This post is in response to a wonderful comment that Timothy Burke left in the thread on a prior post, Crooked Timber in The Dumpster too. I am posting it here to draw further comments on what may emerge over time as a shared understanding. We are hashing through what we can learn from our several reactions, and reactions to the reactions, to the incendiary post, How to Write Like a Liberal Sack of Garbage. Having felt the mutual pain of misunderstanding, Timothy is trying with relentless good will, and I am also, to learn from each other, and come away with a sense of colleagueship, if nothing else. The notes below could not have been written without his prodding and are a "straight" statement of my own beliefs, sans satire, insofar as I can still write, at moments, like a liberal and moderate man "capable of reason" (as Swift said of humankind.)
Timothy, Bravo! I am deeply moved and exhilarated by your clarion call to reason, mutuality, and the public square. And, yes, even a humane capitalism, in the spirit, say, of Mill. Crooked Timber, the name, comes I am sure from Kant via Isaiah Berlin, one of my moral and intellectual heroes. (I was at Oxford as a philosophy student when he was there and treasure a moment when he came by Holywell Manor, where I lived, to talk to us after dinner. What an enormously gracious and empathetic man. How he reads himself into those with whom he disagrees, the generosity of spirit and the curiosity are to me models, not just of philosophy, or intellectual history, or lit crit, but of citizenship. As you say, the Habermassian public square.)
I do not feel any hatred for more centrist liberals, not enmity. The attitude is that of the Tutor towards Dick Minim. Love and fidelity. Yet also protective.
I acknowledge that I have not yet found a good way to engage the far right. I am immersed in their world but most often silent, going along to get along. But there are some emerging opportunities. As those who read this site know I have a cordial and friendly relationship, one I have consciously courted, with Lenore Ealy, a socially conservative policy intellectual who currently specializes in philanthropy. She is very much a part of the policy circles that include Heritage, AEI, Hudson, Heartland, George Mason, and on and on. (She would modestly call herself peripheral, but she has convened a listserve of some major figures.) We engage each other on purpose. We trade names and connections. We stage moments of debate, and we encourage our friends to join us, not just to take potshots but to develop collegial working relationships with our apparent "adversaries," in the process of which we find common interests, for example, in promoting grassroots giving and civic engagement. So, I do think, you and I are back to back in the same foxhole, willing to fight to the last bullet, or the last witticism, for the ideals of, say, Isaiah Berlin, may his influence spread!
So whence comes the animus that you notice, correctly? Why the fury over the prose, or more generally the decorum, of received liberalism. Let me give three or four answers.
1. In the upper levels of our society liberals and conservatives seem to in some ways fuse into a single elite. Not quite. There is real mutual distrust between the liberal or traditional funders and, say, the Koch family, Coors, Mellon-Scaithe who use giving to promote a (what appears to me to be) ruthlessly libertarian, damn the public square, kind of public policy. Still, it is frustrating that those of us who feel that, say, The Patriot Act, subverts democracy to find that it had and has broad bipartisan support. As the right moves right, their counterparts in the middle, move right too, until it seems that there are no viable alternative choices.
2. What does the Habermassian public square, or democracy, require of us, when we are called out as Terrorists? Or when we see the putting in place of a new McCarthyism, one blood libel, one innuendo, one Freedom Pen, one Patriot Act, one Attorney General, one judge at a time? What is the most effective defense, when we are not the judge, but the accused? Can we write in the moderate even handed style when we are defending our own personal bona fides before a Kangaroo Court?
3. I do not think liberalism is a given, or an eternal verity. I think of it as garden or a plant that requires watering, pruning, cultivation. (Metaphors from Pindar via Martha Nussbaum.) Unless we care for it, the garden will be overrun with weeds. Some pruning, some weeding, gets the hands dirty, and requires edge tools.
4. As a matter of personal discovery, my own little aha, I do believe and think if I were still in academics I could prove that the tradition of Berlin and Mill or of Wimsatt, or E.B. White, is also the tradition of Augustan, and classical satire. That is something that might be worthy almost of an anthology, so many proof texts, right on down through, actually, Hume and Locke. (Read Hume's famous passage for example on not deducing an ought from an is, and see it within the tradition of Augustan wit and satire, it will pop into focus as such. The tropes, as of feigned bewilderment, would do Pope proud.)
So what? In satire we have the wet work needed to be both faithful to our own tradition, and also to defend it against those who would subvert it. Am I good at it? No, I am insurance exec and former academic, not a creative writer. But the tradition, the double helix, of reason and poetry, including satire, is there to be embraced, as one might run to an armory still well stocked the weapons needed to defend a free society from disingenuous foes.
Here is my gut level feeling about Horowitz and his memes. The GOP embraced a Southern strategy via Rove, out of Atwater, out of George Wallace. What Horowitz is doing, with the Patriot Act, the rehabilitation of McCarthy, and secret tribunals as backdrop, is to call certain of my friends, by innuendo, the equivalent of "Niggrah." Now he says, traitor or terrorist, not niggrah or commie, but the rhetorical strategy is that of a slur, or an unanswered blood libel. To let it slide is not acceptable. Or it will come at us again and again until it becomes like a Brand, the equation of liberalism with terror and treason. Then could come marginal cases where such people deemed (or slurred as) traitors are tracked in databases, deprived here and there of certain liberties, and if that works, more of the same with increasing intensity. The limits, the perimeter is being probed. If we do not resist, the ideals of Isaiah Berlin end in our era, on our watch, in all but name, or in all but isolated pockets, such as the universities, on which Horowitz has also trained his attention, as has Lynne Cheney via ACTA (American Council of Trustees and Alumni)
"So, what are you saying, boy, are you saying you are not a niggrah? Sure look black to me, boy. Show me your hand. Black as the ace of spades. You saying you're white? No, you are a Niggrah. Aren't you, boy?" That is what I hear in Horotwitz and I am appalled that we are unable to answer. (I have been asked here in the South by colleagues in business, "Are you a liberal?" When I say, "Yes," they shake their heads as if I had owned up to being a Pariah, their worst fears confirmed.) By "we," those unable to answer Horowitz, honestly, Timothy, I had in mind specifically some of the people and organizations specifically named in his Discover the Network. (I had just come from a conference, The Momentum Conference, convened by Threshold, Changemakers and Tides who are instanced in the database.)
