Jonathan Swift and the Arc of Liberalism

for my blog-mate, Steve Morris, with whom I often disagree 🙂 

Ah, the Lilliputians. Those diminutive people on the island of Lilliput described by Jonathan Swift’s blundering traveler, Gulliver. What the reader takes home from the voyage to Lilliput is the comical insignificance of human struggles. These tiny creatures huff and puff and bluster about all the things we do, but their size alone makes it seem like so many trifling exercises pushing forward, then backward, then sideways, and getting nowhere fast. It is the comic version of Shakespeare’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Were Swift with us today, he might apply that same satiric wit to the liberal cultural vision in America over the last 50 years. The changes in consciousness that liberals of the 1960s and 70s advanced so furiously are the very things that liberals today are working furiously to reverse. Whether this tale told by an idiot is in the tragic mold of Shakespeare or the comic mold of Swift will depend on your perspective, but the details run something like this…

1960s/70s liberals emphasized our shared humanness over and against demographic differences that we were told could not be overcome; now liberals strenuously emphasize that whites can’t know what it is to be black, men can’t know what it is to be women, Asians can’t know what it is to be Latino … the very walls yesterday’s liberals fought so hard to break down are the ones being feverishly rebuilt by today’s liberals. The 60s/70s group implicitly favored all forms of cultural appropriation in every direction, everyone sharing each other’s stuff in the great communal playhouse; nowadays, liberals encourage each demographic group to guard its cultural turf against plunder.

1960s/70s liberals fought hard to remove double standards on race and gender, fought to stop talking about and start living the dream where people are not “judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Today’s liberals pivot and push with equal vigor to enforce different standards for how to treat someone based on preconceived notions about privilege or race or gender. As hard as earlier liberals fought to treat everyone you meet as human being, regardless of race or gender or background, today’s liberals see everyone through the lens of race or gender or privilege and indeed many universities have now labeled it as a racist or sexist microaggression not to do so.

1960s/70s liberals fought hard to remove all restrictions on how to speak, think, dress, or set up your living arrangements. “Rules and regulations, who needs them,” sang hippie icon, David Crosby. Bust it wide open and let everyone say what they think. Today’s liberals have briskly rolled back that joyful, bumpy pluralistic chaos with innumerable speech codes, Halloween dress codes, and a general shaming of anyone who deviates from the liberal norm.

I’m not sure where the arc of liberalism goes from here. I’ve hinted before that we may need, and there may already be a groundswell for, a movement outside the scope of politics, casting off the dried snakeskin of today’s liberals and conservatives alike, a movement that embraces the chaos of pluralism, that rejects all politics left and right, and relies on only the human heart and human imagination in our treatment of one another. I can’t say whether my new movement will get off the ground, or whether today’s liberals will consolidate their gains, or perhaps we’ll swing back to the more anarchist-minded 60s liberalism. These things are hard to predict. What’s not hard to predict is that the next turn of the wheel will probably leave us as vulnerable to Swiftean satire as ever.

Related: 1960s vs Post-1980s liberals; How the left ceded the moral high ground


34 thoughts on “Jonathan Swift and the Arc of Liberalism

  1. Another great post, Gary.

    1960’s/70’s liberalism/hippiedom sprang from a much more moderate national political milieu. We also talked with one another face-to-face much more back then. In today’s 5-second attention span world, liberals and conservatives alike are loath to spend any time at all trying to understand problems, much less cooperate upon proposed solutions. We don’t want to miss our next text or tweet. Consequently, we approach politics and social issues only via the latest shorthands fed to the masses by the popular media. This reliance upon shorthand words and phrases promotes shallow perception, a tendency to collect at the extreme ends of the political spectrum and a complete lack of respect for the other’s point of view, no matter how well thought out and delivered. I would describe it as the death of perspective. You know, sort of like what happened in Europe during the first half of the last century.

    In social terms, Dostoevsky’s ant-hill has divided into two camps which mostly reject any sort of congress. E pluribus duo.

    I applaud your movement and join it wholeheartedly.

