The end of liberalism?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, wrote Dickens. He may as well have been writing about today. How far have we traveled in the past fifty years and how far have we lost our way! Gays can marry, a black man has become president, children have cell phones, sidewalks are paved for wheelchairs, but Christian churches denounce Israel and boycott the country, universities turn anti-Semitic, French philosophers champion jihadists, liberals are progressive and conservatives are liberal. There is simply no end to the wonders of the modern world. It is, indeed, another country.
Once, back in the sixties, when James Baldwin was writing Another Country, when people were protesting the war in Vietnam and freedom marching in the American south and the Beatles were blowing minds with Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, it seemed self-evident that the world was changing and changing for the better. So immersed were we in the flow of history that revolt was synonymous with it. Paving stones flew in Paris as they had centuries before. Indian music and cotton prints wove their way through the London air. The generation ahead of us, measured in a five-year interval, taught us to turn this massive and spontaneous kicking over the traipses into serious revolutionary thought. Marxism came pouring into the campuses and onto the movie screens in its diluted critical theory form and no one ever looked back, even when Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin offed themselves, the easy ride of Easy Rider turned south, and four kids died at Kent State.
We rallied and picked up the new battle cry of the Republic, which always turned on some ism or other and enabled us to believe we were fighting for the same old thing. Decency. Right. Justice. A better world, but not to the tune of a Disney song. Something more serious. Women’s rights. Black rights. Gay rights. This meant all kinds of things to different people. Abortion on demand. Equal pay for equal work. Even pay for housework. Anything to get women out of the women’s room. Head start. Affirmative action. Prison reform. Mobilizing the poor. War on poverty. War on racism. Getting the cops off gay men’s backs and out of their bars. The demands changed with the decades, along with the music, but everyone in the know seemed to know what was meant in this grand rainbow coalition redressing historic wrongs. People wanted to be on the right side of history, as Obama is fond of saying, and the right side was left. One was and is progressive, much as Hillary Clinton defines herself, and so one was and is for Mapplethorpe photographs and transgendered bathrooms, and if one is not, one is relegated to the circle of hell reserved for deplorables.
That was how the Democratic nominee for President in 2016 described half of her opponent’s supporters as she spoke to an LGBT audience asking for donations. The epithet revealed just how the chattering classes regard millions of Americans who may disagree with them, a regard which they take as fact and which shines through the cultural and political messages they send our way from pulpit and press. The movies and television series, the news anchor commentary, the social science theory peddled in universities are all part of this social gloss which has replaced Amy Vanderbilt and Ann Landers as etiquette for proper living. The smug self-satisfaction of these people who talk only to themselves is on a par with the contempt they exhibit towards those who do not speak their shop talk at the nightly dinner table. Not for a minute do they question their own world view or entertain the thought that perhaps their narcissism may cloud their ignorance.
Think, for a minute, of the lies that Thomas Friedman so happily serves up in his New York Times editorials, like the one where he suggested then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had President George W. Bush under house arrest because President Bush did not share Mr. Friedman’s view that Israel had to be reined in. Mr. Friedman, like the current president he so obviously adores and his delusional Secretary of State, continues to propagate the myth that it would be good if the Israelis committed national suicide and allowed one more terrorist and dysfunctional state to emerge on their eastern border. He and the newspaper he so obsequiously serves also continue to propagate the myth that it is Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria and not Palestinian intransigence (the word is an understatement) that block the emergence of a peace agreement. In this, of course, he is joined by his intellectual counterparts in Europe, who have nothing else to do but think of ways to funnel funds and moral support to a criminal Palestinian leadership bent on Israel’s destruction. Meanwhile, their own continent sinks beneath a wave of Muslim migration that brings with it murder and mayhem, sexual and cultural, violently opposed to the republican values that have symbolized everything good about the Enlightenment for over two hundred years.
Indeed, Israel is the perfect litmus test to see just how illiberal our cultural elites have become. Israel is the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. It is the only liberal democracy in that swath of the world stretching from Morocco to Pakistan. And yet the political and cultural elites of the West put Israel as a moral equivalent of the most reactionary societies on the planet. One has only to watch the headlines beneath the morning or nightly news shows talking about the violence on both sides when Palestinians as young as nine are sent by their leaders to stab Jews at random wherever they can find them and are killed for their folly, not to mention turpitude. Tsk, tsk, we hear from the news anchors as they bemoan the violence and loss of life on both sides, whose lopsided numbers they always remind us of. Not so different from the French philosopher who makes no distinction between the victims of jihadism and the victims of poverty, inevitably laid at the feet of western imperialism or global capitalism, off of which the same philosopher blithely and comfortably lives. It is as if body counts are all that matter; not moral intent, the purpose of war, the clash of values and social arrangements which spell the difference between liberty and tyranny, religious or otherwise.
