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


On Cultural Appropriation

With the “cultural appropriation” meme, the political wheel has turned full circle, with liberals adopting the separate-but-equal style of Civil Rights era segregationists – put walls around “my” culture and make it off limits to others (or at least make them sign in before touching). As a 1960s-based liberal, I carry the integrationist torch to an extreme that must horrify today’s liberals and conservatives equally. I advocate every form of cultural appropriation in every direction. Bust open the cultural lockboxes and play with each other’s stuff, continually wear the other’s shoes – black, white, female, male, every ethnicity and sexual orientation – incorporate, collaborate, and share a laugh when cultural cross-pollination becomes clumsy, as it often will. Distrust any form of liberalism (or conservatism) that says we need to respect walls of separation.

Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and Identity Politics

My blog entry on Two Kinds of Liberals raised for me a philosophical knot to be untied, implicating such formidable dead men as Aristotle and Wittgenstein.

Aristotle’s interest in natural philosophy and classification leads him to distinguish essential traits from accidental traits. Having four legs and a tail are “essential” traits of a cat; having a calico coloring is an “accidental” trait, a trait that applies to the individual but doesn’t define the category.

Wittgenstein makes a point in the Blue Book that at first sounds similar to Aristotle’s but turns out to be different in implication. Wittgenstein is interested in how we use language. E.g., when we read, do we process the meaning of each word and then put the meanings together? That may seem intuitive, but thinkers as far back as Edmund Burke (in his great 18th-century treatise on the sublime) suspected that this is not how the psychological process works. Wittgenstein asks us to picture someone who hasn’t learned the names for colors. Send him out to pick red flowers today, blue flowers tomorrow. At first you give him a color chart and he compares the flowers in the field to the chart, picking the correct ones. But soon he doesn’t need the chart because he “knows” his colors. The color chart is no longer relevant to his completion of the task. Just as the color chart is no longer needed to pick the flowers, the “image” associated with each word is not required for the process of reading and understanding the novel. We don’t stop and picture the meaning or image associated with each word before going on to the next word. Were this so, we would never in a lifetime finish our first Russian novel. Thus, Wittgenstein distinguishes between “a process being in accordance with a rule” and “a process involving a rule.” As when the color chart is no longer needed, we understand the novel “in accordance with” the meanings of words, but the meanings are not “involved” in the process. Wittgenstein concludes: “The rule which has been taught and is subsequently applied interests us only so far as it is involved in the application. A rule, so far as it interests us, does not act at a distance.” Or, to put it mathematically, if we want to understand a calculation, we are only interested in a rule if “the symbol of the rule forms part of the calculation.”

At first it looks like “a rule involved in a process” corresponds to an “essential” rule in Aristotle’s terms and “a rule in accordance with which” a process takes place would be an “accidental” rule, and there may indeed be contexts wherein the analogy holds true. But Wittgenstein’s point is more radical. Whereas Aristotle is clarifying aspects of the objective world, Wittgenstein is saying that language, once learned, functions without reference to a world outside of itself. The objective world to which the language might refer is irrelevant to (uninvolved in) our processing and understanding the language. “The sign (the sentence) gets its significance … [not from] an object co-existing with the sign … but from the system of signs, from the language to which it belongs. Roughly, understanding a sentence means understanding a language.”

Unlike Aristotle, Wittgenstein points the way to postmodernism, where the ground of meaning is infinitely displaced by a series of signifiers, where there is no ultimate reference point, and where relativism – metaphysical and cultural – becomes hard to shake off.

This theoretical dissonance may seem pointless, but I think it exposes the layering that undergirds the way we think about real world problems. Take the issue of cultural difference. The wing of liberalism I associate with Enlightenment rationalism, as well as with 1960-70s Civil Rights and feminism, is folded on top of an Aristotelian base. The “essential” aspect of human identity is our shared humanness, and we can best resolve such problems as racism through appeal to our universal human capacities for reason and compassion. Race, gender, and cultural identities are, after all, “accidental” traits superimposed upon that shared humanness.

