Liberal Culture

 Posted by on January 29, 2013
Jan 292013

In this curious piece R.R. Reno proposes that “Liberals can’t see themselves as a culture.” Instead they mistakenly believe “their views are ‘natural’.” Because the critical difference for Mr. Reno between the cultural and the natural is that the former is contingent while the latter is not, liberals, he suggests, do not see their “identity as in some sense contingent.” This misperception, this “blindness” as he calls it, at least partly “accounts for the paradox of liberal intolerance” because anyone who is untempered by an awareness of the contingency of their “convictions” will find it difficult to restrain the “imperial necessity” of those convictions.

While liberals identify “secular liberalism” with “the natural condition of man,” Christians, Mr. Reno continues, identify with “a supernatural possibility that has to be consciously and freely affirmed — and might not be!” To be a Christian is to adopt with full cognizance “a distinctive way of being human that can’t be taken for granted.”

The secular man is defined by the absolutism of an inborn orthodoxy, the religious man by the contingency of his active choice to believe, which is actually to say in the literal sense of the word, by his act of heresy. This is in its own right a rather delightful inversion of an old binary.

I suppose I could object and quarrel with this inversion, and it may be that I am remiss to abstain. I do, I must say, have strong reservations about Mr. Reno’s characterization of Jewish sociological self-awareness. But it is the kernel of validity in his thesis that holds my attention. That kernel would appear, however, not sociological, but rhetorical, and even then it holds true only for one set of liberals.

Yes, a certain set of liberals prefer not to present themselves or their views as in any way culturally contingent. When these liberals discuss and promote their opinions and preferences, they recourse again and again to appeals that they believe are not contingent, and that they therefore also believe can be taken for granted as persuasive for all human beings. Their rhetorical ideal standard, as I have previously explained, is the universally axiomatic rationality of every human mind, which would not be an appeal to “nature” or “natural condition,” unless one equates nature with pure logic. Still, it is true that these often insufferable sorts do tend to be “baffled” and apoplectic when their appeals fail, as they frequently do. This is, however, only one sort of liberal, albeit a sort that is today perhaps inordinately influential within media circles.

Aside from these wonkish sorts I do not see anything in this political world that closely resembles Mr. Reno’s “secular liberalism.” Cultural independence is a characteristic, if also dubious, conceit of some liberals, but not all. Indeed, there is a still prominent, though perhaps fading, strain of liberalism that insists that human beings are, for better and worse, incapable of making acultural appeals. Mr. Reno writes of “secular liberalism as if it were some sort of distinct and homogenous culture, complete with its own peculiar “universal vision.” I do wonder if he is not leaning rather too heavily upon his reading of Jonathan Haidt’s study of “WEIRD” culture. However it may be, this undifferentiated, monolithic figure of “secular liberalism” strikes me as a blurred phantom.

Even as i say that, however, I also know that it is today somewhat unexpected to hear a liberal make a stridently cultural appeal, particularly in what might be called polite political society. “Because that is (or is not) who we are” is not the usual ground upon which liberals form their persuasive appeals. That is one reason why the president’s second inaugural address was so startling, even infuriating, to so many. Turning again to epideictic, his true rhetorical forte, the president claimed American political culture for liberalism, and then went on to defend his policy ambitions as the perpetuation of that culture’s essential creed. The president spoke neither as some acultural “secular liberal,” nor as some vapid policy wonk; the president spoke as an exponent and defender of American culture.

No, the president did not speak of liberalism as the expression of a singular and consistent “liberal secular culture,” which is what Mr. Reno would seem to have in mind. But he did speak of liberalism as the expression of a particular, if complex, national culture, namely American culture. That is why it is so curious to find Mr. Reno writing that “Liberals can’t see themselves as a culture” only a week after the president delivered his remarks.

Of course liberals have their blind spots; all men contain bends around which they cannot peer. But if I were Mr. Reno I think I would be less concerned with the blindness of others, and rather more alarmed with my own instance of deafness.