Since Chronicle 582 on Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (Yale UP, 2018), I have gone through some issues of First Things, and have been impressed by the number of references to “liberalism” in much the sense in which Deneen uses the term. Clearly the disillusionment with “liberalism” is a major subject of Christian/Catholic reflection.
I must say that had Clinton been elected in 2016, I would have dreaded the prospect of another four or eight years of victimary hysteria and “progressive” disregard for checks and balances. But not only was Trump’s election a sign that the liberal-democratic system is self-correcting, but it seems to herald a trend that is “illiberal” only in the sense that, not long ago, “liberal” in the US meant left-wing. This trend is a heartening corrective to the victimary path that, as my last Chronicle made clear, is indeed the key sore point of “liberalism” in its current version, for it corresponds, both in Europe and the US, to an appreciation of patriotism, a nationalism that need not be chauvinistic or hostile to outsiders willing to integrate into it rather than invading it en masse expecting to preserve their alien cultures. As the American “melting-pot,” with its Chinese restaurants and Jewish delicatessens, its love for jazz and rap and tacos, its Saint Patrick’s Day and Columbus Day parades, as well as its affectionate use of team names like “Redskins” and “Yankees,” continues, despite our victimary censors, to demonstrate.
Anecdotal horror stories are not good evidence of “decline” or “failure.” As Mark Bauerlein pointed out in the March 2018 First Things concerning the American university, we can wring our hands over the fecklessness of administrators catering to left-wing thuggery, wasting money on diversity deans and study programs, and forcing students and faculty to undergo homeopathic versions of Mao’s re-education camps, but the real business of today’s university is medical and scientific research. As Bauerlein reminds us, the growth of the part of UCLA’s south campus devoted to the life sciences has been immense over the years of my tenure there. In contrast, the humanities and “soft” social sciences bring in a negligible percentage of research funds (and these, increasingly, for “digital” rather than traditional textual study). So it’s easy to understand that university officials are willing to grease a few squeaky wheels in the old liberal-arts machine while devoting the bulk of their attention to the nuclear engines in the sciences. Pace Mario Savio, Clark Kerr’s “multiversity” is not such a bad thing; if the Antifa take over a lecture hall now and then, they rarely disturb work in the labs.
Is this an argument for “liberalism”? In a way it is, since despite all the political unpleasantness and weakening of “liberal education” that has occurred at UCLA and other major universities, it would be absurd to deny their overall benefit to national and world civilization.
But defending the status quo under whatever definition is not a sufficient response to the anxiety about its failure. I continue to insist that the real source of our cultural malaise is not “liberalism” but victimary thinking or “PC.” And the reluctance of the critics of liberalism to focus on it is a telling symptom.
In the March 2018 issue of First Things, R. Reno, alluding to his longer discussion in an earlier issue, accuses a New Age couple of being disciples of Heraclitus:
[the new husband:] “We will continue to date others and live our lives. . . . [We] have taken a progressive step towards what we believe marriage should be. I need to be constantly evolving, growing, and progressing.” . . . Life is about growing and progressing toward more growing and progressing. Pure Heraclitus. (69)
Mr. Reno is surely an educated man, yet I am puzzled by his assimilation of the libertarian streak of liberal democracy to the ideas of the pre-Socratic philosopher of flux. Heraclitus indeed believed that the river of worldly existence never remained the same, but the idea that it was growing and progressing was utterly alien to him. As opposed to his near-contemporary Parmenides, who conceived of “Being” as literally a solid sphere, Heraclitus believed in eternal strife. Whether or not left-wing “liberalism” generates Heraclitean chaos, it surely does not share his belief system.
It is clearly the (quite moderate) sexual libertarianism of this couple, reminding him of the more radical phenomena of “polyamory,” homosexual marriage, and the “right” to abortion, that Reno finds distressing. But the thrust of progressive “liberalism” in fighting the ascriptive discrimination it sees everywhere has little to do with a philosophy of change or indeed of liberation. Victimary thinking is about enforcing restrictions, including restrictions on thought. The sexual liberation angle is less a step in the direction of individual freedom than of enforcing the acceptance of new norms. The only individuals to whom freedoms are granted are those claimed to be victims of the norms inherited from the past.
An example of the new enforcement is legislation granting young children the “freedom” to change their sex. But the same children who can force their parents to comply with their “gender-change” decision, cannot walk two blocks from their homes without their parents’ being liable to arrest for “child neglect.” And woe betide either member of our “progressive” couple if in their quest for free love they (but particularly the husband) run afoul of an accusation of “sexual harassment.”
What is significant about today’s “progressive” abandonment of religion-based morality is its increasing illiberalism. Left-wing authoritarianism is the opposite of “laissez-faire.” Today’s new puritanism, a Lite version of Stalin’s purges or China’s Cultural Revolution, obliges the defenders of traditional norms to denounce their own and their friends’ “privilege” on every occasion in hopes that the Twittermob will turn its attention elsewhere—and that they will not lose their jobs or worse.
