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Leon Wieseltier


For some time now it has felt like history is itself the pandemic. In our country and elsewhere, it has been in overdrive, teeming with evils, flush with collapses, abounding in fear and rage, a wounding contest between the sense of an ending and the sense of a beginning, between inertia and momentum, with all the terribilities of ages of transition. What is going has not yet gone and what is coming has not yet come. We have become connoisseurs of convulsion. At sea is our new sea.

For better and for worse, axioms and assumptions are dying everywhere around us. Such vertiginous hours always come with both clarities and confusions — there is no promise of illumination. The guidance we need in our circumstances will not be provided by the circumstances themselves: they are too many and too contradictory and too volatile; passion increasingly unconstrained and power increasingly unconstrained. As the sense of injustice grows, injustice seems to keep pace with it. There is a piercing sensation of flux, of uncontrollable effects and unmanageable consequences. The masks on our faces are emblems of an entire era of vulnerability. The most important thing, therefore, is that we keep our heads. A disequilibrium of history demands an equilibrium of the mind. Steadiness in the midst of turbulence is not complicity with the existing order. It is precisely in such binges of history that we must teach ourselves to sort through the true and the false, the good and the bad, the continuities and the discontinuities, the right statues and the wrong statues, the humane and the utopian.

Everything will be different: this is a ubiquitous sentiment. In all our upheavals — social and epidemiological — so much seems to be wrong and so much seems to be slipping away that one may be forgiven for enjoying a fantasy of total change. All these horrors, all these outrages, all these marches, and the world stays the same? So the first thing that needs to be said in the effort to keep our heads is that everything never changes. More, the idea that everything will change usually plays into the hands of those who want nothing to change. The cycle of revolution and reaction has never been the most effective engine of progress. Nothing suits the interests of the old regime like utopianism. The thirst for change will not be slaked by the cheap whiskey of apocalyptic thinking. The only certain outcome of the apocalyptic temper is catharsis, and one way of describing the decline of our politics in recent decades is that it has increasingly become a politics of catharsis, in which crisis is met mainly by emotion. (Populism is just mass emotionalism, and the emotions are often ugly ones.) Apocalypse is not an analysis, it is the death of analysis. It sets the stage only for salvation, but salvation must never become a political goal. This is especially true in a democratic society, where the only saviors are, alas, ourselves.

Thus it is that the struggle against injustice imposes upon us a paradoxical psychology: it demands both impatience and patience. Impatience about injustice, patience about justice. This is hard to do. It looks too much like, and in many cases it may well be, complacence. It is certainly difficult to preach incrementalism to the injured. So why not be impatient about justice, too? There are historical and practical reasons why not. History is stained by tales of instantaneous justice, by the consequences of the rush to perfection, by the victims of the victims. The ethical calculus of means and ends is never teleologically suspended, if just causes are to remain just. Nor is it a quantitative calculus: when I first studied the modern history of the Jews I drew a variety of conclusions from the Dreyfus affair, and one of them, which was an important moment in my moral education, was that Zola and his comrades appropriately threw an entire country into crisis for the sake of one man. Similarly, due process is not a legal formality, a procedural exercise that slows the way to a satisfying climax; it is the very honor of a liberal society.

More concretely, the establishment of justice involves not only revisions in opinions but also revisions in institutions. A dreary point! But anyone who denies the institutional dimension, in all its exasperating machinery, is not serious about the change. Paroxysms, unlike laws, vanish. This was the year in which the campaign for racial justice found support in virtually all the sectors of American society, with the exception of the White House — an unprecedented national epiphany that cannot be dismissed as “performative”, because culture matters; but the road from protest to policy is long and winding. It is not a betrayal of the ideal of social justice to tread carefully and tenaciously, with a mastery of the scruples and the methods that would make a reform defensible and durable. Tenacity is what patience looks like in the middle of a struggle.