“Identity politics,” together with “multiculturalism,” took hold in academia in the 1980s, and proposed that objectivity is impossible because everyone is a priori “politically situated” by their race, gender, class, etc. This theory is rooted in the ideas of Wittgenstein rather than those of Aristotle. In addressing problems of cultural difference, identity politics does not expressly deny “shared humanness,” but shared humanness is no longer “involved” in the process – it doesn’t form part of the active calculation. The political determinants of race, gender, etc., on the other hand, are “involved” in the process, and need to be respected as such. For example, when the white William Styron wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner from a black man’s perspective, the liberals who attacked him for the arrogance of crossing that line would fit my category of multiculturalist liberals. For them, in today’s racial milieu, the black experience, the white experience, are “involved” in social relations, whereas shared humanness is remote; thus, it is presumptuous for a white man to think he can comprehend what a black man such as Nat Turner might have felt. The other branch of liberals – Enlightenment rationalists, 1960s liberals – who bank on the Aristotelian notion of shared humanness, would, quite the contrary, praise Styron for struggling to get beyond the “accidental” features of race and grasp experience from the point of view of our shared humanness.

When I said in my Two Kinds of Liberals blog that I was “with multiculturalism when it’s building bridges but not when it’s guarding walls,” I can now say that “identity politics” is an example of multiculturalism “guarding walls.” I see efforts such as Styron’s not as some kind of insidious “cultural appropriation” (an impossible term if one believes in the primacy of shared humanness) but as a heroic attempt to illuminate how our shared humanness is the key to dismantling the prejudice and ill will that can absorb us when we remain trapped within such “accidental” layers of identity as race or gender or cultural groupings. (And remember that “accidental” in Aristotle doesn’t mean trivial or unworthy of celebration, but simply means that it is a feature that does not define the essence.)

One other (unhappy in my opinion) consequence of the rise of “identity politics” within liberalism is the way in which it ceded the high ground that liberals held in the 1960s and 70s. Take the issue of double standards. My Aristotelian liberals (if you’ll permit the conceit) were the outspoken enemies of double standards on race and gender. This includes Wollstonecraft and Equiano in the Enlightenment period as well as the Civil Rights and feminist movements of the 1960s/70s. But with the theoretical turn to identity politics in the 1980s – where racial and gender identity displace shared humanness as the operative factor in race and gender struggles – a subset of liberals flip-flopped from being the enemies of double standards to being the champions of double standards. Thus began a liberal regimen of race-specific rules for what language is acceptable and for which practices are “reserved” against cultural appropriation, not to mention the idea, novel at the time but now widely accepted among a new generation of liberals, that a prejudice against someone on purely racial grounds is only “racism” if you are white (i.e., if your race has the upper hand in a power differential). Thus the legitimate effort to address gender inequities can take the form of banning the word “bossy” for girls but presumably not for boys. The endgame of “identity politics” liberals is understandable, even noble, but the means – which shifted from the brazenly integrationist platform of the 60s to a kind of trench warfare defending this or that demographic turf, which shifted from a confident rejection of all double standards to an embrace of, or at least an equivocation toward, double standards – to the extent that these means have been deployed, liberals have ceded the moral high ground – not to conservatives, who from my vantage seem even farther aloof from the moral high ground, but to a vacuum waiting to be filled.

OK, I can’t really blame this all on Wittgenstein (from whom I learn more with every reading), although he is implicated in the trajectory towards postmodernism, which I do believe is at least partly responsible for the moral vacuum that developed within liberalism. But writing this has restored my faith in the extraordinary resilience of ancient Greek thought. Thus in this recycling of one of the great questions that absorbed European wits from Boileau to Swift in the 100 years or so leading into the Enlightenment – whether the ancients or the moderns were the greater masters of learning – the laurel wreath goes to … Aristotle and the ancients!

