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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Liberalism's Tire Fire

Americans no longer hold liberalism, if ever they did, as an end in itself. Or as Lawrence says
elaborating on his piece on America's race politics, "American universities no longer defend the life of the mind or the culture, the culture of liberal arts, that is necessary to sustain the American idea." He is being generous: from at least high school, students are trained not to commit such gauche indignities as asking a foreign student about her country "lest they be sent to the 'equality police'" -- i.e., the "multicultural center." John Searle once waxed confident that a "scientists' origins or gender" could not embarrass the scientific method, but failed to anticipate their subjects' origins and gender would be put to that service. Even the rules of debate are debatable:
In the 2013 championship, two men from Emporia State University, Ryan Walsh and Elijah Smith, employed a similar style and became the first African-Americans to win two national debate tournaments. Many of their arguments, based on personal memoir and rap music, completely ignored the stated resolution, and instead asserted that the framework of collegiate debate has historically privileged straight, white, middle-class students.
The diagnosis, that equality taken as ends rather than means yields pernicious results, might have been obvious sooner. Literal equality is, of course, impossible, and so working under a false premise, the American mind could never have been made fully receptive to moral equality. Taking equality as an object rather than a trait denies us a basis to approve or disapprove each other's conduct, for only by assuming our common nature can we treat with one another. Until we stipulate to a shared, equal nature, we might as well take up conversation with a bowl of noodles. Far from embarrassing the principle of equality, different stations and outcomes show us the equality in our humanity, in the things that matter—imagine: John Lennon's six apartments, together with poor saps with no possessions, in a brotherhood of man: it really isn't hard to do. We can sooner appreciate genuine equality by sharing a meal than by sharing a bank account.

As I was saying, we might have seen our troubles coming sooner had we heeded our own wisdom. Consider Kenneth Minogue's famous passage about liberalism's superhuman doggedness:
The story of liberalism, as liberals tell it, is rather like the legend of St. George and the dragon. After many centuries of hopelessness and superstition, St. George, in the guise of Rationality, appeared in the world somewhere about the sixteenth century. The first dragons upon whom he turned his lance were those of despotic kingship and religious intolerance. These battles won, he rested for a time, until such questions as slavery, or prison conditions, or the state of the poor, began to command his attention. During the nineteenth century, his lance was never still, prodding this way and that against the inert scaliness of privilege, vested interest, or patrician insolence. But, unlike St. George, he did not know when to retire. The more he succeeded, the more he became bewitched with the thought of a world free of dragons, and the less capable he became of ever returning to private life. He needed his dragons. He could only live by fighting for causes—the people, the poor, the exploited, the colonially oppressed, the underprivileged and the underdeveloped. As an ageing warrior, he grew breathless in his pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons—for the big dragons were now harder to come by.
But conservatives—those scholars of human nature—ought to have noticed that an ideology cannot "retire." Liberalism is not St. George: it is a fire; and a fire does not retreat—it consumes or dies. The last source of fuel, the Soviet Union, supplied liberalism's economic and philosphic energies with existential purpose. But with the ascent of liberalism's hegemony arose also an academic vacuum into which rushed all manner of vaporous "theory." Into politics rushed a flood of microscopic grievances. Into the arts—those that weren't replaced by television—rushed an ever competing stream of ugliness. All these old tires were tossed onto liberalism's dying flame, filling the once sweet atmosphere with putrid and sickening foulness. 

The only alternative was for liberalism to become what its activists had aligned themselves against: that is, to become conservative; to put away the task of attaining liberalism in favor of curating its reward—of, finally, appreciating it: to search for truth, to create beauty, to defend honor. But if ever America was a nation of appreciators, it shows little appetite today for liberal-appreciation in its leaders. While few presidents have been worthy even to stand in Washington's shadow, today's most saliently-supported (and simultaneously reviled) would-be president is less a Cincinnatus than a Mountain Dew Camacho, whose general approach to truth, beauty, and honor requires a twitter account or unzipping his pants.

Learn to appreciate that, if you can. Or else throw another tire on the barbie.

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