he world is colored by our feelings and vice versa. We feel happier when the sun shines and the skies are blue than when it is overcast and cloudy. We speak of bitter weather, of the cruel sea. John Ruskin called this habit of attributing human characteristics to nature “the pathetic fallacy,” and literature would be very much impoverished without it.
There is another kind of fallacy, less literary, but much more pervasive. An example is when we say something like the following: “This is the best book you can read on (name your subject),” or “Go see (name your film); it is the best movie this year.” We make such statements constantly, as do the reviewers of books and movies. If, however, we follow their advice—take the recommended book into our hands and start reading, or pay $15.00 to see the movie—don’t we often find ourselves disappointed? The book may have been good, the movie, too, but really, excellent, the best? No way.
What we consider “good,” “best,” “excellent,” and so on are matters of what, since the 18th century, has been called taste. And if there is one thing we can all agree on, it’s that taste is an individual thing: I like Manet, you like Lucian Freud. Our personal preferences, for this is what they are, will probably change over our lifetime. By the time we reach middle age, what impressed us when we were 20 will seem immature instead. We “grow”: We read more books, we see more movies. Our opinions evolve.
Nevertheless, when we use words such as excellent, we feel that what we love will also be loved by everyone else, especially our kind of people: our spouse, our friends, our colleagues. We attribute our own feelings to others. To a great extent, this desire to share with others what we love is a very human thing: It indicates a certain universality. At the same time, our judgments of taste—for instance, that a painting or a book is excellent or not even worth considering—are value judgments, and they have a coercive aspect. When I assert that something is good, it does not mean that you too might find it good; it means that what I love, you too should love. This would not be a problem if the matter were restricted to books, movies, art, or, increasingly, food—subjects on which few of us come to blows.
But such value judgments encompass the social and political realms as well, with destructive, cascading effects. We can call it “the liberal fallacy.”
It was in empiricist, wealth-producing England, the concept of taste began to replace objective, eternal standards in judging the perfection or imperfection of works of art and literature.For liberals, the correctness of their opinions—on universal health care, on Sarah Palin, on gay marriage—is self-evident. Anyone who has tried to argue the merits of such issues with liberals will surely recognize this attitude. Liberals are pleased with themselves for thinking the way they do. In their view, the way they think is the way all right-thinking people should think. Thus, “the liberal fallacy”: Liberals imagine that everyone should share their opinions, and if others do not, there is something wrong with them. On matters of books and movies, they may give an inch, but if people have contrary opinions on political and social matters, it follows that the fault is with the others.
To explain why contemporary liberalism is about taste and not about disinterested principles, we must take an excursus into the past, to the 18th century, which marked the rise of aesthetics. For most of recorded Western history, theorizing about the arts was limited to very few people, mostly men. The growth of industry and commerce by the beginning of the 18th century produced an incipient educated professional class in Western Europe whose aspirations pulled the rug out from under the earlier arbiters of beauty. This class did not make a living from art or literature, but it purchased paintings, it went on the Grand Tour of Europe, it read the newest literary works, it built splendid mansions. As people of independent means, not necessarily dependent on the power of a monarch, they wanted to have their judgments about their purchases taken seriously. In empiricist, wealth-producing England, the concept of taste began to replace objective, eternal standards in judging the perfection or imperfection of works of art and literature.
The philosopher David Hume (1711–1776), while he conceded that there was no “wrong” subjective response to a work of art, nevertheless sought to give taste a firmer footing and to create authority in the realm of artistic judgment. He argued for approval of certain works of literature across time and cultures by positing the authority of a sort of invisible hand, whose judgments on art would be “universal.” Hume was a man of society and no doubt influenced by the shape of the literary public that existed in England, whose taste could be recognized by their clothes, behavior, and conversation. In 18th-century discussions of the arts, it was universally accepted that the ability to render correct judgments was the preserve of “good society.” There emerged in England what we in the literature business call “criticism.” The job of critics—Pope, Addison, Shaftesbury—was to guide the taste of the public.
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) built on Hume with the criteria he laid out in his 1790 work Critique of Judgment. While excluding from the aesthetic realm such changeable subjective preferences as those for food or dress, Kant made the case for why aesthetic judgments could be regarded as “universal.” For him, our very experience of the world and our ability to come to think about it at all is a matter of interpretation by our different mental faculties. Thus, all perception and interpretation are subjective. In the presence of objects without an objective determination, this subjective response is an aesthetic judgment. Feeling, of course, is not knowledge; it is simply the beginning of knowledge. But it is this ability to respond subjectively—whether to the beauty of sunsets or to the Sistine Chapel—that makes our other cognitive accomplishments possible. The fact that all of us can agree that we are seeing the same object—a rose is his example—is the proof that we share a common, universal human cognitive apparatus. It is because we feel that we are also able to think.
