February 27, 2005


Liberalism: Can it survive? (John Leo, 3/07/05, US News)

Modern liberalism, says Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, has emptied the national narrative of its civic resources, putting religion outside the public square and creating a value-neutral "procedural republic." One of the old heroes of liberalism, John Dewey, said in 1897 that the practical problem of modern society is the maintenance of the spiritual values of civilization. Not much room in liberal thought for that now, or for what another liberal icon, Walter Lippmann, called the "public philosophy." The failure to perceive the importance of community has seriously wounded liberalism and undermined its core principles. So has the strong tendency to convert moral and social questions into issues of individual rights, usually constructed and then massaged by judges to place them beyond the reach of majorities and the normal democratic process.

Liberals have been slow to grasp the mainstream reaction to the no-values culture, chalking it up to Karl Rove, sinister fundamentalists, racism, or the stupidity of the American voter. Since November 2, the withering contempt of liberals for ordinary Americans has been astonishing. Voting for Bush gave "quite average Americans a chance to feel superior," said Andrew Hacker, a prominent liberal professor at Queens College. We are seeing the bitterness of elites who wish to lead, confronted by multitudes who do not wish to follow. Liberals might one day conclude that while most Americans value autonomy, they do not want a procedural republic in which patriotism, religion, socialization, and traditional values are politically declared out of bounds. Many Americans notice that liberalism nowadays lacks a vocabulary of right and wrong, declines to discuss virtue except in snickering terms, and seems increasingly hostile to prevailing moral sentiments.

For a stark vision of what cultural liberalism has come to, consider the breakdown of the universities, the fortresses of the 1960s cultural liberals and their progeny. Students are taught that objective judgments are impossible. All knowledge is compromised by issues of power and bias. Therefore, there is no way to come to judgment about anything, since judgment itself rests on quicksand. This principle, however, is suspended when the United States and western culture are discussed, because the West is essentially evil and guilty of endless crimes. Better to declare a vague transnational identity and admiration for the United Nations.

Postmodernism is, of course, just a rehash of the pre-modern demolition of Reason. In its pre-modern form the critique represented little challenge to people of faith -- who just nodded their heads and said, okay faith remains superior to reason after all, But the post-modern version was fatal to those who had ignored the warnings and bought into modern Rationalism whole hog, leaving them no faith to fall back on. In modern liberalism we see people who stand for nothing because there is no solid ground for them to stand on. We are fortunate in Amerivca that our Founding, unlike the French Revolution, represented a rejection of Rationalism

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 27, 2005 8:55 PM

"We are seeing the bitterness of elites who wish to lead, confronted by multitudes who do not wish to follow."

Do they really wish to lead. Their disdain for the Profession of Arms, would cause me to question that desire.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 28, 2005 1:23 AM

Yes, I realize it's a tenet of the BrothersJudd; but the American founding fathers did not reject rationalism.

(It's a matter of definition, though; if "Rationalism" means 100%, pure, unadulterated, undiluted reason, then, yes, of course, they rejected it.)

They realized (in their simplicity? or in their sophistication?) that reason was necessary but not sufficient.

On the other hand, god was also necessary but not sufficient.

They understood that rationalism had to be tempered (buttressed?)---or perhaps in the jargon of the day, balanced---by faith in the almighty; just as, suspicious children of the Enlightenment that they were, they understood that viable (and one hopes, good) government must be balanced between the federal, legislative and judicial branches.

The reason: to as far as possible prevent the abuses that all human institutions---and humans---are prone to. And to wed tolerance to too-often (and with evil consequences) intolerant faith.

So yes, religion by all means. But if it means that we must altogether jettison our god-given reason, then it is a false faith.

There is great risk in forgetting these two sides of the equation.

(Of course, the next question is, what ought to be tolerated.....? But this is why the separation of religion and politics is so necessary.)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at February 28, 2005 3:34 AM


You're talking about reason, not Reason.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2005 8:01 AM

The people who are explicitly relativists are the ones who are the most shriekingly moralistic. Stephenson made an observation like this toward the end of Cryptonomicon.

Posted by: Tom at February 28, 2005 3:44 PM

Follow-up: As in, "I'm a relativist; all value judgments are subjective, and no one can prove that their...What?! You looked at a female co-worker's butt?! Rapist!!! NAZI!!! Fascist!!! DIE! DIE! DIE!"
Would actually be funny if these wackos didn't actually have some power.

Posted by: Tom at February 28, 2005 8:41 PM