    (Looking forward to Steve’s input)


    • Thanks, Chris, for the thoughtful context to help explain the shifting sands. For another additional context that may differentiate the 1960s milieu, here’s a passage from my forthcoming novel set in those days: “For Ziggy, as for so many 18-year-olds during those years, Selective Service registration was pro forma and carelessly done. The Vietnam war was to the teenage mind an occasion for bon mots of bravado between gulps of Boone’s Farm apple wine or for vulgar gestures hurled at the Man from the windows of swirly painted VW buses. Every gulp, every hit on the joint, pushed the war further from the party at hand. But never completely away. Every kid had an older brother or cousin or friend on the block who had been there and come back changed.”


      • Your novel passage (excellent) puts my mind back in our old neighborhood in Metairie, circa 1968. One of the neighbors older sons went into the Army in about 1966, deployed to Vietnam and was then back home after being discharged for an unknown reason. He wasn’t physically wounded, but he was clearly not the same kid he was two years earlier. I wonder how his parents felt about it, because most of the parental generation then (mine certainly) were blindly loyal to the government… I suppose a hangover from our WWII victory and the ultra-conformist 1950’s.

        By the way, I was one of the lucky few (those born between March 29, 1957 and December 31, 1959) who were never required to register for the Selective Service.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. To Chris point, the Republican party, prior to Goldwater in 64, tried to be Democrat light—recall his principal opponent was Nelson Rockefeller. With the rise of the Conservative movement (and its several factions—Buckley, Birchers— just like today) this homogeneity splintered. Common ground was lost. It has never really recovered. But the shifting tides where one party embraces an ideal its opponent previously embraced is part of the historical narrative. It has happened before and probably has to do with historical context. In the late 50’s early 60’s confronted with nuclear destruction a bomb shelter mentality fed the rise of conservatives. Now with the paranoia over ISIS and Islam it rises again and people seek the security of conformity (one factor in this new liberalism).Another factor is that we have a less and less literate society; one that does not think too deeply and lives in “cultivated ignorance.” Nothing new in that, as we have suffered from it often. Perhaps it is proof of the old Wittgenstein saying that labels are just an excuse to stop thinking. More likely as the culture changes the positions shift. This may be where the information age now comes into play. But Americans have always been an anti-intellectual bunch, regardless of party affiliation. It is time for the poets and artists to hold up the mirror. Where is James Baldwin when you need him?


    • Here:

      “Most of us, no matter what we say, are walking in the dark, whistling in the dark. Nobody knows what is going to happen to him from one moment to the next, or how one will bear it. This is irreducible. And it’s true of everybody. Now, it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace.”
      – James Baldwin


      • Great quote, Chris. I will re-use the line about artists. Disrupting the bourgeois sensibility is also a moral imperative of the fashion anarchist, whose manifesto I have gleefully written on this very blog.


    • Thanks, Michael, for broadening the analysis to include Goldwater. My brain falls off a cliff around 1967, so your larger scope is especially useful. Per “shifting tides where one party embraces an ideal its opponent previously embraced,” this bears an interesting relation to my core argument. As liberals have danced around into their own opposite, conservatives have at least rhetorically tiptoed around to claim the MLK position that one’s core identity is not predetermined by the color of one’s skin. But it’s a head-fake. Theirs is still the party where Trump and Cruz rule the polls. And once you get past the “identity politics” subset of liberalism, Obama (and Hillary and Bernie) are still far and away better choices on these issues. Obama’s speeches, in which he has said that white working class people as well as blacks have legitimate grievances, that we need to talk to each other with thick skin, that student protesters need to beware the dangers of foreclosing free speech — these are the gold standard of how to address the issue (though of course pundits often excerpt to make him appear less fair-minded). Hillary and Bernie are a little more coy at present about alienating the “identity politics” branch of the base, but still, the historical dance in which one party appears to move around into the position of the other, is not always what it seems.


      • Admittedly there is some political expediency involved on occasion. And the Republicans are not all Cruz and Trump. That’s part of the intra-party splintering I mentioned. Paul represents the more libertarian split; Bush the business establishment; Cruz the evangelical/Birchers and Trump–well, Trump. But I’m thinking all of this, like the liberal change of position, is driven by a narrowing of the already anti-intellectual strain in our culture.


