February 18, 2005


Not Much Left: LOSING OUR DELUSIONS (Martin Peretz, 02.18.05, New Republic)

I think it was John Kenneth Galbraith, speaking in the early 1960s, the high point of post-New Deal liberalism, who pronounced conservatism dead. Conservatism, he said, was "bookless," a characteristic Galbraithian, which is to say Olympian, verdict. Without books, there are no ideas. And it is true: American conservatism was, at the time, a congeries of cranky prejudices, a closed church with an archaic doctrine proclaimed by spoiled swells. William F. Buckley Jr. comes to mind, and a few others whose names will now resonate with almost nobody. Take as just one instance Russell Kirk, an especially prominent conservative intellectual who, as Clinton Rossiter (himself a moderate conservative) wrote, has "begun to sound like a man born one hundred and fifty years too late and in the wrong country."

At this point in history, it is liberalism upon which such judgments are rendered. And understandably so. It is liberalism that is now bookless and dying. The most penetrating thinker of the old liberalism, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is virtually unknown in the circles within which he once spoke and listened, perhaps because he held a gloomy view of human nature. However gripping his illuminations, however much they may have been validated by history, liberals have no patience for such pessimism. So who has replaced Niebuhr, the once-commanding tribune to both town and gown? It's as if no one even tries to fill the vacuum. Here and there, of course, a university personage appears to assert a small didactic point and proves it with a vast and intricate academic apparatus. In any case, it is the apparatus that is designed to persuade, not the idea.

Ask yourself: Who is a truly influential liberal mind in our culture? Whose ideas challenge and whose ideals inspire? Whose books and articles are read and passed around? There's no one, really. What's left is the laundry list: the catalogue of programs (some dubious, some not) that Republicans aren't funding, and the blogs, with their daily panic dose about how the Bush administration is ruining the country.

Those pronouncements were silly when they were made, but it's shocking to hear someone repeat them now. Consider only this: it was in the early '60s that this speech was given. Awfully hard to argue that it's devoid of ideas or that those ideas haven't animated the past quarter century.

Meanwhile, Mr. Peretz ignores the most obvious fact about Reinhold Niebuhr: his politics flowed from his firm belief in Original Sin. A Left which thinks religion a mere superstition has no access to that wisdom and, because it is the Truth, nothing much to say to us about the human condition and the kind of ploitics we need to practice.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 18, 2005 8:21 PM

Yeah, Liberals think that they are being clear-eyed realists when they say that they are now in the situation as conservatives in 1964. In truth, they are being wild-eyed optimists.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 18, 2005 8:58 PM

Actually, Marty Peretz's heart is probably broken because Al Gore has morphed into such a yapping beast.

Posted by: ratbert at February 18, 2005 10:26 PM

Peretz's writings post-9/11 have been pretty rational, as has his support in general for Bush's foreign policy. Unfortunately, since Peretz's writings post-9/11 have been pretty rational, as has his support in general for Bush's foreign policy, it means he has no credibility whatsoever with the very people he's trying to reach with this essay -- they just think he's "neocon light" because of his support for Israel.

The ones Marty wants to reach are more likely to listen to Kurt Anderson's condisending/elitist but grudging admission of error in this week's New York Magazine, because Andersen has been among those sounding more like Al Gore than his mentor over the past three years.

Posted by: John at February 18, 2005 10:40 PM