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Michael Bonner: Defenders of the liberal faith feel the fire

Commentary

A woman takes a moment for herself as police and protestors clash, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. Julio Cortez/AP Photo.

What does it mean to be a conservative or a liberal in the United States of America?

The question is less strange than it may seem. American liberals and conservatives both hark back to the revolutionary founding of their country. Both claim either to fulfill or to renew the principles animating that revolution. Both profess a doctrine of liberty and equality. Either side calls the other tyrannical, and each believes that it alone promotes freedom. So, depending on your perspective, you could argue either that America has no conservatives, because everyone appeals to liberal principles, or that it has no liberals, because all appeal to a tradition.

The American arch-conservative George F. Will addressed this matter in his book The Conservative Sensibility. He admits that America has no school of European-style conservatism founded on aristocracy, hierarchy, and so on. The old Tories fled to Britain or Canada, and there is no counter-revolutionary party left. Instead, Will says, American conservatism aims to preserve the conditions that made the American Revolution possible. If you think through what Will is saying, you arrive at a paradox: American conservatives are liberals. So we may well ask: what are conservatives who do not agree with that characterisation?

Robert Kagan has the answer.

His new book Rebellion: How Anti-Liberalism is Tearing America Apart—Again asserts that all Americans are, or should be, liberal revolutionaries animated by the spirit of 1776. And yet, the principles of that revolution, he says, have always been resisted by an allegedly “conservative” faction which either wants rights and freedoms only for itself or which rejects liberalism altogether. The conservative, anti-liberal faction was ascendant in the old slave-holding South, was not actually crushed in the Civil War, and has lately made up the Tea Party and MAGA movements.

And if, says Kagan, Trump is re-elected, anti-liberalism will triumph over the Constitution, and that will be the end of the American Republic. Those who watched the recent presidential debate may struggle with the theory that only Joe Biden can or should save American democracy. But that is the force of Kagan’s book, and we shall know whether he is right soon enough.

In structure and content, Rebellion is clearly supposed to be something like a narrative of a sea voyage from the American Revolution to the present. Kagan fears that the journey may end in disaster should Trump take the helm again, cast aside the sextant and nautical charts of liberalism, and pilot the ship off the edge of the world. But what actually happens in the book is that Kagan’s ship runs aground within the first few pages. The background narrative continues as a literary equivalent of rear-screen projection, but the ship is not in motion. The impediment is the meaning of liberalism itself.

We can begin with Kagan’s portrayal of the American Revolution. That revolution was shaped by some grave misunderstandings and exaggerations, which Kagan neglects to mention. Here are two examples.

First, the colonists’ vision of the monarch’s power was influenced by earlier generations’ experience of royal absolutism. They expected George III to intervene on their behalf against Parliament. But if this had happened, it would have amounted to the same sort of tyrannical abuse of constitutional norms associated with kings Charles I and James II, which notably had not bothered the colonists; but, when the king did not intervene, the colonists called him a tyrant. Second, they also hated the Quebec Act of 1774 because of all its liberal features. It granted tolerance of Roman Catholicism, allowed the use of the French Civil Code, and aimed to prevent the colonists from infringing on Aboriginal territory in what is now Middle America. So one may well ask in what sense the American Revolution was really liberal in spirit.

Kagan’s attempt to define liberalism is a larger problem. Liberalism’s “sole function,” he says, is “to protect certain fundamental rights of all individuals against the state and the wider community.” John Locke’s “life, liberty, and property” are what Kagan has in mind, and he is curiously impressed by the “‘truly revolutionary” claim that those rights were “inherent in the nature of being human.”

Many surprises follow. Kagan’s liberalism has no roots in the Enlightenment, he insists. Nor, despite the invocation of Locke, does it originate in “all the liberty enjoyed by Englishmen.” As for its purpose, liberalism is not a means of improving human lives, “except by providing a historically unique form of freedom.”

And yet, liberalism is not about progress, except the progress of ever-expanding rights. It has no destination or teleology. It is not the “endpoint of some concept of modernization.” And—I was especially shocked by this—it cannot be justified rationally. Kagan’s liberalism is no “more ‘rational’ or more ‘just’ than the hierarchical worldview that has guided the vast majority of human beings for almost the entirety of recorded history.” Liberalism, says Kagan, is “at root a faith.”

As I said, Kagan’s is a surprising definition, and I suspect that many self-avowed liberals would reject it. Kagan’s definition is a significant climb-down from the more exalted claims that liberalism has made for itself over the past 30 years. And so, I am almost ready to agree with Kagan. His idea that liberalism is a faith is very nearly right, though perhaps not in the way that he intends. Lockean liberalism is “a quasi-Protestant political theology,” as many scholars have called it. And the idea of rights inherent to all persons, which Kagan finds so impressive and revolutionary, is actually a very old Western Christian anthropological claim that Locke did not originate.

