Monday, March 6, 2017

What Became of American Liberalism?

American liberalism is no longer very liberal. It does not promote basic freedoms, like the freedom to lecture on a college campus. And it does not, Shelby Steele explains, have an economic agenda that might help America’s less fortunate to improve their lives. It has, in Steele's words, exhausted itself. It has no agenda beyond moral posturing.

American liberalism has become infested with what is now called virtue signaling. People join the cause because it appears to offer them a moral identity, moral legitimacy. Steel argues that they really want to shield themselves from the shame of being labeled a bigot.

One likes to think that Steele is right to say that this brand of illiberal liberalism has exhausted itself, that it is a shell of its former glory. It was sufficiently powerful to con people into voting for Barack Obama, but could not elect Hillary Clinton.

One reason, Steele suggests. is that today’s so-called liberals do not respect themselves. It’s the price of virtue signaling. They believe that they are so virtuous and that their cause is so just and their enemies so evil that they can do anything they want to advance it. Living in a cosmic narrative, a battle between absolute good and absolute evil... anything goes.

Steele compares the recent political protest against the Trump presidency to the early civil rights protests. He emphasizes the fact that those who marched in the 1950s and 1960s respected themselves.

In his words:

Unlike the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, when protesters wore their Sunday best and carried themselves with heroic dignity, today’s liberal marches are marked by incoherence and downright lunacy—hats designed to evoke sexual organs, poems that scream in anger yet have no point to make, and an hysterical anti-Americanism.

Sad to say it, but wearing a pussy hat is not a sign of self-respect. Resorting to acts of violence against bearers of unpopular ideas does not bespeak true liberalism.

The Vietnam War ushered in an era of American guilt. The guilt covered up the shame of a failed war. I made this version of the argument myself over two decades ago in my book, Saving Face: America and the Politics of Shame.

It took time for the failure of Vietnam to coalesce around white guilt. Of course, liberals wanted to blame white males, especially white conservative males. The military was a male institution and it was largely, even in the time of Vietnam, a white institution.

Since the policy had been initiated by John Kennedy and had been pursued by Kennedy’s vice president and his cabinet, it was necessary to shift the blame on to anyone but the elite guardian class called the best and the brightest. The dirty secret about Vietnam is that it was initiated and conducted by liberals. The Kennedy-Johnson administration escalated it. The Nixon administration de-escalated it. Most left-thinking young people at the time did everything in their power to avoid the fight.

Liberalism offered a new moral identity. To many it seemed preferable to identifying as an American. Why identify with the losing team when you can join those who occupy the moral high ground. Why identify with a losing fight when you can engage in a new fight for America’s hearts and minds.

In Steele’s words:

This liberalism came into being not as an ideology but as an identity. It offered Americans moral esteem against the specter of American shame. This made for a liberalism devoted to the idea of American shamefulness. Without an ugly America to loathe, there is no automatic esteem to receive. Thus liberalism’s unrelenting current of anti-Americanism.

Rather than fight a foreign war against a real enemy, American liberals chose to fight a domestic war against prejudice. They were saying that they were too good and too virtuous to fight a war. They were: “too proud to fight.” They did not win any territory, but they did occupy the moral high ground. They insisted that their moral authority was more valid than the political or military or business authority of those who were in the real world building and producing.

Steele notes well that with guilt brings along a narrative. We are, as I have often noted, still living within this narrative:

America, since the ’60s, has lived through what might be called an age of white guilt. We may still be in this age, but the Trump election suggests an exhaustion with the idea of white guilt, and with the drama of culpability, innocence and correctness in which it mires us.

Guilt for having transgressed followed by penance leads to more sins. We become mired in the narrative because it does not show us any way out.

America was not merely stigmatized as racist. People accepted the guilt of racism because it was better than thinking of themselves as losers, as having lost a war to the Vietcong and the Vietminh. They could proclaim their moral authority to be a higher authority, one that shows the way to Heaven and thus can be used to produce the Heavenly City on earth:

When America became stigmatized in the ’60s as racist, sexist and militaristic, it wanted moral authority above all else. Subsequently the American left reconstituted itself as the keeper of America’s moral legitimacy. 

The effort to reconstitute the nation as a kingdom of justice—following the template laid down by a John Rawls— evaded all of the real problems that minority communities face. Remove all of the world’s bigotry and you can engage in endless moral preening, but you have still not created any wealth or any new jobs.

Steele explains:

Bigotry exists, but it is far down on the list of problems that minorities now face. I grew up black in segregated America, where it was hard to find an open door. It’s harder now for young blacks to find a closed one.

The lives of minority Americans are being sacrificed to the gods of multiculturalism. Liberalism has failed its constituency because it does not have an agenda for economic and social progress. Strike out against bigotry... is not an agenda.

In Steele’s words:

 But American liberalism never acknowledged that it was about white esteem rather than minority accomplishment. Four thousand shootings in Chicago last year, and the mayor announces that his will be a sanctuary city. This is moral esteem over reality; the self-congratulation of idealism. 

Out-of-control crime in a sanctuary city—it produces self-congratulatory moral posturing but does nothing for minority lives.


Sam L. said...

"The dirty secret about Vietnam is that it was initiated and conducted by liberals. The Kennedy-Johnson administration escalated it. The Nixon administration de-escalated it. Most left-thinking young people at the time did everything in their power to avoid the fight." Then the Democrats in Congress shut down the support to South VN so that North VN Army could overwhelm the South VN Army.

Liberals ruined that label, so they renamed themselves Progressives. For me, Progressive signifies Cancer. And they are a cancer in the body politic.

Ares Olympus said...