What does this blindness to the victimary tell us, not only about the limitations of the Christian critique of “liberalism,” but more importantly, about the current difficulties of liberal democracy itself?
René Girard was anything but complacent about PC. I have previously cited his remark in Je vois Satan tomber comme un éclair (Grasset, 1999):
Hitlerism avenges its defeat by making the concern for victims [le souci des victimes] despairing, caricatural. . . .
We live in a world . . . that constantly, systematically, ritually reproaches itself with its own violence. We make sure to transpose all our conflicts . . . into the language of innocent victims . . . (271-2, my translation)
But it is no surprise that, particularly since Girard’s death, COV&R increasingly identifies with the victimary left. It appears difficult for Girardians, as for Christians in general, to distinguish between “the last will be the first” and the privileging of designated victimary groups that condemns objective criteria for their “disparate impact.”
To the extent that the victimary is the necessary outcome of liberalism, it has indeed failed. But “progressivism” in this sense is far from an intrinsic quality of liberal democracy, as the increasing resistance to it both in the US and Europe makes clear. Nor is it intrinsic to (Judeo-)Christianity as properly conceived, a fact that has contributed to the strengthening of the more conservative modes of Christianity, notably Catholicism, as exemplified by the very critiques of which I am speaking.
When people start complaining about something, that is usually a sign that it has passed its high point and is losing ground. I think that Christians are doing themselves a disservice in associating these pernicious developments with “liberalism,” as though, in order to counteract them, we need to create a whole new politico-economic system rather than using the democratic mechanisms still available to implement sensible Burkean policies. As, although it seems little noticed and often denied by secular as well as religious Republicans, President Trump is indeed accomplishing on many fronts.
The values of the left will always be with us, because—as the originary hypothesis makes clear—our most fundamental moral value is that of human reciprocity. That is the primary operative feature of language, and our possession of a common language is the fundamental guarantee of our humanity, as well as our means of sharing in sacred revelation and worship.
There is no “left” in traditional societies, where egalitarian impulses are suppressed by the forces of firstness. The primary role of the sacred has been from the origin to preside equally over the community, transcending the unstable queue structure of animal hierarchy. Yet egalitarian hunter-gatherer communities could not resist submission to a “big-man” once a more developed economy permitted the early forms of la carrière ouverte aux talents. The grain of truth in Michael Tomasello’s pseudo-Nietzschean quip about the sacred “anointing” those in power (see Chronicle 519) is that the communal sacred, in Durkheimian fashion, consecrated the social hierarchy as it evolved, and even the “higher” religions, which we may define as those that promote a moral hierarchy independent of the social order, have generally compromised with it.
Only with the demise of the ritual-based Old Regime in the French Revolution, under the pressures of the emerging bourgeois social order, did the left emerge as a self-conscious force for equality, very different from the blind fury of peasant revolts in the face of traditional hierarchy. The self-conscious defense of égalité has defined the left since the seating in the National Assembly in 1789.
For several generations, theoreticians of socialism attempted to conceive a mode of society that would accommodate this revolutionary principle. But since 1989, these attempts have lost their intellectual respectability, although they still attract the naïve under various circumstances. Yet the demise of socialism has not quelled the egalitarianism of the left, which increasingly defines itself by a fixation on disparities in achievement, offered as res ipsa proof of ascriptive discrimination. Thus the greater proportion of black schoolchildren suspended or of young men in prison is taken ipso facto as a sign of prejudice rather than of the relative lack of discipline in the black community. Given that resentful reactions to such statistics are a poor way of improving them, this constitutes a particularly nocive example of “the soft racism of low expectations.” But the passion devoted to such matters is not simply hypocritical; it reflects the left’s frustration at its lack of utopian vision, its reduction to an endless critique of “inequality,” which has both the virtue and the defect of lacking a terminus ad quem.
The optimistic view of this situation is that the reaction against the extremes to which this process led under Obama’s presidency, and that displayed itself in Trump’s election, will continue, and that the progressive tide will recede as rational policies demonstrate their effectiveness. This is already taking place in many domains, despite resistance on both sides of the aisle, supposedly to Trump’s vulgarity and his Twittermania—for PC still has a good deal of bipartisan support, if only for fear of unfavorable media exposure.
The great virtue of the democratic system, at least in principle, is that it encourages the parties to work toward compromise. If the victimary can be tamed, practical means can be sought to mitigate the problems of minority communities, such as charter schools, which can impose stricter discipline than the public schools in their present degraded condition. The original idea of affirmative action, bringing those with weaker backgrounds up to the level of the others, was a noble one. Its victimary degeneration into adding a few hundred points to their SAT scores has brought far more benefits to the “problem-solvers” than to the people with the problems. (See “Starbucks Is Not the Next Selma: Today’s protests are a useful diversion for those who reap the profits of the race-grievance industry,” Robert L. Woodson Sr., Wall Street Journal, April 30, 2018.)