        • Point taken about different subsets of the Republican Party. Rand Paul casts an interesting light on the dance between the parties, as anti-Establishment hippie liberals of the 1960s had much in common with perceived freewheeling libertarians (with social freedoms as perhaps the glue); today’s libertarians are considered to be solidly at the Republican wing most distant from liberal Democrats (with economic issues as perhaps the glue enforcing the new bonds?) … but the the cautious alliance between hippie liberals and libertarians may only have been possible in the wake of the Goldwater fracturing of which you speak … OK, this clearly requires a 300-page book, which you are more qualified to write than I, so I’ll end here.


  3. I actually think that this trend you have so clearly identified is an example of how fascism begins. Fascism can originate on the left or right of politics, and starts with the desire to fix some kind of problem or injustice. Often the injustice is real, but the solution is the wrong one.

    There are many current trends that could be considered as examples of proto-fascism. Consider Trump and his eagerness to blame all Muslims for the crimes of Islamic State, or to criminalize all Mexicans. There are real problems at the root of his concerns, but the proposed solutions are the wrong ones. It’s easy for Liberals to see how Conservatives are potential fascists, but you, Gary, have done brilliantly to identify that Liberals can also be fascists.

    By taking away one group’s liberties in order to protect another group, we rarely make the world a better place. It is perhaps wiser to refrain from action than to rush in and try to impose heavy-handed solutions. But there is a huge appetite now for fixing problems through legislation or organised movements.

    At least in the US you have the Constitution, and I think that you must all work to protect that. However, I see a huge threat arising in the near future – gun control. Although I’m very much in favour of gun control, if it means overruling the Constitution, I think that would be a dangerous move. Once you’ve changed one of the rules, they are all up for grabs. And that could mean the erosion of free speech, and the rest of it.

    As for the current obsession with speech codes and political correctness, maybe the tide will turn again. However, I think it is just one manifestation of a current trend for downgrading the rights of individuals, in favour of the group or state.


    • Hi Steve. We agree on muc this time. I differ on gun control. I understand your “slippery slope” concern per the constitution, but it’s hard for me to see what lone wolves roaming the streets with assault weapons has to do with the 2nd amendment’s expressed foundation in the need for “a well-regulated militia.” I mean, really, the word “well-regulated” appears in the very clause the gun lobby uses to argue that NO regulation on anyone or any type of weapon can ever be enacted. So eager is the gun lobby to sell its wares that they pressured Republican puppets like Lindsay Graham to shoot down a law in 2010 to prevent terrorists from purchasing weapons; thus, “Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law” (GAO government report, 2010). When we have 11,000 gun homicides a year and you have 75 in the UK, I think it’s fair to consider that weapons technologies have changed since the 1700s and some common-sense regulation is consistent with the spirit and wording of the 2nd amendment.

      I don’t see the current policing of thought and speech through speech codes, etc., as a larger trend downgrading individual rights to favor groups or the state. Certainly not the state. Yes, protection of (infantilization of) demographic groups is part of the picture here, but I don’t see it expressing a new trend toward fascism, but rather a very old constant that says when an underdog group becomes top dog, as let us say liberals did in 1980s academia, they will quit advocating freedom from the normative constraints (which had been burdening them) and begin advocating for the enforcement of norms (since they now “own” the norms). I hope I’m right and you’re wrong on this one because I’m not ready for another bout of fascism.

      Meanwhile, let us go then you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky, let us pat each other on the back and celebrate our common ground, and hope that our struggle comes to more than that of hapless Prufrock.


      • I did not mean to imply that I am in any way in favour of your insane gun laws. I hope that you can find a way to regulate gun ownership without changing the constitution.

        As for trends, what I intended to say was that I think the trend towards fascism is a human constant, and that this latest version is just one example of how it spreads from wholesome beginnings.

        Thanks once again for the mention at the start, and yes, I believe that we have much in common and much to celebrate in this wonderful world we inhabit.


