Sunday, December 03, 2017

Liberal Tradition, Yes; Liberal Ideology, No?

In a provocative essay, R. R. Reno, "Liberal Tradition, Yes; Liberal Ideology, No" (First Things, December, 2017), responds to critics who regard him as shifting to a "mirror image of the anti-American, anti-capitalist left." This is, of course, not quite true, as Reno goes on to show. What interests me here, however, is his reference to Ryzard Legutko's The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, which Adrian Vermeule reviewed sympathetically in the January 2017 issue of First Things, in an article entitled "Liturgy of Liberalism."

As Reno notes, "Vermeule endorses Legutko's central claim, which is that the liberal consensus in the post-1989 West has taken on many of the attributes of the communism that dominated Poland when Legutko came of age. The countries in the West that promote liberal democracy are not islands of toleration, diversity, and free inquiry. Instead, Vermeule writes, echoing Legutko, they are dominated by “a spreading social, cultural, and ideological conformism.” Liberalism has become a religion. Those who dissent are heretics."

Of course, critics will regard this way of talking as hyperbolic and distorting -- like trying to equate perversions such as political correctness with Soviet gulags or Cambodian killing fields. But Reno responds:
But neither Legutko nor Vermeule is equating Berkeley with the closed city of Gorky. They are comparing them—and finding some telling similarities. Both places impose a rigid orthodoxy and stifle dissent. Gorky used secret police, while Berkeley relies on a suffocating climate of opinion. This is a crucial difference, as Ahmari points out. But it does not erase the similarities.

Legutko’s goal—my goal—is not to undermine “liberalism.” It is to clear away some of the blind dogmatism that has built up in the West, especially since 1989. It won’t do to label our efforts “illiberal” just because they call into question the dominant mentality of our time. In fact, that accusation reinforces the totalitarian atmosphere. Contemporary liberalism rarely answers critics. Instead, it silences dissent by labeling it “extremist,” “far-right,” “authoritarian,” and “illiberal.” We can’t come to grips with the problems we face in 2017 if we are constantly policed. And in any event, as Vermeule points out in our last issue (“A Christian Strategy”), our loyalty is to Christ, not to any particular political philosophy or tradition. This transcendent loyalty disenchants political ideologies, and freedom from the idolatry of politics is the soul of true liberalism.
I am not certain that Reno or Vermeule go far enough, in light of Christopher A. Ferrara's penetrating critique of the Liberal tradition itself in Liberty, the God that Failed (2012). But one can learn a great deal from their analysis, which is certainly illuminating as far as it goes.

I should also mention Timothy D. Lusch's exclusive interview with Ryszard Legutko, "A Demon-Haunted Europe: Democracy's Totalitarian Impulse" (New Oxford Review, October 2017), which we have reposted by permission of the publisher here. Lugtko is a professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, a member of the European Parliament, and one of the more astute critics of the totalitarian impulses in contemporary western liberal democracies.

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