In short, “liberalism” should by no means be equated either with “Heraclitean” flux or with victimary coercion. These reductive views of the liberal-democratic system commit the category error of equating the system with the ideological bases of particular sets of policies, whereas the political marketplace was created explicitly to allow for debate over policy and ideology, and can be declared a “failure” only when its processes have proven unworkable. Deneen’s book takes the recession of 2008, whose victimary causes tend to be forgotten, as a definitive blow to the US national economy, failing to anticipate its recent flourishing upon the elimination of many Obama-era nanny-state regulations and “progressive” subsidies.
Nor is it clear that the new PC cultural norms have effectively replaced the traditional norms inherited from earlier times. Although Hollywood and the media are happy to enforce the new paradigm, it is not obvious that the general public has espoused their “progressive” view.
A case in point is the recent Best Picture, which, although it has done moderately well at the box office, sports one of the most negative sets of comments I have ever seen on the IMDb. Author-director Guillermo del Toro has called The Shape of Water “a fairy tale for troubled times.” What I find disturbing in this film is its assumption that the public will welcome the new formula in the same way as we once accepted Cocteau’s La belle et la bête, or the old Disney animations of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
In this film, the “hegemonic” straight-white-males are coded uniformly negative, while the positive characters include a mute woman, a black woman, a homosexual… and the film’s nameless protagonist. If we compare the military figures with those of Dr. Strangelove, we see the difference between genuine satire and demonization. The officers in Strangelove, even Strangelove himself, are never presented as figures of evil. Even Strangelove’s involuntary Nazi salutes are not intended to make us hate him, but merely to poke fun at him by revealing his true self.
None of this can be said for the equivalents in Water, whose anti-heroes are simply odious. The Russian scientist-spy, brutally tortured at the end by the American agent, is a far more sympathetic figure than anyone on “our” side. We no longer tolerate the old racist clichés of 30s films, which portray the dumb-seeming black or the overly punctilious Japanese as figures of fun. But the inverse clichés that have replaced them embody a moral preening that is incompatible with comedy. If you must preen, you cannot laugh.
Most significant of all, although his story is clearly modeled on Beauty and the Beast, the nameless aquatic creature, rather than a human being who, after falling under a curse, is cured by human love and returned to a prestigious human form (the beast or frog becoming a prince), remains alien and frankly hideous throughout. Rather than becoming human, he reveals quasi-divine healing powers at the end of the story—powers that are never explained, and are, to say the least, wildly inconsistent with his having allowed himself to be captured and chained up in a laboratory. Nor is it even hinted that these newly revealed powers are somehow the result of Elisa’s love. On the contrary, it is she who is transformed, attaining utopia (and apparent immortality) when her aquatic lover inspires her to breathe like a fish to share his life underwater.
Thus in the new PC paradigm, the fairy-tale world, rather than morphing into a life of this-worldly happiness, leaves the human altogether for an aquatic life whose only demonstrated attraction has been that of replacing masturbation with quasi-human intercourse. The film’s unseemly insistence on sexuality is clearly a deliberate violation of fairy-tale tradition. Where traditional fairy tales figure a pre-pubertal idealization of human desire, this film fantasizes sex in the service of victimary antihumanism.
The incoherence and crudity of the plot cannot be saved by Sally Hawkins’ charming efforts at lyricism. I consider this film, along with the more openly obnoxious Three Billboards, as examples of a victimary update of “socialist realism” that will no doubt soon share the latter’s unenviable reputation.
The pessimistic view of our current dilemma is that, although the victimary does not yet threaten the stability of the US or even of Europe, it has permanently transformed difference of opinion into moral fanaticism. This tendency has corrupted our judiciary, where local judges regularly hold up national policies, as well as agencies like the FBI and the IRS, while turning the supposedly august Senate into a rabidly partisan body. What is most disturbing about the politicization of these institutions is that their values are no longer merely political. Once one’s central political positions become matters of unquestioned moral conviction, liberal politics as we know it is no longer possible.
Is this the “failure of liberalism”? Put that way, this implies either that some other path to modernity was or is preferable (Bolshevism? Nazism? Xi Jinping?), or that modernity itself is a failed project.
Deneen’s nostalgia for pre-modern community as exemplified by the Amish does not offer a useful model. Even if Near-Eastern Muslims and Africans take over Western societies in the next century or so, they won’t be able to reconcile tribal or village ways with modern (post-)industrial society. One of the two will have to go.
The century recently concluded witnessed horrible human disasters that well illustrated the Girardian truth that humanity is its own greatest danger. A similar set of “war-to-end-all-wars” catastrophes in a world full of nuclear weapons and scarcely imaginable AI capacities would leave nothing standing. Reflecting on this ought to persuade the more serious members of the victimary crowd, along with the denigrators of “liberalism,” to agree to return to the state of loyal disagreement that is the natural mode of liberal democracy.
If North and South Korea can talk peace, if Saudi Arabia can begin to recognize Israel, if Kanye West can put on a MAGA hat, we can hope that the American left will learn to work with the president and his party to seek constructive solutions to the nation’s problems.