Though no sooner evoked than forgotten, former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s distinction between “bubbles” and “bubbas”, in 2015’s God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, serves as an instructive case of the ways in which the name by which a group is identified or self-identifies may encode values antithetical to that identification’s stated purpose. In an interview with NPR, Huckabee makes clear his intent to lay out an identity with which others can identify:
In the three bubbles of influence — New York, Washington and Hollywood — most of the cultural template of America is established, whether it’s in fashion or finance or politics or government or music, entertainment, television, movies. A lot of people who live in the “flyover” land will sometimes say, “My gosh, that’s very different than the general prevailing attitude of the land of God, guns, grits and gravy.”
So this book tries to explain, here’s who we are. It says to the people out there in flyover country, you’re not alone. There are a lot of you. And you may not think there are a lot of you, because everything you see on TV and in the movies is more connected to the bubbles.
For Huckabee, the bubbles inhabit the coasts and the nation’s largest cities, the bubbas the areas in-between. In truth, this distinction retreads a number of others in a similar vein, e.g. blue-stater vs. red-stater, cultural elite vs. the average person. What sets Huckabee’s apart from others is the way in which the term “bubba” by which he designates the latter group builds cultural simplicity and down-to-earth goodness into itself. An excerpt, made available by NPR, makes that latent content strikingly clear:
This book will be very encouraging to people who live in Bubba-ville. And to those who live in Bubble-ville, it will be very enlightening. After you’ve read it, you’ll probably still want to live in your same bubble, but you might at least for the first time really understand those of us you fly over and look down on when you make the LA to New York red-eye flight and wonder, “Just what kind of people live there?” Because most of the movies and television shows portray people living in one of the bubbles, we know you pretty well. We get your unique phrases, attitudes, and even know something about your various neighborhoods. But I don’t think you know us very well. We really don’t live in Bugtussle and we do have indoor plumbing and electricity. So let me introduce you to the land and the people for whom God, guns, grits, and gravy all make perfect sense. After you finish the book, you might just say, “Dang, those good ol’ boys ain’t so dumb after all.”
The “bubba” label comes with both a negative and a positive charge. It proves negative in that it opposes the “bubble” (elitist, condescending) but positive in its manner of seconding the values embodied by the “bubbas” (salt of the earth, meek). Yet, in making such a value judgment, the bubba category undermines one of its linchpin notions, namely, that the bubbas are not elitist. In other words, the fact of casting judgment on the bubbles enables an implicit swap of categories and values.
Put into its most basic terms, Huckabee’s proposed identity makes the following claim. The bubbles are ignorant and bad, the bubbas informed and good. At which point, a natural comparision invites itself. If the bubbles are bad and the bubbas are good, then the bubbas are better, in important respects, than the bubbles. This puts them in a situation to reproduce, albeit unwittingly, the same elitist posturing which invited the distinction in the first place. For, if we define “elitist” simply as that which we say of a person or group of persons considered superior either by others or by themselves, with regards to a given criterion, be it intellect, talent, power, moral rectitude, simplicity, etc., the bubbas very much incarnate an elitist position.
Such a position comes out clearly in the “day in the life” reporting in a January New York Times article wherein several subjects make disparaging remarks as to Huckabee’s bubbles, which remarks map well onto the categorical inversion laid out above. And at least certain outlets have had the moral clarity to call such subjects out on their inverted elitism (some more profanity-laced than others). All that being said, it suffices to remark that the bubba identity, in a manner distinct from other such identities, trades on a a distinction which undermines itself in the end. As such, the identity is unsustainable, an uninhabitable view from nowhere. For we are left not with an out-of-touch elite and the salt of the earth but with bubba as both victim of cultural elitism and propagator of cultural elitism. In an interesting turn to recent conservative dialogue, bubbas would implicitly present themselves as both victims and elitists.
It remains to be seen whether other labels mirroring this distinction are likewise unsustainable. Regardless, contrary to Huckabee’s assertions, the relationship between bubbles and bubbas is hence that between elites which not only do not know each other but, moreover, do not know themselves.
In the second chapter, Weber turns to the question of how we might parse different interpretations of social contract theory from one another so as better to get at the essentials of Rawls’ take thereon and identify both its strengths and weaknesses. Weber proposes to do so by identifying the kind of consent sought in the social contract theory. Merely differentiating actual consent from merely hypothetical does not suffice to tease out the relevant differences between rival social contract theories insofar as the theory responds to central challenges of “how and when may the person consent?” and “what kind of being consents?” in wildly different ways. To that end, he distinguishes four kinds of consent and identifies each with an emblematic thinker:
- Historical (Locke): At some point in history, persons in the state of nature gave their consent for state and institutions. Consent gives rise to the state.
