Where Liberalism is Vulnerable
The Faith of a Liberal.
by Morris R. Cohen.
New York, Henry Holt, 1946. 497 pages. $3.75.
As a political catchword, liberalism has notoriously lost whatever clarity of outline or firmness of meaning it ever possessed. In most European countries the so-called Liberal party is likely to be a reactionary party dominated by the haute bourgeoisie. In the United States the term still has a Leftist rather than a Rightist connotation, but only by the skin of its teeth. The recent “liberal” professions of Senator Taft are only the latest in the determined attempts on the part of conservatives to make the word their own. In this situation we may turn with special eagerness to a series of essays on The Faith of a Liberal by one of America’s leading philosophers.
Dr. Cohen’s collection contains essays written over the past twenty-eight years, but united by a pervading largeness of spirit, graciousness of style, and consistency of viewpoint. They reflect their author’s profound devotion to the liberal temper, which he conceives not as a specific economic or political creed, but as “a faith in enlightenment, a faith in a process rather than in a set of doctrines, a faith instilled with pride in the achievements of the human mind, and yet colored with a deep humility before the vision of a world so much larger than our human hopes and thoughts.” The unique characteristic of liberalism, he believes, is its commitment to scepticism, to tolerance, to free inquiry, to the methods and principles of rationalism. “In the end, there is no way in which people can live together decently unless each individual or group realizes that the whole of truth and virtue is not exclusively in its possession.” Nor is liberalism the product of any special economic or political circumstance. It is “older than modern capitalistic economics. It has its roots in the Hellenic spirit of free critical inquiry which laid the foundations of the sciences on which modem civilization rests.”
The great danger to liberalism, as Dr. Cohen sees it, comes from its lingering attachment to the economics of free competition, to the “false philosophy of laissez faire, which assumes that if each will pursue his own economic profit, the good of all will be assured by an eternally pre-established economic harmony.” Dogmatic Communism affords no solution either. “When the Communists tell me that I must choose between their dictatorship and Fascism, I feel that I am offered the choice between being shot and being hanged.” But we must somehow combine the principles of collectivism and of individualism, and Dr. Cohen concludes that “for practical reasons, I think we must nowadays start with the collectivistic principle.”
The concluding piece, “The Future of American Liberalism,” was evidently written for this volume, and it does not disclose any important modification of the views expressed in the other essays, written over the past twenty years. It is thus legitimate to regard the whole book as an up-to-date statement of Dr. Cohen’s position—in which case it is necessary to state frankly that the position has an old-fashioned air. Its questions and issues are not the questions and issues of the 1940’s. Dr. Cohen’s faith of a liberal will not provide much consolation for perplexed liberals today.
He is, in the first place, a little casual in dismissing the relationship between the spiritual climate of a society and its economic underpinnings. While there is no identity, say, between capitalism and liberalism, there is still a very real sense in which liberalism gets more fresh air and sunlight through the interstices of a competitive society than through the closeknit and inflexible grip of collectivism (or at least of any collectivism known to modem history). The occupational bias of the philosopher appears in this constant tendency to break down liberalism into ideas and trace the ideas back to Plato, rather than to examine the concrete conditions under which liberalism has emerged and become effective.
More serious, however, is the fact that the very terms of discussion have changed drastically from those in which Dr. Cohen wrote twenty years ago and is still writing. While in the 1920’s it was necessary to establish the legitimacy of collective action, it is now necessary to re-establish the legitimacy of the individual. Dr. Cohen writes, in a comment on Paul Elmer More, that “the problem of morality or justice is not soluble unless we tackle it in terms of social organization.” This is, of course, true; but our emphasis today has returned to the individual, and our suspicion is that certain defects we have blamed on capitalism were in fact defects of any social organization, which may be aggravated as society becomes less chaotic and heterogeneous, less filled with internal checks and discontinuities.
It all gets back to the almost Huxleyan (T.H.) faith in human reason. Dr. Cohen’s onslaught on the anti-intellectual critics of liberalism is revealing. His passionate recoil from the mild Pareto-and-water of James Harvey Robinson’s The Mind in the Making, or of Thurman Arnold’s The Symbols of Government, apparently comes from a deep fear of acknowledging the emotional and destructive impulses of man. His repeated and oversimplified attacks on the Christian view of human nature are equally revealing. Indeed, his statemerit of the Christian view—“Nature is sin. To indulge our natural impulses is sinful”—is not only vulgarization but bad logic; from a philosopher habitually so precise, such foreshortening seems almost protective in purpose, a desperate clinging to his own rational certitudes.
Dr. Cohen is worried over the fact that his type of liberalism is not a fighting faith. One reason may well be that in its rush to justify the beauties of human reason and social organization, this liberalism has underestimated the dark and subterranean forces of the human mind. Dr. Cohen is equally impatient with Augustine and with Freud (and he does not mention Sorel or Pareto); but, whether you use the vocabulary of religion or of psychoanalysis or of anti-rationalism, there are certainly human passions Dr. Cohen does not take account of. If liberalism is to survive, it must learn from its gloomier critics, not brush them aside with affirmations or sophistries.
Dr. Cohen is fighting or denying the unconscious instead of trying to assimilate it. The Faith of a Liberal may thus prove largely irrelevant to those persons who believe that the urgent problems of liberalism today are those being probed from various angles by men like Silone, Koestler, Niebuhr, George Orwell, Dwight Macdonald. But as a high-minded and eloquent statement of an appealing point of view, The Faith of a Liberal is inspiriting and nostalgic reading. We can be grateful, too, that Dr. Cohen’s penetrating essays on Holmes, Brandeis, and Cardozo on the Sacco-Vanzetti case, and on various aspects of American history and literature, are now available in permanent form.
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The Faith of a Liberal, by Morris R. Cohen
Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.