I voted for a leader I could be proud of, and it felt good.
I voted for a leader I could be proud of, and it felt good.
As millions of Americans escape home quarantine to the great outdoors this summer, they’ll venture into parks, campgrounds and forest lands that remain stubborn bastions of self-segregation.@devindwyer reports. https://t.co/Xzmouf4bwM pic.twitter.com/e8PckJcVqn
— ABC News Live (@ABCNewsLive) July 1, 2020
I don’t have any special prophetic powers, but I would suggest taking note of that term, “self-segregation.” It may sound like a weaponized strain of parody that escaped from a lab, but as the demand for racism continues to dramatically exceed the supply, I’d be willing to bet that we’ll soon be hearing a lot more of it in earnest. Anyway, I sure don’t want to be a racist hiker, so it sounds to me like the logical conclusion here is to round up some blacks, Hispanics and Asians, load them up with camping supplies, and march them off into the wilderness to decolonize the outdoors. Sorry, what? Well, no. Why would I ask them if they want to do it? Who cares what individuals want to do? The point is to make the demographics fit on this Procrustean bed of ours. Numbers! Numbers are what we care about, not subjective experience!
Speaking of which:
The great Thomas Sowell, whose books should be on every intelligent adult’s bedside table, just celebrated his 90th birthday on June 30th. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, and you’d like to hop on the bandwagon while he’s still around, and if you had to pick one book relevant to our current topic, I’d recommend Discrimination and Disparities, in which he labors heroically to dispel precisely this fallacy, that all disparities in outcome are the result of malicious discrimination. That thread, if tugged upon, really does unravel the whole progressive ball of yarn. We’ve all heard conservatives claim to be in favor of equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. Progressives see this as a strawman, claiming that, if anything, they’re in favor of true equality of opportunity, which can’t exist as long as privilege, systemic discrimination, etc. exist. In practice, this amounts to being in favor of equality of outcome, because anything less is assumed to be illegitimate. Individual black people may claim to simply not be interested in hiking through national parks, but what if they’re only saying that because they’ve been imperfectly shaped by their history, both personal and collective? What would they choose if we could redo the past?
Is it fate?
Or is it just a cold heart?
Did I win the race?
Or was it just a false start?
— The Obsessed, “Touch of Everything“
Many of us can recall discussions of free will in philosophy class. We probably all discussed the possibility of what it means to “choose” under coercion. If a criminal holds a gun to your head and commands you to do something appalling and/or illegal in order to save your life, is it truly a choice? Can you reasonably be faulted or blamed for not choosing death?
For progressives, history is that gun held to our heads. The circumstances into which we were born, the limitations placed upon us by genetics and upbringing, the imperfect choices we make with limited information throughout our lives — all of these infringements upon our ability to truly, freely choose from all possible options are seen as coercion. Like all virtues, liberalism can be taken too far and turned into a vice. It’s not enough to remove as many overt obstacles as possible in order to allow individuals as many options as possible; we have to imagine what the world would look like had none of those obstacles ever existed, and then work to realize that utopian vision here and now. Until all past injustices have been negated through enlightened policies, no one can ever be truly said to be free to choose. Had transatlantic slavery never existed, then…black Americans would constitute 13% of outdoors enthusiasts, in keeping with their proportion of the general population. Something like that. I know, I know, there are so many fallacious assumptions and counterfactual fantasies at work here that it doesn’t even bear taking seriously. Crudden’s one tweet could spawn a thousand questions attempting in vain to clarify all its implications. But while you may not be interested in philosophical incoherence, this virulent strain of philosophical incoherence is very interested in you and the many ways you’re oppressing people simply by existing.
Speaking of Jordan Peterson, as Ms. “Hard Scientist” was earlier, he wondered about an interesting question some time ago: What is the limiting principle of the left? We all have a clear idea of what it looks like when the far-right goes too far, but why have their mirror images on the left failed to equally serve as cautionary tales? Why isn’t it a cliché on the right to say that “real fascism has never been tried,” the way it is among apologists for communism? With the events of the past month fresh in my mind, my provisional answer to his question would be “disaster.” Disaster is the limiting principle of the left. Nothing else ever stops them from pushing in the direction of what they imagine to be “progress.” No matter how many times their ideas lead to the same predictable blood-soaked cul-de-sacs, they will only rest, regroup, and try again. The best we can hope for is that most of those ideas die before reaching adulthood. I fear that “disparities=discrimination” has already become an obnoxious adolescent, though.
