The Soul That Needs Searching for the True Liberals

This week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is an apt one for thinking on a grand scale — of the where-we’ve-been-and-where-we-must-go variety.  Essays in that vein fill the tabs on my open browser window, and as is often the case, most of them come from the center-right’s great aggregator and one-line editorialist Glenn Reynolds.

Three that seem particularly closely related are by men whose first names very narrowly miss being one of life’s quotidian, cosmic coincidences: Roger Kimball, Roger L. Simon, and Robert Kaplan.

Mr. Kimball sets the table, writing about the shirked responsibility of our cultural institutions “to act as ambassadors linking the wisdom of the past with the requirements of the present in such a way that we could build responsibly for the future.” As Thomas Sowell writes, in another of my open tabs, “The more I study the history of intellectuals, the more they seem like a wrecking crew, dismantling civilization bit by bit — replacing what works with what sounds good.”

If we separate out that huge number of people who consider themselves to be “liberals,” but who, going about their lives, aren’t deeply involved in intellectual definition of what liberalism requires them to believe, we are left with the collection of “progressives.”  “Progress,” a dictionary may remind us, assumes a value judgment of which direction is forward, and the intellectuals of the political Left are only too happy to supply the answer.

At bottom, if I may be bluntly honest, the modern progressive project is a brand of totalitarianism that fills the gaping hole of its ignorance with emotionalism.  The University of Rhode Island did us all the favor, recently, of supplying a poster-child of the genre in Erik Loomis, a “history professor” who has made his name through vulgar and violent Tweets, rather than academic work. No doubt, Loomis sees himself as transgressing oppressive norms, or some such gloss, and perhaps he’s one of those who thinks oppression is inherent in anything that we might consider to be a “norm.”

Those who are shocked by Erikkk’s online persona are missing a point, I think, that he understands all too clearly.  He, not the rest of us, has accurately identified the purpose of the role that society has evolved for men and women of his profession.  Note the order of the “research interests” listed on his profile page on the URI history department’s Web site: “Environmental History, Labor History, Late 19th-Early 20th Century U.S. History, U.S. West.”

His priorities go from the specific and ideological to the general, while the courses that he teaches — the product for which students and the taxpayers of Rhode Island are actually paying — are arguably ordered in the other direction.  In that context, let’s pivot from Loomis’s adolescent vocabulary back to Mr. Kimball:

Why should the Left enjoy a virtual monopoly on all the nice words, all the emollient phrases, all the consoling sentiments?  Start with the word “liberal.”  Is there anything less liberal, i.e., less freedom loving, than those politicians and commentators that congregate under the rubric “liberal” these days?  These people are illiberal statists who want to control every aspect of our lives and enforce a politically correct orthodoxy under the banners of “diversity,” “tolerance,” “fairness,” and the like.

My use of the word “adolescent” was deliberate, because as we look back over a half-century or more of American heroes (or anti-heroes, as the case usually is), we see the appeal to the crest between youth and adulthood.  The modern young adult is tempted to believe that outward transgression — in language, in appearance, in aesthetics — can be the cover by which to smuggle idealistic concepts into the oppressive world of adult norms.

It’s a mistaken impulse, but it’s so attractive (and it’s been so thoroughly reinforced in our culture) that it’s a fitting cover for the real forces of intolerance, rigid class structures, and selfishness.

Such points are extremely important to acknowledge and explore, because in response, the internal debate on the political Right has been focused on its own marketing, and in culture, marketing can undermine message.  Indeed, Mr. Kimball’s essay is in some respects a “hear, hear” of the  conclusion of the second Roger, Mr. Simon:

The art of public relations has been to get people to accept something, often when they don’t want it. Conservatives and Republicans don’t even have to do that. They are at an advantage in this regard. They have something the people most likely want, even though they don’t always know it. Our job is to make them know it.

But that may take some rebranding. Radical rebranding. Also a wholesale changing of the guard when it comes to our representatives at all levels — party, media, and elected officials. We need people with the skills and ability to reach out, to talk the language of America. And we need to listen to America as well. I suspect those people who voted against us and are now drifting even more toward Obama are trying to tell us something. Most of all: we’re not communicating.

The problem with such exhortations is that conservatives and libertarians aren’t in agreement about our core message. The thing that “people most likely want, even though they don’t always know it” is closely related to the realization that ultimately allows the young adult to shed the adjective, and most of the areas of internecine dispute, on the Right, reside there.

In my view, adulthood doesn’t require trading ideals for acceptance of life’s unfairness, much less mindless conformance to the machine. Rather, it requires a maturation of idealism into comprehension that personal responsibility undergirds human progress and fairness.  Just so, the seemingly paradoxical blend of freedom and security that people want requires comprehension that responsible behavior undergirds tolerance.

This idea brings in the gem of Robert Kaplan’s Wall Street Journal essay, Sunday.  The essay is about the rise of nationalism around the world, outside the boundaries of the Western elites’ personal experience:

We truly are in a battle between two epic forces: Those of integration based on civil society and human rights, and those of exclusion based on race, blood and radicalized faith. It is the mistake of Western elites to grant primacy to the first force, for it is the second that causes the crises with which policy makers must deal—often by interacting with technology in a toxic fashion, as when a video transported virtually at the speed of light ignites a spate of anti-Americanism (if not specifically in Benghazi).

The second force can and must be overcome, but one must first admit how formidable it is. It is formidable because nations and other solidarity groups tend to be concerned with needs and interests more than with values. Just as the requirement to eat comes before contemplation of the soul, interests come before values.

In the context of the other pieces linked above, readers may immediately spot the problem in Mr. Kaplan’s alignment of Continental Europe with one side and non-Western nationalism on the other.  The forces of “integration based on civil society and human rights” are being undermined from within by the very forces that he names on the other side.  They are the forces behind the aforementioned outward transgression. Diversity, tolerance, and fairness are the false faces applied to the West’s own indulgence in solidarity groups, radicalized faith, and assertions of needs and rights for categories of people.

If we’re to be truly tolerant, we must understand that objectionable impulses are not merely the domain of strange foreign peoples, but are a shared heritage.  And if we’re to be truly fair, we must understand that our own advancement of civil society and human rights has been premised on the norms against which our transgressives have led our culture to rebel, reducing the true guardians of our better heritage to worry about rebranding themselves.

I don’t mean to discount the difficulty of doing so by saying this, but the full extent of our public relations challenge consists of explaining this to our neighbors. Freedom and tolerance coexist only where values are deeply held and norms are valued (even if lovingly teased).  If that narrow point can be made, then all of the carefully deceptive machinery of the West’s totalitarians will turn to the advantage of the true liberals — those of us who want nothing more than for everybody to be able to forge his or her own path in life to the greatest extent possible, out of a radical faith that through persuasion and love we can all draw each other toward an ever-better future, in this life and beyond.


Featured image cropped from Rephidim, by John Dubrow, as described in a review by Maureen Mullarkey.

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