Our Liberalism

April 2024

Cowards do not skip generations. Neither do sociopaths, geniuses, hecatombs, or heroes. The brave are allotted in finite, equal amounts in every century and only ever account for a slim minority. Brutal slavery is not biblical, drawing and quartering is not medieval, and concentration camps did not come in and out of existence in the 1940s. All of these horrors, and their cessations — if they do cease— are human. We have the same machinery to contend with, build, and dismantle them as we always have and always will. Fingerprints exactly like the ones which oil your iPhone screen stained every sword hilt and lash.

We are told that, sometime before my generation inherited our over-heated world with all its varieties of inflamed discourse, there was a period during which it was possible to believe that history was over. Liberal intellectuals who were taught in the 1960s and 1970s by refugees from a world that had destroyed itself were instilled with a sense of historical envy. Their teachers had met evil incarnate and done intellectual battle with it.

My generation never had opportunity to be analogously envious. The end of history ended before we arrived.  We came of age when the storm clouds had again gathered. History comes for all of us and these years are rife with it. If we could pick our age I do not believe this one would be less or more attractive than any other. The times are always unprecedented.

Those of us capable of courage rise to it, and courage makes demands of us that are often unpretty. Courage is unpretty. Hannah Arendt is often quoted as having said “those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil.” She did write this, but only to dispute the sentiment. The essay in which that sentence appears is an essay-length defense of purity in politics. Which is to say an advocation for abdicating politics altogether. Better to do nothing at all than to get one’s hands dirty, she says. She often mistook herself for being above the fray. In this case, she was beneath it. She was wrong. Better dirty hands than hands that are clean, soft, uncalloused. Lesser evils are always the best we have. We will have allies we do not like. And that’s when we are lucky.

The insipid ironic cynicism of the generation between mine and the boomers who have gotten us into this absurd fever pitch — that cynicism is worse than a dereliction: it is capitulation. It is a mystery why watching the towers fall wasn’t enough to rattle the cool kids from their sardonic slumber. Wryly rolling eyes and slinging limpid quips about the uncoolness of caring too much — these would be adolescent indulgences even if the world weren’t burning, but it is and we should give a damn with the gusto holocausts demand.

I am a liberal. I am a liberal because a worldview predicated on the defense of human rights is the one best fit to combat the evils of our age.

Liberalism demands we not abscond from the fight simply because the other people fighting are doing it for the wrong reasons. Let me give you an example. There are people, and some of them call themselves liberals, who believe that the fact that queerness is trendy in liberal arts departments and overpriced coffee shops in metropolitan capitals means being queer is contemptible. That is absurd, and we know it is absurd because the Kremlin tells us it is true. The fact that it is fashionable in certain siloed, monied communities to be queer matters a good deal less than the fact that illiberal bigots have converted queer and trans people into avatars for decadence and impurity.

That they are doing it in lower Manhattan does not mean it is wrong. This is true of queerness and anti-racism and feminism and Palestinian activism. (It was never trendy in the East Village to protest for Syria, Afghanistan, or Israel — take comfort: I’m not telling you they are always right. Just that they are not always wrong.) That racism is condemned by people who have never been victims of it has nothing at all to do with whether or not racism should be condemned. It is just as wrong-headed to disbelieve something because the cool kids think it as it is to parrot it for the same reason. If a crowd is shouting something true, it is not less true for being shouted by a crowd. Be suspicious of their motives but do not be silent. Do not be stupid.

There are worse things than agreeing with the fashionable people particularly when you and they are allied against the rising tides of fascism and it should be called that regardless of the fact that the fashionable people like to use that word. Fashion likes hyperbole but we are living through overlapping historical frenzies and hyperbole happens quite often to be appropriate.

Liberalism is a political movement, but it is also a philosophy which enshrines the worth of every human being. Liberals are lost if we forget that article, if we fail to assert — through behavior, language, tone, and thought — that our rights are granted to us by virtue of our common humanity, and that one of them is a right to be treated with dignity. And so it is illiberal to be undignified, and to tarnish our conception of humanity by treating other people with indignity.

On Twitter, on Instagram, in the hall and on the street —behave like a human being. This does not come naturally to us. A liberal order requires a great deal of human self-overcoming.

Fascism has met social media. The human appetite for brutality has been given the gift of twenty-first century technology, and all of us have front row seats. Spectatorship is our perpetual state. Even the “players” spend most of their time watching — too much is happening all of the time. How often does Putin check his notifications? Does Benjamin Netanyahu know how many followers he has right now? It is important to recognize, to say out loud, the obvious truth that though our brutalities have been with us since the beginning of human history, they have never had such powerful tools to play with. And so all the familiar moral calculations we used to make without them have to be reinvented for a new age. Courage doesn’t look the way it used to because evil doesn’t look the way it used to, and so we must update our conception of it, and then rise to it. Cruelty is easier than it used to be. Courage is, too.

We, we citizens of the current century, we children of modernity, have no respite from unflattering proof of our own worth, from a merciless assessment of our own inner resources. Since sentience there has hardly been a moment when our collective mettle isn’t being tested. Even when we are silent we are silent in public. Those of us capable of bigotry, cowardice, hatred, and idiocy reveal it, align it with the natural, despicable forces, break bread with autocrats and their stooges, and follow and retweet them on networks with tentacles as long as the earth is round. Evil is only ever a click away. Pusillanimity is our default condition.

It is courageous to be decent in places where decency is strange. This isn’t silly or cloying nonsense. This isn’t feel-good bubblegum philosophy. The barbaric populism we read about in the paper breeds on the platforms we all frequent and it hectors implicitly that people — all of us by implication — are not worthy of respect. The success of that sentiment has neutered Our Liberalism. It is our civic duty to combat it by behaving like decent human beings. Our pathetic public square — I mean social media — is overrun by cruel people. Cruel people are so common that ordinary people have taken to calling bullies “bots” because we would rather believe that the creatures responsible for typing all the nasty comments which pollute our feeds are machines and not flesh and blood. “Bot” has become a synonym for a person one would rather believe is subhuman. “Bots” spray their filthy, bigoted cruelties in all of our replies, embittering, isolating, and tormenting anyone who dares to raise their heads. In this absurd, trivial age, being decent is no longer just an act of civic virtue. It is an act of resistance, a new version of il gran rifiuto.

I enjoin you to be bombastically, publicly decent. It is not preening or presumptuous to be forceful about being kind — on the contrary: it is courageous, at a time when venom flows openly from loud, evil lips. We do not have the luxury of being above the fray. There is no such thing — the fray is too cruel, too overactive. There is no respite from it. Basic decencies are punished. Simply saying out loud that the murder of innocent children — whether Israeli or Palestinian or of any other origin — is wrong, is punished by vicious social opprobrium on every inch of every spectrum and so we must say it out loud and often. We must be vociferously human. Earnestness is brave. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

All our hills have been leveled, and so we must build a hill, and then build a city on it. We must all take part in this redemption.

What’s coming is big enough for all of us and what’s coming is already here.


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