But it was the regulation of conduct, more than the content of the regulative beliefs, that mainly concerned Jefferson, as his sentence about one God or twenty gods makes clear. And we, the beneficiaries of his thinking, are free to sustain his belief as we choose, in keeping with the best plan we can devise for the coexistence of the two goods mentioned in these sentences: the survival of our liberties and the survival of our morals. There is only a natural difficulty, rather than a logical awkwardness, in trying to combine these goods. There would be the same difficulty whether we chose a religious or a secular principle of combination. Indeed, it is perhaps merely an instinct, or an instinct informed by a reading of history, that finally decides one’s choice of one principle or the other. Like most paternalists, [George] Will has an instinct (which looks to me like superstition) that tells him morals cannot survive without the prop of religious faith. Like most individualists, I have an instinct (which looks to Will like the blindness of enlightenment) that tells me morals can in fact survive without such support.
…[William] Bennett went on to characterize the adversarial culture in a manner that more prudent conservatives have avoided since the anti-Semitic campaigns of Europe in the 1930s. He compared its agents to a kind of virus: “Most Americans, of course reject the perverted culture of our adversaries…. Our common culture serves as a kind of immunological system, destroying the values and attitudes promulgated by our adversaries before they can infect our body politic.” Burke was at once less dramatic and more cogent when he conceived of this power of resistance as inertia. The very presence of habits and a way of thinking and feeling to which people have accustomed themselves, explains, far better than immunology does, the ability to survive which their culture may exhibit even in the absence of their knowledge of reasons why it should survive.
…It remains a commonplace view now, as it was two centuries ago, that secularization cannot be had without demoralization. The anti-Enlightenment argument against America has always begun here. It says that we had better act as if we believed religion’s claims even if that forces us to do some fancy bookkeeping. But the reply of our native tradition remains what it always was. It grants that the state Jefferson and Washington founded is hard to live with now as it was from the first. But the role of an intellectual may sometimes be to challenge the common view of things. As Jefferson and Washington believed, America’s unique mission in the world was also to challenge the common view, by showing that a moral life could be established without metaphysical tests or sanctions. A conservative plea may now perhaps be allowed after so many words in reply to those who take the name of conservatives. Our constitutional and secular state, and the individualist culture that has reflected many of its complex qualities, are doubtless not the best we can envision, but they are what we have to begin with and they are worth defending today.
— David Bromwich, Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking
Casting the bell of culture. Culture came into being like a bell inside a mold of cruder, more common material, a mold of untruth, violence, an unbounded aggrandizement of all distinct egos, and all distinct peoples. Is it now time to remove this mold? Has the fluid solidified? Have the good, useful drives, the habits of nobler hearts, become so sure and universal that there is no longer any need to depend on metaphysics and the errors of religion, on harsh and violent acts, as the most powerful bond between man and man, people and people?
No sign from a god can help us any longer to answer this question: our own insight must decide. The earthly government of man as a whole must be taken into man’s own hands; his “omniscience” must watch with a sharp eye over the future fate of culture.
— Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human
Virtuous liberty — ordered liberty — is the only kind of liberty for which the American republic was designed. And it cannot be sustained without religious belief. Unlike in France, this was the settled conviction of the founding generation. More than that, it was a doctrine considered axiomatic for political and civic life. “Every just principle that is to be found in the writings of Voltaire,” concluded Benjamin Rush, “is borrowed from the Bible.” Nevertheless, many ignore our debt to biblical religion. The result is liberty without wisdom, the path of folly and madness. Many Americans, indeed, are discarding the duties and the blessings of revealed religion for the empty promises of a counterfeit and degraded freedom.
…What path will we take? Perhaps the welfare of the City of Man really does depend, after all, on our belief in the City of God. Perhaps no political society can survive for long when it excludes those spiritual truths that alone can judge, inspire, and transform our earthly politics. Maybe, more than anything, we need a recovery of faith in what C. S. Lewis called the “far-off country,” a renewed quest for the virtues and ideals of that bright Kingdom that lies beyond the Sea. “Because we love something else more than this world,” Lewis wrote, “we love even this world better than those who know no other.”