One can argue in fact that Lockean liberty makes no sense outside its Christian context, and I think Kagan could potentially be convinced of this also. The American Founders unwisely separated Locke from his theology by asserting that “certain unalienable rights” were “self-evident.” And Kagan himself marshals all the evidence to prove that this assertion was wrong.

It was the liberal constitution of 1789 that permitted slavery for nearly a century, and slave-holding elites constantly appealed to principles of freedom and to property rights. Their opponents did not make convincing counterarguments, so much as opposite appeals to other liberal values. Kagan portrays this contest as one between liberals and anti-liberals; but one may see it more clearly as a fight within liberalism, especially when the South seceded on the same pretext of liberty and property rights invoked by the colonists in 1776. The South was of course defeated in the ensuing Civil War; but, as Kagan reminds us, the South continued to defy the federal government, asserting white supremacism and racial segregation with appeals to rights, liberty, autonomy, and so forth.

Obviously, it would be impossible to argue that slavery was genuinely compatible with liberal principles. But the Founders’ liberalism did not only fail to vanquish it, but liberal principles were also useful in defending it and its similarly loathsome aftermath. Moreover, liberals of the North easily persuaded themselves that their values would gradually prevail in the postbellum South without further intervention—an attitude which prolonged segregation and white supremacism. Self-evident truths, indeed!

Nevertheless, Kagan is very close to identifying the actual flaws in the American republic. Or rather, he has rightly summarised all historical proofs of them, without drawing the right conclusion. He is right to say that many Americans have never fully accepted Lockean liberalism, but he cannot yet see that the American tradition of liberalism has been cut off from its root.

The root of liberalism, as Kagan says, is faith. But liberals no longer believe in it. The theory of natural and inherent equality among all persons comes from the New Testament and was elaborated over many centuries from St Augustine onwards. As historian and philosopher Larry Siedentrop put it, “belief in the moral equality of men created a role for conscience, and that set limits to the claims of any social organisation”—a conviction which requires respect for “the difference between inner conviction and external conformity.”

Remember also that Thomas Jefferson had “sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” not because he hated religion, but because the individual person must be free to follow the dictates of his reason and conscience implanted in him by God.

Christianity is also the origin of the secularism and tolerance that Kagan makes so much of. The idea that there is a secular and a religious realm, and that the two must be separated, is a constitutional theory best associated with the 11th-century papacies of Leo IX and Gregory VII. The idea, originally unknown outside Europe, has prevailed ever since, and theories of secularism, tolerance, and religious freedom grow out of it.

Those principles must be in place, as Locke and his epigones knew, not because religion is a pernicious influence on government (as Kagan repeatedly says and implies), but because belief would be insincere without them. Liberalism ought to form the conditions under which authentic beliefs may flourish, for there can be no benefit to anyone if people are forced to conform to what they do not really believe.

Both American theories of a “biblical republic” on the one hand, and utter godlessness on the other, depart from this tradition. In our own irreligious age, demand for external conformity has vanquished respect for inner conviction. And the divorce between liberalism and Christianity has undermined the only justification that liberalism has ever had.

Apart from religion, Kagan’s liberalism has another blind spot. I mean the illiberal, or (to borrow Kagan’s adjective) anti-liberal, excesses of the political Left. For instance, the collapse of American race relations in our own time is in Kagan’s view simply a “reckoning” and “the inevitable by-product of the liberal system the Founders created.” And he asserts that wokery is unfairly vilified by conservative, anti-liberals.

But if Kagan really believes that, it only emphasises how remote he is from Lockean liberalism. The woke hierarchy of oppression and fixation on race and privilege do not aim at equality and unity, but rather division and exactly the sort of “tyranny over the mind of man” that Jefferson hated. DEI initiatives are exclusionary and illiberal also, and they have not raised up minorities so much as empowered a new class of commissars policing everything from speech to Halloween costumes.

The New York Times1619 Project, a re-examination of the history of American slavery, notably teaches that the liberal ideals of the American Constitution were false from the beginning—exactly the same conclusion reached by John C. Calhoun and the other defenders of slavery. By Kagan’s own logic, the two antagonists of wokists and slavers are actually les extrêmes qui se touchent.

If the stakes are really as high as Kagan says, then liberalism requires a much more vigorous and convincing defence than Rebellion provides. Jefferson wrote of the “tree of liberty” which from time to time needs the refreshment of its “natural manure”: the “blood of tyrants and patriots.” This is a dreadful thought that seems to lurk behind Kagan’s assertion that the “people and their beliefs” have always been the problem for liberalism. But if the root of the tree is faith, as Kagan affirms, then nourishing that faith is the only thing that can renew liberalism, not vanquishing unbelievers.

But Kagan’s liberalism takes shape as a non-metaphysical religion that cannot be vindicated by reason; which is no more just than any other worldview; and which has consistently failed to achieve its goals.

So why, one may wonder, should anyone espouse it? And how can a non-believer be convinced? Kagan, like a crypto-Protestant theologian, simply affirms that you either believe it or you do not. The Liberal Elect simply know who they are. No amount of persuasion, but faith alone, can make the American people into liberals. If this is true, and Kagan seems to believe that it is, the track record of that non-theological faith suggests that its future will be very bleak indeed, no matter who wins the next American election.

