Thursday, June 14, 2018

Muñoz vs. Deneen: Whence Our Parade of Horribles?



For discussion…

A blog post by Rod Dreher brought my attention yesterday to a new critique of Patrick Deneen’s hard-hitting Why Liberalism Failed. I didn’t think that critique, by Deneen’s colleague Vincent Philip Muñoz, delivered anything like a decisive blow. It’s a strong essay, no doubt, but seems to me more a matter of pleading than dispassionate analysis of where we are at. Leaning on the Founders’ good intentions, it describes a ship that has already sailed, one replaced by a new ship built by new shipwrights who have fudged the original blueprints to match their new priorities. And I suspect that possibility of fudging was too much there in the original Founders’ blueprints. As I also suspect the sleek new ship presently leaving harbor is not seaworthy.

Muñoz’s essay, well worth reading in full, is not strong enough in my mind to dislodge Deneen’s arguments.

But one of the commenters on Rod’s post, using the pen name Haigha, weighed in as follows:

The burden is not on Muñoz to prove that liberalism does not inevitably lead to the contemporary parade of horribles; the burden is on Deneen to prove that it does inevitably lead there. His argument doesn’t come anywhere close to doing so. As an empirical matter, we have one single iteration of the Enlightenment and the subsequent history of Western civilization. There’s no compelling reason to think that if we had more iterations, the results would necessarily be this way. The United States was doing quite well, and was more liberal than it is now, until the early 20th Century. Who knows what would have happened if there had been no WWI, or if the conflation of women’s rights, sexual libertinism, and male-female sameness had been foreseen and stamped out early, or the conflation of science and atheism? Since he obviously can’t prove his thesis empirically, Deneen is left with logic. Here, again, he fails by a mile. As Muñoz notes, the bad things that he claims are inherent in liberalism simply are not, as a logical matter. Take a look at this speech by President Coolidge. He explains the logic of liberalism properly understood, and how it not only is not incompatible with Christianity, but is in fact the most Christian system, because the Christian assertion of universal equal dignity necessarily leads to the conclusion that human interactions should be primarily consensual. The logical distinction between saying, “I have no right to prevent you from doing X”, and saying, “If X floats your boat, that’s great!”, is obvious and elementary. For Deneen to be right, he has to collapse that distinction, and he can’t.

I notice that Rod and Deneen both like to talk about global capitalism as if it’s something qualitatively different from what existed in the past. It’s not. Our economy was infinitely freer and more “liberal” in the Nineteenth Century. Global capitalism is just the result of advances in technology and wealth that enable us to engage in the specialization and exchange that make us rich on a much broader scale, and with more participants. Capitalism has advanced with technology, in spite of increasing statism, not because of it.

As for Casey, the Supreme Court is not, in fact, the authoritative interpreter of the Constitution. It has the indisputable final word only with respect to the disposition of individual cases or controversies where it has jurisdiction. The other branches need not respect a Court ruling that purports to strike down a statute on a blanket basis, or grant itself jurisdiction at the margins. And even if the Court were authoritative, that would not be remotely sufficient to establish that the Constitution is compatible with whatever the Court says, since the Court can obviously get it wrong.

Dreher: “For you conservative readers who believe that classical liberalism can be saved, I’m eager to know how you think that might be done, given the cultural realities of our post-Christian age.”

One of the reasons I’m attracted to this blog is that I have the same instinct that animates “The Benedict Option”: That the bulk of the population is too far gone, but that a smaller, core group might be able to keep the faith. If that’s true of orthodox Christianity, it may also be true of classical liberalism. Bring together those who understand that the equal dignity of men and women does not imply sameness; that “you may” does not imply “you ought”; that fences are generally there for a reason; that the scientific method neither is nor implies an ontology or a metaphysics; that we have unchosen duties. Teach those truths to each other and to our children. Build networks for cross-patronization and support. Gather geographically. In time, maybe even build up a great enough concentration to press for autonomy or independence.

In short, make classical liberalism part of the BenOp. There need be no paradox–Coolidge and the men he cites certainly wouldn’t have seen one.

My reply lower down in the thread:

@Haigha gives the most concise, hardest-hitting critique of Deneen I’ve yet seen anywhere:

The burden is not on Muñoz to prove that liberalism does not inevitably lead to the contemporary parade of horribles; the burden is on Deneen to prove that it does inevitably lead there. . . . [We] have one single iteration of the Enlightenment and the subsequent history of Western civilization. There’s no compelling reason to think that if we had more iterations, the results would necessarily be this way. The United States was doing quite well, and was more liberal than it is now, until the early 20th Century. Who knows what would have happened if there had been no WWI, or if the conflation of women’s rights, sexual libertinism, and male-female sameness had been foreseen and stamped out early, or the conflation of science and atheism?