And yet, and yet. The fact remains that increasing numbers of people simply don’t believe in the literal truth of Christianity. Their pursuit of truth has led them to the conclusion that the Christian story is not true, however useful it may be. What is to be done about that? Countless essays like this one never attempt an answer. They simply reassert that it sure would be good if they did believe. Can people be compelled to believe for the greater good? Is it good enough to make an outward show of faking piety? I dare say that I’m indistinguishable in my behavior from my Christian friends and neighbors, so what does that signify? That unbelief is not quite the slippery slope to the French Revolution as those like Loconte would have us believe? Or that social norms aren’t nearly as dependent on intellectual axioms as intellectuals would have us believe? Perhaps traditional behaviors endure long after the rationales have become outdated and forgotten. Perhaps there is some middle ground between devout Christianity and bloodthirsty paganism. Perhaps many of us are simply getting on with it, making sense of things as best we can, like people have always done and always will do.
“Consistency” is often an admirable quality because it means you have principles, but consistency doesn’t tell us anything about the ethics or efficacy of the principles you hold. People who spend 55 years rigidly clinging to the same set of ideas they held in their early 20s are often people unwilling to incorporate facts, empirical evidence, and historical lessons into their puerile, utopian thinking.
Regarding Bernie Sanders fans who are appalled at Joe Rogan’s endorsement of him, I agree with David French that they’re fated to be disappointed anyway, so they might as well continue acting like spoiled indie music snobs outraged about their favorite band contaminating their purity by signing for a major label. But regarding the larger point, why do we expect politicians to be paragons of virtue and integrity anyway? When, say, Marco Rubio starts making noises about “common-good capitalism” — which I agree sounds half-baked — why do so many people go flying past disagreement straight to outrage? Where does this sense of betrayal come from? Why don’t we see politics more like a business transaction, where the businessman responds to feedback from the marketplace and tailors his product and marketing accordingly? To the extent that I think about national political figures at all, I don’t want an inspirational figure to believe in, one who will lead me to the promised land; I want one I can do business with. Obviously, the metaphor will only stretch so far. Obviously, even “doing business” with someone requires a certain amount of trust that they won’t be a radically different person tomorrow in response to the latest polls. Surely there’s plenty of middle ground between “paladins” and “thieves, liars, hypocrites and bastards.”But to return to French’s point above, I do think people are expecting far too much from politics and politicians, and it probably doesn’t bode well for the health of the republic.
Marlowe and Raleigh alike were mockers. Or to put it more kindly: they were gadflies, jesting about matters that were too serious for jest, playing with different and contradictory unorthodoxies without committing themselves to any of them, consistent only in their refusal to bow to authority.
— Alec Ryrie, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt
Ryrie’s subject is the emotional, as opposed to intellectual, history of how people in the West came to doubt the Christian narrative. I found the book enthralling, and I recommend it to anyone interested. But this passage actually turned my thoughts toward contemporary politics and my own coming-of-age.
Claire Berlinski wrote a bit in a recent installment of her newsletter about Manufacturing Consent, the famous book by Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman. Now, I was born in the early 1970s. I was in high school when the Berlin Wall came down. My twenties began concurrently with Bill Clinton’s presidency. To the extent that I had a political identity, I largely thought of myself as a non-denominational leftie, especially as defined against the bigoted, religious cultural conservatives of my youth, the kind who wanted to sticker cassettes and CDs with parental warning labels and keep those poor kids in Footloose from dancing at their prom. (The Great Awokening of this decade forced me to reconsider a lot of complacent assumptions.)
What really struck me in reading Claire’s post was how much of my lukewarm-leftism, like that of many of my peers, was basically Chomskian in its framework. Anti-anti-Communist, I suppose you could call it; relentlessly critical of existing realities while being evasive about offering workable alternatives; a comfortable, idealistic posture that reeks of (dare I utter the overused term), privilege. For many of us naïfs, Chomsky seemed to represent an intoxicating intellectual ideal — his moral credibility seemed unimpeachable, his knowledge seemed encyclopedic, and his ability to connect disparate dots seemed unparalleled. (Yes, I know; that’s why I say “seemed.”) He seemed to sit above all partisan bias, observing empirical facts, dispensing moralistic judgments. As adolescent Chomskians, we felt secure that in attacking the compromises and sellouts of political life, we were just being like sculptors, chipping away the unnecessary parts to reveal the idealistic essence within. If we weren’t actually optimistic that the best was ever achievable, we were at least smugly secure that the worst was somehow unlikely. It might not have been the End of History after all, but it was at least a Historical Fermata.
