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



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 illegitimate 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!

Paris per Maher and Affleck: Two Kinds of Liberals

The recent attacks in Paris illuminate the tension between two schools of Western liberalism, most amusingly brought to light by the Bill Maher vs Ben Affleck incident: Enlightenment rationalism vs multiculturalism.

The Enlightenment rationalist strand (Maher) gave us the secular Western societies of today, based the idea that reason can give us universal standards that liberate us from Church dogma and other prejudice. When it comes to cultural differences, this reason-based model emphasizes a shared humanness that transcends gender, race, religion, or national origin, and its great 18th-century proponents include Mary Wollstonecraft (gender) and Olaudah Equiano (race). I embrace the Enlightenment rationalism strand pretty much all the time (although Maher sometimes inflates the content or deflates the tone of debate in ways I don’t like).

The multicultural strand (Affleck), which achieved critical mass in 1980s academia, emphasizes tolerance for all the various “cultural others.” I have mixed feelings about this strand. Basically, I embrace multiculturalism when it’s building bridges but not when it’s guarding walls. Chaotic pluralism and cultural cross-pollination are great social assets, but circling the wagons around this or that demographic group to protect it from any offense, real or imagined, not so great.

I think the difference comes down to this: Enlightenment rationalism says that the universal human capacity to reason levels all prejudices; multiculturalism says that all cultural value sets should be equally validated. Thus multiculturalism, especially when it defends certain religious groups or practices, runs the risk of saying that all prejudices are equally valid, a statement sure to be rejected by the more atheist-leaning Enlightenment liberals.

Enlightenment rationalism and multiculturalism are not finally exclusive political positions. As loosely represented by Maher and Affleck, they are two strands of liberals, all of whom probably vote the same way because of shared views on economic policy, foreign affairs, and on the government’s role in the common good. The differences that emerge are matters of scope. For one thing, Enlightenment rationalism is not limited in scope to liberalism, as some subset of the conservative populace might also be informed by that historical philosophy. But my focus is on the Enlightenment rationalist strand of today’s liberalism, and its adherents are generally allied with multiculturalists, except where the narrower scope of multiculturalism per se becomes operative – i.e., on issues of race, gender, and “cultural others.”  And even there, there is much agreement on government policies regarding race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. But the difference is largely one of sensibility, one of how to look at cultural differences. Do we apply universal standards of reason to obliterate parochial prejudice or do we give every cultural value set an equal seat at the table and avoid being judgmental? I’ve had my say, so now my readers can pick or complain or attack as they see fit.