We Are All Liberals Now–And We Always Have Been

(Soundtrack: Joey Ramone — Don’t Worry About Me)

Okay–since three of my favourite people (John Commonplacebook, Marc Singer, and erstwhile guest-Motime columnist Jamo) saw fit to question my confident assertion that Fascism “can’t happen here [in North America]”, I think I owe it to them (and to myself!) to clarify my position a little bit…

When I say that we are all liberals, well, I’m exaggerating a bit, of course. There will always be Jim Kalbs out there, trying to pass their crusty Medieval rhetoric off as something indigenous to the New World–but these people will never make much headway in America, because their love of hierarchy renders them absolutely unfit to participate in the debates that will continue to define the culture. Forget Jim Kalb. Forget Fascism–that kind of thinking grows out of an organic conception of the state, and North Americans (outside of Quebec) just don’t think that way.

However, Neocons are something else again. These are classical liberals. Their conception of society is just as atomistic as mine is. They’re just letting Original Sin get them down, that’s all…

As I’ve often stated, my understanding of American culture grows out of an obsessive engagement with Puritanism, and it owes a great deal to Perry Miller and Sacvan Bercovitch. The crux of the matter is this: Right and Left don’t mean the same things in North America that they do in the rest of the world.

When you get right down to it, radical Protestantism, which is just another name for Puritanism, is only concerned with one thing–the individual’s relationship to God. Ethnic ties, the rights-and-duties associated with feudal hierarchy, the connection of a people to the land–all of these things were anathema to the Puritan mind, from the most extreme theocrat (the right-wing of the movement) to the wildest Quaker (the left-wing). The Puritan “Errand” was a quest for a place in which individuals could act out the drama of their own salvation or damnation without interference. That’s America. Everyone gets a chance to hear “the Word”. If they’re schedueled to be saved, well, good for them. And if not, at least they can’t say they never had a chance.

In a later, more secular, age, this would be redefined as the “pursuit of happiness”. Thoreau expressed the same desire when he set out to “corner life”–whether it proved to be sweet or “mean”.

Everyone wants the chance to pursue happiness, whether they’re destined to attain it or not. But the question then becomes–what does it take to ensure that everyone gets this chance? I happen to believe that people require free access to education, medical care, and a moderately comfortable existence before they can even begin to figure out whether they’re “saved or damned”. The state cannot grant happiness to its citizens–but it can (it must!) ensure that all of the preconditions to happiness are met. That’s the rationale behind an “economic Bill of Rights”.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of “national security”. People aren’t gonna be doing much soul-searching if the borders aren’t secure. American expansionism is always about creating a stable situation for the individuals within the polity. That’s where it differs dramatically from the “test-your-nationhood” expansionism espoused by breast-beating Fascist theorists. Of course, you can still do a lot of harm whilst fighting to “make the world safe for democracy” (even, or maybe especially!–if you are sincere), and we’re seeing a fine example of this in Iraq. The right-wing Puritan’s greatest fault is the tendency to place so much emphasis upon strengthening the polity that the original point of the Errand is forgotten. That’s what Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme is all about–and I think I’m going to begin discussing that series very soon. It’s not really a Lord Acton scenario–absolute power doesn’t corrupt absolutely, but it certainly furnishes those who wield it with the opportunity to make terrible mistakes. On the other hand, left-wing Puritans (like me–and Kirby’s Forever People, right J.W.?), focus upon the Word to the exclusion of all else, and thus run the risk of being trampled…

Another quintessential American problem has arisen out of the hubristic belief, on the part of some of the country’s citizens, that they possess the ability to recognize “the unregenerate” when they see them. Skin colour, ethnicity, work ethic, sexual preference–none of these things have anything to do with a person’s status before “God”, and yet all of them have, at times, been interpreted by fools as markers of “sainthood” or “damnation”. This is why I disagree with Marc Singer when he argues (by implication) that Americans have accepted the idea of a hierarchy in the past. Americans have always been, and always will be, radical egalitarians. However, they have very often been guilty of arbitrarily excluding huge numbers of people from the social contract (reducing this noble idea, in the process, to a pathetic “Gentleman’s Agreement” between “Visible Saints”–a far cry from what it was meant to be: a covenant which enables every individual to work out his/her destiny before “God”), based upon an untenable inference of moral superiority on the part of those in power. Again, for reasons of “national security”, some steps must be taken against those (murderers, rapists, etc) who pose an obvious threat to the majority’s pursuit of happiness–but this calls for the nicest possible judgement on our part, because no human being can tell for sure whether another person is a member of “the Elect” or not. I prefer to believe that they are–it makes life a lot more pleasant–but the point is that I don’t know for sure, and neither do you (and neither does “God” for that matter–there is no God–so don’t tell me God inspired you with the knowledge that all “lazy/gay/whatever people are going to Hell”! Stick with the program here son!)

Good Afternoon Friends!


