What is today called liberalism stands, domestically, on three legs: support for the welfare state, abortion, and identity politics. Obviously, this is a crude formulation. Abortion, for example, could be lumped into identity politics, as feminism is one of the creeds extolling the iron cage of identity. Or one could say that “sexual liberty” is a better term than abortion. But I don’t think that any fair-minded reader would dispute that these three categories nearly cover the vast bulk of the liberal agenda — or at least describe the core of liberal passions — today.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, in urging us to trust our own intuition, said that if we bite our tongue out of fear, then “tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.” In this case, I can console myself with the fact that I arrived at the same conclusion independently — I would indeed argue that “sexual liberation” is probably a better choice to balance out the ideological tripod, especially since it suggests elements of therapeutic culture which have also become an integral part of the general left-wing worldview, where anything that “inhibits” or “represses” is assumed to be unhealthy. No, my shame, in this case, is due to the fact that I only read this book last week, and then only because I was already reading Thomas Leonard’s excellent Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era, and figured, well, if I’m going to read about the history of American progressivism, I might as well immerse myself in the topic by reading the two books back-to-back.
Plenty of copies of Goldberg’s book had passed through my hands over the years, but I never bothered to read it, largely because of the aversion I acquired through years of reading the left-wing blogosphere, where he and his book were (and still are, I’m sure) favorite objects of ridicule. I remember one blog doing a chapter-by-chapter “review” of it over a series of posts, which I emailed to several friends so we could join in the laughs. When I revisited those posts after reading the book, I was stunned by the one-sidedness and intellectual dishonesty, and ashamed of the fact that I ever allowed such partisan hacks to do my thinking for me.
The point isn’t that Goldberg produced some flawless masterpiece of scholarship. As he says early on, it’s not intended as an academic book. But his larger theme, if approached with the minimum of charity, is sensible enough. And at a time when our modern Enragés are seeing fascism lurking in every shadow and shrieking accordingly, even his moments of hyperbole seem restrained by comparison. The point is just to try to be slightly skeptical of what “everyone” seems to agree is true if you haven’t checked it out yourself; otherwise, you might end up taking the long way around to common-sense conclusions, as I have.