Even the President of the United States gets in on the act, lecturing the world about the virtues of tolerance and generosity which he readily extends to the most frightful regimes on earth, like Iran or Russia or the Muslim Brotherhood whose fault is simply they have erred in their reading of history’s tea leaves, but not to allies like Israel or even his Republican opponents in the American Congress. And yet he bemoans the lack of civility in the domestic political discourse of the United States, as do the many people, and most notably Jews, who have explained to me that of course they support Mrs. Clinton for President. To do otherwise would be to turn back the clock of social progress for a hundred years, and this even before Mr. Trump had secured the Republican nomination.
Such an assumption bespeaks a failure to understand the nature of modern society. The inclusion of so many interests in the political process of a modern democracy, coupled with the complexity of issues facing any government that cannot be resolved ideologically unless one opts for collapse, means that no elected government, let alone a president, can shift a society’s trajectory by more than three degrees. It may seem ideologically or politically appetising to demonize one’s opponents, but that hardly makes for an accurate description or assessment of how society works or what may actually be in store for voters. Nonetheless, it seems it is difficult to resist the siren call of moral indignation and cultural vituperation, as much on the left as on the right, and these days, oddly enough, even more on the left of the conventional political spectrum.
And therein lies the rub. Those on the left are categorized as liberals by self-described conservatives, but the left are hardly liberal any more. They are no longer concerned with the classic tenets of liberalism: a principled and passionate defense of individual liberty, presumption of innocence until proven guilty, a commitment to analyzing questions based on gathering the facts and understanding the different issues involved on a given matter. Today the left is more concerned with the grand cause, the idea of progress, the narrative, to use the words the left itself favors. Instead of hard-nosed empiricism there are keywords, buzzwords, slogans that encapsulate the direction of history, on whose right side it is important to be.
Although they do not speak the classic language of Marxism, something of Marx’s critique of liberalism as nothing but ideological cover for bourgeois class interest has crept into their discourse. As far as Marx was concerned, only changes in the situation of social classes could make an individual truly individual and truly free. Which also meant that any individual’s situation in modern society, one which Marx read as a class-divided society, was only a reflection of his or her status as a victim, prisoner of his or her social class. Although modern society has done away with social class (though not income inequality), the left has not done away with victims. Instead they revel in them, just as they revel in the causes they claim describe the victims’ misfortune: sexism, racism, homophobia, and the like. Thus does a term like racist come to be both a description of society as well as an epithet of disparagement to be hurled at those deemed responsible for keeping society that way. But modern America can no more be described as racist – or sexist or homophobic for that matter – than it can be described as class-ridden. Which does not stop a lot of people who should know better from claiming that it can be, and is, best described as such.
There was a time when American society was racist. In the sixties people wondered if America would overcome that social fault-line or fall apart from it. Fifty years later we have only to watch television to see that it has overcome racism, and sexism, and homophobia, the whole basket of nasty charges liberals keep hauling up to indict society and justify their brand of progress. Of course, there are still pockets of people who think being black or gay or female is some form of inherent defect. On the whole, however, the dominant way of thinking is otherwise. There may still be suspicion of the other rather than a hearty embrace, but tolerance rules the roost and most people are happier with it and for it.
Sure, incidents keep popping up where some police shoot to kill too quickly and inappropriately, it would seem. We see and hear of these incidents especially when those shot are black. But that is hardly evidence that the entire police force in America is racist. If that were true, things would be much worse and uglier in the country. Too many of these incidents amount simply to trial by media. When the cases go before a jury, as they did in Baltimore, the police are not convicted. Even in Ferguson the story changed as more facts came to life. But facts are of no consequence to a movement like Black Lives Matter, whose members felt impelled to take a trip to Israel to express solidarity with Palestinian gangsters and denounce America and Israel in terms hardly different from those used by the Iranian mullahs. If the Black Lives Matter people were truly concerned about wiping out pockets of racism in police departments in America, they might talk about their effects on what black mothers now have to teach their children when cops tell them to raise their hands. They might also want to address the issue of so many black children growing up without their fathers, and not because their fathers are in jail. They might also want to look at the fears with which some police have to do their jobs. But that would be to delve into the complexities of this difficult situation. And then how would they feel free to turn the issue into a wholesale denunciation of American society?