I will give an example of the complicated nature of the mentality of change. One of the consequences of recent social movements in America — #MeToo (which came also to my door, with its lesson and its recklessness) and Black Lives Matter—has been to reveal how poorly we understand each other. Or more precisely, they have exposed the extent to which the failure to understand others may be owed to the failure to understand oneself — the limitations of one’s own standpoint, the comfortable assumption that one appears to others as one wishes to appear to them, or to oneself. This is nonsense, though sometimes you learn so the hard way. There are limits to our epistemological jurisdiction. The failure to observe these limits is solipsism, and we all begin as solipsists, awaiting correction by social experience.

Our epistemological jurisdiction stops at the encounter with another person. She is another epistemological kingdom, not more perfect but certainly different, with something important to add, and a perceptual contribution to make. I may like to think that I am what I present myself to be, but I am also what she sees me to be, because she sees me as I cannot, or will not, see myself. I am never in control of my self-representation and never complete in my self-awareness. We always show more of ourselves than we think we do, which is why we may learn from the responses of others. We spill beyond our intentions and our conceits, and what we gain from this overflow is criticism.

But criticism, too, must be assessed critically – there is no exemption. The enlightenment that one acquires from the judgments of others is owed only to their accuracy. It is certainly not warranted by the belief that a person’s identity or socio-economic position or experience of hardship confers an absolute authority, a special relationship to truth, a vatic privilege. What a simple world it would be if pain were a sufficient guarantee of credibility. But it is not – indeed, the opposite is the case, pain is myopic and sees chiefly itself, which is one of the reasons it hurts. Finally we are all left with the modesty of our grasp. No whole classes of people are right and no whole classes of people are wrong.

The ineradicability of ambiguity from human relations, the ignorance of ourselves that accompanies our ignorance of others, the whole fallible heap, creates an urgent need for tolerance and, more strenuously, for forgiveness. Historians will record that in the early decades of the twenty-first century we became an unforgiving society, a society of furies, a society in search of guilt and shame, a society of sanctimonies and “struggle sessions” American-style. They will admire our awakening to prejudice but lament the sometimes prejudicial ways in which we acted on our progressive realizations. In this respect America should become more Christian. (There, I said it.) For all our elaborate culture of self-knowledge, for all the hectoring articulateness of our identity vocabularies, we are still, each of us, our own blind spots. We should welcome every person we meet as a small blow against blindness.

The partiality of perspective: this is the great teaching of the contemporary tumult. The problem is that we have not only begun to acknowledge our partiality, and the partiality of others, we have also begun to revere it, and this is a mistake. We are gagging on all our roots. If pain does not provide access to truth, neither does particularity. The worship of particularism is one of the great impediments to social justice, and in its exhilarating way it coarsens us all. In our moral and social thinking, our obsession with otherness has concealed that the foundation of moral and social action is sameness. The “other” is exotic, but there is nothing exotic about the homeless man on the street: he is the same as me, a human being, except that he is hungry and I am not. The difference in our circumstances is not a difference in our definition. When I hand him a few dollars I am not extending myself toward an alien being; I am practicing species solidarity. I am not discovering his humanity; I am responding to it. I am acting, in other words, universally, and none of the social problems that afflict us will be solved unless we recover the universalist standpoint that sees beyond the visible divisions, and is not trapped in, or enraptured by, the specificities of our tribes. Pluralism secures the right to turn inward, but it also broaches the duty to turn outward. By surrounding us with other partialities it legitimates our own partiality, but it also reveals that there is more to the world than what is merely ours.

A great deal has been written in recent years about the discovery of our commonplace biases and the techniques for overcoming them. Much of this literature is psychological, but some of it is political, and its aim is to confine us proudly within our limits and call them wonderful. In the name of authenticity, we are instructed that the partiality of our perspective is all we will ever have, and that the aspiration to impartiality is an aspiration to power, or a justification of power. Every view is a view from somewhere. Nobody escapes his or her position. We are all marooned in our respective glories. Objectivity, according to this advanced opinion, is an epistemological plot of the elites.

