Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

January 29, 2018
I can’t say that I was greatly impressed by For Whom the Bell Tolls, but there is a line in it which ought to have more resonance than it does, especially now: "For what are we born if not to aid one another?"[6]   Leave aside issues of war and peace — the question was asked during a war — and just look at the domestic scene; aiding one another is not a priority under the present regime.
Why do we tolerate a culture ostensibly based on competition, more accurately on the notion that those who have much not only should keep it, but should have more? Why do we tolerate politics which denigrates programs which help those who need help, which tells them they are on their own? Hobbes described life in the state of nature as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. More than one of those conditions might be found in Twentieth-Century America, but let’s concentrate on the first; it defines life in the absence of a functioning state; it describes the direction the country has pursued for several decades.
A few years ago, I quoted John Donne — no man is an island — to criticize libertarian (anti-state) and I’ve-got-mine conservatives. They are in control, pushing us further toward a soulless, unregulated, untaxed society of the favored versus the rest. However, a similar separatist, isolating tendency is found in contemporary liberalism, emphasizing identity and encouraging tribalism, when we need commonality. Trump and the "nationalist" right, Congress and its wealthy masters, have divided the country; a liberal, Democratic response must not be a different form of division.
The Once and Future Liberal, by Mark Lilla, is a small book, eight by five inches, and one hundred forty-one pages of text. It is even slighter than that would indicate, as extra spaces are inserted every few paragraphs; it offers neither notes nor index. It is a condensed argument that the way to set liberalism on the right path is by turning from a focus on identity to a common focus and effort.
Here is the heart of his argument: The New Deal philosophy "pictured an America where citizens were involved in a collective enterprise to guard one another against risk, hardship, and the denial of fundamental rights." It eventually faded away, and when there arose "a unified and ambitious right, American liberals faced a serious challenge: to develop a fresh political vision of the country's shared destiny." Liberals failed to do that. "Instead they threw themselves into the movement politics of identity, losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation. . . ." Instead of a symbol of shared experience, a "recurring image of identity liberalism is that of a prism refracting a single beam of light into its constituent colors, producing a rainbow. This says it all."[7]
We have become a hyper-individualistic society, Lilla charges. "Almost all the ideas or beliefs or feelings that once muted the perennial American demand for individual autonomy have evaporated. Personal choice. Individual rights. Self- definition. . . .. And so it was to be expected that eventually our politics would catch up and be infected with this same self-regard, and that our political vocabulary would be revised to match the new reality."[8]  This perhaps goes too far, but his basic point, a variation on Hemingway’s formula, is valid: "There can be no liberal politics without a sense of we — of what we are as citizens and what we owe to each other."[9]
Lilla’s complaint is not new. The tendency toward identity politics was deplored by Todd Gitlin, with an emphasis on multiculturalism, in 1996; Arthur Schlesinger made somewhat the same point in 1992.[10]  Concern for the drift toward hyper-individualism is not new to Lilla, either. He raised the issue in an article in The New York Review of Books in 1998, and again in the same publication in 2010.[11]  However, The Once and Future Liberal, published last year, comes at an especially significant time. The Republicans have gone so far astray that Democrats have a chance to recover control of Congress, but they must be ready to serve the people, not an accumulation of identities. Lilla’s book is an argument for that reorientation.
Lilla sees contemporary liberalism’s emphasis on divisive individuality as a continuation, with different emphasis, of the individualism of Reagan conservatism. As Lilla puts it, compared to the New Deal, Reaganism "pictured a more individualistic America where families and small communities and businesses would flourish once freed from the shackles of the state. Its watchwords were self-reliance and minimal government."[12]
However, even before Reagan’s election as President, the new left had adopted individualism as its mantra; as Gitlin put it, "Difference was vital, commonality moribund. Demands for race and gender blindness and inclusion tipped toward demands for all-consuming race and gender consciousness. Difference was practiced, commonality barely even thought."[13]
