Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Liberal Imagination

I’d be interested in why you don’t “agree with any of this,” and what precisely you mean by “this.”
I read the entire article being referred to.   It is at  the author of the review, Gertrude Himmelfarb writes that Adam Kirsch (the author of the book she is reviewing) never encountered Trilling when he was an English major in the mid-1990s.  I on the other hand did encounter him as an English major in the mid-1950s.  I can’t bring anything to mind that I would call an influence, but after reading the article I suspect that I have been influenced because Trilling seems to me little more than common sense; which probably implies a stronger influence than I would have readily conceded. 
I suspect that some of your disagreement regarding Trilling has to do with the definition of “Liberal.”  I am a Liberal in the Trilling sense.  Many modern “Liberals” might better be called Leftists, because they aren’t Liberals in the Trilling sense.  Trilling fits the definition, I believe, of “Classical Liberalism.” 
I suspect you are thinking of politics, and Trilling wasn’t mostly about that.  But Himmelfarb lapses into politics as well, drawing a connection between Trilling and Irving Kristol.  Somewhat in that theme I’ve continued a bit more in Hitchens’ Hitch 22.  He got to events surrounding 9/11 by page 244, writing “As time had elapsed, I had gradually been made aware that there was a deep division between Noam and myself.  Highly critical as we both were of American foreign policy, the difference came down to this.  Regarding almost everything since Columbus as having been one continuous succession of genocides and land-thefts, he did not really believe that the United States of America was a good idea to begin with.  Whereas I had slowly come to appreciate that it most certainly was, and was beginning to feel less and less shy about saying so.”  I have been critical of much of what Hitchens did and said in the earlier part of his book, but not here. Here Hitchens is “Liberal.”  Chomsky of course is not.
Similarly, Paul Berman on page 206 of Terror and Liberalism, on page 206 writes, “. . . the totalitarian movements flourished also because the climate of modern life allowed them to flourish.  To arrive at a situation in which Nazis have conquered Europe, you not only need to have the Nazis themselves, you need to have all the other right-wing movements that look on Nazis in a friendly light, and you need to have left-wing opponents like the anti-war French Socialists, who cannot see that Nazis are Nazis.  To end up with Stalin tyrannizing half of Europe, you not only need the cagey Soviet leaders and the Soviet tanks, you need the naïve trade union leaders and the ignorant workers, who believe what they are told.  You need the foolish fellow travelers who never intend to be Stalinists themselves but who convince themselves that liberal societies are halfway fascist, anyway, and that communism is a forward step, for all its imperfections.  The totalitarian movements arise because of failures in liberal civilization, and if they go on flourishing, it is because of still more failures – one liberal failure after another.
“Right now [Berman’s book was copyrighted in 2003] we are beset with terrorists from the Muslim totalitarian movements, who have already killed an astounding number of people, mostly in the Muslim countries, but not just there.  What have we needed for these terrorists to prosper?  We have needed immense failures of political courage and imagination within the Muslim world.  We have needed an almost willful lack of curiosity about those failures by people in other parts of the world – the lack of curiosity that allowed us to suppose that totalitarianism had been defeated, even when totalitarianism was reaching a new zenith.  We have needed handsome doses of wishful thinking – the kind of simpleminded faith in a rational world that, in its inability to comprehend reality, sparked the totalitarian movements in the first place.  We have needed a political left that, in its anti-imperialist fervors, has lost the ability to stand up to fascism – and has sometimes gone a little further down the slippery slope.  We have needed a cynical application of ‘realist’ or Nixonian doctrines over the decades – the doctrines that governed the Gulf War of 1991, the doctrines that even now lead to friendly ties with the most reactionary of feudal systems.  We have needed an inability to cling to our own liberal democratic principles, an inability even to articulate those principles.  We have needed a provincial ignorance about intellectual currents in other parts of the world.  We have needed foolish resentments in Europe, and foolish arrogance in America.  We have needed so many things!  But there has been no lack – every needed thing has been here in abundance.”
Do Hitchens and Berman have Liberal Imaginations?  I think so.  Do they always seem Liberal to me.  No, they don’t, but that is in the nature of our Liberal Democracy.  There is no expectation that every individual and every corporation will behave with this imagination at all times.  If we tried to guarantee such a thing we would have to leave Classic Liberalism and embrace some sort of Totalitarianism and not come anywhere near what we sought to achieve. 
There is an anti-totalitarian thread in the South.  The Civil War for many there was more a matter of State’s rights than Slavery.  The founding fathers sought to guarantee the smallest government (government being in a sense totalitarian) in order to provide citizens with the greatest freedom.  Most things in our Liberal Democracies seem a mess, but in a moral sense Liberal Democracy is “white” and totalitarian governments and movements who hate Liberal Democracy are “black” – it seems to me.  Is that a moral judgment?  I don’t know.

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