Liberal Evasiveness

The Ideas program featuring Jonathan Haidt (on which I commented in a previous post, and to which Haidt has responded) has attracted some attention at work. An administrator has distanced himself from Haidt with an article with the headline, “When your next college free speech controversy erupts, don’t blame liberals.” The piece, which appears in the Washington Post, positions liberalism between conservatism and the “radical left.” Like Haidt’s, this position (or rhetorical strategy) also needs to be understood. It too is problematic: it would deflect attention away from liberalism’s own shortcomings.

In the response to the Ideas program, I commended Haidt for drawing attention to the dominance of liberalism in the monochromatic culture of the contemporary university and its “orthodoxy.” I also, however, expressed consternation that he went on to say that, in an academic context, we need communities for which nothing is sacred and that there’s no room for religion. This position is extremely problematic; it reinforces the outlook that has produced the negative effects Haidt describes.

The writer of the “…don’t blame liberals” article, Jacques Berlinerblau, is not responding to Haidt directly (the article is dated 30 June). My administrator, however, enlisted the former (presumably as a fellow liberal) against the latter (as an at least momentarily lapsed one). The headline is directed at conservatives and disgruntled liberals. In the second paragraph, Berlinerblau refers to how “conservative media fingered ‘liberal terrorists’” after one recent event; he adds reference to a liberal complaint about liberals as a concession: “even a progressive liberal like….” He would have them blame not liberals, but the radical left. They’re the ones who are making things so awful.

The author subsequently tries to dismantle the liberal/conservative binary in the debate altogether: “the liberal/conservative divide at a typical college…is fairly irrelevant to free speech dust-ups.” The reasons? He gives two: because conservatives are grossly underrepresented on campuses; and because the “radical left” rule the academy. This is a noteworthy move, qualifying the easy political binary, one with which I have some sympathy, but for reasons very different from Berlinerblau’s. He would deflect attention away from liberals where there are problems, while promoting their position and values in the academy.

Let’s not lose sight of the first point, upon which Berlinerblau acknowledges the same reality that troubles Haidt: “When conservatives charge that they’re outnumbered by campus liberals, they are unequivocally correct.” But what are we to make of the distancing of liberals from the radical left? The radical left are, in Berlinerblau’s description, ideologues. He includes some telling references to identify the large group he has in his sights. He alludes to Michel Foucault, calling him “the patron saint of today’s academic radicals.” He makes mention of the terms “hegemony” and “deconstruct” to flag the kind of inquiry from which he would distance liberals.

Liberals, meanwhile, preserve the middle ground featuring the gently rolling hills of freedom of speech, including freedom of religion: “Liberals don’t reflexively deconstruct and place shudder-quotes around concepts such as ‘Enlightenment,’ ‘Democracy,’ ‘Reason’ and ‘Religious Freedom.’” The radical left, not liberals, foster “the type of oppressive environment that suppresses free expression.”

Berlinerblau makes two familiar and uncontestable rhetorical moves here: he appeals to a problem of definition; and he claims a middle ground against extremes (without specifying with too much concreteness where the borders lie). Whether the article should be brought to bear against Haidt is questionable. The Ideas program similarly explored ways to expand a middle ground against extremes on both the left and the right. Furthermore, Haidt is himself a self-declared liberal. The problem of identifying who qualifies as a liberal persists for both. If Haidt sounds like a momentary conservative or lapsed liberal, the monochromatic culture of the university or presence of a prevailing orthodoxy looks similar in both descriptions.

In the case of Haidt, I argued that his defence of “heterodoxy” reproduces Enlightenment ideals that have failed. His heterodoxy looks rather monochomatic itself. In a response to that posting, Haidt insists religion is welcome, but this cannot be squared with a complete ban on religion in matters intellectual and a desire for the denial of the sacred in any community that aspires to engage the whole gamut of human experience as the university, rightly, does. A religion that accepted such terms would be merely the shell or simulacrum of a religion, it would be a religion of the Enlightenment’s fantasies.

In the case of the Washington Post contributor, the problem is similar but more pointedly one of deferral. Berlinerblau is right to suggest that the division into three groups differs from the standard liberal/conservative political binary. Yet his move does not shelter liberals in the way that he supposes. The (narrowly) political conversation is a palimpsest. A palimpsest is a manuscript which bears the evidence of an earlier text that has been scraped away so that the physical vellum can be reused. The present “text” (in which the absence of conservatives figures largely) is a discourse cast in (narrowly) political terms. Underneath is another text that hasn’t quite been scraped entirely away. It’s a story at once philosophical, religious, and historical in nature.

