The Book of Liberal Virtues

I have news for you: conservatives are winning the culture wars. OK, that might not come as a shock, but here's the scary part: They have reason to be winning. The right has done a superb job at exploiting certain weaknesses on the left; liberals, in the meantime, have become gun shy. But we should not duck the culture wars. Instead, we should see them as a golden opportunity to stand up and explain just what we think is right for America in terms of values and culture. Liberal values are in stronger shape than many believe.

Look behind the right's cultural crusades -- David Horowitz's “Academic Bill of Rights,” the push for intelligent design, the attack on secondary education as mere liberal indoctrination, and the assaults on the media -- and you start to notice a consistent worldview emerging. Call it conservative postmodernism. It is composed of numerous cultural strains that feed off one another. There's anti-intellectualism, mixed in with a populist distrust of professionalism and higher education as well as “objectivity,” which is seen as a smokescreen cloaking the sinister ambition of imposing a liberal worldview on unsuspecting students or media consumers. For the conservative mind of today, everything is political; there is no set of competences that rises above the struggle for political power. Following from this, there is no real truth. There are only clashing viewpoints relative to one another, all deserving equal treatment in the public square.

If you step back and examine these strains, you notice that a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. The looniest aspects of the far left during the 1960s morphed into the looniest aspects of the far right today. An attack on intellect and objectivity grounded in a belief that everything was political (including the “personal”) fueled the student movements of the late 1960s. It's the excesses of that time that Horowitz and the right's cultural warriors of today represent. Liberals fought those excesses then, and they must do so again today. We actually do have values that we stand for that can resonate to large numbers of Americans, and now is the time to articulate them.

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Anti-intellectualism is the linchpin of the postmodern conservative mind. The critic who did the most to explore it was the historian Richard Hofstadter. “Our anti-intellectualism … has a long historical background,” he wrote in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Busting on eggheads came easy and grew out of central themes in American cultural history: Evangelicalism, which prioritizes emotional faith over theological education; the pragmatism of the business world (which pressured the public school system for more vocational education); and the legacy of frontier democracy, with its Jacksonian hatred of refinement and sophistication. For Hofstadter, there was no limit to portraying intellectuals as “pretentious, conceited, effeminate, and snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous, and subversive.”

Hofstadter didn't spell out a countertradition to anti-intellectualism. He was a critic and not as interested in offering solutions to the problems he outlined. Nonetheless, some of his points can be teased out in order to frame arguments that are useful in waging a liberal culture war today. For instance, Hofstadter made a great deal out of the Sputnik scandal, when Americans suddenly discovered that they had fallen behind Russians in terms of math and science skills that buttressed space exploration. This realization prompted self-introspection on the part of Hofstadter's fellow citizens about the state of their collective intelligence (or lack thereof). He showed how American history moved back and forth between times when anti-intellectualism dominated and times when it didn't. He spelled out certain intellectual values, like the ability to embrace “nuances” and to see “things in degree.” Though Americans might be prone to anti-intellectualism, he suggested, there were other cultural tendencies that encouraged what Hofstadter's friend Lionel Trilling cited as the “moral obligation to be intelligent.”

But Hofstadter's book mostly provided a warning, one that liberals should heed today. Not only did anti-intellectualism go deep; there was a propensity for intellectuals -- and liberals -- to recede when anti-intellectualism crested. Think of the 1920s, when, in the face of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, liberal intellectuals quickly embraced the estrangement of H.L. Mencken, who championed the cause of a “civilized minority” and saw Americans as too stupid for much more than disdainful barbs. Today, not only is creationism back; but more importantly, so is the liberal recoil. When David Horowitz spoke at the University of Colorado in February 2005, he suggested, as the Daily Camera reported, that “university professors are a privileged elite that work between six to nine hours a week, eight months a year for an annual salary of about $150,000.” Horowitz was in Colorado, because here was the right's poster boy for academic irresponsibility -- Ward Churchill, the man who had written of the “little Eichmanns” in the World Trade Center. Liberals feel pushed into a corner when they have to defend intellect against the right's attack, especially when framed this way. How can you come out fighting if what you're defending is the right to be an elitist or a snob or a political psychopath?