Not everyone agrees with Lilla’s point of view. One response is an article in the London Review of Books.[14]  The author refers, with implied — and fair — criticism, to this statement by Lilla: "Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity." Lilla noted a confrontation between BLM activists and Hillary Clinton which was, as he suggests, a mistake by BLM. However, his quoted appraisal is too sweeping; BLM has done important work in bringing attention to police violence against blacks. There is no reason that cannot be part of a common effort, to point out that police are too prone to violence against others as well, and too militarized. Blacks suffer the most, so their taking the lead is natural.
In an article in The New York Times which was, in effect, a first draft of The Once and Future Liberal, Lilla was more measured: "The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. . . ." Rights for those denied them can and should be a common cause.
The author of the LRB article, James Meek, concedes that "It is right to be wary of those who bring to political activism an egoistical yearning for personal transcendence." However, he worries that, if liberals "were discouraged from ‘identity politics’, they would drop out of politics altogether; that instead of turning a diverse, chaotic, squabbling host of overlapping campaigners into a disciplined army of moderate civic foot soldiers, you would extinguish the very force that keeps the Democrats going." I don’t think that’s Lilla’s argument; he wants a focus on common goals, not necessarily "moderation." Another critique, by Jonathan Rauch in the New York Review of Books, summarizes Lilla’s aim as follows: "He wants them to integrate practical politics into their conception of social justice, rather than treating politics as a distraction or an afterthought." [15]  Creating a unified effort won’t drive everyone away, and there will remain issues on which liberals disagree with one another. As to that, the form of unity required is to abandon litmus tests, and to return to something resembling the big tent.
Meek also acknowledges: "It’s true that the Democrats, to put it mildly, have a grass roots problem. Long before Trump became president and the Republicans cemented control of both Houses of Congress, the GOP was tightening its grip on power at the state level." Rauch agrees. "Lilla’s brisk account leaves out a lot of nuance, but the endpoint is right: liberals lost their common touch." Many voters see liberals as an educated elite mired in "political correctness." If liberals and Democrats continue down that road, they will encounter Steve Bannon’s response: "The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em . . . . If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats."[16]
The right also is playing the identity game. It not only is pandering to the resentments of the anti-elites, it is caught up in a movement called identitarianism which is, in this country, white nationalism. Nationalism of various sorts, including tolerance of neo-Nazism, has found its way into the White House.
The Constitution begins "We the People." There is hypocrisy in that phrase, given that "the people" were limited, in terms of freedom, to whites and, for political purposes, to white males. However, it correctly stated the principle behind democratic government, and we have moved a long way toward a true embodiment of that principle. Dividing into self-focused camps will not bring further advance.
Some people have become isolated selves in non-political ways as well. The irony of smart phones is that, although they connect users to the world, many use them so continuously that they are cut off from their near surroundings. An example of compulsive use (I offer this in part, I admit, because it irritates me) is the frequent phenomenon, at the gym where I work out, of someone occupying a machine, doing nothing related to it other than sitting, while playing with his phone, unaware of anything but images on a small screen. Whether that results from selfishness or encasement in a bubble, it is an apt image of the disengaged individual.
Here is Lilla’s conclusion: "for two generations America has been without a political vision of its destiny. There is no conservative one; there is no liberal one. There are just two tired individualistic ideologies intrinsically incapable of discerning the common good and drawing the country together to secure it under present circumstances."[17]
Something needs to be done to bring people back from their isolation and rekindle a commitment to the common welfare; liberals must take the lead. Taking the country back from Trump and the Republican Congress would be a good first step in working together in common cause; that may require, and should include, bringing people to the polls who don’t usually vote, who have abandoned the common effort in that sense.. Then we might make America greater, and cease to be an international embarrassment, by addressing such matters as gun violence, universal health care and child poverty.


6.For Whom the Bell Tolls, p. 139

7. Lilla, at 8-9

8.Id., at 28

10.Gitlin, The Death of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars; Schlesinger, The Disuniting of America

11. See

12. Lilla, at 8

13. Gitlin, at 147

14. . See also: liberal.html;



17. Lilla, at 99