Some thoughts on liberalism

It has been a banner year for critics of liberalism, and with good reason. Deracinated liberal pluralism has given us many of our worst problems, it seems: an open hearing for a thieving, lying xenophobe in a presidential campaign that he unexpectedly won; a huge number of credulous fora for his ardent supporters in places as queasily august as the opinion section of the New York Times; a megastate labor market that lets the wealthy easily duck labor protections and dictate the lives of the poor in humiliating detail; “diversity of opinion” on matters including whether gay people deserve to be treated like all the other humans and whether oil companies ought to stop dumping carbon into the atmosphere or not.

Of course the case for liberal broadmindedness is that without a certain measure of it we’d all be in a constant state of violent conflict with each other, ready to kill or die in order to subjugate our neighbor in one way or another. Liberalism is depressingly bad at stopping people who would like very much to round up and kill whole groups of other people, but it is a surprisingly good weak deterrent, which is to say, good at stopping people who would on the whole rather not round up and kill one another but feel like they probably ought to. It appeals to benign laziness: Yes, our cherished beliefs about what is best for other people are morally superior to what they foolishly believe to be best for themselves. But the couch is very comfortable and besides, doesn’t my right to swing my fist end where your nose begins? Who cares about how we define “fist” and “nose” in the metaphor, I’m tired.

This is also an belief system, many wise people have observed, and a horrible, patrician one. It is a snobby orthodoxy that arrogates itself to the position of referee between solider and realer things like religion and philosophy — you can see why people don’t like it.

Worse, it is a plastic, ad hoc orthodoxy, and if you can get inside it you wreak all sorts of havoc. It’s blackly amusing that the people who complain most bitterly about liberalism, which is to say social conservatives opposed to what they see as the libertine excesses of American culture, have benefitted most clearly from it. Not only have they demanded equal time for themselves, they have given it profligately, first as a sort of ironic pose demonstrating — rightly — how silly it is to try to split the difference between “yes” and “no,” but then with more and more sincerity, indulging in a plague of open-mindedness that has, in large measure, brought us to our current situation.

It is that strange conservative liberalism, after all, that listens quietly when brothers and sisters in Christ try experimentally to rehabilitate the great thinkers of the Third Reich or, just for fun, to put themselves sympathetically in the shoes of someone who kidnaps a small Jewish child in the name of Jesus. It is not always at work in conservative organs, either: The New Republic’s blaring racism took the form of “just asking the question;” of thought experiments about whether black people were really underprivileged or had simply suffered inignities at their own hands; on the one side was the history of race in America, and on the other, Charles Murray’s peer-derided quackery and Stephen Glass’s fabrications, but you had to hear both sides.

During questions of whether or not the persecutors of the poor are doing the right thing in the church, Jesus himself is largely absent from the discussion, occupied as he is with turning over the tables of money-changers, pouring out their coins, and driving the animals from God’s house with a scourge.

Christians, on the other hand, are giggling over accounts of Hillary Clinton murdering people. Perhaps they don’t believe these accounts, but they are happy to listen to them, for the sake of fairness.

The problem seems to be that there’s actually no such thing as a philosophy of “liberalism” any more than there’s such thing as a meal of salt. You can’t simply be “a liberal.” A liberal what? “Liberal” is often a slur suggesting that people don’t have the strength of their convictions — growing up in a conservative Christian church and school I remember few nastier epithets than “liberal Christian.” Within that construction was a planetoid’s worth of spite: A liberal Christian was a shallow hedonist who simply did what she wanted instead of what God wanted her to do — sex, drugs, going to R-rated movies with someone who wasn’t her husband, you name it — and beyond the awfulness of opposing the will of God, this person was also indulging herself while the rest of us had to hang around celibate, trying to wring some joy out of ritual.

It’s easy to respond with reflexive contempt to these people, since it seems so clear that they wanted to be out enjoying themselves, too, but enjoyed passing judgment and gossip more than the frisson of less acceptable, more bodily apostasies. But to do so misses the point. In the article about the kidnapping of six-year-old Edgardo Mortara, linked above, the priest writing the article use the phrase “putative civil liberties” to describe what he perceives as the weak opposition to the iron rod of the Church. I am not a Catholic but I know this line of reasoning fairly well: God has given his orders and we are to follow them however unpleasant they may be. In the case of Edgardo Mortara, they demanded the Pope kidnap a Jewish child and remove him from his family to be raised Catholic because a Catholic nurse had secretly baptized him when he was ill and near death, and the baptism made its way to the Pope after the child recovered.

Something that hasn’t quite made its way into the public discourse is the conservative ideological fit you can find between the article defending the Mortara kidnapping, by the priest Romanus Cesario, and the benighted Adrian Vermuele article rehabilitating Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, and I daresay any number of other articles in First Things or World Magazine: “The problem is the relentless aggression of liberalism, driven by an internal mechanism that causes ever more radical demands for political conformism, particularly targeting the Church,” Vermuele observes, warming up to Schmitt. “The solution is an equally radical form of strategic flexibility on the part of the Church, which must stand detached from all subsidiary political commitments, willing to enter into flexible alliances of convenience with any of the parties, institutions, and groups that jostle under the canopy of the liberal imperium.”

So: Make a deal with a devil — any devil will do, except the devil of liberalism. Compromise with any force, except the forces of inchoate compromise; the Christian fundament must be protected, no matter the cost.

Vermuele vanishes up his own fundament fairly early on in the piece but he has teased out something fairly important by inference here, and it’s the same thing Cesario points to in his sneering at the phrase “human rights:” There is, of course, no such thing as formless liberalism. Our society is barely pluralist, as any Muslim, atheist or practicing Jew will tell you. But even that piddling measure of reasonableness, that stingily fulfilled duty to at least sit and sigh loudly while the other fellow has his say; that is a mortal threat to fascism and requires it to stack the deck and rewrite the rules so that it may be perceived to have won the fight fairly, because it knows it cannot. That is a tiresome, fey, hedonistic sort of virtue but it is virtue nevertheless.

Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

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