Chomsky, though, seemed a little too serious sometimes. He never seemed to lighten up; he couldn’t watch a basketball game without seeing a modern-day fascist rally lurking underneath. Can’t we enjoy the end of the Cold War and the dawn of the online age? We needed some gadflies with a sense of humor and pop-culture approachability, some mockers to whom we could relate. Luckily, we had comedians like Bill Hicks, George Carlin, and Jon Stewart. Moral superiority with cutting zingers and naughty language? How could we resist? We didn’t have to do much of anything besides taunt the booboisie. We just had to be clever and observant and to crack wise as the parade of fools marched by in public life. It seems only fitting that one of Stewart’s final acts as a jester was to gleefully welcome Trump’s candidacy as a “gift from heaven,” oblivious to what a Trojan Horse it was.
It appears obvious in hindsight that such a respite from responsibility could only be temporary. History’s currents started flowing again. The reality of post-partisan politics and online connectedness has left most observers muttering, “The horror! The horror!” Currently, it’s fashionable for many theoretically-inclined right-wingers (and timid liberals) to lament how capitalism/liberalism was always destined by history’s dialectic to end up producing a society of atomized, isolated individuals wasting away in their loneliness and decadence. Like most fashionable theories, this one is mostly dreck, soon to appear embarrassingly outdated. Millions of years of evolution as a social species is not going to be undone by several decades of affluence and technological trends. We’ve already seen the “atomization” that was going to occur, and it was more cerebral than anything: clever individuals playing with heterodoxies without committing to any of them, consistent only in their refusal to bow to authority. Faced with the competing idiocies of the woke left and the nationalist right, I didn’t have any trouble putting away the childish snark of my gadfly youth. I suspect many more of my peers feel the same.
The good news is that when we listen to voices as diverse as Rich, Putnum, Obama, Trump, Carlson, Brooks, the other Brooks, and almost every lawmaker and commentator in American life, they all recognize the same problems in society and all want to figure out some way to make Americans feel more connected to each other; to feel like we have a strong support network around us to help us get through life’s rougher moments. If there’s consensus over the problem, then just maybe someday we could have a consensus over the solutions.
He’s speaking of the fact that increasing numbers of conservative intellectuals and politicians are echoing populist themes recently, complaining of “the market’s” inability to heal us and make us whole. I, being an ornery li’l cuss, would argue that this doesn’t indicate any sort of consensus (let alone the desirability of consensus); it’s not necessarily any more significant than the fluttering of windsocks in a strong breeze. Careerist intellectuals and politicians are capable of recognizing trends and jumping on bandwagons in pursuit of power, influence, and maybe even wealth; even professional conservatives can think of no permanent thing more worthy than getting their hands on the steering wheel of state. When did we feel connected and supportive of each other in society? Pre-1960’s? Pre-20th century? Pre-agriculture? Wherever your time machine lands, there you find professional thinkers and doers lamenting the same perennial themes and flaws in human existence. Pull the blanket up to nestle under your chin and complain about your cold feet. Put on woolly socks and complain that your feet get sweaty.
My personal trainer deplores the trend of people wearing headphones in the gym. She wishes they would make eye contact with each other, and say supportive things like, “Nice set!” She’s old enough (as am I) to remember when parents and mores didn’t allow you the option of placing that audio barrier between yourself and the world; you had to be sociable, or at least be open for conversational business during normal hours. She also has a prickly side to her personality, though, as evidenced by the bitchy little asides she’ll make about other members in particular, or about people in general getting on her nerves, which seems to happen regularly. This person makes small talk about stupid things like the weather. That lady sings too loud while working out. This guy stands around too long flapping his yap in between sets, blocking the way. There’s always something petty to attract her critical notice. (Interestingly, she also seems to be a devout Christian, which raises the obvious question to an ornery li’l cuss like me: would she be even worse about it without religious exhortations to be a better person?)
In Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome illustrates this contradictory aspect of human nature by means of a hilariously ironic scene in a picturesque churchyard, where the narrator finds himself swept up in beatific thoughts about his fellow man:
It was a lovely landscape. It was idyllic, poetical, and it inspired me. I felt good and noble. I felt I didn’t want to be sinful and wicked any more. I would come and live here, and never do any more wrong, and lead a blameless, beautiful life, and have silver hair when I got old, and all that sort of thing. In that moment I forgave all my friends and relations for their wickedness and cussedness, and I blessed them. They did not know that I blessed them. They went their abandoned way all unconscious of what I, far away in that peaceful village, was doing for them; but I did it, and I wished that I could let them know that I had done it, because I wanted to make them happy.