This inculcates a kind of localist arrogance that is fully the match of the globalist kind. Such “perspectivism” was one of Nietzsche’s lasting provocations, and in American philosophy it was ringingly championed by Richard Rorty, who was the only man I have ever known to use the word “ethnocentrism” positively. He denounced objectivity in favor of solidarity, and his children are everywhere, in all the movements; and a similar war on truth flourishes, for less sophisticated reasons, also in the offices of prime ministers and presidents. The outlook for intelligence, as Paul Valery used to say in an earlier era of confusion and peril, is not heartening. Truth in America is a refugee, an undocumented immigrant. Philosophers and political operatives have joined together to proclaim the fictive nature of fact. About this there is no “polarization.” It is not only policy over which we differ: we differ also over the description of reality. (And even if science is not all we need to know, is there any plainer measure of stupidity than the mockery of science?)

All these communitarianisms of the mind are absurd. If all one can express with one’s beliefs is solidarity with one’s community, then how is it possible to disagree with one’s community, and what is the origin of dissent? If it is impossible for people of different backgrounds, or classes, or races, or genders, to understand each other, why are they disappointed or angry when they are not understood? If people who are white or male or rich cannot claim to comprehend people who are black or female or poor, how can people who are black or female or poor claim to comprehend people who are white or male or rich? Of course the world does not work this way, according to this Empedoclean epistemology, for which like can only know like. The startling reality – it is one of the tremendous features of human existence – is that, within societies and among societies, across nations and cultures, we manage to be intelligible to one another. If you don’t get it, you can get it. As a strategy for thwarting human communication, Babel was a bust.

This everyday mental commerce, this regular passage through these permeable frontiers, sometimes needs the assistance of translation, and always needs the assistance of imagination, but it proves that the inherited perspectives may be enlarged and that the despair of a greater commonality is a self-inflicted wound. Perfect objectivity may never be attained, but that is no excuse to act like merry peasants. “Positional objectivity,” as Amartya Sen has described the only plausible mitigation of our parochialism, will get us very far. Moreover, chafing against one’s limits is a condition of ethical sensitivity: if I were to be content with what my own life has taught me, I could not recognize sufferings which I have not lived and against which I have a responsibility to act. All that I need to know I cannot learn in my town, even if I can learn a great deal there. We have moral obligations in unfamiliar situations.

I am not a woman and so I must imagine rape. I am not a black man and so I must imagine chokeholds. I am not a Syrian and so I must imagine that charnel house. I am not a Uighur and so I must imagine those camps. (But I am a Jew and so I expect others to extend the same imaginative respect to the fate of my people.) If victims were the only ones who understood oppression, who would help them? Often they insist that they must help themselves, which is correct, and evidence of their irreducible dignity, but there are limits to what they can do, and their “auto-emancipation” does not absolve the rest of us from the work of their emancipation. This work involves shaking ourselves loose from the mental dullness that is the product of our distance. As Judith Shklar once observed, “it will always be easier to see misfortune rather than injustice in the afflictions of others.”

Objectivity, in other words, is the sturdiest ground of justice, and the despisers of objectivity are playing with fire. Feelings are a reedy basis for reform. After all, the other side also has feelings – which is how we wound up with the revolting solipsist in the Oval Office. In a democratic society, reform comes about by means of persuasion, and the feelings of others may not do the trick. I may not feel what you feel. I will not be convinced that you are right by the fervor of your feeling that you are right. I need reasons to agree with you, that is, appeals to principles, to rational accounts of preferences, to terms and values larger than each of us which, unlike feelings, we may share.