- Prudential (Hobbes): In response to rises and falls in societal stability, persons give their consent for state and institutions in order to secure life and property. Consent may occur within the state.
- Grateful (Rousseau): In accepting the benefits afforded by state and political association, beyond mere security, persons give their consent for state and institutions. Consent is implied and occurs within the state.
- Structural consent (Kant and Rawls): Given their rational make-up, persons would give their consent for state and institutions in the right circumstances. Consent is hypothetical and does not occur.
Drawing on the critiques of Hume, Hegel and Dewey, Weber maintains that 1.), 2.) and 3.) fall away as live possibilities. 1.) entails specious historical causational explanation whereas 2.) slips in and out of historical idiom and is fundamentally pessimistic on human capacity for self-organization. 3.) proceeds in view of the general will and does not allow one to opt out. Moreover, these three depend on an external authority for their legitimacy, namely god. Yet 4.) will prove a greater challenge in need of closer attention.
Indeed, Weber distinguishes two versions of 4.): possible consent (Kant) and hypothetical consent (Rawls). In the former, persons could give their consent for state and institutions if it aligns with their general idea thereof as fully rational beings. In the latter, persons would give their consent for state and institutions in fair circumstances of deliberation. If both versions share their dependence on the authority of reason, Rawls’ hypothetical consent carries a stronger normative charge than Kant’s possible consent.
At this point, Weber moves to critiques given by Hume, Hegel and Dewey to the above. The author speaks favourably of Hume’s historical challenge to the sufficiency of structural consent (i.e. if structural consent were enough, there would be no cause for entrenched social conflict over states and institutions). Of Hegel, Weber notes how the former questioned, on one hand, whether one can in fact not give consent to existing state and institutions and, on the other, whether social contract theories, Kant’s in particular, do not posit an incoherent notion of person by setting the person up to judge state, institutions and civil life without the benefit of the conceptual resources afforded by the latter.
While the author judges that Rawls can avoid, at least to some extent, Hume’s attacks on historical consent and Hegel’s first charge, he fares more poorly with regards to the second on persons. More particularly, Weber challenges Rawls’ nominally constructivist view that persons can arrive at agreement on the basic structure without recourse to the conceptual resources afforded them on life within the basic structure and without. In short, without their personal or private reason, it is unclear what, if any decisions, persons might arrive at.
Certainly, on Weber’s reading, Rawls meets this challenge to an extent when he notes that the original position posits real persons in an ideal situation. Yet these heterogeneous elements fit ill at the joints in that person and situation are both historical developments or constructions. In the end, Weber deems Rawls’ approach insufficient to meet the charges put forward. All of which will lead Weber to privilege Dewey’s constructivism over the Rawlsian version.
Before continuing to the Deweyan variant, it is worth noting two points on which Rawls or Rawls scholars can challenge Weber’s reading. First, Weber invokes “private reason” (p. 30) when speaking of the divide between deliberation on basic and non-basic matters. Rawls would reject such a notion, as well as the dualism which it implies, as incoherent (PL, p. 220). While distinct, public and nonpublic reason interact and are far from hermetic. Secondly, Weber speaks of real persons within the original position (p. 31) despite Rawls’ making clear that parties to the original position are merely “artificial creatures inhabiting our device of representation” (PL, p. 28) and emphatically not actual. While these oversights detract from the specifics of Weber’s challenge, they leave its substance untouched in that Hegel’s challenges, as formulated by Weber, remain at least somewhat unanswered. Moreover, it shows the uneasy position which Rawls occupies between situationalist language and ideal theory.
Weber closes the chapter with a review of Dewey’s own criticisms of social contract theory, four in number:
- It derives notions of sociality and morality from notions of contract law and property.
- It sets out from a political problem which is not a product of genuine inquiry, but of abstraction, ideology or mistaken assumption.
- It remains stranded between atomist and absolutist conceptions of will.
- It posits an abstract individualism by separating the different parts of personhood in a way for which non-ideal theory rarely allows.
In the end, Weber judges Dewey’s criticisms to have remained without satisfactory response from the social contract camp and redoubles his efforts to show how Deweyan constructivism surpasses the Rawlsian.
Rawls, Dewey, and Constructivism
How do epistemology and justification lead us to conceive of persons?
Weber opens his book with the open questions of whether Rawls’ justice as fairness and its attendant epistemology belongs to either constructivism (wherein objects are socially constructed and mind-dependent) or representationalism (wherein objects float free and are mind-independent) and in what ways this first question impacts his conception of the person. In its shortest form, Weber’s thesis is that, on the first, Rawls’ theory proves fundamentally incoherent, stuck between the two, and, on the second, his conception of the person (particularly with regards to education) is woefully underdeveloped, remaining at the level of a noumenal, atomistic, unencumbered view of person or self (Weber uses the terms more or less interchangeably). Given our own interest in Rawls’ epistemology and conception of person, it will prove instructive to explore Weber’s own approach, its strengths as well as its shortcomings.