  1. Dave,

    A couple of points:

    1. Inasmuch as human beings are natural, they’re part of a hierarchy. And human relationships, just like all the rest of the stuff in the universe, hierarchical. This is shown again and again, and is the primary argument against libertine doctorines: when all official/conservative/traditional hierarchies are abolished, brand new hierarchies, often more brutal ones, rush in to fill the vacuum, i.e., Altamont, or the tendency for communes to implode because they’ve thrown away all the traditional systems for dealing with problems like sexual jealousy and conflict resolution. Without some kind of traditional hierarchy, people will form, spontaneously, into hierarchical groups (often called “gangs”). What’s great about America is not so much that we’ve destroyed hierarchies (which would be impossible–they’d just pop up again in a different form), but that our political culture tends to take the edge off or dilute that natural, human desire for hiearchical relationships. Hamilton/Madison et al. understood this, and wrote the Const. with this in mind.

    2. Dave, you’re starting to sound more and more like Samuel Huntington in the essentialist (ouch, hate that word) way you define “American.” There’s a lot more to America than New England Puritanism. I mean, I hate to get all multicultural on you, but America is a nation of immigrants, whose contributions to American culture added to and changed what was already there. Many “old world” concepts did find a home in America, albeit in a changed form.

    3. Of course, overall I agree with you, although I generally don’t take accusations of fascism in America seriously. I honestly wonder what people who see fascism in America see when they look at actual fascistic regimes.


    J.W. Hastings

  2. JW,

    1. absolutely–we need to set down some guidelines if people are going to be allowed to pursue happiness, and some people are going to have make decisions about what to do when certain others cross the line… I liked the way you put it–“taking the edge off of hierarchy”–and what really means of course is that the people in charge are actually working for the people under their jurisdiction; God didn’t put them there to rule or (as theorists who have a predilection for aristocracy would argue) to cultivate their potential at the expense of the masses (in fact, I would argue that the people in charge, in a liberal democracy, are the ones who lose out, developmentally speaking!)

    2. On American exceptionalism–you’re right, I’m quite prone to making sweeping statements of this kind–but I really do believe that it remains possible to understand the culture as based upon a Puritan matrix… It has nothing to do with the Puritans as people and everything to do with their ideas (which is why I feel comfortable arguing that people like Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, Frank Capra, Sophia Coppola, Stan Lee–and even David Fiore–are full participants in a conversation initiated by Dead White Englishmen who crossed the Atlantic in the 17th century)… It would be hard to say more right now without getting into specifics, and I’ve got to dash off right now to see a movie!

    Thanks for the comments!


  3. Dave, you knew I was going to take issue with this, right?

    I’m not one for sweeping generalizations in the first place (a generalization, I realize) but I think it’s a particularly bad idea to say things like “fascism can never take hold in this place,” because it seems to me that such a denial would allow the potential for fascism to creep in. I’m not saying America has gotten fascist, only that it would be easier for it to do so if people believed it wasn’t happening.

    And then there’s the question of hierarchy, and I wonder if you aren’t just asking the wrong question! Having been raised very Catholic in the Midwest, it seems like a fair amount of hierarchy still functions in many communities and social groups, even if the people within them still support only mildly limited individual freedoms.

    Still, the problem for me is that we Americans have had trouble treating people who aren’t in power well, and while that doesn’t mean there’s a rigid hierarchy, it seems to imply a serious power imbalance. And I think Americans definitely have problems with power, figuring out how to define it and when it’s being used and when its use is justified. Much of the war rhetoric on both sides keeps me aware of this.

    But I’ll be interested to see how and if your idealized impressions of the U.S. change once you’re living here. I don’t think they have to, given that many Americans have similarly idealized views of what it means to be a real American, but we’ll see.


  4. Rose,

    I’m sure my views will change a great deal as I acquire new information… But I hope that little piece doesn’t read as if I’m some kind of supporter of the status quo! My argument that fascism doesn’t seem like it poses much of a threat to the American polity doesn’t mean that I don’t think the country has problems!

    After all, a lot of people have no access to proper medical care and educational institutions, and those things are the starting blocks to the “pursuit of happiness”. Also, a lot of people are still labouring under the delusion that they can know who is “saved” and who is “damned”, and they are using their political clout to keep the “damned” down. In a lot of ways, that’s even worse than a traditional hierarchy, because there are no clear rights-and-duties prescribed. However, the upside is that, unlike in a traditional society, the possibility exists for an elimination of these kinds of disctinctions. A lot of people in America are suffering, but they aren’t really being “exploited”, they’re being held down out of unreasoning fear by a bigoted and presumptious group of self-identified saints.

    (and people are still eating animals!)

    Still–I truly don’t believe that power is a zero-sum game in the American context, and radical reformers make a huge mistake when they forget that neocon rhetoric contains ideas that can be used against it in the struggle to better everyone’s situation!


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