Patrick Luciani: Canada’s culture isn’t changing—it’s disappearing

Commentary

The statue of former Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A Macdonald is covered by a red sheet in Kingston, Ontario, June 11, 2021. Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press.

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani examines The Crisis of Culture: Identity Politics and the Empire of Norms (Oxford Press, 2023) by French sociologist Olivier Roy, translated by Cynthia Schoch and Trista Selous, which examines the ways society derives its identity and character from its location, time, and history, and what happens when you sever that connection.

Canada’s memory and culture are disappearing. A case in point is the recent renaming of Yonge-Dundas Square by Toronto’s city council to the African word Sankofa Square. Globe and Mail writer Marcus Gee suggested Lightfoot Square in honour of Gordon Lightfoot, but that would be reverting to our Canadian past. For the sake of multiculturalism and diversity, Toronto’s Mayor Olivia Chow needed to eliminate the name of Henry Dundas and his Scottish heritage from our memory and make a grand gesture to our new tolerance and international character.

On our ten-dollar bill we celebrate an obscure Canadian hero in Viola Desmond, a Black Canadian woman, while we take down statutes of once-admired leaders. We were determined to find our own Rosa Parks to deepen our shame as racists and ask for forgiveness; that’s what our times demanded. And Ms. Desmond was a perfect substitute in our political environment. Ontario’s Liberal Party now wants to change the national anthem from “Our home and native land” to “Our home on native land” to deepen our national guilt further.

Canadians once shared an identity that defined what it meant to be Canadian. If you’re over 50, you might recall your high school years when Charles Dickens and Mordecai Richler were mainstays in literature classes and the name Samuel de Champlain was familiar to every student before leaving elementary school. The sense of being part of a larger community these writers instilled has disappeared as we retreat into our ethnic and cultural silos and, with it, a sense of being Canadian.

These thoughts came to mind while reading the recent book The Crisis of Culture: Identity Politics and the Empire of Norms by French sociologist Olivier Roy, translated by Cynthia Schoch and Trista Selous.

The author argues that we aren’t simply seeing the replacement or change of our culture with another but the slow dismantling of our culture and history.

Past generations are no longer understood in their historical context but must be judged by today’s standards and mores. Bach’s compositions are nothing more than a particular taste, no better or worse than country music or hip-hop. This is what the author means when he writes that local cultures are in crisis caused by the effects of globalization. All high culture has been brought low, and the low has been raised, a phenomenon of cultural flattening.

We in the West now inhabit a peculiar world where we no longer feel at ease in our own land, where standard codes and norms are in flux. How did we reach a point where our shared culture began to shift beneath our feet? Professor Roy offers four explanations: the “individualist and hedonist” 1968 revolution that spread from street rebellions in Paris, the influence of neoliberal financial globalization, the transformative power of the internet, and the dismantling of global borders after the end of the Cold War, a process Roy terms “deterritorialization.”

Perhaps the greatest damage in this new world of deculturation is that history is an obstacle to progressive ideas where Churchill and Voltaire are assessed by the ruthless standards of our own time. As one reviewer of Roy’s book noted, “The young act like the last generation, judges on the secularised version of Judgement Day.”

We no longer have what we thought were culture wars; we now have a “war of values.” We have moved to what he calls “aggressive normativity,” where we are all expected to know how to behave in all social circumstances. We must perpetually be aware of whether we are giving or receiving offence, which jokes to laugh at and which ones to avoid. We are surrounded by a world of microaggressions where we are expected to make fine, granular distinctions about whether we are the solution or the problem.

Once we worried about the clash of civilizations, now we have a clash of cultures within Western countries exaggerated and amplified by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. Throw in a highly polarized media that appeals to subcultural groups, and the political divisions in society are further broken down and aggravated. Even English has collapsed as it spreads worldwide into what Roy calls “Globish,” now incomprehensible to English-speaking countries. A preference for personal fulfillment replaces reason and freedom. In this new world, culture doesn’t just change; it disappears.

Roy makes an essential point that governments do not drive new laws in this political environment but reflect changes in civil society. As he states, “the law is asked to enshrine classifications chosen by individuals” where one’s suffering is absolute even if it is in their minds.” And when culture disappears, so do facts and history. On the Right, Trump insists the 2020 election was stolen; on the Left, Whoopie Goldberg says the Holocaust wasn’t about race because it was only a conflict between “two groups of whites.”

Much of The Crisis of Culture was anticipated by Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987. In it, Bloom blames our universities for failing our students by allowing them to live in a world without a moral basis for their beliefs and in a world of relativist confusion. Even Canada’s Charles Taylor reminds us that genuine authenticity can never be separated from the community and the past.

Just as being a person is impossible without memory, every society derives its identity and character from its location and time. The Crisis of Culture reminds us that culture is history that gives society meaning and character. Lose that, and nothing much remains.