To David Grossman
There are many causes for the rediscovery in our time of the love of dictatorship, for the heartbreaking revival of the preference for what a sixteenth-century French thinker perplexedly called “voluntary servitude.” Some of those causes are economic, but not all of them. We are witnessing also an intellectual convulsion. Not an intellectual war, exactly: one side has yet to come in its full force to the barricades. It has failed in this way before, and disaster ensued. That side is, of course, the liberal side. The rise of authoritarianism is nothing other than the decline of liberalism. In an alarming number of countries and cultures, some of which have experienced a liberal order and some of which have not, the liberal idea is being furiously delegitimated. And not only delegitimated, but also slandered. The description of liberalism as an evil may be the greatest lie of our exceedingly mendacious time.
I leave it for historians to document the plenitude of blessings that the liberal order conferred upon those societies which wisely joined it over the last seven or eight decades. Never has more progress been accompanied by less injustice than in the liberal era. Since I believe that this momentous progress has been owed as much to beliefs as to policies, and that political climates are prepared by intellectual climates, I am more concerned about the philosophical origins of our political circumstances. Intellectually, I am a warmonger. I confess to a lust for battle. It cannot be otherwise, since my enemies, the enemies of liberalism, also have a lust for battle, and they have launched their attack. It comes at us from all sides. In some ways (but not as many as certain commentators think) we have been re-enacting the 1930s, and one of them is in the consensus among the right and the left, among the regressive populists and the progressive populists, that the liberals are the villains.
The ultras can live happily with each other; they need each other; they thrive off each other. They share the revolutionary mentality, the excitement of apocalyptic feeling. Together, therefore, they must band together to destroy the anti-apocalyptics in their midst—the ones who worry about the means as well as the ends; who would rather repair institutions than destroy them; who remember the long history of venalities and atrocities committed in the pursuit of justice; who abhor mobs; who insist that authenticity must answer to morality; who despise simple explanations and worldviews that can be captured in slogans and flags; who dread redemptions and redeemers. Now all those convictions, all the great principles that constitute the liberal tradition, every single one of them, must be defended. After everything that liberalism endured and survived, after the unimaginably savage assaults of fascism and communism, we must steadfastly fight for it all over again, and we must begin again at the beginning. Many of our current opponents are the heirs of liberalism’s older enemies, and we, too, must keep the faith of our fathers—not because it is ours, but because ethically and philosophically we can justify it.
After everything that liberalism endured and survived, after the unimaginably savage assaults of fascism and communism, we must steadfastly fight for it all over again, and we must begin again at the beginning.
The authoritarians of the right and the left are correct: the liberals do indeed stand in their way. We understand the populist temptation too well, and we recall its consequences too vividly, to be left alone. The crowds and their leaders are seeking the re-enchantment of politics, but we long ago championed the disenchantment of politics. We treasure our disillusion, and cultivate it as the beginning of wisdom. There are thrills that no longer attract us; indeed, that repel us. We believe in historical patience—not indifference, but patience—because we have observed that in politics immediate gratification often takes the form of a crime. If we run the risk of complacency, the radicals run the risk of ferocity. No ideology that gained political power (even an anti-ideological ideology such as liberalism) has ever had perfectly clean hands—but liberalism has always included a scruple, a body of values and laws, about its own abuses and the duty to remedy them. The progressives and the regressives, by contrast, are not distinguished by an inclination to introspection. They cherish their anger and they make room for hatred. Should one hate injustice? Always. But the progressives and the regressives do not only hate injustice; they also hate whole classes of people.
The slander against liberalism comes in many parts. The most commonly heard complaint is that liberalism is desiccated—that it is purely procedural, a thicket of rules and regulations that do not address or even recognize the full richness and particularity of human life. It is alleged that liberalism is a doctrine for governing but not for living. There is a grain of truth in this complaint: liberalism’s belief in the power of government to mitigate misery has naturally led it to take a developed interest in the procedures by which this high objective may be achieved. Liberalism really does care about analyzing and solving problems, but the dryness of these commitments should not disguise the hot human core of its enterprise. There is nothing arid about the cause of progress. And if liberalism fails to satisfy citizens emotionally in the way that appeals to blood and soil and class and culture do, well, that is liberalism’s strength, not its weakness. A lecture on responsibility never made anybody’s heart quicken. But beware the politics of quickened hearts. It is all around us now, the rubble of liberalism.