His reverie is broken, however, by the appearance of the old groundskeeper, who thinks that he wants to be let in to see the tombs. Naturally, he heaps abuse upon the old man for disturbing him, the first individual he’s encountered after embracing humanity in the aggregate. “Go away, and don’t disturb me. I am chock full of beautiful and noble thoughts, and I want to stop like it, because it feels nice and good. Don’t you come fooling about, making me mad, chivying away all my better feelings with this silly tombstone nonsense of yours. Go away, and get somebody to bury you cheap, and I’ll pay half the expense.” Ivan Karamazov, with the bitter self-awareness that J. lacks, noted the same discrepancy. One might love those at a distance, in the abstract, but one’s neighbors? How can we seriously love our neighbor, who has a stupid face, who once stepped on my foot, who voted for Trump, who talks too much and sings too loud and…
Our beautiful and noble thoughts make us feel nice and good. It’s pleasant to fantasize about life in a society without dead-end jobs, or opioid addiction, or declining church attendance, or whatever other trendy signifier the sociology-minded are prattling on about today. Who knows, maybe they will weave a blanket policy to cover our sense of disconnected anomie. But then we’ll start complaining that our desire for novelty is left cold and remember just why it was that we didn’t want to have anything to do with our neighbors and their stupid faces and their suffocating, woolly embrace in the first place. “Only connect,” said E.M. Forster, quoted by countless undergrads online looking to capture the spirit of our time. And yet, Forster didn’t mean the phrase the way it’s commonly interpreted in the age of social media. It turns out that the type of “connection” he had in mind, being in touch with our hidden erotic desires, is the sort of thing we’re actually lamenting these days, a symptom of our atomistic malaise. Even the hyper-individualism being attacked by Catholic integralist culture warriors might have its roots in…guess where? The dividing line is not between parties, or states, or individuals vs. communities, but right through every human heart, indeed.
Count de Monet: It is said that the people are revolting.
King Louis XVI: You said it! They stink on ice!
This sentiment is more than just petty contrarianism. Apply it in the real world, and it becomes clear that contempt for cancel culture is little more than contempt for democracy.
After all, what is derided as “cancel culture” is nothing more than a large group of people choosing who and what they want to watch, read and listen to. Though “canceling” on its own suggests the work of the anonymous censor or autocratic TV exec, “cancel culture” reflects the opposite: the public and democratic engagement of ordinary people.
By the standards of sophistry, this is on the same low level as “political correctness just means being considerate and polite,” which is to say, hardly worth the strain of an eye-roll. But anyway, since we’re on the subject, ancient Athens used to practice a form of cancel culture. They called it ostracism. Many people might be familiar with Plutarch’s story of Aristides, who was approached by an illiterate voter looking to cast his vote for a candidate for ostracism and asked to write down the name…Aristides. Uh, what harm has Aristides done to you? he asked, understandably. None at all, replied the man of the people. I don’t even know him. I’m just sick of people always calling him “Aristides the Just.” Twenty-five hundred years later, and people’s careers and personal lives are ruined on social media for equally facile, spiteful reasons.
Safe to say Plutarch and Aristides were wiser men with a keener understanding of the nasty tendencies of human character than Mr. Freedman. And while I don’t want to be here all day naming other examples of men with more brains and psychological insight than some smug junior-varsity Jacobin writing opinion pieces in the Washington Post, John Adams deserves a mention. He also held ostracism in contempt. “History nowhere furnishes so frank a confession of the people themselves, of their own infirmities and unfitness for managing the executive branch of government, or an unbalanced share of the legislature, as this institution.” He wasn’t too enamored of “the public and democratic engagement of ordinary people” either:
In your fifth page You Say “Mr. Adams calls our Attention to hundreds of wise and virtuous Patricians, mangled and bleeding Victims of popular Fury.” and gravely counts up several Victims of democratic Rage as proofs that Democracy is more pernicious than Monarchy or Aristocracy.” Is this fair, sir? Do you deny any one of my Facts? I do not say that Democracy has been more pernicious, on the whole, and in the long run, than Monarchy or Aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as Aristocracy or Monarchy. But while it lasts it is more bloody than either.
