The Fear of the Liberals
by COREY ROBIN
The Nation, September 26, 2005 issue
It's the fourth anniversary of September 11, and Americans are getting restless about the war in Iraq. Republicans are challenging the President, activists and bloggers are pressing the Democrats and liberal hawks are reconsidering their support for the war. Everyone, it seems, is asking questions.
Two questions, however, have not been asked, perhaps because they might actually help us move beyond where we are and where we've been. First, how is it that few liberals and no leftists in 1968 believed that Lyndon Johnson, arguably the most progressive President in American history, would or could airlift democracy to Vietnam, while many liberals and not a few leftists in 2003 believed that the most reactionary President since William McKinley could and would export democracy to Iraq?
Second, why did certain liberals who opposed the war in Iraq refuse to march against it? The reason they gave was that left-wing groups like ANSWER, which helped organize the antiwar rallies, failed to denounce Saddam's regime. Yet many of those who could not abide an alliance with ANSWER endorsed the war in Afghanistan--even though it was waged by a government that recently invaded three Caribbean countries, funded dirty wars in Latin America and backed the government of Guatemala, the only regime in the Western Hemisphere condemned by a UN-sponsored truth commission for committing acts of genocide. Politics, of course, often entails an unhappy choice of associations. But if the deeds of the US government need not stop liberals from supporting the war in Afghanistan, why should the words--words, mind you, not deeds--of leftists deprive the antiwar movement of these very same liberals' support?
Both questions register a fundamental shift among liberals, and on the left, since the 1960s: from skepticism of to faith in US power, and from faith in to skepticism of popular movements. During the Vietnam era, liberals and leftists believed not only in social justice but also in mass protest. Whether the cause was democracy at home or liberation abroad, men and women afflicted by oppression had to organize themselves for freedom. Yes, some of yesterday's activists were blind to coercion within these movements, and others joined elite cadres bombing their way to liberation. Still, the animating faith of the 1960s was in the democratic capacities of ordinary men and women, making it difficult for liberals and leftists to believe in conquering armies from abroad or shock troops from on high.
Many liberals, and some leftists, no longer hold these views. Their faith is guided not by the light of justice but by the darkness of evil: by the tyranny of dictators, the genocide of ethnic cleansers and the terrorism of Islamist radicals. Despite their differences--some of these liberals and leftists support the war in Iraq, others do not; some are partial to popular movements, particularly those opposing anti-American governments, while others favor constitutional regimes, particularly those supporting the United States--theirs is a liberalism, as the late Harvard scholar Judith Shklar put it in a pioneering essay in 1989, that seeks to ward off the "summum malum" (worst evil) rather than to install a "summum bonum" (highest good). Reversing Augustine's dictum that there is no such thing as evil--evil being only the absence of good--today's liberal believes there is only evil and progress is measured by the distance we put between ourselves and that evil.
Hostility to popular protest and indulgence of American power follow naturally from this position. Mass movements, liberals claim, are blind to evil or apologize for it. Sometimes they actively court it. In their reckless pursuit of utopia, they march men and women to the gulag or into shooting galleries of terrorism and civil war. Only a politics of restraint can shield us from the temptations of violence. While such a philosophy would seem to militate against George W. Bush's empire, many liberals have concluded that evil in the world is so titanic that only US power can deliver us from it.
Straddling minimalism at home and maximalism abroad, many of today's liberals are inspired by fear. This "liberalism of fear," as Shklar called it, is not to be confused with the terror Americans felt after 9/11 or with Democratic timidity in the face of Republican success. No, today's liberal believes in fear as an idea--that it inflicts such suffering on men and women that we can assess governments by the degree to which they minimize it. Fear is the gold standard, the universal measure, of liberal morality: Whatever rouses fear is bad, whatever diminishes it is less bad. In the words of Michael Ignatieff, liberalism "rests less on hope than on fear, less on optimism about the human capacity for good than on dread of the human capacity for evil, less on a vision of man as maker of his history than of man the wolf toward his own kind."
Though leftists in the sixties certainly spoke of fear, they viewed it not as a foundation but as an obstacle, a hindrance in the struggle for freedom and equality. Whites resisted civil rights, James Baldwin observed, because they were possessed by a "sleeping terror" of ceding status and privilege to blacks. Blacks, in turn, were like "the Jews in Egypt, who really wished to get to the Promised Land but were afraid of the rigors of the journey." The goal was to eliminate or overcome fear, to take one step closer to the Promised Land. This required not only courage but also an ideologically grounded hope for progress. Without an answering vision of social justice, no one would make the journey.