The President ought to have lectured them about twisting the facts when he received them at the White House. If he did, we heard nothing about that. But then, the President feels free to lecture us about the sins of the Crusaders while opening the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s the White House version of outreach to the Muslim world where Christians today are being decimated, while all the pundits in the press echo his blind spot with condemnations of Islamophobia that are even less justified than the Black Lives Matter charge of racism. There are over 300 million people in the United States of America. How many incidents of Islamophobia since 9/11 do we know of? Islamophobia is not a fact of contemporary America, but it is a key ingredient in the so-called liberal mindset of what constitutes the socially retrograde. From there it moves on to fact, and from fact to justification not to turn society’s clock back.
Similar muddled thinking characterizes the progressive-minded cultural elites of Europe. Israel was roundly chastised for building a wall to keep out terrorists rather than shoot them. France is now building a wall at Calais to prevent Muslim migrants from illegally boarding trains and trucks to take them into Britain. The situation of the migrant camp is so horrific there that it is simply called a jungle, which the socialist French government is planning to dismantle and whose inhabitants it intends to spread all over France, creating even more no-go zones where the authorities are afraid to enter. But when the Republican standard-bearer for President calls for a pause to Muslim immigration to America and more stringent vetting, he is roundly denounced as racist by Europe’s progressive counterparts in the United States.
Once again it is not the particularities of the situation that interest them. Nor are they much moved by the victims of their folly, whose corpses can be seen strewn across the world from San Bernardino to Islamabad and from Paris to Tel Aviv. What counts instead is the concatenation of all those variations of racism, as the Democratic candidate for President put it, which, strung together, offer a picture of society which she and her constituents find abhorrent. It is the picture that counts, not the reality. Behind the picture is the self-image these so-called liberal cultural elites have of themselves. For them, it is more important to be seen as having the right attitudes, as sharing the right outlook on the world, than it is to defend the principles and the institutions that in fact keep liberal democracies strong. Indeed, it is more important to blather on about who we are than to address the very real threats to who we are. The liberals have betrayed liberalism and do not even see it. But they lecture everyone else for not being liberal enough.
These are the people who castigate anyone who wants Americans to be allowed to keep their guns as redneck reactionaries. They are also the people who write television script after television script in which the lone hero takes on a corrupt government thanks to the arsenal of weapons at his and sometimes his friends’ disposal. America, unlike Europe, was founded on a profound suspicion of government. Protection of the Second Amendment is seen as remaining true to that fiercely individualistic, liberal tradition. Live free or die, as it is written on the New Hampshire license plates. The cultural elites know this and stoke it for every bit of serial tv storyline they can muster, only to dump on the people who embrace the heroes they put on television. These are the same cultural elites who flirt with the drugs they bemoan are tearing America apart, turning a chemistry teacher turned crystal meth producer into an anti-hero hero of sorts in that thoroughly twisted Breaking Bad the progressives all loved to watch. Just as they turned Tony Soprano, a mob boss and murderer, into a likeable fellow they could relate to because he spent time on his psychiatrist’s couch. Who really is peddling retrograde values here? The progressive cultural elites like to think that they can flirt with the underside of society and still come up smelling like roses because their day job counterparts are busy lecturing the denizens of middle America about the stain the latter keep putting on the liberal looking glass.
Eventually the people rise up and say they are tired of all that liberal sermonizing. Their revolt is what lies behind the support Donald Trump commands no matter what he says. For however outlandish and inconsistent his pronouncements, however quixotic his policies, he does have the merit of speaking the language of his instincts. He registers that something is wrong in the country. He affirms that millions of people immigrate illegally, which represents a threat to the sovereignty of the country and the security of its citizens. He points out that there is a danger to Muslim immigration given the demonstrated hostility of Muslim culture to modern society. He asks if the country can afford to live with double digit trillion-dollar debt. All this makes him an outsider, and the manner in which he does it makes him even more an outsider to the cultural establishment that cuts across party lines. His opponent, for her part, has nothing to offer but the tired shibboleths of the sixties where all this started. The result: the country is faced with electoral blackmail, not unlike the moral blackmail that characterizes the putative subordinate groups the left likes to think of as constituting civil society. For it is well known that you cannot support Black Lives Matter, for example, and also support Israel, and maybe have doubts about affirmative action and questions about climate change. It is all of a piece. You are either for the goodly progressive or you are blackballed, like Jordanian professionals who dare to establish contacts with their Israeli colleagues.