Look at the posts on Peter Karoff here, including the one recently about "What We Want," see how he is operating almost in a state or rosy minded denial? (I say that with genuine admiration and affection. He is my mentor and friend and has probably done more for me than anyone in my career, but he is in a box, and he knows it, and suffers from the sense that he is living among Sleepwalkers, his fellow liberals, who are reliving Weimar. He has written a piece about it but published sub rosa only on my other site, unless I have missed it elsewhere.) Horowitz has called Peter's friends out, with an eye to demonizing them, wrong footing them, and possibly setting them up. And what is their response? To ignore him. As some ignored Hitler's rise through similar memes. I think Peter and his friends are just plain dumbfounded. They are so polite, as you are Timothy, so sincere, so well educated and so well bred, and so earnest that they are speechless at Horowitz's malevolence. They are ostracizing - as if it mattered - the Yahoos who are now risen to power. They are no longer masters of the big house, for they are the new niggrahs. And accused to Terror they just stand there and take it. As a guy living in the South, they seem to me to be almost asking for it. We don't like no terrorists down here. We have pickups driving around with Terrorist Hunting Licenses on the back window, and we don't stand with politeness. (We being the rednecks empowered by the Horowitz discourse that winks at and seemingly condones vigilante violence but with deniability, Abu Ghraib all over again, with Gonzalez as the Sheriff in this Southern town, where a liberal or a gay or an Planned Parenthood doctor may well turn up... well, missing. Here in Dallas a democratic organizer was told from the pulpit that you can't be both a liberal and a Christian. His home was later egged, with an note suggesting as much. These people, spurred by the likes of Horowitz, and emboldened by White House access, are not debaters. Their tradition is barn burning.)
I wrote as much to Peter. I suggested that he convene a panel of those in the Horowitz database, and that he invite Horowitz. That he call Horowitz out in his turn, that he advance smartly towards danger and show neither fear nor disdain, just advance until Horowitz feels himself facing a phalanx of his moral and intellectual superiors, shoulder to shoulder. Peter has access to the national media and convenes such events. To prod Peter's conscience, I also included the parable, The Chorus, http://www.thehappytutor.com/archives/2005/03/the_liberal_cho_1.html
He said in reply, "You are nothing if not consistent," meaning that I have been on him about this for years, to bestir himself to defend the democracy we are losing on his watch. Then he invited me to contribute to his new book, in effect, turning the tables and saying, "Okay smartass you stick your neck out. You tell them, and I'll hold your coat. You have rich conservative clients at your firm; you are inoffensive as hell on Company Time, sucking up to one and all, and calling it good manners, or being inclusive. If you want to call out the right, you put your name on the line, Mr. Anonymous Blogger, piss in your own punch bowl and get off my case." At least that is how I read it. He is giving me the rope and suggesting that I should provide a demonstration of a man hanging himself in a noble cause.
Finally, there is this. Do you know the wonderful book by Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property? Among its many fine moments is an observation about language. He says we have the language of the altar (or hearth) and the language of the gate (commerce and war). I think we both write, I in these comments now, you throughout, the language of the hearth, the language of friend with friend, that we would also willingly extend to others as civic friends in the public square, whether we agree with them or not, we would accord them time and attention, and try to meet with them honestly. Yet, that whole discourse is now being subverted not by Terrorists but by our over-response to terror, like (as Derrida said) a man who dies not of a disease but of his own antibodies run amok. How do we address those in the public square who use psy ops, marketing, and propaganda, following Machiavelli and Strauss to create a world of seeming, a world of propaganda, and who sway the multitude with great effect, and who, knowing we resist, are now demonizing us as the new niggrahs, the terrorist symps who are otherwise known as liberals?
We need a language that cuts through to the bone. Reason is weak against their stratagems, because the stratagems are not arguments, but innuendo, demagoguery, and veiled threat. To accept such strategic coded malevolent speech acts as reason and to respond with reason, strikes the adversary, quite rightly, as ludicrous. He doesn't believe his own shit, and here you are carefully agreeing and disagreeing point for point, as he packs another handful of shit to throw in your face. You don't reason pro and con with an egregious insult.
To defend the public square requires two things:
1. That we not abandon it. (That we not stop writing in the spirit and style of Berlin, that we remain faithful to our folkways, even in extremis.)
2. We draw on the full resources of our tradition, including its suppressed or atavistic gene for satire, wit, humor, invective and carnival to make our dishonest and corrupt adversaries feel pain for pain, shot for shot, right down the line. Their faults are not just intellectual, the faults are moral. Sermonizing is dull, as even Swift the Preacher knew; what gets attention is a ritual lynching, vigilante justice, and the satirist does it with greater art, as his Noble Trade, than did George Wallace or now his heirs, like Rove, Limbaugh, Coulter, and Horowitz. If it comes to lynching, let Astraea return and show us how it can be done in the most Horatian and civilized manner, not to subvert what you love, Timothy, but to defend it and preserve it and even to exemplify it, if you love Dryden or Pope or Swift and consider them as I do parts of the broad liberal tradition.
So, if you are willing to accept me as such, I would like to think we are making common cause for the liberal tradition.