Many contemporary liberals have given up that hope, turning what a previous generation saw as an impediment into a path. Fear is no longer an obstacle but a crutch, a negative truth from which liberalism derives its confidence and strength. "What liberalism requires," according to Shklar, "is the possibility of making the evil of cruelty and fear the basic norm of its political practices and prescriptions." Liberal values like the rule of law and democracy obtain their worth not from reason or rights--which many liberals no longer believe in as foundational principles--but from the cruelty and fear illiberal states and movements routinely inflict upon helpless men and women.
Today's liberals are attracted to fear for many reasons, including revulsion at the crimes of the last century and the miserable state of the postcolonial world. But one of the main reasons is their belief that fear possesses an easy intelligibility. Fear requires no deep philosophy, no leap of reason, to establish its evil: Everyone knows what it is and that it is bad. "Because the fear of systematic cruelty is so universal," Shklar wrote, "moral claims based on its prohibition have an immediate appeal and can gain recognition without much argument." Once liberals realize that they are "more afraid of being cruel"--and of others being cruel--"than of anything else," Richard Rorty has argued, they need not worry about the grounds of their beliefs.
How did a philosophy so averse to utopia and violence get hitched to the American empire? I don't just mean here the war in Iraq, about which liberals disagreed, but the larger project of using the American military to spread democracy and human rights. How did liberals, who've spent the better part of three decades attacking left-wing adventurism, wind up supporting the greatest adventure of our time?
The answer is that liberals need fear: to justify their principles, to warn us of what happens when liberalism is abandoned. And so they are driven abroad to confront the tyrannies that make life miserable elsewhere, in order to derive confidence in their own, admittedly imperfect but infinitely better, regimes. A souped-up version of Churchill's adage that democracy is the worst possible government except for all the others, the liberalism of fear sends writers and fighters to foreign lands in search of themselves and their beleaguered faith. In the words of Ignatieff:
When policy [in the Balkans] was driven by moral motives, it was often driven by narcissism. We intervened not only to save others, but to save ourselves, or rather an image of ourselves as defenders of universal decencies. We wanted to show that the West "meant" something. This imaginary West, this narcissistic image of ourselves, we believed was incarnated in the myth of a multiethnic, multiconfessional Bosnia.
The moral exhilaration of which Ignatieff speaks is closely linked to the revival of an activism discredited since the sixties--an activism, ironically, liberals helped to defeat but now miss and mourn. The military incursions in Bosnia, Ignatieff notes, were "a theater of displacement, in which political energies that might otherwise have been expended in defending multiethnic society at home were directed instead at defending mythic multiculturalism far away. Bosnia became the latest bel espoir of a generation that had tried ecology, socialism, and civil rights only to watch all these lose their romantic momentum."
Bosnia was certainly not the first time that liberals looked to a benighted regime abroad in order to compensate for the stalled pace of domestic advance. In 1792 France's Girondins sensed that their revolution was in peril. Beholding long-suffering peoples to the east, they decided to export progress and promptly declared war on... Austria. And it was Robespierre, so often denounced as a utopian scourge, who issued this prescient warning to his distracted comrades: "No one loves armed missionaries."
Nor was Bosnia the last time. Since 9/11 liberal hawks--and their fellow fliers on the left--have turned the rest of the world into a theater of social experiment and political reform, endorsing foreign expeditions in the name of an enlightenment they can no longer pursue at home. They have opted for a detoured radicalism, which, like all detours, paves a convenient path to an obstructed destination: yesterday Afghanistan, today Iraq, tomorrow ourselves. Though the peregrinations of Christopher Hitchens are by now familiar to most readers of these pages, his confession after 9/11 reveals how easily internationalism can slide into narcissism, the most provincial spirit of all:
On that day I shared the general register of feeling, from disgust to rage, but was also aware of something that would not quite disclose itself. It only became fully evident quite late that evening. And to my surprise (and pleasure), it was exhilaration.... here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated. On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan.... On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting.
More recently, Paul Berman has called the war in Iraq this generation's Spanish Civil War. Berman's own biography, of course, makes mincemeat of the analogy. Spain's civil war demanded, in Stephen Spender's words, "a very personal involvement." But unlike George Orwell, André Malraux or any of the other writers who fought for the Spanish Republic, Berman has yet to pick up a gun to defend the Iraqi government. Martha Gellhorn claimed that Spain's foreign fighters "knew why they came, and what they thought about living and dying, both. But it is nothing you can ask or talk about." Yet all Berman can do is talk... and talk and talk. Meanwhile, the only international volunteers who seem to believe that Iraq is worth fighting and dying for are joining the other side.
