Liberalism and Its Enemies
By Arnold Kling
“One might say that President Obama’s advocacy of free speech on campus was noteworthy precisely because those values seem to have been forsaken at institutions of higher education, particularly by students and faculty on the left.”
So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that—no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths. Because as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk.
—President Barack Obama, commencement speech at Howard University, May 7, 20161
Now, I don’t think it’s a secret that I disagree with many of the foreign policies of Dr. Rice and the previous administration. But the notion that this community or the country would be better served by not hearing from a former Secretary of State, or shutting out what she had to say—I believe that’s misguided. (Applause.) I don’t think that’s how democracy works best, when we’re not even willing to listen to each other. (Applause.) I believe that’s misguided.
If you disagree with somebody, bring them in—(applause)—and ask them tough questions. Hold their feet to the fire. Make them defend their positions. (Applause.) If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong. Engage it. Debate it. Stand up for what you believe in. (Applause.) Don’t be scared to take somebody on. Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities. Go at them if they’re not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words.
—President Barack Obama, commencement speech at Rutgers University, May 15, 20162
In his commencement remarks at both Howard University and Rutgers University, President Obama articulated the classical liberal position on free speech. Unfortunately, such defenses of liberal values are becoming the exception rather than the rule, according to Kim R. Holmes in his recent book, The Closing of the Liberal Mind: How Groupthink and Intolerance Define the Left.3 Indeed, one might say that President Obama’s advocacy of free speech on campus was noteworthy precisely because those values seem to have been forsaken at institutions of higher education, particularly by students and faculty on the left.
Sadly, the kind of liberalism we used to know is fast disappearing from America. All too often, people who call themselves progressive liberals are at the forefront of movements to shut down debates on college campuses and to restrict freedom of speech. They are eager to cut corners, bend the Constitution, make up laws through questionable court rulings, and generally abuse the rules and the Constitution in order to get their way… They claim to be unrelenting defenders of science, yet they will run scientists who deviate even slightly from climate change orthodoxy right out of the profession. They are supposedly great haters of bigotry but sometimes speak of Christians in the most bigoted manner imaginable… They support laws and regulations that over-criminalize everyday aspects of American life… They can be neighborhood bullies or petty tyrants on town or city councils, launching campaigns to stop people from building houses they do not like or going after the parents of “free-range children.”
Holmes claims that the left has largely abandoned liberalism. To back this claim, he offers a depressing litany of examples, which I will not recite here. Instead, what I found particularly interesting is the way that Holmes blames post-modern philosophy for leading the left away from the Enlightenment values of free speech and individual liberty.
Holmes first points out the way in which the progressive movement broke from classical liberalism.
American progressives and classical liberals started parting company in the late 19th century. Progressives initially clung to freedom of expression and the right to dissent from the original liberalism, but under the influence of socialism and social democracy they gradually moved leftward. Today, they largely hold classic liberalism—especially as manifested in small-government conservatism and libertarianism—in contempt. Thus, what we call a “liberal” today is not historically liberal at all but a progressive social democrat, someone who clings to the old liberal notion of individual liberty when it is convenient (as in supporting abortion or decrying the “national security” state), but who more often finds individual liberties and freedom of conscience to be barriers to building the progressive welfare state.
Holmes’s characterization of classical liberalism strikes me as closer to modern conservatism than it is to libertarianism.
Whereas classical liberals are mistrustful of the state and see a need to remain vigilant toward it, libertarians believe that the state is more often than not illegitimate. The hatred of the state, inherited from anarchism, trumps the give-and-take of liberal social contract theory, whereby one naturally gives up certain freedoms in return for protections from the state.
He concludes that contemporary American libertarianism is
… a radical leftist position on war and social policy fused with the defense of small government and individual rights normally associated with classical liberalism and the right. . .alliances between libertarians and leftists… can be found in most policy areas, in fact, except for economics. . .
Holmes argues that many on today’s left reject even the liberal principles that were retained by the progressives.