Hillary Clinton recently asked the question why she was not fifty points ahead of her opponent. The real question is why her opponent is not fifty points ahead of her. Which raises the question in turn why the best the Republican Party could come up with as a nominee for President is a bully, a braggart and an egotist of truly impressive proportions, whose narcissism inevitably trumps his instincts, buries the few good policies he has and makes even those who would like to support him shrink from doing so. Fittingly, Donald Trump’s narcissism is but the ugly mirror to the narcissism of the cultural elites that cannot abide him. His vulgarity and non sequiturs are but the trappings of a man whose sense of self is far more important than the country whose destiny he would take in hand. In that he is no different from the progressives who regard him and the millions who support him with disdain. For them too, policy takes a back seat to a defense of their sense of self. But since their moral posturing is wrapped up in a picture of what they think society ought to be, they think themselves a cut above the rest: Ben Rhodes on his echo chamber for Obama’s Iran deal, Jonathan Gruber on voter stupidity for the Affordable Care Act. It is a matter of opinion which narcissism is the more objectionable. One thing is certain. The country is the loser, and with it the liberal tradition in America which I was once taught blanketed the country from coast to coast.
Only in America do conservatives wind up being liberal. Think of George W. Bush explaining to the Washington press corps that church and state are separate in America or how he was planning to use the political capital of his second term victory. Or think of FOX News, so dedicated to upholding conservative principles, though many of them are classically liberal. But just as the liberals in America have turned progressive, the conservatives have also turned to an ideological posture which keeps them hidebound to a past that is not coming back. Perhaps the one truly liberal candidate for President is Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, who firmly believes the government should stay out of people’s business, and that includes their bedrooms. Take the whole issue of abortion on demand. Those who truly think abortion is not a good thing should apply it to their own bodies and situations, not to those of others. If they are worried that giving in to abortion is the thin edge of the wedge, that backsliding on religious teachings on this question will ultimately lead to sapping the country’s moral strength, if only first through population decline, they have a response ready to hand. Let them make babies, plenty of them, and raise them according to precepts they cherish. Of course, this is a different issue from Planned Parenthood’s use of abortion to sell fetal body parts. Nor is it incorrect to point out that Planned Parenthood had its origins in Margaret Sanger’s campaign for birth control that was not divorced from the eugenics ideology of the time. The conclusion, however, is not simply to shut down Planned Parenthood. The question merely reveals the complexity surrounding most issues faced by a modern society. Of course, if liberal ideology dictates that some questions should not be examined because they would make students uncomfortable, the whole society is condemned to historical ignorance. And if conservative ideology jettisons its liberalism when the policy answers are not what they would like, the result is pretty much the same. What is left is nothing but a culture of narcissism, a label not quite what the historian who penned the book of that name had in mind.
Liberalism entered history as a political philosophy. It sought to temper Hobbes’ fierce materialism with a softer variant, subtracting private property as well as the person from the political domain and sticking it in the state of nature. Its proponents thereby thought to rein in the absolute power of the ruler within the social contract, who now has to protect both. In this version all rights accrued protect each other. God-given rights, reasoned state of nature rights, it mattered little once the idea took hold. A new chapter opened up in human history: a constitutionally limited ruler, even if democratic.
Liberalism was not, however, an adequate sociological description of the society to which it was attuned. Nor for that matter were any of the state of nature theories, though Hobbes’ moral temper and psychological acumen turned out to be more incisive in the long run, which latter day conservatives might wish to bear in mind when thinking about their own moral and sociological prescriptions. That said, liberalism won out over the other political philosophies, both left and right, because its championship of individual rights and limited government were prescriptions that dovetailed with the logic of modern society. Modern society is a functionally differentiated society, which operates by insulating different social spheres from each other. It does this by having different resources circulate according to different rules in each social sphere; money, power, love, knowledge, etc. This makes it very difficult for modern societies to run as autocracies, with a central control structure directing traffic and behavior. That is why Soviet communism failed. It could not cope with the requirements of a modern economy, modern science and ultimately political democracy, which came into being because a modern society has to include as many people as possible in the different social spheres. What good is a modern economy if it is not consumer driven? What good is modern science if the brains of everyone can’t be tapped? All of which means the functioning of a modern society requires individual rights, limited government, equal treatment before the law irrespective of who you are and where you come from. In short, any form of racism is ultimately incompatible with a modern society. Liberalism expresses this logic and acts, or at least acted for a long time, as a philosophical and moral inspiration for reforms that pushed modern society in that direction. That is why liberals also championed movements of artistic freedom, defended free speech, and protested censorship.
