Magazine | December 7, 2015, Issue

Liberalism Besieged

Here’s a historical bullet that I’ll happily bite: The “miracle” of the American founding was as much about tribal affinity and aligned incentives as it was about any higher notions of liberty or republicanism.

I’m both simplifying and vulgarizing an event for which I feel an irrational amount of patriotic ardor. But I am willing to stipulate to any shrieking liberal-arts student in western Massachusetts that we got the American liberal order in part because these men considered themselves like enough to afford one another reciprocal courtesies. It was because Jefferson and Franklin and Adams were antecedently and in actuality equals that they could declare, after the fact, that all men are created equal.

I’m not saying this is actually true, and I’m not furnishing any historical evidence that it is. I’m merely saying it’s a common enough heckler’s take on the founding that I don’t mind buying it.

Picture a causal through-line from the Magna Carta and the Scottish Enlightenment to the delegates to the Second Continental Congress looking around the room at one another — white, landed, classically educated men who knew Latin or had at least forgotten it; mostly lawyers or gentlemen farmers or both; possessed of the same historic and philosophical and natural-theological references; allied and financially incentivized against a common enemy — and thinking, “Okay, I can do business with these people.”

Let me get this straight, Foster. You’re swallowing whole the idea that the United States of America has, since its birth, been one big exercise in white male privilege?

Well, if you pushed me on it, I’d point to my weaselly hedging above. But yeah, pretty much. And you know what? Good.

If freedom of speech and of worship, limited government, the rule of law, procedural equality, and liberty of contract were cooked up by pasty white gentlemen — well fed and bred, and with a social station that gave them the leisure to hold spitball salons on John Locke — then thank Providence for those pasty white gentlemen. Because for the better part of 250 years, the values that came out of the American founding have been the greatest force for virtue in the world.

A fortiori, the beige homogeneity of the architects of classical liberalism from Locke on down may well have been pivotal, not incidental, to these good deeds. It might have created a “safe space” for the philosophical jailbreak from the earthly, base power politics of Machiavelli to the lofty heights of natural rights and social contracts that applied to all rational persons, abstracted of the accidents of their births. The unbearable whiteness and maleness and wealth of the American order, then, might have created the conditions for the ultimate extension of its favor to the non-white and non-male and non-wealthy, because the professed logic of that order, self-evident truths and whatnot, could not be reconciled — not for long — with their exclusion and subjugation.

It hasn’t always been pretty. That’s why the order’s architects set their sights not on a perfect union but on a more perfect one. That’s why its caretakers had to midwife new births of freedom from time to time.

But — I’ll repeat myself — the whole experiment of Enlightenment liberalism could well be premised on there being people sufficiently free of identity-based disadvantages that they can consider political arrangements from what liberal philosophers have called “the original position,” without reference to race, station, or creed. That may have started as a veneer, a clever dodge, but it became flesh in the self-understanding of generations of liberals.

Today, as we know all too well, this order is under attack at Mizzou and Paris, from Ivy League students and “junior varsity” jihadists, from the pre-modern and the postmodern, from the past, as it were, and the future.

There is no moral equivalence between the butchers of Bataclan and the frothing adolescents of the American academy — not even the little inquisitors of Dartmouth who allegedly screamed “F*** your white tears!” at the students they accosted for the crime of deficient solidarity.

But the ideological threats they pose to the Western liberal order are equally grave. Both the pre-modern and the postmodern critiques of that order center on its moral rot, on the bloodless technocracy that has attached (but is not intrinsic) to liberal political arrangements. They share the conviction that liberal pieties are a confidence game. The pre-moderns of ISIS would replace the order with the totalitarian and puritanical rule of a priestly class. The postmoderns at Yale would do much the same, with fewer beheadings and more forced resignations.

The latter is a lot less unpleasant for those on the business end, but if you have any doubt that the students are as anti-liberal as the butchers, consider this response from a Salon writer to the suggestion by left-wing auteur David Simon that the campus protests have picked up a whiff of fascism. Tweeted said writer:

Love David Simon . . . but populist movements are often a little “fascist” (by his definition). . . . This feels like a common misunderstanding. Social democracy is not classical liberalism. It does not place the individual above all. It does not value process over outcome. It does not imagine a politics [without] raw power. It doesn’t assume rules are handed from on high.

So the world the postmoderns would give us looks a lot less charred and gory than the world the pre-moderns would. But both require the deletion of the order.

Which is more likely to succeed? My money is on the PoMos. They have the blueprints, you see. They read Foucault and Derrida, cataloguing the ways that the order’s institutional norms are harnessed, and language controlled, to manufacture power and compliance. But they don’t read it as critique. They read it as an instruction manual.

– Mr. Foster is a political consultant and a former news editor of National Review Online.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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