        • And I didn’t mean to misrepresent you, but I enjoy it when we push each other’s ideas hard — aye, even to the edge of misrepresentation — in our joint quest to mine the landscape of cultural history and current thought. And may the public heed well your note that fascism starts from wholesome beginnings. Your countryman, Dickens, gave magnificent artistic expression to something like this in Tale of Two Cities — where he spared neither the bloody oppression that led to the French Revolution nor the bloody counter-oppression that followed “liberation” from the first set of tyrants.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Thinking about this more, I suppose that what changed from the 60s to the 80s was a subtle shift in emphasis. It started out with “hey, wouldn’t it be cool to replace the old conservative values with new liberal ones and break down barriers in society,” and gradually this gave way to, “hey, it is imperative that everyone adopts the new values that we have put forward, and anyone who thinks otherwise must be wrong.” A desire to respect other people’s views quickly became the opposite thing, even though it wasn’t apparent to most of the people involved.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fine point, Steve. That shift from “we can” to “you must” may be what your fine British Marxist, Raymond Williams, calls “overdetermined” – several pressures in that direction, any one of which may fully explain the shift; e.g., (1) as any group becomes empowered it shifts emphasis from breaking norms to enforcing them, (2) the institutional formation in the 1980s of race and gender studies departments, which had to build theoretical foundations quickly and unfortunately did so through reductive “identity politics,” (3) the 1980s/90s rise of talk radio and Fox News to 24/7 carpet bomb levels, which elicited perhaps a reaction in kind from segments of the left (and the Internet in general may factor in here). Still, once we get off of race and gender and look general economic and policy decisions, liberals are more supportive of compromise and pluralism overall than conservatives, at least in the U. S. (Pew Research poll). So when I complain about the path libs have taken on race and gender, this by no means puts me closer to the party of Trump and Cruz (if Michael Tusa will forgive me the rhetorical simplification).

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have enjoyed the back and forth on this subject, but feel like it is nibbling around the edges (no offense). But I don’t have any further insight, except to agree with both of you that it is a multifaceted issue (and you guys have touched on many of those facets). My only additional instinct, which I can also easily contradict, is that it is related to feelings of security; economic and otherwise. Psychologically, when the public feels insecure it would seem the least educated (often the most fearful) want to clamp down on liberties (often in the name of liberty!). They fear change and so try to stop anything that they think might lead to change. Absolutes are embraced and nuance, pluralism, abandoned. When there is more economic prosperity, the maddening crowd is too busy drinking, watching reality TV, embracing their illusions and going to sporting events to grumble. But I’m not sure how this explains the problem in academia, unless I lump the students in with the maddening crowd (But that might require me to jettison my elitism!).


        • Fine probe, Mike, into the strange dance between these two related phenomena – the insecurity of the uneducated class which sometimes causes knee-jerk intolerance and is easily exploited in bad economic times by conservatives, and the intolerance of the overeducated (liberal) class in academia today. I’m guessing that the former is more of a universal principle and the latter something historically specific to post-1980s academia and its proliferation of race and gender studies departments eager to theorize and then foist their theories on the pliable 18-year-olds in their charge. So I see the academic (humanities) based intolerance as more of an aberration, limited to historically-specific conditions post-1980s, and limited in subject to race/gender/demographic politics. One could argue that around the same time, many 1st-rate English Lit Departments morphed into 2nd-rate Political Science Departments, again a historically-specific phenomenon in my opinion. The interesting thing is that it has led them to the same struggle we see in that conservative exploitation of the uneducated – they too are in danger of being devoured by the retrograde theories and excessive passions of their own creation.


  5. I have a hunch (but no evidence) that the new race and gender studies departments you describe invented identity politics in order to give themselves some kind of intellectual validity. Having been created in this way, identity politics took on a life of its own in academia. Academia is probably still the place where the problems you have identified are most at play.

    Maybe the problem isn’t politicians, but academics.