But the fight need not be framed this way. There's a world of difference between arrogance and a respect for learning and democratic discussion. And as much as anti-intellectualism is rooted in the American past, so too is a respect for learning, seen in the high priority that many immigrants place on acquiring the best education for their children and in the admiration many Americans have for colleges in general. Liberals should point out that college education doesn't create just good employees but mindful citizens capable of good democratic judgment. There's a long tradition of this in American history -- from Thomas Jefferson to Horace Mann to John Dewey. All of these figures believed education shouldn't cement citizens' preconceived notions, as conservatives argue, but should challenge them to think in new and creative ways.

As the Sputnik episode showed, Americans have been embarrassed in the past when they have learned they are falling behind other nations in terms of their educational standing. Having political legislators nosing about in America's classrooms is not exactly a recipe for excellence in education. Liberals can appeal to Americans' fear about falling behind in terms of education and nurture a culture that respects learning -- that lashes back at attacks made on teachers or that characterizes thoughtfulness and reflection as indecisiveness (a theme of the 2004 presidential campaign). Liberals need to show that the virtues of education and thoughtfulness are virtues open to all. To imply the reverse, as conservatives often do, is the crassest form of elitism.

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The Importance of Being Professional

The professions serve as the key bridge between citizens and public intelligence. To become a professional is the reason most Americans enter college, after all. So it's no surprise to see that the professions -- especially professors and journalists, but also lawyers and scientists -- come under such attack from the right. Professionals now appear arrogant, in need of being policed by political legislators or exposed as imposing their own selective views, as with scientists and journalists.

Attacking professionalism started on the left. The “professional managerial class” (PMC), as it was once called, catered to the interests of more powerful capitalists, according to social critics like C. Wright Mills and Barbara Ehrenreich. Professionals had knowledge but no real power; if the business owners wanted accountants to cook the books, for instance, they would. This sentiment heated up during the later 1960s. Student protestors against Vietnam believed the university had become complicit with the military-industrial complex. And for critics like Noam Chomsky, the buck did not stop at Lyndon Johnson's desk. Chomsky condemned a set of mid-level “mandarins” and a “technical intelligentsia” who made policy suggestions and drew up elaborate academic papers that helped justify American foreign policy. These scholars' claim to “objectivity” allowed them to evade the moral questions they should have asked. Expertise served delusion.

There was, of course, a great deal of truth to this criticism. But what started as a sophisticated critique of the ways in which intelligence could unwittingly serve power has now become hardened into a politicized attack on professionalism tout court. We have too quickly forgotten the intent of professionalism in a rush to criticize its perversions. A brief examination of professionalism's rise in American history illustrates why a thoroughgoing distrust of professionalism is so dangerous. The professions grew out of the training provided by the modern university, both of which arose during the late 19th century (in 1876, for instance, the American Chemical Society was founded, with the American Forestry Congress following in 1882; the list goes on from there). Modernity made evident that there were forms of expert knowledge that needed to be disseminated throughout American culture. The profession became a specialized arena of knowledge that encouraged a self-policing discipline on the part of new members who entered its ranks and who pledged themselves to what one historian called an “ethic of service” to the wider public. It provided a code that drew upon a sense of integrity in one's own work, a belief that certain things stood above the pressures of money or political power.

Professional training was meant to ensure integrity among those subjecting themselves to it. This was most obvious in the rise of professional journalism. The 19th-century press was partisan and opinionated; writers were expected to report and editorialize on things that helped their side. Modern journalism, instead, encouraged accuracy. By the 20th century, as the critic Michael Schudson documents, Joseph Pulitzer believed “journalists should emulate lawyers and doctors and find in the solidarity of the profession independence of moneyed interests.” Walter Lippmann, one of America's most famous journalists, spelled out the idea of objectivity during the 1920s when he suggested that “disinterested realism” and the “scientific spirit” should be applied to journalism.

Today, the possibility of coming to a more objective understanding of an issue and reporting on it truthfully is under attack. The left has always argued that commercial interests have tainted news reporting, and the “new journalism” associated with the counterculture emphasized the personal viewpoint of the writer. Today, the right has gone further, suggesting that truthfulness is itself impossible. As Ann Coulter bellows, “Despite all the gobbledygook about the ‘profession' of journalism and the absurd conceit that ‘journalism' is a well-honed craft one has to master over time, the only standard journalists respect is: Will this story promote the left-wing agenda?” The New Yorker's Nicholas Lemmann recently spent a great deal of time listening to conservative critics of the “liberal” and “elite” media. He heard from conservatives who saw political ideology in just about every detail of news reporting and concluded that, “Conservatives are relativists when it comes to the press. In their view, nothing is neutral: there is no disinterested version of the news, everything reflects politics and relationships to power and cultural perspective.”

