I’m rereading Louis Hartz’ 1955 classic, The Liberal Tradition in America, one of the first academic books that fired my brain when I got to college. (David Greenstone taught me. I should read his Lincoln book out of filial piety.)
Here’s a bit on Hartz by Arthur Schlesinger: "The broad liberal objective is a balanced and flexible "mixed
economy," thus seeking to occupy that middle ground between
capitalism and socialism whose viability has so long been denied
by both capitalists and socialists." Interesting shifts in usage since that was written. For a Democrat to stump for a ‘mixed’ economy today would be ballot box poison. But all Schlesinger is saying is: the New Deal. Which folks like.
Hartz’ basic thesis is packed into his Tocqueville epigraph: "The great advantage of the Americans is, that they have arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution; and that they are born equal, instead of becoming so."
As Matthew Yglesias put it the other day: "I’m not sure whether to think it’s a good thing or a bad thing that the
American tradition has turned out this way, as a vicious family
squabble between what are really two strains of Whiggery rather than a
grand ideological debate between Tories and socialists, but that’s the
way it goes."
As Hartz explains it, socialism never takes root in the US because socialism is what you get when a liberal gets exasperated, in a ‘why won’t you DIE?’ way, conronted with some Feudal relic, and starts reaching for some serious levers of power to take care of this problem. (That’s putting it a bit baldly, but that’s the thesis.) America "lacks a genuine revolutionary tradition … And this being the case, it lacks also a tradition of reaction … and becomes as indifferent to the challenge of socialism in the later era as it was unfamiliar with the heritage of feudalism in the earlier one." As a result, there is also a sort of ‘fish last to know it’s in water’ cluelessness about the ubiquity of our Lockean liberalism. The chief danger is ‘tyranny of opinion’, excess unanimity. "When a liberal community faces military and ideological pressure from without it transforms eccentricity into sin, and the irritating figure of the bourgeois gossip flowers into the frightening figure of an A. Mitchell Palmer or a Senator McCarthy." And, of course: "The American liberal community [during the Red Scares of the 1920’s and 1950’s] "contained far fewer radicals than any other Western society but the hysteria against them was much vaster than anywhere else." Ever was it so.
Hartz is capable of fine little turns: "There can be an appalling complexity to innocence, especially if your point of departure is guilt." (Think about it.)
And: "The task of the cultural analyst is not to discover simplicity, or even to discover unity, for simplicity and unity do not exist, but to drive a wedge of rationality through the pathetic indecisions of social thought." (Yes, I think there is deep socratic wisdom in that formulation.)
And another smart thing: "In politics men who make speeches do not go out of their way to explain how differently they would speak if the enemies they had were larger in size or different in character. On the contrary whatever enemies they fight they paint in satanic terms, so that a problem sufficiently difficult to begin with in a liberal society becomes complicated further by the inevitable perspectives of political battle."
This implies double cluelessness, through narcissism of small differences. When you get angry at your enemies – and you will – you need some sufficiently pungent philosophical vocabulary to function as vent and vehicle for your excess of affect. Unfortunately, your enemy shares your major Lockean premises. So you hallucinate it is otherwise. (To use Hartz’ terms) whiggish liberals accuse democratic liberals of being socialists (or, latterly, communists; more lately, Islamofascists and traitors); democratic liberals accuse whiggish liberals of being aristocrats (or fascists.) Mark Schmitt had a post about this a few days ago: Andrew Sullivan reaching vainly for an point of righteous moral principle to separate himself from the other side regarding tax rates.
Of course – being a democrat, not a whig – I am most offended by the right’s recent indulgence in kneejerk pee wee hermeneutics of suspicion: the Powerline ‘the Democrats are traitors’ line; Instapundit ‘Ward Churchill is the authentic face of the left‘; Nelson Ascher’s Berlin Wall nonsense; Wretchard’s ‘the left is in a revenge plot with Islamofascism’ line. Blah blah. It’s a form of motivated irrationality – a tactical deployment of stupidity, shutting down inconvenient conversations; it has its psychic satisfactions, I’m sure. But just as the best laid plans that start with ‘first I’ll get falling down drunk’ oft go astray, so tactical stupidity tends to turn strategic. Stupidity, like hope, is not a plan. (Like beer goggles: smear goggles. When you wear them, you can’t tell the difference between Matthew Yglesias and a shoe bomber.)
You might object that Darkseid is not a whig. But that just goes to show you don’t see, you don’t see.
You might object that Darkseid is non-existent, but that doesn’t change the fact that we have feelings about him. Horowitz’ defines the left as an Injustice League of America because this is emotionally satisfactory. (Adapting his own terms, he is an ‘affective conservative’: an entertainment figure "whose politics are emotionally rather than intellectually based".) Figures like Ward Churchill are foregrounded due to their emotion resonance. The Network is a pattern language of negative affect. There is no particular reason why the objects of this emotion need to exist.
The individual profile pages of my Vast Whig Conspiracy need to be filled in. I suggest you amuse yourselves by crafting suitable entries in the grand ‘I can’t retract my claws!’ Horowitzian style; or a tut-tut ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ Instapundit tone. Or a brisk ‘up is clearly down’ Powerline voice. I think the game should be: keep it pseudo-analytic. Lots of broad hints at connections. That would be funniest. (Go ahead. Think of this as therapy. Get all the bad stuff out of your system so you can think straight once again.) Perhaps people can be shamed out of their illiberal nonsense. Really, it’s un-American to denounce good liberals as un-American. [UPDATE: Come to think of it, by the terms of my own argument, nothing could be more American than to denounce good American liberals as un-American. My point is that it’s our favorite rhetorical pastime, which is rather silly of us.]
Am I saying we can all just get along if we all just cut the nonsense and admit we are a nation of pragmatic liberals and Hartz was right? No, but I pretty much agree with what Timothy Burke says in this post. Count me in as a liberal sack of garbage.