Defining Features of Liberalism?

In the context of an apology for the lowly AR-15, Edmund Kozak begins with a list of “three defining features of modern liberalism.” These are, “an intense aversion to the Constitution, a denial of objective truth, and a penchant for intentionally abusing the English language with an aim to mislead the public.”

Now, I’m one of those odd people (apparently) who is neither a liberal nor an apologist for the AR-15 or our current gun culture, so you may consider my comments here not to be worth your time. I don’t want to address the apology here; rather, I want to look at his uncharitable characterization of “modern liberalism.”

The first thing I notice is that this is a pejorative view of modern liberalism. Kozak aims to cast modern liberals in a negative light for his audience. He would have the reader assume that he and his ilk take diametrically opposed positions. Where liberals have an “aversion” to the Constitution, he loves the constitution and adheres to it strictly. Where liberals deny objective truth, he claims and defends objective truth. And where liberals “intentionally abuse” language in order to mislead people, he uses language properly in order to rightly guide his audience.

I have no doubt that Kozak believes these things about himself. I also have no doubt that at least most liberals would not accept his characterization of their beliefs and practices. Most people I know who consider themselves liberals claim to honor the Constitution (though some say it needs to be scrapped, since only wealthy white males created it). I believe they are honest in these claims: they are not lying when they say they honor the Constitution. What they do however, is interpret it differently from how Kozak interprets it. If liberals have an “intense aversion” to the Constitution, it is not the Constitution itself to which they have an aversion but to Kozak’s construal of the Constitution.

The pejorative approach continues with Kozak’s other two features. In terms of the history of philosophy, most modern liberals claimed that “objective truth” was on their side. It’s more accurate to say that at least some postmodern (liberals?) deny the existence of “objective truth.” Or, better, they deny the usefulness of the term “objective truth.” Again, the root of Kozak’s claim about modern liberals is a difference of opinion.

As to “misleading the public,” liberals would (and do) claim that people like Kozak are the ones deceiving the public, not only on the issue of guns, but on a multitude of other issues. Inasmuch as this and other opinion pieces (coming from all points on the ideological spectrum) are pieces of rhetoric rather than cool and detached analyses, we would expect writers, whether Kozak or “modern liberals,” to try to influence the public. If one thinks one has THE TRUTH on one’s side, and the other side is saying something else, then it is only natural to describe one’s opponents as deceptive. “Here’s the truth, we know it, they know it, yet look what they say!” As Socrates notes of his opposition at the beginning of Plato’s Apology, it is possible to utter many persuasive words, with nary a bit of truth mingled in.

Our objective in communication ought to be subservience to the truth. Kozak may well present some truth about the AR-15 in particular and guns in general; not being a gun person, I can’t say. I can say, however, that his characterization of modern liberals reads like pure attack mode, and not subservience to the truth.

More briefly, a second observation is that Kozak is aiming at a particular audience – and that audience likely already believes most of what he believes. His pejorative description of modern liberals is a way of saying, “Your team stinks!” Since his purpose is to rally his own troops, accuracy in describing his opponents is set aside.

If I were pushed to characterize modern liberals, what features would I point to? I’d start with a commitment to individualism. Now this might sound like an odd place to begin, since modern conservatives are also committed to individualism. How can it be that these polar opposite ideological positions agree on something so basic? It’s precisely because they share so much that the arguments are so bitter. While both begin with individualism, they approach it differently and end up with different flavors of individualism.

Secondly, modern liberals tend to believe that human institutions are merely that – human institutions. As human things, they are infinitely malleable. There is no such thing as marriage, for example, but only marriage as done in particular times and particular cultures. Because of this, one cannot speak of “ruining” or “perverting” the institution of marriage. Marriage changes as culture changes, as individual humans decide to do marriage differently. There is no reason to look to the past, to religion, to a god, or to tradition to figure out what marriage is. Part of the genius of the American tradition is our revolutionary attitude toward institutions. If they work, great! – we’ll keep them until they don’t work. If they are not working, or are oppressive, or are keeping individuals from the fullest expression of their deepest selves, then it’s time to change them or cast them aside.

Thirdly, and in line with the first two, modern liberals have an optimistic view of humans (well, at least of people like them, and those who think they’re the majority will happily extend this optimism to most). We see this in the gradual shift from “liberal” to “progressive.” Because humans are basically good, rational, and moral, there is progress. Where postmoderns (following Lyotard) would reject the progressive metanarrative, modern liberals tell the story of history as one of progress toward what they think is good. Doubtless that progress is neither continuous nor smooth, but we can see it if we look at history objectively.

Fourthly, and I’ll stop my analysis here, modern liberals tend to reject the observation that they are part of a tradition. Rather, they are simply intelligent, good-hearted people, thinking for themselves. They are not like “conservatives” (or whatever they call the other team) who try to enforce their bigoted and outdated reading of the Constitution on others, who deny the objective findings of science, and seek to mislead the public by their references to God, America, and Safety. Perhaps you can tell that I’m not contending with both these positions here. What we know as conservatism today is not just a position that says “Change is bad, maintain the status quo!,” liberalism today is not a position that says, “Change is good, let’s change everything!” Instead, both are instances of traditions of inquiry and action. Both embody both continuity (they remain this tradition, and not some other) and change (they adapt to changing environments, situations, and challenges). Insofar as they deny that they or their opponents are a tradition, they are likely to misunderstand themselves and the Other.

But, of course, if all one wants to do is puff out one’s chest, display one’s plumage, and insult the other team, then, well, who cares about some misunderstanding along the way?


This entry was posted in Clash of Civilizations, Culture, Current events, Liberalism, Metanarratives, Tradition and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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