We Shall Overcome
Martin Peretz in Not Much Left says what many have been saying for a while: that Liberalism is out of ideas. The curious thing about his intelligent and literate essay is that he never manages to explain why this condition has taken place.
I think it was John Kenneth Galbraith, speaking in the early 1960s, the high point of post-New Deal liberalism, who pronounced conservatism dead. Conservatism, he said, was "bookless," ... At this point in history, it is liberalism upon which such judgments are rendered. And understandably so. It is liberalism that is now bookless and dying. ... Liberalism now needs to be liberated from many of its own illusions and delusions. Let's hope we still have the strength.
Liberalism has lost its books because it has burned them. The campaign to dismiss Harvard President Larry Summers for remarking that women may have less aptitude than men for mathematics and sciences is a case in point. The Boston Globe reports:
Late yesterday, one of Harvard's most famous faculty members, law professor Alan Dershowitz, issued a statement backing Summers's presidency, in which he said the storm of opposition "sounds like the trial of Galileo. In my 41 years at Harvard, I have never experienced a president more open to debate, disagreement, and dialogue than Larry Summers," wrote Dershowitz, adding that "professors who are afraid to challenge him are guilty of cowardice."
Dershowitz noted that he disagreed with Summers's comments last month that innate differences might help explain why more men than women are top achievers in science and math, but he defended the university president's right to raise the proposition. "This is truly a time of crisis for Harvard," he wrote. "The crisis is over whether a politically correct straightjacket will be placed over the thinking of everybody in this institution by one segment of the faculty."
Paradoxically, dogmatism is rooted in relativism more than in the belief that real truth is discoverable. For as long as the truth is believed to be "out there"; it will be sought. When its existence is doubted none will venture into the dark. Under those conditions, we get exactly what Peretz describes: an illogical attachment to old formulations of the 1960s, which can be uttered only because they are hallowed.
It's much easier, more comfortable, to do the old refrains. You can easily rouse a crowd when you get it to sing, "We Shall Overcome." One of the tropes that trips off the tongues of American liberals is the civil rights theme of the '60s. Another is that U.S. power is dangerous to others and dangerous to us. This is also a reprise from the '60s, the late '60s. Virtue returns, it seems, merely by mouthing the words.
But when the world changes -- and it is no longer the 1960s -- Liberalism finds it that cannot, dares not utter anything new; and that is dangerous because it means inaction. Peretz scathingly describes how Liberals attitudes have buried themselves in a time capsule where blacks are forever to be maintained as objects of pity to be defended from Bull Connors. And where no real black Americans can be found to fit the bill, a mountebank will be produced.
The biggest insult to our black fellow citizens was the deference paid to Al Sharpton during the campaign. ... To him can be debited the fraudulent and dehumanizing scandal around Tawana Brawley (conflating scatology and sex), the Crown Heights violence between Jews and blacks, a fire in Harlem, the protests around a Korean grocery store in Brooklyn, and on and on. Yet the liberal press treats Sharpton as a genuine leader, even a moral one, the trickster as party statesman. ...
Any port in a storm, for the men without books, means anyone willing to destroy America. Not out of spite, though there is that, but out a twisted love because "U.S. power is dangerous to others and dangerous to us".
This leaves us with the issue of U.S. power, the other leftover from the '60s. ... Pose this question at an Upper West Side dinner party: What was worse, Nazism or Communism? Surely, the answer will be Nazism ... because Communism had an ideal of the good. This, despite the fact that communist revolutions and communist regimes murdered ever so many more millions of innocents and transformed the yearning of many idealists for equality into the brutal assertion of evil, a boot stamping on the human face forever. ...
It is typologically the same people who wanted the United States to let communism triumph--in postwar Italy and Greece, in mid-cold war France and late-cold war Portugal--who object to U.S. efforts right now in the Middle East. You hear the schadenfreude in their voices--you read it in their words--at our troubles in Iraq. For months, liberals have been peddling one disaster scenario after another, one contradictory fact somehow reinforcing another, hoping now against hope that their gloomy visions will come true. I happen to believe that they won't.
One senses in Peretz the momentary triumph of intelligence over loyalty. He understands the symptoms of the Liberal disease, but his uncertainty over the location of the tumor makes him hesitates to press down on the scalpel. But this does not stop him from denouncing the fake cures offered up by others.
And it is a condition related to the desperate hopes liberals have vested in the United Nations. That is their lodestone. But the lodestone does not perform. It is not a magnet for the good. It performs the magic of the wicked. It is corrupt, it is pompous, it is shackled to tyrants and cynics.
To be trapped in an intellectual desert with a faked lodestone and Al Sharpton for company -- if that were not bad enough -- there is the world phenomenon of Jihadi terrorism. Curiously absent from Peretz's essay is the long shadow cast by radical Islam on Liberalism itself. Islamism has already displaced Marxist Nasserism as the primary ideology of the Middle East and if demographic trends continue will displace the Left in Europe too. How will the aging men without books fare against the youthful adherents of the book which is the Koran? Will it still be possible for them to link arthritic arms and totter around in a parody of militancy?
Paradoxically, the only hope for Liberalism is to reject Liberalism itself. It must regain the idea that the truth is discoverable and not a matter of political correctness; and then a whole succession of insights will follow: who the enemy is; how he may be beaten; what the sound of children playing in the yard really means. For there is no guarantee that it not too late to beat back the tides of darkness; no assurance that we will ever regain the carefree life we took as given. But if Liberals can think again they can sing again, though it may not be "We Shall Overcome"; and however they meet their end it will be one of which books should be written.