Without objectivity, without the practice of detachment that makes genuine deliberation possible, without tearing ourselves away from ourselves, justice in our society will mean only what the majority, or the crowd, or the media (all of them fickle) want it to mean. We will gag on our roots. We will continue to despise each other, some scorning the weak and others scorning the strong. Our system of disagreement will continue to be degraded into a system of umbrage, in which a dissenting opinion may be dismissed as “tone-deaf”. Empathy, where it exists, will be remorselessly selective and most often reserved for one’s own kind. (Down with himpathy! Up with herpathy!) We will remain stalled in our excitability. But none of the questions that we are asking as a society can be answered with a scream or a scowl.

Some of what I have written here will please progressives. Some of it will please conservatives. I call it liberalism.

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Legend attributes that swaggering pronouncement to Keynes, and it has become the canonical formulation of the anti-dogmatic mentality, the credo of the open and empirical mind. It has always irritated me, and not because I have a complaint about the admiration for factuality. These days the facts are the front lines in the battle for reason in America. The power of the state has been pitted against them.

Keynes was an economist, and I have no doubt that the relation that he posits between facts and opinions is entirely appropriate for purposes of administration – say, setting an interest rate. As conditions change, policies must be adjusted. Only a fool would think otherwise. If you are not fascinated by the question of what works, stay away from government. (Or join up, because these days nothing gets done.) Practicality is always reactive; its timeline is short. Pragmatism waits on the news. There is even a current in modern American thought for which democracy is itself an exercise in unceasing pragmatism, in trial and error unto the generations. Its definitive statement can be found in the conclusion to Holmes’ renowned dissent in Abrams in 1919. Immediately following his famous observation that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” which was an important moment in the infiltration of the non-economic spheres of American life by the vocabulary of economics, Holmes went on to declare about the Constitution that “it is an experiment, as life is an experiment.” Whatever the merits of such a philosophy of existence, the sense of the provisional championed by Holmes is admirable for the mental patience that it imparts, and for its revulsion from absolutism.

Yet Keynes’ statement seems to be reaching for more than a merely managerial responsiveness. It appears to be making a more general claim about the dependence of beliefs on facts. There are many kinds of belief, of course. But there are some kinds of belief that do not originate in the facts, that are not hostage to changes in the facts, that exist prior to the facts and provide the framework within which the facts are understood and assessed. I cannot agree that moral opinions and philosophical opinions, if indeed Keynes had such opinions in mind when he made his remark, require such a tight association with fact. Even the belief that beliefs must be based in facts cannot be based on facts. There are views I hold about right and wrong, about the individual and the group, about ethical obligation, about the duties and the limits of power, about the nature of truth, about the nature of beauty, and about spiritual meanings that will not be revised by the morning paper, whatever it brings. Before tomorrow’s bad news, I already know that the world is an unkind place and that there are a variety of ways to interpret its cruelty, and I have, to the best of my abilities, in ways that I can explain, already chosen an interpretation.

It is possible, over time and by means of careful reflection, taking your experience into account but not only your experience, to arrive at a view of life, a worldview, and to hold it continuously, through thick and thin, regardless of who the president is, without embarrassment at the steadfastness with which you maintain it, so long as you give reasons and present them for critical examination. There is no shame in intellectual constancy. It is nothing like dogmatism, if it is thoughtful. And the caprices of external events, even when they are cataclysmic, need not throw one into philosophical crisis. Especially in times of cataclysm, one should aspire to what Rebecca West called “an unsurpriseable mind.”

I remember a conference, not long after the earthquake of 2016, where I was holding forth on the characteristics of populism. When it came time for questions, an acquaintance of mine, a fiendishly intelligent woman with a saturnine look on her face, a distinguished international civil servant, raised her hand. “After what just happened,” she asked, “how should we revise our views?” It was not the first time that I heard this question in the aftermath of the Trump ascendancy. I disliked the question. It represented a fundamental misunderstanding about the formation of belief. We should not revise our views, I replied. The election did not prove that our views are wrong. It proved only that our views are unpopular. (And the well-named popular vote did not prove even that.) All that a poll can establish is the popularity of a belief, its distribution across a population. It has no bearing whatever upon its substance. What we believe may be wrong, but not because many people disagree with us. This is precisely the problem with Holmes’ idea of verification, with his contention that truth will be established in the competition in the market: success in the market has nothing to do with truth. The interminable history of human illusion shows that the “marketplace of ideas” is like every other marketplace. It reflects only appetites and interests; it is easily manipulated; it is quantitative.

