Sunday, June 19, 2016

Illiberal Thoughts

Among the many delectable tidbits in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the Babel fish, which is placed not in a frying pan but one’s own ear. There it modulates brain waves and consequently makes it possible for its host to comprehend any language. It thereby promotes understanding among people and peoples with dire results: “Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

Indeed. More often than not problems between people arise not because we fail to understand each other, but because we understand all too well and don’t like what we hear. Incivility in political discourse is much in the news these days – and of course especially is a fault of the other side, whatever side that may be. Rampant incivility is far from just an American issue. It is present in all the liberal democracies, but in the midst of a particularly wonky presidential election it is harder to avoid here than usual.

Politics are not really more divisive than in the past. During my teen years there were anti-war riots, a major war, race riots, political assassinations, police riots, and outright insurrectionists such as the SLA and Weatherman. (See Divided They Stand by British author David English for a very good contemporary account of the 1968 election.) Matters today are mild by comparison. Yet, there was more fraternization across lines (which often were drawn on the same dinner table) at the time and no running for safe spaces. The fraternization went beyond casual friendships. With a persistence of habit I picked up more than 40 years ago, of the five serious romantic relationships in my life not one has been with anyone who remotely agrees with my first principles or practical political views. I often affectionately addressed my companion in the ‘80s as (jokingly but accurately) My Favorite Marxist. [I’ve belonged for decades to a third party that doesn’t win major elections, I probably should mention, though I’ll leave the propagandizing (in the literal sense) for it to others.]

But while fundamental divisions may be no greater, there has been a shift in verbal tone over the decades. The supposedly fiercely reactionary utterings of Spiro Agnew (e.g. “nattering nabobs of negativism,” “Pablum for permissivists,” “pusillanimous pussyfooters”) sound quaint today. In 1970 people very well might have called their opponents insane, stupid, criminal, and treasonous, but mostly sotto voce or just within their own circle of like-minded folk. Face-to-face with opponents they were more reserved.

What has changed in the past two decades is the virtual Babel fish, otherwise known as the internet. Nowadays we broadcast defamations to everyone across social media. Two facebook political posts on my wall yesterday posed as open letters, one beginning “Dear gun nuts” and the other “Dear leftist loons.” These clearly were not intended for those they supposedly addressed. Calling anyone a nut or a loon at the outset is not a way to get that person to listen, much less change his or her mind. You don’t win over potential allies by kicking them in the face. But if a post is intended only for those who already agree, what’s the point?

I suppose the point is that such posts are emotionally satisfying to those who make them. That is legitimate in its own way. Yet it is well to remember that a political philosophy radically different from one’s own still can be rational and coherent if it starts from an alternate set of first principles regarding the nature of man (in the old-fashioned sense of the word – the nuances of gender-neutral synonyms are slightly askew). The person who holds such an alternate philosophy isn’t necessarily stupid or evil. It seems silly to have to state that, but I feel it bears stating.

Besides, most Americans do not hold views as radically different from each other as they like to imagine. A book worth reading for those interested in the state of liberal democracy and how we got here is Liberalism: The Life of an Idea by Edmund Fawcett. Fawcett uses the word “liberal” in the broad historical sense rather than in the narrow one of 21st century American common political parlance. He counts Calvin Coolidge, FDR, Pat Buchanan, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama as liberals in this sense – both free marketeer Margaret Thatcher and social democrat Willy Brandt too. They all believe(d) in individual rights including property rights and democratic institutions. (Neither an autocracy that effectively protects individual rights nor a democracy with unrestrained authority counts as liberal – you need both parts.) The differences among liberals are at the margins, which seem wide to those inside but narrow to those outside. Just what is the proper balance of rights and governance? To what extent are rights negative (“leave me alone”) and to what, if any, positive (entitlements)? As a history of an idea, the book focusses primarily on the philosophers and social scientists who molded liberal thought from the 18th century to present (e.g. Mill, Popper, Keynes, Friedman, Rawls, et al.) rather than politicians. Everyone’s personal views leak into their analyses, intentionally or otherwise, and Fawcett’s come through as being on the center-left. He doesn’t let his own position narrow his vision though; he sees the full liberal spectrum as part of the same tradition.

Fawcett doesn’t speculate on the future, but notes that the widespread smugness among liberals at the end of the Cold War (remember “the end of history”?) about the inevitable success of their ideas has dissipated. Powerful illiberal states coexist with liberal ones and it’s anybody’s guess if that ever will change or, if so, in what direction. So too is whether different shades of liberals, with their newfound understanding of their differences, can learn to stand each other.

The One on the Right Was on the Left (1967)


  1. It's hard to be the Smothers Brothers. I used to love their comedy & music and still do really. They were the hip show to see back then. Yeah, I don't know, politics? I had a friend that I worked with that majored in political science and also study Russian language, which perhaps he thought of working for the CIA at one time or something like that until he got married and had to find some kind of work to pay bills. Such is the real world. But when cornered about political issues he just about smile and shrug. I guess that's about all you can really do.

    I don't mind friends who think different politically than I do (as long as it's not overbearing), but I don't think I could ever marry or live with them. I have to hand it to James Carville and Mary Matalin.

    1. So long as there is mutual respect, the rest doesn't really matter at the personal level, and sometimes can be stimulating.

      The Smothers Brothers were a trip. They had good acts and fun regulars including George Carlin.