…You Say I “might have exhibited millions of Plebians, sacrificed to the pride Folly and Ambition of Monarchy and Aristocracy.” This is very true. And I might hav[e] exhibited as many millions of Plebians sacrificed by the Pride Folly and Ambition of their fellow Plebians and their own, in proportion to the extent and duration of their power. Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to Say that Democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious or less avaricious than Aristocracy or Monarchy. It is not true in Fact and no where appears in history. Those Passions are the same in all Men under all forms of Simple Government, and when unchecked, produce the same Effects of Fraud Violence and Cruelty. When clear Prospects are opened before Vanity, Pride, Avarice or Ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate Phylosophers and the most conscientious Moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves, Nations and large Bodies of Men, never.
Freedman makes it sound like a simple, rational process. Nothing but friendly persuasion and free choice involved, right? But as Adams would instantly recognize were he around today, the easy gratification of vanity, pride, avarice and ambition play a dominant role in determining who gets canceled, and the mob’s appetite is insatiable. Contempt for democracy? Damn straight. Have you ever met the demos? Wherever two or three people gather in its name, stupidity and mischief will be there with them.
During the dozen or so years in which I knew and talked with Oakeshott he rarely mentioned “the founder of modern conservatism” and never with approval. He disliked Burke’s Whiggish faith in progress and much preferred the cool scepticism of David Hume. But Oakeshott’s idea of tradition has many of the difficulties of Burke’s defence of what he described as “just prejudice”. Both of them preferred the tacit knowledge embodied in practices to the abstractions of rationalist intellectuals. They passed over the fact that tacit knowledge often consists of fossilised remnants of fashionable ideas.
The experience of the French arch-reactionary Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) may be worth recalling. At the start of the 19th century he was sent to Russia as a diplomat. An ardent opponent of the philosophes of the Enlightenment, he hoped to visit a country that had not been “scribbled on” by intellectuals. What he found was aristocratic elites babbling about Voltaire and Diderot. Then as now, there was no traditional wisdom to which a conservative could default.
Ennoblement through degeneration. History teaches us that that part of a people maintains itself best whose members generally share a vital public spirit, due to the similarity of their long-standing, incontrovertible principles, that is, of their common faith. In their case, good, sound custom strengthens them; they are taught to subordinate the individual, and their character is given solidity, at first innately and later through education. The danger in these strong communities, founded on similar, steadfast individual members, is an increasing, inherited stupidity, which follows all stability like a shadow. In such communities, spiritual progress depends on those individuals who are less bound, much less certain, and morally weaker; they are men who try new things, and many different things. Because of their weakness, countless such men are destroyed without having much visible effect; but in general, especially if they have descendants, they loosen things up, and, from time to time, deliver a wound to the stable element of a community. Precisely at this wounded, weakened place, the common body is inoculated, so to speak, with something new; however, the community’s overall strength has to be great enough to take this new thing into its bloodstream and assimilate it. Wherever progress is to ensue, deviating natures are of greatest importance. Every progress of the whole must be preceded by a partial weakening. The strongest natures retain the type, the weaker ones help to advance it.
— Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human
It is possible to envision a stoical and realist liberalism that would accept that freedom and toleration must survive in a hostile or indifferent world. Liberalism would be recognised to be a particular form of life, like the others that humans have fashioned and then destroyed, but still worth defending as a civilised way in which humans can live together.
In practice a stance of this kind is hardly possible. Liberals cannot do without the faith that they form the vanguard of an advancing way of life. The appeal of John Stuart Mill is that he allows them to preserve this self-image, while the liberal world continues to evaporate around them.
— John Gray, “Deluded Liberals Can’t Keep Clinging to a Dead Idea”
No wise liberal has ever thought that liberalism is all of wisdom. The reason liberals like laws is because they give us more time for everything in life that isn’t law-like. When we aren’t fighting every minute for minimal rights, or reasserting our territory, or worrying about the next clan’s claims, we can look at the stars and taste new cheeses and make love, sometimes with the wrong person. The special virtue of freedom is not that it makes you richer and more powerful but that it gives you more time to understand what it means to be alive.
…If there is any comfort in its possible extinction, it’s that the practice of telling false likenesses from true ones, good coin from bad—frequently in the company of people we can’t stand—is fundamental to living in the real world at any moment. Empathy and argument are foundational to existence. That’s why the prehistory of liberalism is mostly the history of commonplace civilization, of bazaars and agoras and trading ports—all those enforced and opportunistic acts of empathy, where you had to make bargains and share selling space and find workable commonalities with people fundamentally unlike yourself in order to live at all. That’s the work of liberalism, and even if the worst happens, as it may, it is work that won’t stop, can’t stop, because it is also the real work of being human.
— Adam Gopnik, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism