Sunday, February 22, 2009

Liberalism's quandary, continued

The more liberals seek to dig themselves out of their cognitive muddle the worse it gets. Now the academic and pundit Alan Wolfe has taken a turn. Here is a brief summary from Kwame Appiah, a fellow traveler.

“[As Wolfe argues] in this engaging new book, The Future of Liberalism, liberalism is more than a temperament; it is also a political tradition with substantive commitments—a body of ideas—and it has, as well, a dedication to fair procedures, impartially administered, legitimated by the consent of the people. Temperament, substance, procedure can all be liberal, and understanding liberalism requires a grasp of all three and of the connections among them. Wolfe's distinctive claim, however, is that the key to liberalism is a set of dispositions, or habits of mind—seven of them, in fact, each of which gets its own chapter.”

“Four of these dispositions will be quite familiar: "a sympathy for equality," "an inclination to deliberate," "a commitment to tolerance," and "an appreciation of openness." We're used to the portrayal: liberals as talky, tolerant, open-minded, egalitarians. It's not surprising, then, that these types are at home in the garrulous world of the academy—or that bossy preachers, convinced they have the one true story, do not care for them much. But Wolfe's sketch of the liberal adds three unfamiliar elements to the picture: "a disposition to grow," "a preference for realism," and "a taste for governance."

So far, Appiah on Wolfe

Let’s look at these purported criteria one by one Almost everyone will find “a sympathy for equality” a desirable attribute--especially if it means that one doesn’t have to offer anything but sympathy. For generations billionaires have felt sympathy for the plight of their lackeys, while continuing to exploit them. Like courtesy, sympathy costs nothing. And as Stanley Fish would say, a good thing too.

And then there is “an inclination to deliberate.” For a considerable period, starting with Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre conservatives have shown an almost obsessive inclination to deliberation. In fact, many bewail that fact that in the era of Sarah Palin and Joe the Plummer, this disposition has been lost. Something important has indeed disappeared, or at least gone into hibernation. That absence shows that liberals have no particular claim on deliberation. Yes, Rush Limbaugh doesn’t show much talent in the deliberation sweepstakes, but neither do Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow.

Tolerance? Well, liberals can be about as intolerant as any other group. One reason I’ve stopped going to Manhattan dinner parties is the abundant intolerance that reigns there. With just about everyone. “openness” is characteristic of one’s own opinions; closedness with those who disagree.

To be sure, Appiah, Wolfe’s ally and explainer, concedes that first quartet is pretty banal. But then there are the three “unfamiliar” elements, which seem to evidence fresh thinking. That’s a relief. Except that it isn’t.

Who isn’t in favor of personal growth? And of course we are all sure that our personal point of view is informed by “realism.” Finally, notice the weasel wording of “a taste for governance.” One doesn’t actually have to favor big government, or much government at all. All one needs is a “taste for governance.”

So there we have it. Seven little dollops of intellectual tofu. Edible I suppose, but with no flavor or nutritive value.

Those who are seeking to resuscitate liberalism as a vibrant political philosophy must do much better than Wolfe and Appiah.

From a somewhat different angle comes a new argument from film critic David Denby. In “Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation,” Denby traces the antecedents of the verbal nastiness he sees embodied in snark back to the drinking poets of ancient Greece, the first authors (to our knowledge) to make an art out of insult, and to Juvenal, the satirist of classical Rome. Despite Denby’s seeming erudition, nowadays it all seems to come down to who the target is. Attacking Al Gore or Hilary Clinton is a prima facie instance of snark, while John McCain and Sarah Palin are fair game. Liberal snarkers like John Stewart and potty-mouthed Sarah Silverman don’t even merit a wrist slap. It seems that these liberals are engaging in “irony” and not snark. How can we tell the difference? Well, for one thing, some people value “growth” and others don’t.

The common denominator of Wolfe and Appiah, on the one hand, and Denby, on the other, is that liberalism is reduced to a matter of temperament and habit. The goody-goody liberals are plentifully endowed with excellent qualities--or so they believe. Lacking these, their wingnut opponents are simply “mean.”

Such vague and self-congratulatory notions reveal a lack of hard thinking, as any serious political theory would require. What are examples of a serious political theory? Here are three: Burkean conservatism, the Libertarianism of Hayek and Freedman, and Marxist historical materialism. In all three cases there is a core set of beliefs. From these, various consequences or principles flow. Of course the political philosophies of Burke, Hayek and Freedman, and Marx are not doing very well these days. Yet the retreat of such serious bodies of theory has left a vacuum. That vacuum will have to be filled by something other than Wolfean self-congratulation.

The test of real political principles is whether they lead one to uncomfortable conclusions. Thus I give high marks to conservatives who went against the grain and opposed the Iraq War. By the same token a liberal who says that we must distinguish between legal and illegal immigration is putting it on the line.

A case in point comes from an op-ed in today’s New York Times, written by the liberal William Saletan, Slate’s national correspondent. Saletan does not think that abortion is benign. He makes an argument for increasing contraception as a way of reducing the number of abortions. “For liberals, that means taking abortion seriously as a argument for contraception. We should make the abortion rate an index of national health, like poverty or infant mortality.” Clearly, Mr. Saletan has done some hard thinking and decided not to support the knee-jerk feminist-progressive view that abortion is always just fine.

Let me give an example that touches me personally. A major conference will take place in Budapest this spring on the law and sex. As a veteran of the sexual revolution of the sixties, I have long held that laws regulating sexual behavior should be reduced to the absolute minimum. Provided it takes place between consenting adults, sex is good, and everyone should have access to it. Accordingly I have favored the end of laws against prostitution. After all, it is a victimless crime. But is it? In recent years we have heard of many well-documented cases where inexperienced young women, usually from Eastern Europe and Asia, are lured away from their homes to be brutally trafficked to clients in affluent Western countries. The conditions to which these women are subject are appalling. They are surely victims. Consequently, the harm principle requires that the law step in to stop, or at least reduce this dreadful situation.

As I have noted, such circumstances call for hard thinking, not platitudes. In this there are no prizes for “openness,”“realism,” and “a taste for governance.”

UPDATE (Feb. 24) Here are some sharp comments from Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Daily Dish, about Denby's snotty book:

"David Denby offers his view of the Internet's weakness:

--No one goes on the Web to somberly, soberly complain about his neighbor, or so-and-so’s love affair, or the guy down the dorm hallway who’s a closet homosexual. It all snarkily written.--

[Sullivan]: "So it's ok to complain about someone's closetedness as long as you do it soberly and somberly, but not if you add some vulgar epithet to spice it up. Would you wanna live down the hall from Denby? It does seem to me that distilled snark, or writing that does very little but snark, wears on the nerves after a while and dulls the brain. But removing snark from contemporary writing, or from blogs, in some lugubrious patronizing effort to maintain a respectable tone, would be a horrible denouement for the web, and mercifully, cannot happen. The tone police do not have the leverage in the blogosphere that they used to have in the dusty, elevated corridors of the old New Yorker. Power now is bottom-up, not top-down.

"One should never forget how the Internet has robbed writers like Denby of a great deal of exclusiveness, status and power. They're angry and confused, which is why they write diatribes as stupid as Denby's. Walter Kirn [in the NY Times Book Review] says everything else that's necessary - but the factual errors, commission of sins he denounces in others, sad attempts at ginning up controversy on the Internets, and tedious, arch, poseur-ish title headings round out the picture.



Blogger Stephen said...

You don't think that a governor who undergoes an exorcism (that I think should have been MUCH more widely publicized) and claims foreign language experience because she can see Russia from mainland Alaska is not fair game. I have not forgotten the merciless pounding of Al Gore -- who did have something to do with the the development of the very medium we are using for having claimed to "invent" the Internet.

And McCain has gotten decades of free pass for "singing like a canary" to the North Vietnamese captors and KGB agents and being treated as a "hero."

2:04 PM  

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