But the real reason Berman's analogy does not hold up is that where yesterday's progressive insisted that the struggle for freedom and equality was a two-front war--"if freedom and equality are not vouchsafed" for "the peoples of color" at home, A. Philip Randolph wrote in 1942, "the war for democracy will not be won" abroad--Berman and his allies hope to find in Iraq precisely what they cannot find in the United States. Trotskyists of defeat, they export revolution not in order to save it but in order to evade it.
Liberals and leftists panning for political gold in the wreckage of downtown Baghdad--or New York--is not a pretty sight, which has led some critics to chalk up these scenes to illicit motives. But the infatuation with political fear and imperial deliverance from evil cannot be explained away as mere opportunism. It has a long history in modern politics, arising whenever reform comes up against reaction, whenever movements for progress lose their bearings and buoyancy. At such moments of doubt, nothing can seem as real as fear itself, nothing more tempting than to make evil--and the fear it arouses--the basis of all politics.
It was Alexis de Tocqueville, I think, who first noticed this tendency. In one of his lesser-known writings on the French Revolution, Tocqueville noted the inevitable deceleration and disillusionment that consume failed movements of reform. After every great defeat comes a great despair. Comrade accuses comrade of treachery or cowardice, soldiers denounce generals for marching them toward folly and everyone is soon seized by what Tocqueville described as the "contempt" that broken revolutionaries "acquire for the very convictions and passions" that moved them in the first place. Forced to abandon the cause for which they gave up so much, failed rebels "turn against themselves and consider their hopes as having been childish--their enthusiasm and, above all, their devotion absurd."
Since the 1960s, liberals and leftists have been beaten at the polls and routed in the streets. Equality no longer propels political argument, and freedom--that other sometime watchword of the left--is today the private property of the right. Unable to reconcile themselves to their loss, liberals and leftists are now seized by the contempt and embarrassment Tocqueville described. Berman cringes over the "androidal" complexion of sixties sectarians, with their "short haircuts" and "flabby muscles," their "flat tones" of Marxism so "oddly remote from American English." Others wince at the left's lack of patriotic fervor and national identification, its hostility to all things American.
Lacking confidence in the traditional truths of God and king and the revolutionary truths of reason and rights, Tocqueville hoped that his contemporaries might find succor in the idea of fear, which could activate and ground a commitment to liberal ideals. "Fear," he wrote, "must be put to work on behalf of liberty." And so he dedicated himself to a career of liberal pursuits whose only success would be a scheme of mild improvement in Algeria--and leadership of the counterrevolution in 1848.
So has it been with today's liberals: However much they may argue for domestic reform, it is liberalism's conquering thrusts abroad--and assaults on the left at home--that earn their warmest applause. Again, other factors explain this turn to empire and fear, including the appalling violations of human rights throughout the world and the left's failure to respond adequately to those violations. But given this vision's periodic appearance at moments like ours--one could also cite the case of cold war intellectuals offering their own politics of fear after the setbacks of the late 1940s--it would seem that the appeal of fear has as much to do with defeat and disillusionment as it does with the stated concerns of its advocates.
If Oscar Wilde is right--that you can't reason a man out of a position he has not reasoned himself into--it's not likely that the liberals of fear will be persuaded anytime soon to give up their faith. (Indeed, proving that nothing succeeds like failure, Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, has taken the Democrats' defeat last November as the signal for a renewed commitment to the liberalism of fear.) Responding to political forces beyond their control, they won't cede their beliefs until a vigorous movement marches past them. The question for the rest of us is: What should that movement stand for?
For some on the left, liberalism is a bankrupt project, hopelessly compromised by its alliance with capital and indulgence of empire. These critics see liberalism as a weak tea--too suspicious of social movements, too soft on capitalism. They long for a stronger brew: if not Marxism, then some notion of radical democracy.
No dispassionate observer of American liberalism would dispute these charges, and some liberals happily plead guilty to them. But what critics and defenders of liberalism overlook is how often liberalism has inspired the most radical of transformations. The war against slavery, the fight for industrial democracy, the struggle for women's rights, civil rights and sexual freedom--each of these battles was waged in the name of liberty and equality, twin pillars of the liberal ideal.
Hoping to emancipate men and women from all manner of domination, America's greatest social movements have sought to extend liberalism's promise to every sphere of social and political life: the family, the workplace, sexuality and so on. Liberalism's earliest armies marched against the personal--and physically coercive--rule of kings and lords. Its later militants have made war on the equally personal and physical rule of husbands and fathers, slave owners and overseers, bosses and supervisors. That idea--of freedom from external control, of personal volition, of saying no to those who rule and ruin us--is as radical today as it was in the time of John Locke.
