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..



  1. 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.

    What we need is less (lots less; zero, in fact) verbiage from cheerleaders for various political ideologies, and more rigid adherence to the single principal espoused by no less than Benjamin Franklin: “Mind your own business.” If everyone adhered to that principal, this would be a much more civilized world, and folks like Jim Kalb and other ideologues cum political “theorists” could then spend their time engaged in something of worth.


  2. Don’t get your hopes up with regard to that rebuttal, David. Jim Kalb’s rhetorical arsenal seems mostly to comprise selective vision and quicksilver definitions of terms, at least when he has to address actual opposing arguments rather than picking and choosing theses at leisure.

  3. Hello David,

    I read your paper and found it on the whole well-written, informative and intelligent. I’m not sure what you want me to do with it. I agree that the formal public intellectual and political tradition of America is very predominantly liberal. I also agree that Emerson is the pre-eminent public philosopher of America and stands in very close connection to that tradition. He presents its spiritual side. For my view of Emerson see http://jkalb.freeshell.org/texts/emerson.html . So I don’t see what it is that I’m supposed to rebut.

    I can think of two points that may be relevant to whatever it is that may be at issue:

    1. It seems obvious to me that the formal public intellectual and political tradition of America is not the whole of American tradition or the whole of what has made it possible for America to function as a society. That is the point of my Traditionalism and the American Order. The Founders didn’t found America. America was already here as a going concern. The institutions the Founders created were rather limited, although their effect of course has become more and more pervasive as time has gone by.

    2. Conservatism in my understanding has a rational component. Otherwise all it could do is approve whatever exists exactly as it is. In addition to respect for tradition it has to concern itself with the relationship among traditions and the overall functioning of the system. My basic point is that the liberal aspects of the American tradition (and of Western tradition generally) have become too absolute. One result is that tradition, as a system for accumulating and organizing social knowledge, can no longer function adequately.

    Responses to particular points:

    1. Neither Catholicism nor any form of conservatism I’m aware of are consistent with communism (other than the voluntary communism of some religious communities). In the case of Catholicism that’s a matter of formal doctrine as well as history. The fact Catholicism and European conservatism recognize group interests that do not reduce into individual interests does not mean they do not recognize individual interests that in some respects transcend group interests. Neither individual nor group can be reduced into the other other. Each has some relative autonomy.

    That’s an extremely important point, by the way. Liberals and other modernists characteristically miss it because they find it hard to understand a social and moral world that is richer and more complex than their own. They think that the alternative to liberalism — a moral and political world based just on one thing — is “some political monolith” — another moral and political world based just on one thing, but a different thing.

    2. Since man is social, “‘traditional moral/Christian’ values” can’t be conceived in the purely individualist way you suggest. I agree that if you’re a Lockean already you can put your understanding of those values into effect in your life. It’s an understanding that makes no sense though.

    3. It’s not true that all who accept philosophical realism are pantheists.

    4. You say “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 a state is concerned, each person is a “unit” and that is absolutely all… ” The whole of my theory of liberalism is contained in that statement. I’m not sure why you think it’s a straw man. It’s simply working out the implications of something you accept yourself.

    Multiculturalism is an instance. The function of multiculturalism — the reason liberal institutions in the West have accepted it and made it central to their justification and self-understanding — is that it destroys the authority and social function of culture and so assimilates it to individual taste. The point of multiculturalism is to accommodate culture to your definition of liberalism. It doesn’t matter what the rhetoric is about “celebrating our diversity.” The point of the celebration is to make sure the diversity has no bearing on social position or function — in practical effect, to abolish it. “Identity politics” is permissible only for those whose diversity has not yet been made of no effect. Its goal is always equality — the abolition of the effects of diversity.

    5. I find your conception of authenticity utterly empty. It goes nowhere, or maybe to Samuel Beckett-land. And I don’t advocate tribalism. I say unchosen connections are part of what makes us what we are. For example, part of what I am is a native of this country, a contemporary of these people, the son of these parents, the father of these children, etc. I don’t say that some single unchosen connection defines the whole of what we are, which is what “tribalism” seems to suggest. Again, much of my argument against liberalism and modernism is that they insistently try to reduce everything to just one principle. I try to avoid that.

  4. Like a breath of fresh air through my skull. Whew. I thought the whole world was going mad for the obviously false definitions and positions of Jim Kalb. DAMFINO.