More importantly, it is false to assert that liberalism provides no more than procedures. The liberal tradition espouses a deep portrait of the human person that is noble and inspiring. It is a portrait that begins with an axiomatic faith in human dignity. (The belief may take secular or religious forms.) This dignity is expressed in the idea of rights, which is one of the crowning glories of civilization. A right is the mark of an intrinsic and inalienable worth, a recognition that one is the sort of being whose very nature demands that he be treated with respect and restraint. It is the most fundamental protection against the caprices of power. People who mock the idea of rights, and the “culture of rights,” have never been stripped of one. And nobody who has ever been deprived of a right has ever been troubled by its “individualism.” Nor is it the case, anyway, that rights are, strictly speaking, individualistic. They apply to individuals by referring to a larger principle and a grander picture. Perhaps the most counter-cultural feature of liberalism is its universalism—its insistence upon the universal reach of rights. Before it is anything else, the doctrine of rights is an ideal of all of human life, a vision of how thinking beings and feeling beings—human persons—can live together amicably and justly. A right that is not universal is just a privilege. What exactly is embarrassing about a reference to humanity? Is there really no such thing?
Perhaps the most counter-cultural feature of liberalism is its universalism—its insistence upon the universal reach of rights.
But universalism is the bogeyman of the new authoritarian age. It is mocked everywhere in the name of localism, as if our similarities cannot somehow coexist with our differences. Politicians rise to power and pundits rise to television by preaching that everybody comes from somewhere and nobody comes from nowhere, and so it is our duty to serve our various somewheres and redesign our politics to regard our particularities as our essences. The revolt against universalism is usually expressed as a rejection of “globalization.” Down with elites! Never mind that every somewhere has its own elite. (Anti-elitist elitism is one of the comedies of our age.) It is impossible to deny that Davos is a disturbing spectacle, but surely we have less to fear from the talkative billionaires in a snowy Swiss town than from the dictators in Moscow, Beijing, Ankara, Tehran, Budapest, Warsaw, Caracas, Damascus, Cairo, Manila, Pyongyang, Bangkok, and elsewhere, with other European and Asian and South American capitals teetering on the brink of anti-democratic disaster.
What begins in philosophy often ends in politics. This is certainly the case with universalism in our darkening world. And so it is worth stressing that the distinction between the universal and the particular is completely phony. There never lived a purely universal man or a purely particular man. Such creatures would be monsters. The universal cannot be attained except through the particular, and the particular cannot be vindicated except through the universal. These alleged antinomies coexist wherever we look. The mixture is not impossible, it is commonplace. We are, all of us, in different measures, particular and universal: compound beings. We originate in specificity but we exceed our origins. That excess—the insistence that the end should not reproduce the beginning—is a defining characteristic of human experience. We are compound and mobile beings. We go from one somewhere to another somewhere, bringing all our somewheres with us, correcting and enriching them with each other, aspiring not to everywhere but to elsewhere, because elsewhere is where we may best educate our provincial hearts. Homelessness may be experienced also, and sometimes most stingingly, at home. And pity the spirit that has only one home.
The romance of heimat is an insult to human potential. And so, too, is the politics of heimat. Authoritarianism is very often a cult of racination, and liberalism is often unfairly maligned as an engine of deracination. Thus the Russian reactionary Aleksandr Dugin has denounced liberalism as “the progressive destruction of all kinds of collective identity.” Historically and conceptually, this is nonsense. Liberalism has no quarrel with roots—but it also honors branches, and recognizes that it is the purpose of roots to grow branches, which may reach very far away from their roots. The argument against liberalism is increasingly made in the name of identity, but a liberal order is not inimical to identity, individual or collective. Quite the contrary. Identity, which is portable and mutable, flourishes most robustly in a liberal order. Or more precisely: identities flourish. It is certainly true that a liberal order cannot in good conscience restrict itself to a single identity. Homogeneity is a contradiction to its sense of possibility. But what shame is there in that? Should solidarity be carried all the way to bigotry? One way of understanding the new authoritarianisms is to regard them as a series of single identities that are too weak to withstand the presence of other identities, too pathetic to weather the test of pluralism, and so they must fortify themselves with the artificial support of state power.