The postmodern left… embraces principles, attitudes, and practices that sanction the use of coercive methods, either through legal means or public shaming rituals, to deny certain people their rights and civil liberties, particularly freedom of speech and conscience, in ways that undermine American democracy and the rule of law.
Holmes says that the liberals of fifty years ago saw racial injustice as a problem that could be overcome, so that remedies such as affirmative action would only be temporary. In contrast, today’s left sees racial injustice as intrinsic, requiring a permanent regime of reverse bigotry and double standards.
He argues that the earlier progressives
… could not have imagined an unending conflict between identity tribes trying to capture the state for their own narrow group interests… [They] were still liberal enough to believe in universal justice. Multiculturalism, for example, stands completely opposed to the progressive vision of community. It promises not to build a common vision for everyone but to tear the community apart in an ethnic and racial conflict of all against all.
After quoting a paragraph from John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, Holmes writes,
This passage would be anathema to cultural critics of the postmodern left. Its talk of “common understanding” would be dismissed out of hand. The respect for a common heritage would be ridiculed as too accepting of historical “myths” or too tolerant of an unjust gender or sexual orientation hierarchy. The bow toward community as a civil society of shared values would be abhorrent to the radical multiculturalist who believes that no such shared values exist.
Holmes sees the illiberal left as rooted in postmodern philosophy.
A postmodernist is someone who believes that ethics are completely and utterly relative, and that human knowledge is, quite simply, whatever the individual, society, or political powers say it is. When mixed with radical egalitarianism, postmodernism produces the agenda of the radical cultural left—namely, sexual and identity politics and radical multiculturalism.
One source Holmes cites is Stephen R.C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism, published in 2004. Hicks writes,
The Enlightenment was based on premises opposite to those of postmodernism, but while the Enlightenment was able to create a magnificent world on the basis of those premises, it articulated and defended them only incompletely. That weakness is the sole source of postmodernism’s power against it. Completing the articulation and defense of those premises is therefore essential to maintaining the forward progress of the Enlightenment vision and shielding it against postmodern strategies.
Hicks and Holmes see postmodern philosophy as providing a set of rhetorical tactics that leftists have deployed against classical liberalism. Holmes lists some of the contrasts between postmodernism and liberalism.
There are few liberal principles more enduring historically than the distrust of centralized power.
Clearly the postmodern left has no such qualms. They may have unique cultural concerns, but postmodern leftists, like socialists, are all too happy to use state power to force people into line.
For related ideas, see “Is Leviathan Required for a Peaceful Social Order?” by Anthony de Jasay. Library of Economics and Liberty, March 7, 2016. See also “Ideas Matter,” by Pedro Schwartz. Library of Economics and Liberty, May 5, 2014.
Holmes points out that in the early 1970s, liberal philosopher John Rawls focused on finding the best balance between liberty and equality. However, for the contemporary left,
There is no interest in a trade-off or balancing of liberty and “social” justice, because to the postmodern leftist individual liberty is considered a social fiction.
Holmes argues that whereas intellectuals were once apart from and suspicious of the centers of political power, people who are highly educated today have been corrupted by power and by federal funding.
We should not be surprised that the ideology they adopt is one that openly makes the case against human freedom. Who needs freedom when you have power, prestige, and money? What is freedom if it can be bought and sold by a government contract or exchanged for a comfortable post at a university? Now that so many intellectuals are in positions of power, they want to close the gates behind them.
I came away from The Closing of the Liberal Mind wondering about the relationship between ideas and circumstances. I confess to always having minimized, in my own mind, the significance of the ideas of a few elite philosophers. Instead, my instinct is to think of social evolution as governed by more broad-based trends in technology and culture. However, when Holmes articulates the philosophical roots of the contemporary left, and when he connects the postmodern philosophical tenets to the political outlook and behavior of leftists, he makes a case that intellectual currents can be a driving force. He raises the possibility that the crucial battlefield for the future of liberty can be found in the philosophy seminar room.
Kim R. Holmes. The Closing of the Liberal Mind: How Groupthink and Intolerance Define the Left. New York: Encounter Books, 2016.
For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.