So it's up to liberals to explain what Coulter finds absurd. Liberals must elucidate the crucial relationship between professionalism, objectivity, and democratic deliberation. A certain level of dispassionate and disinterested realism ensures a healthy political culture. Without a space in which facts speak louder than political opinions, we have no true deliberation. We need not be naive; those defending objectivity realize that all journalists have a strong desire to reconfirm political prejudice and fall back on comfortable beliefs. As the philosopher Terry Eagleton pointed out in a recent jeremiad against postmodernism, “Trying to be objective is an arduous, fatiguing business, which in the end only the virtuous can attain.” That makes it such a difficult value to expound; it appears valueless but is in fact packed with ethical expectations. Once it is jettisoned, the prospects for our discourse are frightening. The alternative is outlined in the screaming world of opinionated pundits.

Liberals must defend a culture of professionalism grounded in civic responsibility. “Reportial authority” (and responsibility) for the press and professorial responsibility and academic freedom for university teachers require rigorous defense today, lest they be replaced by the desires of those holding political power. While Horowitz suggests government should police the content of classrooms, liberals must argue that classroom content is best left up to educated and responsible professionals. While conservatives denounce objectivity to the point of seeing bias in all news reporting, liberals should champion the ideal of objectivity in reporting and argue for a press that is fair-minded and dedicated to the diffusion of knowledge necessary for democratic deliberation. This is not about winning political battles; it's about something far more important. It's about protecting institutions that sustain democratic discussion. Liberals need to make clear that a world in which everyone simply reconfirms their preexisting opinions by going to their own ideological media source or by refusing to listen to arguments they don't like in the classroom is not a world in which democracy will flourish.

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The Problem of Truth and Politics

All of this brings us to the difficult matter of truth. It's remarkable to note the parallels between the academic left and postmodern conservatives on this count. Historically, liberals inherited the tradition of the Enlightenment, with its belief in rationality and universal values. Against conservatives who upheld organic traditions rooted in religious faith, liberals stood for what Immanuel Kant called the public use of reason to criticize existing social and political arrangements. But since the 1960s, the academic left has attacked the Enlightenment tradition. It has become fashionable to doubt that the universal claims made by liberals -- grounded in values like equality or freedom -- can stand up to scrutiny. In the fields of literary theory, philosophy of science, sociological theory, and cultural studies, the Enlightenment tradition has taken a beating.

Of all the grand theorists of the academic left, Michel Foucault took up this issue most forthrightly and pushed it in a political direction. Drawing energy and inspiration from the Paris student revolt of May 1968 -- which found him, according to one biographer, “gleefully lobbing stones” at police while being “careful not to dirty his beautiful black velour suit” -- Foucault became interested in the residues of the 1960s counterculture, especially experimentation with drugs and sexuality. Most important of all, Foucault grew interested in political reform movements. His work on prisons, which engaged him in questions of politics and power more than anything else, drew on left-wing protests (including hunger strikes) against conditions in France's jails.

Enlightenment reformers (like Jeremy Bentham) recoiled at the ancien régime's mode of punishment -- namely, torture. They wanted to make reform more humanitarian by replacing torture with a new system that nurtured a prisoner's sense of conscience. For Foucault, the modern prison did not punish less by directing its attentions toward a prisoner's interior but, in fact, it punished more effectively. So was introduced a “microphysics of power” that irritated Foucault's libertarian sentiments. It also made him wonder if there was any Enlightenment reform that did not implicate itself in power dynamics. Claims to justice and humanitarianism simply masked new forms of power, and there was no standpoint of truth that could criticize power by standing outside of it. “Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics' of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true,” Foucault explained in an interview. Truth and power were conflated; truth became one more language game played among others, no better than the rest.

Conservatives may not read Foucault. Nonetheless, they imbibed his philosophy by turning postmodern. The libertarian right and the libertarian left approach one another as they criticize systematizing bureaucracies -- the academic left because they impose “normalization” of the marginalized, and the right because they build big bad government. But more meaningfully, the criticism of truth and Enlightenment that Foucault lodged flew across the political spectrum to ensconce itself squarely in the right's worldview.