The repudiation of universalism and the worship of origins come together in the current debate about such concepts as freedom and democracy. The critics of democracy like to reduce democracy to its provenance, so as to circumscribe it as Western and therefore alien and not appropriate to non-Western societies. They are content to neglect the ancient democratic strains in certain non-Western cultures, which Amartya Sen has persuasively identified. More significantly, they cannot imagine the interplay of roots and branches that defines human life. After all, propositions that are universally true are discovered in a particular place and a particular time. We make discoveries that apply to people who are not like us, except insofar as they are sufficiently like us for our discoveries to apply to them. Or for their discoveries to apply to us: should the West reject algebra because it was an achievement of the Muslim world? Are we to regard algebra as a Muslim expression? Is the Copernican account of the cosmos true only in Poland?
In the same way it is absurd to dismiss democracy as Western. The theory of democracy is a universal theory or it is meaningless. While the early democratic philosophers of the West did reflect the prejudices of their time by excluding certain groups from the new dispensation, largely on the basis of religion, these exclusions were, by the standards of the new dispensation itself, hypocritical—the bigoted pioneers of democracy were contradicting themselves; and in the modern era these restrictions have been steadily eliminated, and democratic thinking has caught up with the ideal of inclusiveness that was always implied by the democratic promise. The tragic irony is that just as democracy is seeking to live up to its universalism, it is being scorned precisely for its universalism.
A similar confusion reigns in the discussion of freedom. I will cite Dugin again, since he is such a spectacular example of authoritarian error. “The liberal understanding of liberty being not Western in general but modern Western, it is even farther from non-Western civilizations and cultures,” Dugin declares. Note the aspersion against modernity that often accompanies the hostility to democracy. Dugin believes that he can prove his opinion about the essential incompatibility of the liberal notion of freedom to non-Western societies with an exercise in etymology. “The terms to designate ‘freedom’ in different languages,” he writes, “have sometimes completely different meanings.” The term svoboda in the Slavic languages, he instructs, originally designated only a certain familial relation. It means nothing more. “The word svoboda has nothing to do with the individual.” It refers to the collective, to the group.
I have no idea if Dugin is correct about all this. I am quite sure that this is all beside the point. (It reminds me of Ronald Reagan’s unintentionally hilarious remark that there is no word for détente in Russian.) Dugin’s assumption is that the original meaning of a word is its truest meaning, and that the distance travelled away from an original meaning is a fall into inauthenticity. But this is a prior philosophical position, not a conclusion that can be drawn from the history of languages, which richly illustrates the scope of their evolution and their flexibility. Why should the first be the best? What has philology to do with politics? We do not live in the old world, even if a growing number of peoples and leaders wish that we did.
Dugin rejects the liberal notion of freedom because he cannot find it in his tradition. I understand his predicament, since I, too, cannot find it in my tradition, I mean the Jewish tradition. But I do not for that reason refuse to accept it. I have two reasons for this. The first is that I do not want to live without the decency and the opportunity that we denote by the word “freedom.” The second is that I do not believe that tradition is a guarantee of truth. There are many things in my tradition that I know to be false, and I do not regard it as a betrayal of my tradition to say so. I venture that this is the case also with Dugin’s tradition. Does the fact, if it is a fact, that the Russian word for freedom is not the same as the English word for freedom mean that Russians should not be free?