Even America's most left-wing voices have found in liberalism a useful vocabulary to advance their claims. Big Bill Haywood defended the general strike as a potent form of electoral democracy: It "prevents the capitalists from disfranchising the worker, it gives the vote to women, it re-enfranchises the black man and places the ballot in the hands of every boy and girl employed in a shop." Malcolm X did not favor the bullet over the ballot; he insisted that "it's got to be the ballot or the bullet," that America had better live up to its ideals lest it face a more violent uprising. Stokely Carmichael defined black power as "the coming-together of black people to elect representatives and to force those representatives to speak to their needs," which is a fairly good gloss on liberal pluralism. And we would do well to recall that the Black Panther Party repeatedly invoked the Constitution in its ten-point platform. More recently, Katha Pollitt has argued in these pages that if America took seriously the liberal commitment to equal opportunity, everyone would have "safe housing...healthy diets, doctors, fresh air...well-stocked libraries open all week"--Sweden itself.
There is perhaps no better measure of how radical and disruptive liberalism truly is than the ferocity of American elites' resistance to it. It took more than a half-million lives to eliminate slavery. American workers suffered more strike-related violence than workers in Western Europe--just to get an eight-hour day, freedom of association and a weekend. And imagine how many feet would have to march--and heads would have to roll--to secure the equal opportunity Pollitt envisions.
Liberalism's radical critics are not wrong about its failings and compromises. Nor would they be wrong to point out that the defenders of America's old regimes have used liberal language to fend off challenges to their power. Slaveholders invoked the rights of private property, employers prized the freedom of contract, and big business still warns against big government. But these are not liberalism's only or finest statements. If we are to recover its throatier voices and political momentum, we would do well to recall those moments when it marched as the party of movement rather than when it swilled as the party of order.
Of course, liberal hawks might argue that this history of liberal activism perfectly expresses their purposes in the Middle East. Indeed, Hitchens has mustered Thomas Paine and the American Revolution for his war against Islamo-fascism, arguing that America is once again fighting for "the cause of all mankind." Beyond pointing out the evident hypocrisy--and wild implausibility--of a government reneging on the most basic liberal commitments at home while trumpeting its final triumph abroad, what's a progressive to say to this? If we object to the marriage of human rights and American military power, what do we propose instead?
Again, American history provides an instructive answer. In the past, America's most radical liberals looked to the rest of the world not as a tabula rasa for imperial reform but as a rebuke to illiberalism at home or a goad to domestic transformation. "Go where you may," Frederick Douglass declared in 1852, "search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival."
In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. reminded Americans that "the nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter." Even mainstream leaders of the National Organization for Women argued in 1966 that the American feminist movement was not a beacon to the world but "part of the worldwide revolution of human rights now taking place within and beyond our national borders."
America under the Patriot Act is obviously not America under slavery, and the anticolonial movements that inspired King and feminists in the 1960s have not fared well. Yet this history reminds us that American liberalism, at its best, has always been internationalist, but its internationalism has meant taking instruction and provocation from abroad rather than flying freedom across the water.
Liberalism's past also reminds us of another, more sobering, fact. During the second half of the twentieth century, progressives were able to look abroad for inspiration because there was something for them to look to. They could believe in international democracy because there were actual movements fighting for it--not under the kitschy banner of the American empire or through staged photo-ops of toppling statues but for real. If we on the left have a hard time today summoning the same belief, it's because at the very moment those activists were heralding liberation movements elsewhere, the United States was doing everything it could--successfully, we now know--to destroy them.
It's true that there are democratic movements today--in Latin America, the Middle East and Central Asia--that deserve and receive progressives' support. But there's always the risk of the US government hijacking them with arms or handouts. And though liberal hawks like to cite the occupations of Germany and Japan as models for current or future US interventions, we should remember that the New Dealers who led those occupations were far more liberal than the occupiers of today and--until something fundamental changes in the United States--tomorrow. Foreign assistance or interventions are not likely to generate democracy abroad if the powers doing the assisting or intervening are so resolutely antidemocratic at home.
So if we find ourselves at a loss when challenged by liberal hawks--who are right, after all, to press us on how to promote democracy in Iraq, human rights in Sudan and so on--it's best, I think, first to admit defeat. We don't know, because we lost the great battles of the twentieth century: not just for social democracy and anti-imperialism but for social democracy and anti-imperialism with a human face. Having admitted defeat, perhaps we can begin to figure out a better answer.Category: 9/11 and its aftermath