding blend of social accident and logic. These layers give way to a form of archaeology, and reveal the secrets of the past.

Why does it become reasonable, as you will read in Our Declaration, to introduce the divorce decree dis-uniting Prince Charles and Princess Diana in order to explain the dissolution of the political bands between the colonies and Britain? This isn’t just the teacher’s trick of using something present, something already known, to lead the students from what is familiar to what is more distant. Among genres, legal language is distinctively durable. This durability in effect shrinks the time span between the Declaration of Independence and the royal divorce decree of 1996. This stands in contrast to the temporal distance between the popular speech, images, and metaphors of eighteenth-century almanacs and what now gushes forth abundantly on blog pages, Pinterest, and Instagram. Popular speech is volatile and changeable. Set an almanac’s maxim and a blog’s self-disclosure side-by-side and the two periods will look more rather than less distant. [click to continue…]

What Is To Be Done?

by James Miller on June 24, 2015

Danielle Allen has written a beautiful brief for equality, and the proper place of egalitarian ideals, not only in the Declaration of Independence, but in America’s political culture more generally. Pierre Rosanvallon has made a similar case, with France as its focus, in his important book, The Society of Equals, first published in French in 2011.

Yet both Allen and Rosanvallon acknowledge a curious paradox: that a stress on liberty as the essence of liberal democracy has in our own day apparently triumphed over – even trumped – the egalitarian convictions of the activists and intellectuals who forged the first democratic republics.

The empirical evidence on this matter seems unambiguous. A variety of economists, from Joseph Stiglitz to Thomas Piketty, have shown that America, like France, and most European countries, has become ever more unequal in recent decades.

Both men have also proposed a number of policies that might help reverse these current economic trends. “Simple changes,” writes Stiglitz, “including higher capital-gains and inheritance taxes, greater spending to broaden access to education, rigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws, corporate governance reforms that circumscribe executive pay, and financial regulations that rein in banks’ ability to exploit the rest of society – would reduce inequality and increase equality of opportunity markedly.”

Still, it’s a striking feature of our present moment that policies like these at first glance seem politically out of reach. As Stiglitz puts it, “The main question confronting us today is not really about capital in the twenty-first century. It is about democracy in the twenty-first century.”

I think Stiglitz is right – but herein lies a further problem. Few American politicians dare advocate the kinds of policies Stiglitz proposes – and this, remarkably, in a nation explicitly “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” in the words of Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, quoting the key phrase from the Declaration of Independence that Danielle Allen makes a centerpiece of her analysis.

In other words, our democracies today seem paralyzed in the face of rising inequality.

As a hopeful sign, one might point to the attacks on financial elites launched by various populist parties and movements of both the left and the right, in both Europe and the United States – Occupy Wall Street in 2011 did manage to bring inequality back into America’s political conversation. Yet in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, individuals and families in the advanced industrial societies still seem wary of any policies that might jeopardize whatever wealth they currently possess. Many seem skeptical that we should even aspire to becoming “a society of equals.”

Hence my question to Danielle Allen: What is to be Done?

How can we renew and revivify our founding egalitarian ideals? How should we approach the problems of both capital and democracy in the twenty-first century?

Slow Reading as a Practice of Reckoning with Love and Loss

by Cristina Beltrán on June 23, 2015

Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration is a generous and meticulous work of democratic theory. The book’s origin speaks powerfully to its ambitions: Allen’s decision to teach canonical works to elite students at the University of Chicago while simultaneously teaching the same texts to working-class Chicagoans attending night school demonstrates the author’s belief that no one is ineligible or exempt from theorizing — from reflecting on and thinking with others about the principles and values that ought to guide our individual and collective existence. This democratic conviction — that our collective flourishing is tied to the capacity of individuals and collectivities to think wisely, act creatively, and judge well — is central to the book’s subtitle: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. [click to continue…]

The Declaration of Independence isn’t egalitarian enough

by James Lindley Wilson on June 22, 2015

One of the pleasures of reading Our Declaration is encountering Danielle Allen’s thoughtful expression and development of an ideal of political equality. The book not only argues that political equality was a central component of the Declaration of Independence, but argues—powerfully, I think—that this democratic ideal ought to compel us, the readers of the Declaration and of Allen’s book.

Allen gives strong voice to the argument that political equality is valuable in its own right, and valuable because of other goods it brings, like liberty or prosperity. But what exactly is this ideal? Roughly, as I understand it, the idea behind political equality is that all citizens are, and ought to be treated as, equally authoritative over matters of common life. Even more roughly: in a democracy, we’re all supposed to be equally in charge. But what does that mean? What kind of equality is this? Why should we care about it? Over the course of Our Declaration, Allen addresses all of these questions, explaining the “multi-faceted” ideal of equality presented by the Declaration, and—in part by explaining just what this equality is—showing us why it matters.

