Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Leon Wieseltier is Ready to Fight for Liberalism

It is time, says Wieseltier, to stand up aggressively for freedom, rights, diversity, and all the other things that liberalism means:

In an alarming number of countries and cultures, some of which have experienced a liberal order and some of which have not, the liberal idea is being furiously slandered. The description of liberalism as an evil may be the greatest lie of our exceedingly mendacious time. . . .

Intellectually, I am a warmonger. I confess to a lust for battle. It cannot be otherwise, since my enemies, the enemies of liberalism, also have a lust for battle, and they have launched their attack. It comes at us from all sides. In some ways we have been re-enacting the 1930s, and one of them is in the consensus among the right and the left, among the regressive populists and the progressive populists, that the liberals are the villains.

The ultras can live happily with each other; they need each other; they thrive off each other. They share the revolutionary mentality, the excitement of apocalyptic feeling. Together, therefore, they must band together to destroy the anti-apocalyptics in their midst—the ones who worry about the means as well as the ends; who would rather repair institutions than destroy them; who remember the long history of venalities and atrocities committed in the pursuit of justice; who abhor mobs; who insist that authenticity must answer to morality; who despise simple explanations and worldviews that can be captured in slogans and flags; who dread redemptions and redeemers. Now all those convictions, all the great principles that constitute the liberal tradition, every single one of them, must be defended. After everything that liberalism endured and survived, after the unimaginably savage assaults of fascism and communism, we must steadfastly fight for it all over again, and we must begin again at the beginning. Many of our current opponents are the heirs of liberalism’s older enemies, and we, too, must keep the faith of our fathers—not because it is ours, but because ethically and philosophically we can justify it.

The authoritarians of the right and the left are correct: the liberals do indeed stand in their way. We understand the populist temptation too well, and we recall its consequences too vividly, to be left alone. The crowds and their leaders are seeking the re-enchantment of politics, but we long ago championed the disenchantment of politics. We treasure our disillusion, and cultivate it as the beginning of wisdom. There are thrills that no longer attract us; indeed, that repel us. We believe in historical patience—not indifference, but patience—because we have observed that in politics immediate gratification often takes the form of a crime. If we run the risk of complacency, the radicals run the risk of ferocity. No ideology that gained political power (even an anti-ideological ideology such as liberalism) has ever had perfectly clean hands—but liberalism has always included a scruple, a body of values and laws, about its own abuses and the duty to remedy them. The progressives and the regressives, by contrast, are not distinguished by an inclination to introspection. They cherish their anger and they make room for hatred. Should one hate injustice? Always. But the progressives and the regressives do not only hate injustice; they also hate whole classes of people. . . .

Liberalism’s momentous blunder was to regard itself as inevitable, as the historically ordained climax of a centuries-long campaign for progress, as the last word. We should know better by now—and here too, in America, in the debris of our forty-fifth president. The liberal conception of the person asks too much of the person ever to go uncontested. It chooses not to leave the person as it finds him, embedded in legacies and givens. It is a dis-embedding movement, a challenging ethic of criticism, though not necessarily a destructive one. It demands of ordinary men and women a degree of skill with complexity and a degree of forbearance with human affairs. While it is wary of revolution, it extols change. It proposes to mingle continuity with discontinuity, which has the effect that the people whose lives it betters it also rattles. How could such a philosophy and such a politics not provoke a retort? The catastrophes of modern history—the genocides of fascism and communism—were all such retorts. Liberals should be proud to be known by their enemies. But this we know for sure: there is no rest for us.  

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