  6. A slight dissent. “Identity politics” was not “invented” by academia. I think it was an outgrowth of several factors most notably the civil rights movement (50s and 60s) and the white backlash which accompanied it. It is easy to forget how much turmoil these issues created when first addressed. Once Executive Orders demanded affirmative action of employers (and the original goes back to FDR in WWII for military manufacturers; later in the 60s by LBJ for broader application) it became a natural course of study—though it took awhile to get there. Such orders and then numerous statutes (Title VII–1964, ADEA–1972, Equal Pay act etc) created legal cases and significant social commentary, as did the screams of those opposing any changes—the “separate but equal” crowd. Wouldn’t it be natural for academia to study the effect, for example, of Brown v Board of Education on literacy levels? Should minorities be allowed to buy/rent anywhere—as open housing laws required? Should companies have to open the hiring process to allow more female and minority participation? What is the effect of such programs—good, bad, neutral? These would be natural things for Political Science or Sociology departments to start to study. No different than my friends in PS departments who study age related issues with the electorate. Different organizations then developed vested interests (along side these judicial and legislative pronouncements) in presenting racial or gender groups as a monolith for political purposes (and for their own purposes—Jessie Jackson, as an example, has a vested pecuniary interest in portraying all blacks as having the same interests, which he alleges he represents). Politicians then grasped onto these supposed monolithic voting blocks in their pursuit of office; in their presentation of their agendas and in crafting their messages (we see the Dems doing this now by labelling the Republicans anti-women). How can I, the politician, appeal to blacks, Hispanics, women? The media swallowed this Kool-Aid and gladly presented the different groups as if each was a monolithic voting group, being pursued for their votes, and they still do. They discussed the effect of franchising blacks by the Voting Rights act—normal to do so. So wouldn’t the creation of programs related to identity politics be an natural outgrowth by academia of all of the above factors—-a study of the effect on the existing culture if you will? So I submit that “identity politics” existed prior to the full blown development of study programs in academia. It existed because of the brief factors I have outlined. To the extent Steve is suggesting (and I don’t think he is) that academia actually (“invented identity politics”) conspiratorially set these studies up, I would disagree. We can argue about what purpose these programs actually serve and whether it is divisive or not, but it seems to me a natural outgrowth of other factors and not an invention by academia. Academia just responded to what was going on in the culture around it.

    For what it is worth I have trouble seeing the merits of the degree programs on gender or race (neither of which I see as a monolith). No problem with a class or two—be it on black writers, female writers, history courses on it, etc. Though for some of these my view is that their time has come and gone and should just be absorbed into normal larger courses.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’re building off each other rather than contradicting each other. Both of these thoughts hold true. It is true that “identity politics” go back in history to the antecedents you mention, Mike (thanks for adding them in). In my own blog I’ve cited such antecedents as the hell William Styron caught for writing “Confessions of Nat Turner” from a black man’s point of view. It is also true that 1980s academia is where “identity politics” reached critical mass, where the many and conflicting views on the matter were wiped out or driven underground by a “master narrative” on race and gender which became unforgiving to dissenters. All good points about the push and pull of history on the subject.


  7. A scintillating discussion, gents. The observation I have in its wake is that movements of any sort, after striving mightily, generally mistake their successful achievement of greater acceptance for total victory (conveniently forgetting the impossibility of universal acceptance). This critical error breeds others: intellectual laziness, imperiousness, bigotry, violence, etc., which are then compounded by the rollover of generations and their respective challenges to overcome (or double-down on) the errors of their forebears. The seeds of failure are thus scattered throughout the fruits of success. Artists exist to expose that paradox. They are the emergency granary for current and coming generations, feeding those starved by “victorious” movements.

    “In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”
    ― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

    Vive l’étrange!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bravo, Mill! Hereby inducted into the shakemyheadhollow pantheon of Fashion Anarchy!

      To your other point, as D. H. Lawrence and others have opined, the same force that is liberating at the beginning of a cycle becomes deadening and destructive at the end of the cycle. “What was the green dragon, the good potency, at the beginning of the cycle has by the end gradually changed into the red dragon, the evil potency” (Apocalypse). Timothy Leary said basically the same thing about the LSD-centered drug culture emerging in 1966 — that the liberating potency that could get a whole generation to re-envision society in more idealistic terms would in time become a deadening and destructive potency (Leary’s off-the-cuff estimate in ’66 was about 15 years for that cycle to play out).


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