For all of Allen’s meticulous interpretive work, however, I have doubts about the extent to which the Declaration expresses a vigorous conception of political equality. Accordingly, any democratic ideal we develop on the basis of a reading of the Declaration will need much more egalitarian amendment and elaboration than Allen suggests. First, I am not sure that the most clearly egalitarian aspects of the Declaration’s text involve a strong commitment to political equality, as opposed to other forms of equality less connected citizens’ equal authority over their common life. Second, some of the facets of equality Allen identifies strike me as better described as norms of political inclusion than political equality. Inclusion is a weaker norm than equality because inclusion of citizens in decision-making can (and did) occur on unequal terms. Finally, any argument about ideals of political equality expressed by the Declaration must deal with the outright exclusion of some people from the process of “democratic writing” that issued in the Declaration and from subsequent application of its ideals in independent America. Allen is well aware of these exclusions, and she treats this issue in some of the book’s most searching, thoughtful, and even moving passages. But perhaps more than Allen, I believe that such exclusions limit the extent to which we can identify the Declaration of Independence as expressing a fully egalitarian ideal even for the people it does clearly include within its vision of freedom and equality. [click to continue…]

The Declaration as Patrimony

by Henry on June 19, 2015

I was born in Ireland, not America. This country’s habit of conducting its national conversation through its founders and founding documents still seems a little strange to me. The closest Irish equivalent to the Declaration of Independence, the Proclamation of the Republic, has a vexed status in Irish historical memory. This was in part because the republican promises made were never quite delivered on, in part because of Ireland’s civil war, where the losers declared themselves the true heirs of the Proclamation and took up arms on its behalf, and in part because the proclaimers have not been dead sufficiently long to acquire the incorruptible odor of sanctity. Instead of a civic religion centered on my country’s founders, we grew up in the gaps of a conversation that never quite took form, tacit and tactical silences that carefully skirted a complicated history, and, rising up from somewhere below, the sweet aroma of bodies that hadn’t been buried quite deeply enough. [click to continue…]

Can you agree with the Declaration of Independence if you don’t believe in God?

Danielle Allen raises this question about halfway through her painstaking commentary, when she arrives at “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration’s first sentence. Allen acknowledges that many Americans would rather avoid thinking about the role of theology in the Declaration. But she insists—correctly—that the matter is too important to avoid: references to God are not only obvious features of the text, but also “ground zero for discussion of how religion and politics intertwine.” (115)

Over the next few chapters, Allen argues that the Declaration is open to readings that leave out a deity. Belief in God helps justify its claims about the origin and purpose of government. But it’s not the only way of supporting those conclusions, provided that you strongly endorse the premise of equal basic rights. In Allen’s words, “You do not need to be a theist to accept the argument of the Declaration. You do, however, require an alternative ground for a maximally strong commitment to the right of other people to survive and to govern themselves.” (138) [click to continue…]

To Carry the Past Around with You

by Gabriel Winant on June 17, 2015

Citizenship is waning. There are the obvious, brutal signs of this: the police apparently have a free hand to kill and cage certain citizens, more or less as they see fit; the fiscal state is crippled by the ability and willingness of its wealthier subjects to refuse taxation; voters must now share political space with corporations, their new legal equivalents in significant elements of democratic life. In many places, especially poorer places like Greece and Detroit, unelected bureaucracies now explicitly overrule the will of electorates. Then there are the more paradoxical data points indicating the civic crisis. As the value of democratic citizenship declines, for example, those who still have it behave more defensively, throwing up border walls and voting for neo-nationalists. The deportee prison, the mass drownings in the Mediterranean, the rise of Golden Dawn, UKIP, and the National Front: these phenomena signal the dissipation of citizenship as much as the overweening power of the European Central Bank or the quasi-colonial occupation of Ferguson do. When your portion is diminishing, you want to ration it out more stingily. If you’ve only got a little at all, though, what do you do?

This is the question at the core of Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration. What has become of what she calls “the democratic arts”? How can we get our citizenship back? [click to continue…]

§1. The Declaration of Independence is a living document; and our every reading provides it the breath of life. Danielle Allen suggests as much when she writes: “We are all part of the ‘world’ to which the Declaration submits its facts. With every fresh reading, the Declaration calls out again for our judgment.” (89). This makes the Declaration a wily document of sorts. It purports to establish something politically important about the necessity of securing political independence from the British crown (and we’ll get to what that something seems to be in a moment), thus to regulate the affairs of men and women. And Yet. The Declaration seems to rely upon our engagement for it to have significant meaning: “The Declaration has expectations of its readers. A reader of the Declaration must be a judge….The Declaration assumes that its readers are […] equipped with moral sense. In calling out to its readers as members of the candid world, the Declaration identifies its audience as consisting of the kind of living organisms that can connect facts with principles in order to make judgments.” (90-1). It co-opts the judgment of readers to substantiate its democratic aims, thus implicates us in the quest for independence and equality from tyranny by asserting in its first line that as a people, the colonists were right to claim for themselves “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”. [click to continue…]

In Our Declaration, Danielle Allen writes neither as a philosopher’s philosopher, a historian’s historian, nor as a textualist’s textualist. She writes instead a dazzling scholar in the midst of a full-blown academic obsession. And, strangely enough, she writes like a lawyer. Indeed, much to my surprise, Allen’s project displays deep continuities with the project of constitutional law. Like constitutional lawyers, she derives a robust set of democratic commitments from a thin textual guarantee, and her project shares the same imperfections and glories as constitutional law’s. [click to continue…]