Today unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Liberalism’s fierce individualism has become subordinated to the idea that society must be given priority, for true freedom is held to be incompatible with a society that does not turn the promise of happiness and fulfillment into a reality for all. In this respect, both utilitarianism and all the subsequent strands of Marxism have trumped classical liberalism. Not only the greatest good for the greatest number, but actual equality for everyone are ideals that drive contemporary liberals, even if the term liberal carries different connotations on different sides of the Atlantic. In short, liberals have become progressives, ready to use government to enforce their conception of the good and the useful, inadvertently turning it into the Leviathan their eighteenth century predecessors sought to prevent. In order to prevent the social ills that they regard as detrimental to progress, they resort to a form of speech which proscribes, by convention if not by law, dissent from their noble aims and policies. Enter political correctness, which is an oddity by any standard when one considers where liberals used to line up on free speech and artistic freedom.
I say unfortunately, because political correctness is detrimental to the resolution of problems that arise in a modern society, while the concerns that animate it are based on a misreading of the logic of that very society. Modern society does not produce equality. It produces difference. Indeed, it encourages it. The miracle of modern society lies in the fact that the society continues to hang together in spite of all these differences which, kept under wraps in traditional society, have now found social expression. This is no mean feat, given that all this difference produces contention and dilemmas hitherto unknown. One has only to think of the issue of transgendered bathrooms, not to mention the complexities of transgender issues for children, parents, educators, psychologists, mental health professionals, and legislators, to name a few of the actors involved in this situation. Moralistic bludgeoning on the right and left is no substitute for a considered exploration of the matter. Liberals used to be in the forefront of doing just that, but one is not likely to come across John Stuart Mill on the cable news networks, not even on PBS where people do not shout as much.
Much the same can also be said for nearly every question that comes up: trade policies, climate change, pharmaceutical drugs, airplane crashes, national debt financing, and on and on. Donald Trump’s attacks on international trade deals are spurious and misleading, but so were Bernie Sanders’s; and for Hillary Clinton to pick them up and amplify them only shows to what lows political discourse has sunk. Surely she ought to know better, she who ran American diplomacy and saw first-hand what economic textbooks teach their students, namely that every cycle of technological innovation leads to shifts in economic production as old sectors move to lower wage countries and higher paying jobs replace them. Of course this causes economic dislocation and financial stress, but lying to voters does not make for better policies or a more intelligent society. Nor are simplified attacks on drug companies an honest way to address the complexities of pharmaceutical research in a modern economy. One has but to think of the way drugs that treat erectile dysfunction have made older people (and not only them) of both sexes happier to appreciate the way a democracy actually works. The liberal mindset used to remind people of that. It no longer does.
Modern society brings complexity into everyone’s lives. Issues are rarely black and white. Liberals used to know that and approached questions with a healthy dose of skepticism and hard-nosed empiricism. Maybe because of that their philosophical bent also made them adaptable to modern society and the kind of inquiry it requires. In literature and in art it fostered an appreciation of irony and brought the reader or viewer a measure of peace, if not comfort, at the way people tended to do themselves in when life did not do it for them. Madame Bovary. Anna Karenina. Thomas Hardy’s many female characters. But then Thomas Hardy, pessimistic liberal that he was, knew, as liberals everywhere tended to know, that history, contrary to Hegel, was not going anywhere. We are a far cry from that when an election to the Presidency of the United States turns on charges of sexism readily exchanged between nominees whose own personal lives are but a caricature of nineteenth century doomed lovers and unhappy spouses.
The liberalism that was once a strong moral impulse and aesthetic marker has now joined the contemporary cacophony of information overload and ideological posturing. Modesty and restraint are gone. The impulse that drove people to defend modern democracy even when they could not enjoy its benefits is no longer with us. One wonders what there is to defend when so few seem ready to defend it and even fewer understand it. Soon the last surviving soldier of World War Two will have died. Will what he fought for die with him? Has it already?