Fundamentalists have no doubts about their faith, but those speaking on their behalf have appropriated Foucault's conceptions about “regimes of truth.” Evolution is one such regime, one that conservatives counter by saying that intelligent design should be taught as part of “the debate.” So, too, David Horowitz. He believes in certain principles, as they're spelled out in The Art of Political War (no lack of assuredness there). But the “Academic Bill of Rights” that he promotes argues -- note the language well -- that “there is no humanly accessible truth that is not in principle open to challenge.” Therefore, professors are obligated to “make their students aware of other viewpoints” besides their own. Again, different regimes of truth should do battle, since there's little reason to see any declaration as anything more than a “viewpoint.”

The Foucauldians of the right really go to town in defending their leaders against attack. There is no debating facts about whether Karl Rove or Tom DeLay actually committed acts that were unlawful or unethical. Listen to the editors of The National Review defend DeLay. “Many of the offenses DeLay is being accused of -- taking foreign trips funded by outside groups, attending events with lobbyists -- are committed by every congressman on Capitol Hill.” Besides, the editors reason, politics is all that matters. Democrats are after DeLay only because he “is an effective leader of the House Republican majority.” The same defense is wielded on behalf of Rove. Did he out Valerie Plame? Doesn't matter, since it's “all about politics,” as the mantra goes. Both Rove's and DeLay's defenders illustrate the machinations of the postmodern conservative mind: It can see nothing beyond power.

As an opposition party standing outside the halls of power, liberals must resuscitate the idea of the Enlightenment -- the idea that certain truths stand beyond political power, that political criticism is based upon a desire for a more just and truthful society, not political resentment. But here, we face the gap that stands between liberalism and the very same academic left that initiated the assault on the Enlightenment. That relation has never been symbiotic, even though the right might like to suggest as much (notice how Ward Churchill has come to symbolize academe as a whole). Recall the debates about multiculturalism and speech codes of the 1990s; most of us remember liberals like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Todd Gitlin taking on the academic left in ways that were tougher than Dinesh D'Souza or Roger Kimball. Liberals must fight the relativism of both right and left and point out their consistencies.

In so doing, liberals need not toss out the legitimate element in the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment. Looking back on the 20th century, there was a healthy reaction against “big ideas” -- including those stemming from the Enlightenment -- that purported to liberate humanity from exploitation only to impose a new form of domination. European intellectuals, including Foucault, witnessed Marxist intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre using the language of the Enlightenment to justify brutality. There really was a connection between the Communist Party's Leninism -- which held that intellectuals should lead the revolution because they had more insight than the limited perspective of workers mired in trade-union consciousness -- and its willingness to justify totalitarianism. And postmodernists were right to celebrate complexity and nuance over the danger of embracing big, bad ideas.

But liberals have their own tradition of the Enlightenment that evades its worst abuses. It's what the historian of ideas John Patrick Diggins calls the “Skeptical Enlightenment.” It begins with the writers of the Constitution, especially James Madison, and it travels up to the post-war liberal thinkers inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr. The tradition believes in the public use of reason to criticize unjust circumstances, but it also tempers that ambition with pessimism about human nature and guardedness about an overextension of reason. James Madison believed that the Constitution was born from reason, but that it also recognized that “the reason of man continues fallible.” Reason would not always overcome “passions”; thus the need for checks on citizen ambitions that only the Constitution could promise. Constraints needed to be placed on human beings. This recognition demanded a sense of humility among a liberal democracy's citizens.

Niebuhr took up this tradition while struggling to come to terms with the horrors of the Holocaust and the rise of Stalin, two events not exactly conducive to an optimistic faith in Enlightenment. Reason, Niebuhr pointed out, is always tainted by the self-love Augustine did so much to expose. That didn't mean reason should be seen as a smokescreen for power. It meant that citizens of a democracy needed to recognize the finiteness of their own judgment (Niebuhr contrasted this finiteness with God's knowledge). Niebuhr explained: “Men do have to make important decisions in history upon the basis of certain norms, even though they must recognize that all historic norms are touched with both finiteness and sin, and that their sinfulness consists precisely in the bogus claim of finality which is made for them.” Thus, Niebuhr didn't counsel irrationalism or seeing all viewpoints as equally tenable, but rather rationalism mixed with humility.

