A real Liberal responds to Jim Kalb’s Traditionalism and the American Order
I’m sure many of you have been reading the Kalb interviews over at 2Blowhards with interest… I will admit that I erred a few days ago, when I fired off a little blast that dismissed Kalb as an intellectual lightweight/xenophobe. I have since read a very thoughtfully reasoned essay by Mr. Kalb, which makes it clear that he is no backwoods antiliberal red-neck, and knows full well that his version of tradition is in direct conflict with the American tradition itself. In a case like this, merely invoking Louis Hartz and saying “wake up dumbass” won’t cut it…
One does not come up against a mind like Mr. Kalb’s very often in today’s society (well, there’s Eve Tushnet–who swims in a comparable direction against the American current, and is even more intelligent than Kalb, but I haven’t read anything of hers that presents so global an argument). The man is no descendant of Southern Proslavery ideologues like Calhoun and Fitzhugh–and I agree Jim, if there is any trace of an anti-liberal tradition in the United States, it’s confined to the South. (At any rate, scholars such as Eugene Genovese and Larry E. Tise have worked hard to paint this picture, but the case is difficult to prove.)
Personally, it has always seemed to me that the antebellum South was virulently Lockean in orientation–and that their social system appears feudal to us because we accept a proposition that most Southerners at that time did not (i.e. that African-Americans were fully human). If I’m right, and, obviously, I believe that I am, then racially based slavery was the only “institutional bulwark” against liberalism that the region possessed. After emancipation, unofficial (but, for all intents and purposes, “institutional”) antiblack martial law managed to fill the void left by slavery, until the federal government finally began to put its foot down in the middle of the twentieth century. That’s the “tradition” that the Southern Agrarians stepped up to defend in the 1930s, and anyone who wants to take up the torch from them can safely and deservedly be condemned as an out and out racist.
But, as I was saying, this is not what Jim Kalb is up to. His position is more analogous to Orestes Brownson’s–a Transcendentalist who suffered through a number of spiritual crises in the 1820’s and 30’s before he joined the Catholic Church after the Democratic Party lost the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” election of 1840–an event which, inexplicably, convinced him that “the people” were simply incapable of making their own decisions, and wanted guidance that only the Papal See could provide…
I’ve had a strange academic career. I began as a historian, looking to make my mark by writing about the Hartford Convention, a fascinating event which still has not been dealt with adequately by scholars (and I may get back to it yet!). Later on, I became more interested in studying the means by which a radical “moral minority”–led by William Lloyd Garrison–were able to force the nation to deal with the slavery issue by provoking Southerners into “jumping offside” at the national political level, thus paving the way for anti-slavery (never a very popular cause in the North) to become Anti-Southernism (which was very popular–and damned instrumental in paving the way to the world we’ve got now, in which racism is seen as something that only an inbred jackass could want to defend)…
Since then I’ve been immersed in the study of Calvinism, and Transcendentalism, and aesthetics; plus I started writing novels… However, my undergraduate honours thesis, which is available here (sans footnotes, alas), dealt with the transformation of “rationalist” liberalism into what Harold Bloom has called “the American religion”, thanks to writers like Emerson and Theodore Parker… I offer this merely as proof that I’ve been thinking about American culture–and American liberalism–for a long time…
So. Fine. But what do I have to say to Jim Kalb?
Well. First of all–we’ve got to define our terms here. Jim is a little bit slippery on this point. He claims that it is “conservative” to oppose communism, and to have a population that is “visibly” religious. Now, maybe that’s consistent with current usage, but if you want to use “conservative” that way, you cannot use “liberalism” the way Jim Kalb does in the rest of this essay. Old world, “corporatist” conservatism–which is what Jim is espousing (his conversion to Catholicism gives this fact away)–is very much consistent with communism, but clearly, Lockean liberalism (which is the antonym of Jim’s brand of conservatism) will always be hostile to a scheme that puts the good of the “body politic” (no matter how you wish to define “good”) over the good of the individual.