I may have been a little sharp in my reply to the questioner. My disrespect for her notion of intellectual flexibility must have showed. Politicians, of course, must evaluate ideas politically, but this was not an exchange about politicians. A losing side may need to revise its tactics, but beliefs are not tactics. There is nothing illegitimate or disqualifying about a minority position. A democracy, indeed, should be judged by how it treats its minorities, not least its intellectual minorities. There is honor in minority life. There is honor also in defeat, if one stands for something more than victory. If you stand for principle and you lose, you are equipped to fight again. Sometimes there is good company in the wilderness. In wondering whether defeat should inspire second thoughts about first things, my rattled interlocutor was skirting the problem known as the tyranny of the majority, which was long ago identified as one of the supreme abuses of democracy. When I assured her that the results of the election did not constitute a refutation of her views, I did not mean to lull her into a feeling of righteousness about what she – and I – believed. I wished only to draw a line between disappointment and crippling doubt.

Here is what I do, sir. When the facts change, I interpret the facts according to the methods and the assumptions in which I have the most intellectual confidence. If I can vouch for the integrity of those methods and assumptions, which in my case are liberal methods and assumptions,I will be reluctant to give them up – especially in a dizzying world, where the people with moorings will be better able to explain and to lead. I recognize that moorings come in many forms – evil, too, comes with intellectual frameworks; but those frameworks will be most effectively challenged and repudiated by those who have a different one of their own. As for the facts, I am all for them; but I am not sure they can do all the work that needs to be done. Will bigotry be vanquished by data? A hatred cannot be dispelled for being non-factual. Sooner or later we have to engage at the level of moral and philosophical principle. We must make ourselves competent in kinds of discourse that are not only empirical. We must not forget how to believe.

This journal begins its life in a time of breakdown and bewilderment, of arousal and expectancy. It is called Liberties because of all the splendid echoes of the word – liberty, liberal, liberate, liberality, even libertarian, even libertine. (The question of the place of pleasure in human life is one of the fundamental questions.) It is both a grave word and a joyous word. The plural is a tribute to the plurality of freedoms that we enjoy as a matter of right, and also to the plurality of freedoms that the citizens of a growing number of countries are being ruthlessly denied. Above all, it is meant to announce that, in this universe of fascists and commissars, the objective of these pages will be, by argument and by example, in politics and in culture, the rehabilitation of liberalism.

The slander of liberalism is one of the spectacular idiocies of our age. The errors and the failures of the liberal order, at home and abroad, need to be acknowledged, but they do not need to be exaggerated. The pride of liberals deserves to be much greater than their guilt. A glance at history abundantly demonstrates this, as the issues of this journal will explain. But the historical events that provoked the social, economic, and moral achievements of the liberal order have receded in time, and the experience of time itself has been accelerated, so that historical memory can no longer be relied upon for the work of explanation and nothing is obvious anymore. The work of explanation, guided by reason and humaneness and the study of the past, needs to start again. There is nothing nostalgic about such a project. The restoration of liberal ideas and practices – a social equality based not on venerations of identity but on universal principles; an economic equality based not a delusion of dirigisme but upon a rigorous regulation of capitalism; a faith in government as one of the great creations of human civilization and the protector of the weak against the strong; an affirmation of American power in the world because of the good that American power can do in the world – is entirely forward-looking. To curse liberalism is to curse the future.