Whatever liberalism may wish to claim as the enduring middle ground, that ground was brought into being over time. Liberalism in the West was profoundly shaped by Christian commitments. The vision that early liberals had, of everything-good-(especially freedom)-minus-religion could only come into view, historically, via religion. The liberal gaze upon a perfect-world-without-religion, however, did not pick up certain details, just as technological advances do not pick up all the deleterious side effects that accompany them. (There is a relationship between these phenomena.) The historical unfolding of the dominant Western ideological form in the past 250 years – liberalism-shorn-of-genuine-religion – has revealed pervasively negative effects that attend it.

The radical form of leftist response to current and recent problems (one ought to go back at least to Nietzsche for such critiques: recent is a relative term) does represent a departure from classical liberalism. Intellectually, socially, and politically, however, the radical left represents an attempt, at least in part, to fix problems that attend liberalism. In this regard, both left and right sides share something important in common. Both are considered outside the borders of liberalism, and both critique what liberalism is. Berlinerblau’s strategy is to defer acknowledgement of its own status as an embroiled ideology.

One might put the problem in Kuhnian terms. Thomas Kuhn argued that in times of paradigm shift, increasing amounts of data simply do not fit the prevailing paradigm or way of explaining things. That situation persists until the whole structure collapses and the data is reassembled according to some new paradigm of greater explanatory power.

What exactly do the radical left and conservatives jointly critique? They critique a naïve refusal to accept responsibility. Baked into the dream of liberalism is freedom from pain; voluntary recognition of limits in recognition of the rights of others to reasonable flourishing; intellectual freedom; social togetherness. With such positive aspirations and intentions as these, how could liberalism itself be responsible for the ills of modernity? Yet this is the case, as those who have identified the “dialectic of enlightenment” and “the malaise of modernity,” among many others, have urged us to realise.

They also critique a failure among liberals to recognise the exercise of their own power. This failure amounts to an extension of the effects of naivete. Yet if the first critique is an identification of – in the language of the Church – sins of omission, the second identifies sins of commission. Liberals would preserve their own power and position. Liberalism has a special affinity with the age of reason. Reason has been massively critiqued as “Western,” as “male,” as “white,” as “heteronormative,” as “able-bodied.” While it claims ever-greater degrees of purity, it does not acknowledge its culpability in the construction last week of that for which it is this week claiming “zero tolerance.” In this regard, at least, it does not seem to learn from history. In the name of neutral science, it backs technological advance that can never be entirely neutral but always places power in the hands of some (few) over others (many).

In the overwritten layer of the palimpsest, ready political labels give way to other considerations. Those outside liberalism on the left and right of course to not agree on all things. The more pertinent consideration is, that it is difficult to say where they do or may converge. What other visions of life together are possible in our specific historical context? These alternative visions to liberalism (as it has evolved) involve a combination of reclamation, perdurance, and innovation.

A simple term in Christianity covers that combination: tradition. One of the Church’s central claims, quietly yet stubbornly nurtured by its faithful, is that it has a philosophical coherence that has allowed it to bend, but not break, in its manifestness over time. G.K. Chesterton gives excellent expression to this suppleness in Orthodoxy, but I choose to quote from the voiceover of the central character Charles in the BBC version of Brideshead Revisited:

Religion was a hobby which some people professed and others did not. At the best it was slightly ornamental. At the worst, it was the province of complexes and inhibitions (catchwords of the decade) and of the intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity attributed to it for centuries. No one had ever suggested to me that these quaint observances expressed a coherent philosophical system and intransigent historical claims.

Of course Christianity isn’t just a philosophy. It’s the place where faith and reason join, always together like the two wings of a bird (as an encyclical has it). Liberalism-minus-religion is morphing into the opposite of what liberalism can be in the bounds of actual religion. The best of intentions can give rise to what in retrospect are revealed as the most misguided of effects. The difficulty lies in liberalism’s evasiveness and its power of mimickry. The parable of wheat and tares applies to how Christians ought to engage liberal, postmodern, nihilistic, and conservative notions alike. There is a harvest coming. There are analogical harvests as well.

Norm Klassen

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