Aquarian Anarchy

Now for the new political position hinted at in my Russell Brand entries, profusely hyperlinked for your encyclopedic pleasure:

Aquarian Anarchy, or Aquarianarchy

Aquarianarchy (A-kwé-ri-ₔ-nár-kee): Rule by a bunch of idealist, neo-hippie waifs in communal forms of organization, suited to the forthcoming Age of Aquarius, with a little extra “anarchy” thrown in at the end.

Aquarianarchy recapitulates 1960s liberalism into a new political position that is outside the present left-right axis, a third pole if you will, with an eye on the progressive ideal of a society that is post-materialist, open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity and rich in human contact.

Aquarianarchy stands apart from today’s conservative economic and social vision via its critique of capitalism (Taxes, Private Property, and the Age of Aquarius; Luddites and Technophobes) and of the Republican Party platform (Who’s for the Middle Class).

Aquarianarchy stands apart from conservative conventions in lifestyle and social and professional behavior (Fashion Anarchy, Professionalism and Alienation).

Aquarianarchy incorporates some long-term tenets of libertarianism while acknowledging their short-term impracticality (From Fashion Anarchy to German Socialism).

Aquarianarchy stands apart from those post-1980s liberal strategies that divide rather than unify. This means rethinking the liberal framing of race and gender (White Privilege and a Third Way on Race, How the Left Ceded the Moral High Ground, Female Chauvinist Pigs), the liberal acceptance of double standards for underdog groups (Ban Bossy), and a policing instinct that stifles expression by encouraging self-censorship and shaming for every perceived offence (Is “Where Are You From” Offensive, How the Left Ceded the Moral High Ground).

Aquarianarchy also begins to articulate ethical parameters for a post-capitalist age (Regifting and Post-Technological Ethics).

Overall, Aquarianarchy draws most on the pre-1980s liberals of the hippie and post-hippie era. Remove all conventional chains on speech, self-expression, and modes of social organization. Basically, if it breaks down binaries and demographic walls and foregrounds our shared humanness, if it encourages unfiltered free expression without fear of faux pas or shaming, if it welcomes those who disagree as well as those who agree with us to the table, if it promotes a vision that steers our tottering planet away from “jittery materialism” (Brand, p. 106) toward a sustainable ecology and human values, it’s part of the general plan.

And that “little extra anarchy” I promised comes at the expense (superficially at least) of some of my liberal brothers and sisters. I.e., against current liberal trends that subtly reinforce a “separate but equal” ideology, Aquarianarchy re-seizes the full integrationist torch of the 60s with an anarchist vigor, advocating every form of cultural appropriation in every direction. Think of it as the cultural correlative of private property. Bust open the cultural lockboxes and play with each other’s stuff, continually wear the other’s shoes – black, white, female, male, every ethnicity and sexual orientation – incorporate, collaborate, and share a laugh when cultural cross-pollination becomes clumsy, as it often will. Distrust any form of liberalism (or conservatism) that says we need to respect walls of separation. Bust the whole thing wide open.  I think that little bit of anarchy is prerequisite to the revolutionary change we need when the current age collapses.

A final note on process: It bears repeating that this revolution must begin in the subjective arena of human sensibility, with restructuring in the political arena as a consequence. People must (1) take time for meditation and practices of self-reflection, if possible read things by Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, visualize your inner values shifting toward something commensurate with a post-materialist age; (2) begin to express these inner changes locally, in everyday choices, from supporting others in fashion anarchy to regifting; (3) then comes the political restructuring based on planetary sustainability and post-materialist values of human fulfillment. If during this process Arc #1 gets ahead of Arc #2, or Arc #2 gets ahead of Arc #3, not a problem. But if the political restructuring of Arc #3 gets out ahead, we’ll need to stop and revisit those cautionary checks from Gandhi (Chauri Chaura incident) and from The Beatles and The Who, as per my letter to Russell Brand. Let’s do this right and not get fooled again. After all, what with those “ecological imperatives” of which Russell speaks, we might not have another chance.