If liberalism is valid in New York and London, it is valid in Moscow and Beijing. Dugin and all the other reactionaries are right: for monists and holists and totalists, for demagogues for whom human existence is exclusively one thing, liberalism represents a historical and philosophical trauma. With its assertion that we live in a multiplicity of realms none of which can be reduced to the others, liberalism opened a crack in the fantasy of wholeness. It is a breach that will never be repaired, that should never be repaired. The contemporary attack on liberal democracy is an attempt to construe history and the human person as if the great rupture never happened. This is what the world looks like when nostalgia panics. It is the solemn duty of liberals, therefore, to point out that this longing for a lost world is, at least from the standpoint of justice, a longing for a worse world. To say this is not in any way to discount the shortcomings of liberal societies—the sickening magnitude of economic inequality, for example. Something about capitalism has gone terribly wrong. But which Volksgemeinschaft or workers’ state ever successfully addressed this problem? They only made it murderously worse. If modern history teaches anything, it is that political injustice is not the solution to economic injustice.
The slander against liberalism is not only that it is formal and procedural, but also that it is, in its character, soulless. This is not a new indictment. Mill turned from Bentham to Coleridge to assuage precisely such an anxiety, and showed by example that the pursuit of political liberty is one of the very conditions of the cultivation of the soul. In the twentieth century, when many people in the West found a variety of illiberalisms more seductive than the liberal order in which they lived, writers and thinkers such as Thomas Mann and Lionel Trilling and Isaiah Berlin and Joseph Brodsky insisted upon the compatibility of reason with imagination, of openness with inwardness. There is certainly no more resounding refutation of the authoritarian caricature of liberalism, of the claim that liberalism is inhospitable to affairs of the spirit, than the freedom of religion that is written into all the liberal constitutions.
The pursuit of political liberty is one of the very conditions of the cultivation of the soul.
What greater compliment can a secular society pay to religion than to call it a right, to establish its freedom to flourish? It may be that some believers are bewildered, and even frightened, by religion’s loss of political privilege, and by the realization that the tolerance extended to their own faith will be enjoyed also by other faiths, so that many certainties will cohabit the same society; but intolerance is a desperate and unacceptable way to express the insecurity of any particular tradition. Believers must not blame their failures upon their freedoms. The emancipation of the state from religion is also the emancipation of religion from the state. In place of the support of the state, religion gains the protection of the state. For the quality of religion in an open society, the religious are accountable only to themselves.
Just as liberalism may host theism, it may host atheism. Materialists and spiritualists, skeptics and mystics, economists and poets, all live legitimately in its kingdom. Liberalism, soulless? I know the soul, and I am a liberal. I believe in truth, and I am a liberal. I reject materialism, and I am a liberal. I study metaphysics, and I am a liberal. I insist that science cannot account for the entirety of human experience, and I am a liberal. I despise the tyranny of quantification, and I am a liberal. I uphold the limits of politics, and I am a liberal. I am loyal to my people, and I am a liberal. I revere tradition, and I am a liberal. I seek rapture, and I am a liberal. These are not contradictions, they are complexities. Whether or not they go together in ideology, they go together in reality, which is never seamless.
Liberalism’s momentous blunder was to regard itself as inevitable, as the historically ordained climax of a centuries-long campaign for progress, as the last word. We should know better by now—and here too, in America, in the debris of our forty-fifth president. The liberal conception of the person asks too much of the person ever to go uncontested. It chooses not to leave the person as it finds him, embedded in legacies and givens. It is a dis-embedding movement, a challenging ethic of criticism, though not necessarily a destructive one. It demands of ordinary men and women a degree of skill with complexity and a degree of forbearance with human affairs. While it is wary of revolution, it extols change. It proposes to mingle continuity with discontinuity, which has the effect that the people whose lives it betters it also rattles. How could such a philosophy and such a politics not provoke a retort? The catastrophes of modern history—the genocides of fascism and communism—were all such retorts. Liberals should be proud to be known by their enemies. But this we know for sure: there is no rest for us. As we watch in horror as one government after another, one society after another, turns its back on the liberal construction of freedom, we must ready ourselves again for a fight. It will last longer than an election cycle. It may be the work of generations. And in the course of it we may have to introduce a new type in the history of politics, a paradoxical figure: the radical liberal.
Leon Wieseltier is the editor of Liberties and the author of Kaddish (Knopf, 1998).