It is no longer trite or tautological to say that a democracy is a place that behaves democratically. Within our democracy, and within other democracies, there are many leaders and movements who behave undemocratically or anti-democratically – who view democracy expediently, as an instrument for the acquisition of power and nothing more. For this reason, the philosophical grounds and political benefits of democracy also need to be re-clarified. In 1938, on a lecture tour of the United States, Thomas Mann observed to his American audiences that democracy “should put aside the habit of taking itself for granted, of self-forgetfulness. It should use this wholly unexpected situation – the fact, namely, that it has again become problematical – to renew and rejuvenate itself by again becoming aware of itself.” He was speaking, of course, with the ruefulness of his German experience. Our situation is not as bleak and bitter, but an authoritarian temper is flourishing in our midst too, in the West Wing and the streets and the media and the platforms. We, too, have become self-forgetful. “No,” Mann told the crowds from coast to coast, “America needs no instruction in the things that concern democracy…Europe has had much to learn from America as to the nature of democracy. It was your American statesmen and poets such as Lincoln and Whitman who proclaimed to the world democratic thought and feeling, and the democratic way of life, in imperishable words.” It is bruising to read those sentences. We no longer offer such instruction to the world, or even care about the condition of freedom beyond our own borders.

The question of how to live is more than the question of how to vote. The liberal idea was never just a political idea. It is, more generally, a grand belief in human capacity, and in the obligation – exclusive to no group and no tradition – to cultivate it. When Henry James wrote about “the liberal heart”, he meant a large heart, a generous heart, a receptive heart, an expansive heart, an unconforming heart, a heart animated by a wide variety of human expressions. Such an ideal of heartfulness pertains not only to politics but also to culture. The war against callousness cannot be won without the resources of culture. There is no more lasting education in human sympathy than an exposure to literature and the arts.

The dwindling position of the humanities in American society is one of its most catastrophic developments. This journal, an independent journal, will take a side in this struggle. It will champion sensibility as well as controversy, and attend to culture with the same ardor with which it attends to politics. But it will refrain from aligning cultural criticism with political criticism, in grateful awareness of the multiplicity of the realms in which we lead our lives, and in awareness also of the insidious history of the synchronization of culture with politics. Pardon the counter-revolutionary thinking, but culture must never become politics by other means. Of course this is precisely what culture is becoming, thanks not least to the zealous synchronizers at the New York Times. (And at The New Yorker, which is what PM would have been if it had the money.) The autonomy of art threatens nobody and enriches everybody. The social and political origins of artists vitiate the freedom of art about as much as the social and political origins of thinkers vitiate the freedom of thought. When art is weaponized, it is compromised. Racial justice does not require the racialization of all things. And culture harbors no dream of consensus. An aversion to controversy is an aversion to culture, just as it is an aversion to democracy.

Not least because it will appear only four times a year, this journal will not be in the business of rapid response to the emergencies and the imbecilities with which we are currently inundated. We will crusade, but slowly. There is a deeper reason for this counter-cultural pace. It is that the investigation into bigger ideas and larger causes takes time. If the sorting out of our intellectual pandemonium should not be conceived under the aspect of eternity, neither should it be conceived under the aspect of the news cycle. American journalists have brilliantly responded to an assault on their integrity and their legitimacy with a golden age of investigative journalism, but they cannot be expected to do more: the exposure of lies in a regime of untruth is as exhausting as it is essential. (How many synonyms are there for “madman”?) So in these pages we will be indifferent to the chyrons. There will be no quick takes and immediate reactions and emotional outbursts, nothing driven by velocity or by brevity. At this journal we are betting on what used to be called the common reader, who would rather reflect than belong and asks of our intellectual life more than a choice between orthodoxies. We are not persuaded that it is a losing bet. With a melancholy sense of the fragility of what we cherish, and with a bestirring sense of how much injustice there is in the country and the world, we wish to bring an old intellectual calling into a new era and see what together we can learn. Nothing quickens the mind like hope.