And:

[President Coolidge] explains the logic of liberalism properly understood, and how it not only is not incompatible with Christianity, but is in fact the most Christian system, because the Christian assertion of universal equal dignity necessarily leads to the conclusion that human interactions should be primarily consensual. The logical distinction between saying, “I have no right to prevent you from doing X”, and saying, “If X floats your boat, that’s great!”, is obvious and elementary. For Deneen to be right, he has to collapse that distinction, and he can’t. Exactly. This is certainly much better put than Muñoz puts it. If you have your own blog, Haigha, or write elsewhere, I’d love to know. In different forums, I’ve been trying to argue this last distinction to no avail for quite some time. Of course the answer is always: “If you don’t affirm us and agree with us as to what truth is, you are quite simply a bigot, your bigotry clearly comes from your religion, don’t you know about separation of church and state, you don’t belong in the public arena,” blah blah blah. Bland emotive assertions accompanied by no understanding of the separation clause. And yet, sadly, this understanding of the American project now gets a pass from tens of millions of Americans.

I fully agree with Rod and others here (cf. @pjnelson) that what we are witnessing is not a conflict between religion and secularism, but rather a conflict between different religions. On the one hand, orthodox Christianity; on the other, a new religion of the Perversely Desiring Self. I can honestly say that what troubles me most in recent years is the fact that our elites and our courts are not secular enough. They are showing themselves adherents of a new religious vision, the Rainbow Cult, one with its own martyrology, its own rituals, its own sense of the divine. That divine is located not in any old desiring self, such as most of us, but rather in, let’s say, a teen drag queen who takes the moniker Divine, and who comes out “bravely” as intersex and gay at the same time. And if ze was ever rejected by ze’s parents or “backward” elements in ze’s community, all the better. Ze is already in this new cult a St. Sebastian on digital canvas, pierced by the arrows of normie evil.

One might not agree with me that Obergefell and what followed represents the rise of a new religion. But I’d ask: Would any other group besides our now worshiped LGBTQwerty tribe have been given the right to redefine an institution as fundamental as marriage? Because, in my view, they did not in fact “expand marriage rights”. What they did is redefined marriage itself. Would any other tribe have been able to do this, out of the blue as it were, after little more than a decade of rallying? I highly doubt it. It could only happen because of a certain something the LGBT cause had picked up in the meantime. That something is a kind of religious aura, a Kool-Aid charisma that had already infected our culture on coast and coast (rather than from coast to coast, as the latter included a Middle America then still mostly unflooded by said Kool-Aid).

And this is why I wish our elites had stuck more to their secularism. That they had not become proselytes of a bizarre new cult.

But to return to the question of classical liberalism and its role in our present, Rod puts it like this:

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that most Americans today were religiously engaged. Would that have stopped the kind of liberal economics that have eviscerated communities? Or the other cultural developments that have deracinated modern people? I don’t see how. Whether the Founders realized what liberalism was capable of or not, the fact is that the deepest principles of liberalism are antithetical to the kind of virtues necessary to sustain liberalism. It’s a paradox.

I think this is basically right, and so, regardless of Haigha’s brilliant critique, I still incline more toward Deneen’s argument as offering something essential. Which is not necessarily to say that we have any better choices at the moment than liberalism. Perhaps Haigha is right that we need to focus on developing Benedict Options for both the orthodox religious and for those who still support classical liberalism.

I’m aware that Haigha, in some respects, is presenting a position similar to Muñoz’s. But I’m interested especially in Haigha’s stress on the alternative historical possibility that American culture had foreseen the results of “the conflation of women’s rights, sexual libertinism, and male-female sameness … or the conflation of science and atheism,” as I’m also interested in the following: “The logical distinction between saying, ‘I have no right to prevent you from doing X’, and saying, ‘If X floats your boat, that’s great!’, is obvious and elementary. For Deneen to be right, he has to collapse that distinction, and he can’t.”

I’d be curious how Deneen himself would respond to these various critiques. Of course in his book he makes very clear that hatching any ambitious new political blueprint to replace liberalism would be dangerous and likely self-defeating. But what would he say to Haigha’s arguments? Further: Is there any value in a Benedict Option of classical liberalism, if only as a means to temper the excesses of late liberalism?

Check out my Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.

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