But Levin wants to do more than merely remind us of the value and insights of these two great thinkers; he wants to illuminate and inform contemporary political debate as well—and here The Great Debate ends up confusing more than clarifying. If Levin aims to show that at the heart of the contemporary right and left are the same insights and principles championed by Burke and Paine, he is surely mistaken. The American right has always been less influenced by Burkean-style conservatism than have its European counterparts and has long contained powerful populist and libertarian strains that Burke would probably have disdained. While it is certainly true that we have had a more moderate right at times in the past, our right has never been primarily or even largely defined by Burke’s thought, with its focus on preserving the past, disdain for radicalism, and support for a certain type of communitarianism.
The American left, for its part, is equally difficult to understand through the prism of Burke and Paine’s Great Debate. Marxism never made the same inroads into the American left as it did into its European counterparts, and neither did other radical ideologies bent on overthrowing the existing order. Instead, the American left has been dominated by reformists and progressives, committed for the most part to getting the United States to live up to its ideals and traditions rather than changing them. As was the case in Europe, an almost social-democratic tradition emerged during the late nineteenth century that was characterized by a belief in gradual reformism and the need to protect social unity and cohesion from the ravages of the capitalist system; principles and insights that would sit at least as comfortably with Burke as they would with Paine. Even during the devastation of the Great Depression, this pseudo or partial social-democratic tradition was never seriously threatened on the left by communists, Marxists, or other radicals, and it reached its apogee with Roosevelt’s New Deal, which did as much to stabilize American political life as it did to change the American welfare state or economic system.
Historically, in other words, the connections between the American right and Burke and the American left and Paine have been tenuous, and both sides of the political spectrum have drawn on a variety of traditions. But this is surely not news to Levin. So perhaps what Levin really aimed to do with The Great Debate was not to illuminate what the right and left actually are, but rather to suggest what they should be. But here too the book is somewhat confusing, particularly for the right—the part of the spectrum to which Levin is best positioned to preach.
Indeed, Levin’s point is well taken for both sides. Perhaps American debate and politics would be more edifying and effective if right and left hewed more closely to their great progenitors. The American right desperately needs to be reminded of the dangers of radicalism, of the trouble that often emerges when utopian ideals trump practical concerns about the actual lives of ordinary citizens, and of the problems that come when social cohesion and unity decline precipitously. As the French Revolution made clear centuries ago, democracy cannot function when a significant sector of the population denies the legitimacy of the values, needs, and goals of the rest of society. When you believe apocalypse is around the corner, any tactic becomes justified.
The left, on the other hand, could do with a little radicalism. The muted critiques and lack of coherent alternatives offered by the American left have allowed dangerously disruptive features of contemporary capitalism to remain in place, and have hindered support for what should be understood as the most significant advance in social security and personal liberty of the past generation—the Affordable Care Act. The left’s kinder, gentler version of neoliberalism, moreover, has left those most dissatisfied with the existing order without a mainstream alternative on that part of the spectrum, and has driven many into the arms of extremists on both sides.
In this era, probably neither Burke nor Paine would know where he belonged on the political spectrum. As an ascendant conservative intellectual, Levin aspires to remind the Republican Party of the dangers of radicalism, disrespect for political institutions, and disintegrating social harmony. It’s a commendable goal. If only he would do so more loudly and clearly."
I think this is a wonderful review essay. Berman reminds us that the real divisions between the American left and right are not about attitudes to the individual and society — but rather their particular stance on social change. [This point was relevant also in the discussion following the publication of Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind.]
The third version of the CC license also failed to cover a legal quirk we rarely hear about in the U.S.: database rights.
In the European Union and other states, if someone compiles a database, they have rights over its copying and usage that work similarly to copyright protections but which only last 15 years. (In the EU, too, if a database is modified, the timer on those 15 years restarts.) Database rights aren’t codified by law in America, so databases that aren’t creative in some way aren’t covered by copyright protections here. That’s because facts can’t be copyrighted in the U.S., and databases—especially non-creative ones—are just collections of facts.
Because the license failed to cover them, anyone using CC-licensed work in the EU or elsewhere might find their project violating someone’s database rights. The new version of the CC license—the one released today—alleviates those concerns, addressing how the CC contract interacts with database rights law. It also solves the previous problem, granting users who were previously violating CC terms a way to use CC-lisenced work again."
Hmmm — I’m not quite sure that I buy this. But I always enjoy how clear and articulate Shirky’s writing is.