  5. Thanks for the comments folks!

    I must dash off to work now, but…

    Aaron–unless you would deny that a sense of “loss”/incompleteness is consubtantial with human consciousness, I don’t see how you can get rid of the chasm between subject and object…or the concept of the “noumenal”–which I define as “radical lack”.

    Jim–what I was really hoping to see you address is my claim that liberalism is capable of promoting social cohesion… Liberalism may use the individual as the building block of the state–but it does not follow that it is a political philosophy built upon egocentrism (was it “egocentric” of you to open your eyes this morning, and see your bedroom?). Quite the reverse! The bedrock of liberalism is the conviction that other minds exist, and that, consequently, we are obligated, as citizens, to treat other citizens as ends in themselves, not as links in a chain of cultural transmission…

    It’s an article of faith for me that my next door neighbour is a real person–this belief gives me occasional respite from the “prison of self”, just as, I presume, your embrace of the Catholic Church and its’ sacraments has… the difference is that my belief, unlike yours, doesn’t necessitate that my neighbour live in any predetermined way in order to make the system work… I don’t have any real problem with Catholicism in a non-Catholic country (in case you can’t tell from my name, I was born into the faith…)–many people in Protestant countries have sought solace in the Church’s traditions, and that’s a personal decision (and it hasn’t done that much harm, unless you want to start talking about the damned Hollywood Production Code, but we’ll deal with that another time, right?)–but I do object vehemently to Catholic political values… I live in a society (Quebec) in which, even today, we have metro stations named after virulent Catholic Fascists (Lionel-Groulx) and sickening defenders of the institution of slavery, in principle!! (Pius IX–Mr. Ultramontane himself), and I think I’ve got a much better idea of what life in an anti-liberal state is really like Mr. Kalb (obviously, Quebec is merely a province, and has to deal with a liberal federal government, so things have never gotten so extreme here as they might have… but if this place ever did become independent–I’d be gone, believe me!)

    And this leads us back to “multiculturalism”, which has nothing to do with liberalism. It is the product of muddled thinking that has somehow equated the rights of individual traditions with the rights of individuals… There are historical reasons for this confusion, and there’s no way to wave a magic wand and make them go away, but what we most assuredly do not need is more “traditonalism” gumming up the works…


  6. First, sorry my comment was unformatted. I didn’t know the html tags
    were needed and there’s no preview facility. Second, I don’t recall
    much in your paper that was distinctly about social cohesion.

    As you seem to say, liberalism understands man as essentially an
    ego with thoughts and desires but no particular qualities that are
    relevant to what he is. He has no binding connection to anyone in
    particular. His connection to his next door neighbor shouldn’t weigh
    more for him than his connection to someone in Borneo. He can’t
    assume that he shares any common goods with others. He does have the
    abstract realization that everyone else is in the same position, and
    he’d agree that it would be better for all men to get what they want
    than otherwise.

    So I suppose the question is how much social cohesion can arise
    out of such abstract realizations. Not a lot, it seems to me.
    Liberal thinkers tend to analogize political order to a contract
    among self-interested actors. It’s not wholly clear why if
    self-interest is the key the actors shouldn’t cheat on the contract
    when they think they can get away with it. Kant of course introduced
    the notion of man as an end in himself. It’s not clear to me how to
    give content to that notion though when there are no substantive
    goods we can be assumed to share. Can the notion that I should act
    in a way consistent with your getting what you want even though I
    find it loathsome really give rise to cohesion?

    The natural expression I think of the abstract universal
    solidarity characteristic of liberalism would be a universal
    managerial PC welfare state, a sort of EU writ large. So there’s an
    experiment going on to see just how much social cohesion liberalism
    gives rise to. To me it looks like it’s not going to work — people
    abuse welfare, they stop taking care of each other informally, they
    stop having children, costs go though the roof, there are cutbacks,
    people get resentful, crime rises, millions of Muslims get imported
    who no doubt will love supporting aging Europeans in their old age,
    etc. Is this really going to fly?

    Other points — it makes sense to oppose treating people as “ends
    in themselves” to treating them “as links in a chain of cultural
    transmission” if you think that culture is external to the person.
    If you think that man is by nature a cultured and social animal, the
    opposition makes no sense. Also, if multiculturalism is not a
    natural feature of advanced liberalism, why do advanced liberal
    institutions take to it so readily? And if culture is external to
    the person, as you seem to believe, and it’s therefore unjust for
    public institutions to give support to any particular culture, how
    other than by multiculturalism do you propose to eliminate the
    public influence of whatever culture may be dominant?

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