At the level of the introduction, two particular strengths make themselves felt. First, Weber puts his finger on a series of ambiguities in Rawls’ work. Though nominally constructivist, Rawls’ approach utilizes a number of debatably representationalist terms, analyses and distinctions. Among these Weber counts: the distinction between the concept of justice and different conceptions of justice (what allows us to posit the existence of a conception of justice to be elucidated in terms of the commonalities between conceptions of justice?); the tendency in counterfactual social contract theory and, more particularly, the original position to issue in a single determinate conception of justice, namely, justice as fairness when alternatives thereto seem to exist (why does justice as fairness stand free of inquiry in such a way that all persons might arrive at it, albeit by different means?); the admission that his conceptions of (moral) person and society are unconstructed and allow persons to come to deliberation independently of their normal social settings (what allows us to imagine persons so unmoored and socially unconstructed as parties to deliberation?); the idea that intuitions guide persons towards reflective equilibrium (for what distinguishes intuitions from inclinations on such a thin theory of meaning?).
Secondly, Weber sets out to rehabilitate a notion of objectivity proper to constructivism. As opposed to Rawls’ latent representationalism, as detectable in his claim that one can more or less approximate justice as fairness as the most adequate embodiment of a liberal political conception of justice, the author at least initially suggests a few characteristics which show affinity with object orientedness and socially constructed, rather than individually imposed, objective inquiry. How this relates to O’Neill’s critique of Rawls’ constructivism in The Cambridge Companion and its presentation of the limits of that constructivism’s broader objectivity or universality for peoples outside the democratic state in question remains to be seen.
Yet a number of shortcomings sketch themselves out as well. Perhaps the lesser of the two is our question on how bad it is to be incoherent at some level. In the case of Rawls, is incoherence between representationalism and constructivism as damning as it seems? Can we be constructivist all the way down or are there certain notions which do not admit of construction, as with Rawls’ notion of person? If Weber’s calling this fact to attention issues in a mere call to theoretical purity, it may carry less water than it would initially seem. On one hand, coherence or consistency may not be applicable in all instances across the board (see for example Stout’s discussion of my belief that Hegel is right and my concomitant belief that something in Hegel’s work must be wrong). On the other, totalizing conceptions typically encounter problems of one kind or another (consider those systemic analyses which, unable to sift the good from the bad, sometimes end in a tepid functionalism on which all tends to promote the overall progress of the system, be this consumerist culture, deliberative democracy, or other).
More importantly, we might wonder whether there is a single, unified Rawlsian conception of person like that which Weber puts forward. More specifically, if the shape of Rawls’ epistemology and justification determines the conception of person but his epistemology and justification take different forms in different forums, then there may be reason to doubt whether we can reference a single unitary reductivist account of person on Rawls’ view. Depending on method, one may count as many as seven (party, delegate, legislator, judge, citizen, individual, reasonable citizen). Does Weber then intend an overall notion of person which underlies these more particular instantiations? If we cast doubt on Weber’s efforts so conceived but advane a similar story with regards to Rawls and person, do we then do our own effort a grave disservice?
On a side note, Weber’s Deweyan account may be of some interest for us. Though we are more interested in Stout than Dewey, if one allows for a reasonable proximity between the former and the latter, a significant amount of Weber’s findings may cross-apply. Certainly, a number of his comments sound familiar from Stout’s work, such as the call to greater attention to historical detail, the critique of indefeasible hypothetical conclusions, embeddedness of persons and justification, amongst others. This remains to be explored.
An afternoon detour through an arboretum found a middle-aged man and his son on a bridge spanning a creek. The man, beaten, disillusioned and bitter, opened himself up for examination on life choices, marriage, sex and all. The son proceeded to cut away at the father.
How strange to find an island of Eastern woodland upon the burning plain, the solitary man thought. With some one in particular, he went on to discuss changes in riverbanks, meanders and floodplains and chatter away at conveniently placed water stations. Back at the visitor’s center, he and some one queried a volunteer over owl taxonomy and rifled through children’s reference books before continuing on his lonesome way.
I whiled away the better part of an afternoon deconstructing official university communication with an HR officer. When he contended that the university resembles a Greek temple in that, like most Greek temples, one sees only the groundwork, or administration, I could not restrain myself from countering, in my droll manner, that most Greek temples were also in ruins. To which he could only nod assent.
His departure and leavetakings inevitably unfolded the full length of the concourses, both in his terminal and others. His strides, long and fast, carried him past innumerable faces of which he retained but a few, inevitably those which awoke his infatuation and led him to wonder whether those concourses were not in fact his after all.