It is always pleasurable to point out the hypocrisy of others, and it distract from the excesses of your own home team. So here we are on the illiberal left, while probably not many lefties are reading the WSJ or this blog, but you never know. Noam Chomsky did suggest the WSJ is a good source of facts, even if its also full of opinion analysis like this one.

So problem of course is no one wants to listen to the moral lecturing of rivals on what your problems are. So we clearly need disloyal members of the home team to defect at least to the middle, to see what bridges exist to sanity and reason.

So Jonathan Haidt, a once standard Liberal, and still liberal in sympathy, has tried to do his best to identify the illiberal left in hopes that the movement can correct itself. I don't know how many liberals are listening, but probably most old-time liberals are still living in their 1960s glory days and can't quite wrap their heads about what's going on in the campuses of late.

And Canadian Psych professor Jordan Peterson is doing his part, trying to call out the illiberal left, including this presention posted on Peterson's Youtube by Dr. Norman Doidge on "Freedom of speech or Political Correctness" from January 22, 2017

And it does seem that there are psychological issues going on, and that need the attentino of psychologists, and of course psychologist who are not trapped within a "Social justice" ideology that attempts to divide the world between winners and losers, and defines winners as only oppressors and losers as only the oppressed.

I remember when the OWS movement in 2011 was going on with local protests in Minneapolis, and one old-timer tried to come in and join the moment and tried to teach nonviolent techniques of the olden days, and probably even did suggest that "protesters wear their Sunday best" rather than the tattoo and piercing-infestation that inhabit many of the modern counter-culture young. OH, right, I forgot it was the MLK crowd that tried for the "sunday best" approach in the early 60s while it was the longhaired hippy counter culture that followed in the later 60s and 70s, so I guess youthful rebellion is always more about "virtue or vice signalling" than not.

And my 60-something friend didn't get very far with his Occupy workshops. The youth were too interested in self-righteous rebellion and imagining themselves feeding the world for free as the way the world ought to work. Myself, I did take a bowl of good soup, and dropped $20 in their donation box. My friend was also concerned that someone with some accounting skills was dealing with the funds raised and to make sure no one was helping themselves to the pot to buy some pot, or whatever. I think there was some progress there, but overall rebellious youth are simply too trusting of other rebels. And the police tried to help clarify their naivity by dumping drug users on the street by the protests. And I heard in NYC they also had problem of lawlessness, sexual assaults, so that seemed appropriate for young people to learn what happens when you judge sorry looking people as trustworthy.

I don't see any sign that liberalism is failing, even if the Democrats as the party of the successful boomer shifting into retirement seems doomed. An strangely Trump's own populism contains his own strains of it, and originally Democrats and Republicans were not ideologically pure, and in fact they reversed in the 1960s, thanks to President Johnson, so the Democrats may fail on different grounds than liberalism.

Its hard to guess where things are going or what team anyone should be on. Maybe that's good? Maybe that's how we find out way back home?

sestamibi said...

Liberalism may or may not be failing, but it is clear that white liberals are becoming extinct because of their failure to mate and breed. What the future holds is a politics that will become much more ugly and much more racially-based: "liberal" = non-white, "conservative" = white. As quoted, Shelby Steele correctly identifies an "exhaustion with the idea of white guilt", hence, WI, MI, PA, OH, and even NC and FL. Hence Bernie Sanders' press aide Symone Sanders (obviously no relation) asserting that there's no room for white leadership in the Democratic party and a chairman race between black and Hispanic men. Hence the Democrats' efforts to disown their past, including, but not limited to abandoning Jefferson-Jackson Day fundraising dinners (the former being the founder of the damn thing, for God's sake!), trashing of their presidents Wilson and even the sainted FDR for racism (correctly in my opinion), and replacement of Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman (who was by all accounts a Republican).

Walt said...

Seems to me that over the course of time, Liberalism turned on itself like a Mobius strip and became its opposite. It's also my recollection that while the Dems started the Vietnam War and Johnson paid a price, that it wasn't till Nixon that the war started getting really bad press (which may or may not reflect on the nature of the press).It may, though, be an oversimplification to say that Nixon de-escalated it; rather (again my recollection ) he escalated it for a time as a strategy aimed at a quicker end and it was that escalation--the page one shots of the napalmed children--that brought down the house. As for the rest, I can hope, but not swear, that the thuggery now parading as Progressivism gets burned in its own furious fire.

n.n said...

Liberalism is a divergent ideology that with progress (i.e. monotonic change) realizes a dysfunctional convergence.

That said, principles matter.

n.n said...

The establishment of the Pro-Choice Church characterized by a selective, opportunistic, and unprincipled quasi-religious/moral philosophy was a first-order cause of catastrophic anthropogenic ideological change. Reform, really. Positive progress.

Dennis said...

Liberalism started on the path to Progressivism when it tried to redefine Liberalism. Academe in its desire to be the mainstream of political thought moved all definitions to the right so if you were a Liberal you became a neocon. Nothing about your ideas changed, but now how you were now defined had changed. It is why we have the irony of true fascists, et al calling others fascists, et al. When academe constantly redefines the meanings of words to meet their political wants and needs then confusion is bound to be rampant. I suspect that is why many protesters eschew any form of dialogue because down deep they have that "feeling" that they are not on solid ground as it pertains to ideas and free speech. Much better to shout down that to risk learning that one is wrong.
An interesting experiment that did not turn out the way Leftists thought was going to happen. Seems like that gender meme did not hold up well.
Just finding out that money does NOT buy elections, Hillary, has to be disconcerting and now ideas about gender are not what they appear. It is tough to be a thinking liberal/Leftist these days.