Saturday, May 15, 2010

If I Had a Hammer

Something else struck me about Marilynne Robinson's "The Tyranny of Petty Coercion," which I criticized before. She wrote there (The Death of Adam pp. 258-9):
I am myself a liberal. By that I mean I believe society exists to nurture and liberate the human spirit, and that large-mindedness and openhandedness are the means by which these things are to be accomplished. I am not ideological. By that I mean I believe opportunities of every kind should be seized upon to advance the well-being of people, especially in insuring them decent wages, free time, privacy, education, and health care, concerns essential to their full enfranchisement.
To paraphrase Henry Kissinger trying to appease Richard Nixon, there are liberals and then there are liberals. Trying to solve the problem by definition isn't the most responsible way to sort out the difficulties we face. People who call themselves liberals often mean very different things by the label, from "classical liberals" who pretend they agree with Adam Smith (but don't) on free markets, and who accept Lockean notions of the atomized individual and the social contract, to people like Robinson with a mushy, kissyface huggybear conception of what "society" should do. I'm not saying they shouldn't call themselves liberals -- both meanings are valid enough as labels, and others besides. Remember Paul Feyerabend's sly dig at Ernest Gellner: "Thus, being a liberal, I do not have to admit that Puritans have a chance of finding truth. All I am required to do is to let them have their say and not to stop them by institutional means. But of course I may write pamphlets against them and ridicule them for their strange opinions." Feyerabend's conception of liberalism was valid too.

Now, I basically agree with the values Robinson assigns to liberalism. I'm just not not sure they are liberal, or that it matters. Rather than standing up for "liberalism," I'd rather stand up for what it represents -- decent wages, education, free time, and so on. Getting tangled up in the word "liberal" is a diversion, though of course many opponents of decent wages, free time, education, and the rest will want a diversion ("Oh, you must be a liberal!"), and it takes a certain amount of focus to stay on topic. Robinson herself has trouble doing so -- notice her claim that she's not "ideological." Maybe she's using the word as code for "leftist"? In any case there's nothing wrong with being ideological.

Robinson goes on to criticize "liberalism, not in principle but as a movement", and to deplore the capitulation of the Democratic Congress (which she tellingly identifies with liberalism or at least "the liberal movement") to Bush, and to "the embrace of illiberalism" as though this were some new development. "These solons," she opines, "were cowed not so much by being out of power as being out of style." (Things didn't change when the Democrats regained a majority in Congress in 2006, after this essay was published.)

Now, Robinson is old enough to remember the Reagan administration, when Democrats and liberals also capitulated, gratefully, happy to leave the twisted values of the Sixties behind. Of course the pattern is much older than that. Liberals have such a long history of abandoning their high principles when the going gets tough that they've made it part of the definition of being a liberal, along with rising up boldly from time to time to lament the degradation of the noble name Liberal by the spineless and the wicked. (Another part of the historical pattern is liberals going wild over some new, charismatic young politician and projecting all their fantasies onto him, defending him against all critics -- especially the ideologues of the Left -- as he carries on with the illiberal agenda.)
It is sad to consider how much first-rate courage must be devoted in this world to struggling out of the toils of sheer pettiness. The Saudi women who first drove automobiles risked and suffered penalties, overcame inhibitions, and shattered norms, heroic in their defiance of an absurd conviction. We have our own Rosa Parks. That such great courage should have been required to challenge such petty barriers [!] is a demonstration of the power of social consensus. ...
"Our own Rosa Parks." I wonder if Parks considered herself a liberal; I don't think Martin Luther King Jr. considered himself one. White liberals were notorious for cautioning moderation to the Civil Rights Movement more than for supporting it. Robinson really should lay aside the theology for a time and study some 20th century American history.

For more historical perspective, there's this cozy conversation between American right-wing icon William Buckley and Brit literatus Malcolm Muggeridge. In the 1960s Muggeridge made a splashy conversion to Christianity (and later to Roman Catholicism), which accounts for Buckley's assumption -- not always borne out by reality, as you can see -- that he and Muggeridge were on the same page.

This part, for example:
MUGGERIDGE: When I say that I am a man of the Left, I mean by that that I am instinctively against authority, and on the side -- or hope that I, I always wish to be on the side -- on the weaker side.

BUCKLEY: Why would that make you distinctively a leftist?

MUGGERIDGE: Because what is good in the Left position is precisely that. What's bad is its connection, and sometimes identification, with what you in America would call a liberal view of life. That's the bad side. The good side is an instinctive, almost chivalrous feeling, that you should be on the side of the weak.

BUCKLEY: Well, would you say that there is a curious, then, ah ah, congruity between the Left as defined in England and the Conservative as defined in America, who is singularly the opponent of authority, especially state authority?

MUGGERIDGE: I've always had a considerable sympathy with the Right in America ...
Watching stuff like this reminds me why I'm baffled when people, including liberals and leftists, pay tribute to Buckley's great intellect and shrewd debating skills. (Plus, he totally made conservatism cool.) Muggeridge professes to admire his writing, but when I see them talking together I sense a certain condescension toward Buckley, even a mild embarrassment at his shallowness, quickly passed over as Muggeridge (a much better speaker) moves on to his own next point. Buckley's claim that the Right is the opponent of authority in America is, of course, laughable -- as a Roman Catholic he was always a supporter of authority, and as far as the state went I'm not aware that he ever opposed its use of force against foreigners or, within our borders, uppity Negroes. (According to Katrina van den Heuvel's eulogy, he turned against Bush's war on Iraq, but only safely after the fact -- "If I had known back then in February 2003 what we know now ..." -- and did oppose the surge.)

But that's not the issue. Condenscension is. It's probably a good thing for the upper classes to be "on the side of the weak," at least when you consider the alternative, but there still seems to be assumption that the better classes should be running things. Most monarchs would have claimed the same thing: protect the weak, don't let them protect themselves. After all, it's the rulers against whom the weak must usually protect themselves. Robinson also writes from the perspective of enfranchising the lower orders from above, though she is more tolerant than Buckley of those who struggle on their own behalf against "petty barriers" like Jim Crow. I'll be more inclined to take her principles seriously when she starts applying them to Barack Obama.