On a related point–there is no conflict whatsoever between liberalism and “traditional moral/Christian” values. Liberalism (as opposed to “democracy”, which is a very old–and not very helpful–concept) is a new thing in the world–you can trace its’ roots back to the Reformation and no further (which is not to say that Calvin and Luther were “liberals”, but that their principles–well, Calvin’s anyway–led inexorably to Locke’s political theories). You can be a deeply devout Christian, obsessed even–at the existential level–with your own personal morality and prospects for salvation, without deviating from the path of liberalism. What you cannot do is reconcile theocracy with liberalism. You can even reconcile an addiction to the concept of “Original Sin” with a strong liberal position–I’m living proof of that. I wouldn’t give ya two cents for a work of art that grew out of the absurd conviction that the human subject and the objective universe are somehow at peace (“I refuse to make a pact with you Walt Whitman!”), but the point is that there is no need to concern ourselves with that kind of stuff when we draw up our social contract. To confuse the personal and the political is to court folly. (which is to say–don’t leap at the chance to embrace some political monolith just because you feel “uneasy” in the world–you’re supposed to feel that way!)
But even if we were to allow a metaphysical concept like “Original Sin” to creep into our thought re: the state–how is this an argument for “custom and usage”? If, as I (and all non-pantheists) believe, we have no access to the noumenal, then two thousand years of tradition are as useless to us in ascertaining what is “right” as the word of any living breathing person. And I, for one, am more willing to accept a slave’s antipathy to the institution of slavery than any “traditional” justification of same.
Contra Jim Kalb, I would argue that what we need, in the West, is less “traditionalism”, more thorough liberalism, and less confusion between the two. Case in point: Jim seems to regard “multi-culturalism” as the ne plus ultra of liberalism. And of course he’s wrong. “Identity politics” are anathema to Lockean liberalism–in fact, this is “traditionalism” multiplied, and running amok (John C. Calhoun would recognize it as his theory of “concurrent majorities” in action). The liberal subject is always merely that–he or she can have no group affiliation, no “sexual orientation”, no gender in fact! As far as the state is concerned, each person is a “unit” and that is absolutely all… Ideally, society is a pact between people that makes the existential struggle for meaning as pure as possible (which doesn’t mean that we can realize the ideal–this is merely a guiding principle, and it’s a far less fallible one than the Pope, believe me!)–Calvin would have called this the struggle for salvation, and he wouldn’t have been at all tolerant of other paths to meaning, but he set the whole thing in motion. I can certainly elaborate on this point if anyone wants me to.
By clinging to notions of Republican virtu, or “the standing Order”, or the feudal authority of the Catholic Church, or communism (yes, liberalism is utterly incompatible with greater-good socialism–which doesn’t mean that we cannot ensure that everyone’s material needs are met by passing an “economic bill of rights”; freedom should never mean the freedom to starve to death!) we are abandoning the freedom that Locke’s principles bestowed upon us–and I can understand why, it’s not easy to be responsible for yourself, it’s much more comfortable to plug yourself into a “traditional” pigeonhole; but liberalism isn’t about taking the easy path, it’s about taking the authentic one. We also take a wrong turn when we embrace ethnic/racial/gender/”queer” identities, but often we are forced to take refuge in these havens by the ghettoizing force of prejudice. However, as Frederick Douglass understood, the greatest demand that liberalism makes upon the historically marginalized is the obligation to discard the badge of oppression the moment that this becomes possible. As I say, our society wants more liberalism, not less–and we certainly do not need the return to tribalism that Jim advocates. We’ve got far too much of that already!
I’ve challenged Jim to read “Enlightened Romantics” and offer a rebuttal on his blog–Turnabout. The ball is in your court, Mr. Kalb!
Good night friends!
p.s. did you know that Tiffany Amber-Thiessen and I were born on the exact same day and year? The sad facts are right here..