So in reacting against the academic left's and now the right's attack on the Enlightenment, liberals need not sound strident or absolutist. Nor does a defense of civilized debate need to sound naive. What we demand from citizens is a challenging task -- to see the limits of their own opinions without allowing that to devolve into a narcissism of their prejudices and beliefs. The liberal ethic expects citizens to challenge themselves by entering a public sphere that is grounded in an ethic of truthfulness, respect, and humility.

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Liberal Virtues

All of this adds up to something that conservatives deny: that liberals have a conception of the good life. For some time, conservatives have charged that liberals lack a moral structure or that their moral structure is too paltry to require anything of citizens of a liberal democracy. Some on the left agreed. But as numerous political theorists have shown, liberals have their own set of expectations for citizens. It is a demanding set of expectations that centers around what political theorist Stephen Macedo called “public reasonableness,” a belief that citizens should enter debate about the future of their society with “broad sympathies, self-critical reflectiveness, a willingness to experiment, to try and to accept new things.” This is the value of liberal humility.

Ironically, some thinkers who are trying to revive liberal thought today stress passion over humility. It's easy to understand why, looking at the energy of the evangelical right. Both Michael Walzer and Robert B. Reich have written important books about the need to inject passion into the liberal worldview. And though passion in politics is a fine thing, liberals must be wary of too much passion in political life and demand something more from citizens. Passion must be checked by dispassion -- that's central to a liberal citizen's ethic, to the way we think citizens should behave when entering public life. It's objectivity put into practice by every citizen -- not a realizable goal but certainly a fine ideal to uphold. There's an irony to liberalism's demand on citizens: A liberal citizen must be passionate about a political culture that checks passion -- that is dispassionate, pluralistic, and potentially self-defeating to one's own short-term goals.

This is the central moral lesson of liberalism, and it is one we are in deep need of resuscitating today. As the political thinker Stephen Holmes has pointed out, liberals demand both passion and constraints from citizens. Think of the greatest historical accomplishments in the history of liberalism. Constitutions and the rule of law inherently check passion. The idea that markets -- the classical arena for passion and self-interest -- should be tempered by regulation is also central to liberalism. So too the idea of objectivity, which encourages people to push aside personal prejudice for achieving something approximating truth. So too the deferral of gratification that long-term preparation for a profession requires. Liberal citizens are asked to look beyond their passions.

I realize that the arguments made here are not easily transferred into bulleted points. Nor are they “talking points” for those looking to win scream-fests against the right. On the other hand, none of what I've spelled out here is terribly difficult to articulate coherently for a wider audience: We want citizens to be thoughtful, capable of entertaining ideas that they might not subscribe to at first. We believe that these values are engrained in the American past and speak to America's better side. We believe that they rely upon good schools and a responsible media. As much as there's a strong streak of anti-intellectualism coursing through the American past, there's also been a belief that education can be open to all and can nurture intelligence and thoughtfulness among all citizens. That's the liberal hope for the future.

Our hope is grounded in a faith that citizens still want something more than what the right's culture wars offer. The right makes clear what it wants every time we hear the red-faced screaming of Bill O'Reilly, the he-man antics of Sean Hannity, the coarse and ugly bellowing of Ann Coulter (whose hero is, not surprisingly, Joe McCarthy), the calls to “political war” by David Horowitz, and the anti-intellectual steadfastness of our president, who refuses to believe that facts matter. It is a culture that portrays America's teachers as liberal dogmatists and elitists eager to indoctrinate students and America's journalists as opinionated propagandists. It is a culture that ironically degrades authority. Some Americans might like this bullying, but many find it disturbing. It is the role of liberals to articulate why that's so.

In so doing, liberals must be ready for battles on the culture front. We are indeed in the midst of another round of culture wars, and it can be a good thing. Liberals have values that they stand for, and plenty more can emerge if we debate openly with ourselves about what we believe (to be honest, that is, that there are divisions within our ranks). In the meantime, we need to explain to the American public why postmodern conservatives are wrong for the country and what we have to offer against them. That's the type of culture war that liberals should feel ready and sure about fighting -- and even winning.

Kevin Mattson is the Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University and author of When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism. He is writing a biography of Upton Sinclair.