How do Hume’s and Kant’s lucubrations on aesthetics manifest themselves in liberal political opinion? Consider the positive attitude of many liberals toward Europe vis à vis the United States. The idea that Europe possesses a nobler culture than ours has been a feature of American intellectual life since the mid-19th century; that was why Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and T.S. Eliot made their homes abroad. But the general American opinion was that Europe was mired in an undemocratic, aristocratic past while the United States was the country of the future. That view began to change somewhat when the economies of the European nations started to rebuild in the 1960s (after a war that, in the majority of American opinion, they had brought on themselves). Owing to a strong dollar that made European goods affordable, more American consumers were introduced to the best European products. Especially among those with considerable discretionary income, ideas about what is most important in life underwent some alteration.
The person of advanced taste is always on the lookout for the newest object worthy of consideration, one that will set him apart from the crowd.No longer seen as a civilizational sinkhole that brought two world wars upon us, Europe was now thought of as a bastion of enlightened values, especially by comparison with bourgeois America. Liberals began to speak approvingly of the superiority of European social arrangements in the realms of health care and family leave—but their view here was not exclusively about top-down benefits. After all, even the Soviet Union offered universal health care, female equality, and family leave, and only radicals thought the USSR was a model for a more enlightened life. The Soviet Union produced no product comparable to Italian wines or shoes, French cheeses or couture, or German automobiles. Europe’s aesthetic preeminence was a necessary element of what was taken to be its superior political culture.
This combination of taste and politics is the key. The conservative complaint that the media are liberal in their orientation does not address the true advantage that liberals enjoy in forming public opinion on political issues. Most people don’t think much about politics, but they do want to know how to talk to one another, to friends and strangers alike, whether the subject is cars or computers or movies or books or, increasingly, “lifestyle.” The many manifestations of media, including magazines and the Internet, have the role of filtering out the chatter and telling us what the newest books and movies mean. Political opinion is simply another aspect of consumer taste, and liberals lead the way in taste formation.
The liberal media, moreover, inevitably create a crushing conformity of taste: Who wants to be out of step with what “everyone else” is agreed upon, whether it be political opinion or clothing fashion? Taste is not static, and the person of advanced taste is always on the lookout for the newest object worthy of consideration, one that will set him apart from the crowd. Thus, the rapidity with which liberal fashions change and the distaste with which liberals regard those who question them. Liberal political opinion and the molding of consumer taste overlap.
My introduction to the importance of correct opinions and of being on the cutting edge of things came early in my college career, in the 1960s, when I attended my first foreign movies. While there might have been differences in the evaluation of the movies of Ingmar Bergman as opposed to those of Jean-Luc Godard, hardly anyone who valued being in the know would have suggested that Hollywood movies were preferable to either of the two. These opinions, as I noticed, were pronounced as if there could be no room for debate, as if no sensible person could think otherwise. You were simply a dimwit if you preferred films that did not portray existential angst.
In truth, such preferences are simply grown-up discriminations. The connection between aesthetics and liberalism goes much deeper.
In a contemporary American household, and indeed in a European one today, for whom is it obvious—indeed, natural—that the world should conform to their desires? Children, of course, but also those lucky adults who have grown up accustomed to things like good dermatological and dental care. This offers a clue to contemporary liberalism’s emergence alongside postwar American prosperity. The Boomer generation in particular was the first in world history to come of age with such amenities and without the responsibilities that have traditionally been required of young people. The changes of the 1960s (which for most of us were really the early 1970s) was the first manifestation of the way in which the standards of children would take over the nation.
It was not that the Boomers were radical. Most who experienced the ’60s to the hilt—the rock concerts, the peace marches, all the grooving and hanging out, the binges, the balling, the grunge, the dope and acid and psilocybin—got it out of their system. They got jobs. Most married and, outwardly, assumed the forms and traditions of middle-class life. As they went forward, they didn’t want to overturn “the system”; it had rewarded them too well. Unlike the radicals of the ’60s (and of today), they didn’t want the capitalists and the warmongers to be taken out and shot, or the banks and corporations to give up making profits and rewarding stockholders. They simply wanted the system to continue to benefit them.
Therefore, as they began to occupy the institutions their fathers had once occupied, they established a political agenda that reflected their youthful desires: largesse without strings, i.e., without the standards of responsibility and accountability with which they themselves were raised in the 1950s. Contemporary liberalism was invented by young people (by definition dependent on others to cushion the effects of their failures), and its success has been achieved by legislating their values and prejudices.
And that is why contemporary liberalism has nothing to do with the fusty political tradition of John Locke and John Stuart Mill—who believed a civil society was based on free expression and free thought, and that the best government would ensure they were not restricted or trampled upon. The liberalism that dominates today is prodigal, openhanded, spendthrift. It is about caring, about manifesting feeling, about who has the biggest heart—and about excommunicating those who see the world in a different way.
Because they feel, liberals believe that they think.
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The Liberal Fallacy
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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.