Robert Paul Wolff’s “Beyond Tolerance.”

I have a personal investment in tolerance: I belong to several groups and organizations which, in other parts of the country, hang on thanks only to a sometimes threadbare (and often court-enforced) commitment to pluralism and forbearance.

At the same time, I’m skeptical that mere “tolerance” will protect me and my family if the social and political fabric frays much further. “Tolerance” is a good word for relationships among neighbors in Sarajevo and Kigali in the years prior to their respective catastrophes. In Bosnia and Rwanda, many who in daylight hours practiced tolerance devoted their midnights to dreams of mass murder.

That fact has long drawn me to cosmopolitanism. But the ideal of frictionless movement from one cultural world to another has always been idealistic. In the rougher world that has emerged in the past decade, it is now entirely out of reach. We who hunger for security from those who hate us will find just one item on the international menu: the thin broth of toleration.

Twenty years ago, I picked up a copy of A Critique of Pure Tolerance from Moe’s in Berkeley, It’s taken me that long to start reading it. Published in 1965, A Critique of Pure Tolerance appeared just as the American Left was about to birth its most violent bastard children (the Weather Underground) and, simultaneously, a viciously defiant hard-Right, imagining themselves cornered by the Supreme Court and the Justice Department, launched the last paroxysm of “massive resistance” against Civil Rights.

In that era, as in ours, any attack on the seemingly self-evident virtues of tolerance and pluralism horrified those who occupied (as I do) the broad political center. No surprise, then, that mainstream critics of both the center-Left and center-Right gave A Critique of Pure Tolerance a hostile reception. But the book’s three essays could not be easily dismissed. Philosopher Robert Paul Wolff, sociologist Barrington Moore, and social theorist Herbert Marcuse were formidable public intellectuals, read across the political spectrum.

I got to Wolff’s essay last night. There’s much here that’s worth unpacking, but in the interests of brevity, I’ll jump straight to his summary (52):

Pluralism is humane, benevolent, accommodating, and far more responsive to the evils of social injustice than either the egoistic liberalism or the traditionalistic conservatism from which it grew. But pluralism is fatally blind to the evils which afflict the entire body politic, and as a theory of society it obstructs consideration of precisely the sorts of thoroughgoing social revisions which may be needed to remedy those evils. … There is a need for a new philosophy of community, beyond pluralism and beyond tolerance.

Pluralism, in Wolff’s view, privileges incumbent interest groups. These groups use their power to preserve the status quo long after its sell-by date, and work as well to deny recognition to out-groups who would compete for national resources and rights. In a pluralist society, where everyone tolerates (or is supposed to tolerate) a neighbor’s free choice,  talk of collective or national interest is greeted with disdain.

Wolff concludes that we should replace the corporatist ideal of pluralism with a “new philosophy of community.” That’s the last sentence Wolff writes, so there’s no telling what this “new philosophy” might be.

That’s just as well. I don’t think the United States suffers from a flawed “philosophy of community.” Instead, I think that it’s the victim of its own successful governing structure. The pluralist sensibility that Wolff traces back to the early 20th century actually pervades the U.S. Constitution and has informed our politics since 1789. All the commonplaces of a high school government class – checks and balances, federalism, separation of powers – define a system whose political elites broker conflict among recognized interest groups. Incumbent interests have always been reluctant to extend “toleration” to out-groups who would compete for rights and resources, forcing these groups to assail the system. Once the system extends recognition to a new group, that group joins the battle for resources and privileges, transitioning from a mass movement to an interest group with lobbyists comfortably ensconced on K Street.

It’s not philosophy that needs to change: it’s the Constitutional order. Which is why the United States won’t be embracing some form of Danish hygge any time soon.

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