Lefty friends keep asking me if — or telling me that — I’m a conservative now. But I’m just a liberal who remembers what they’ve forgotten. I remember what it meant to be a liberal back when I really started to identify as one, back around 2000, during Bush v. Gore, 9/11, the PATRIOT Act, the Iraq War. Of course, I may just have been gullible. Maybe it meant something different before that and maybe it came to mean something different after. Maybe it’s all just “tribal” signifiers, all just flags and symbols. But if it is, the forgetting must help, and that just isn’t what I’m good at.
I remember when conservatives were the science deniers. There was evolution and then there was climate change. In 2000, during the debates, George W. Bush called the recommendations of Al Gore’s economists “fuzzy math.” Through most of college I retained this image of conservatives, and of liberals as their rationally-minded, empirically-driven opposites. So I laughed and laughed when Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” to capture the way conservatives “felt out” what was true and false. These days, though, most of the people I see attacking science, and even the very notion of truth, are on the left. And “facts, not feelings” is a catchphrase of the rising, pseudo-edgy online right. Meanwhile, making fun of a misspelling could be seen as ableist; if the misspelling is characteristic of an ethnic or regional dialect, it could even be called racist or classist.
I remember when conservatives were the snowflakes, too, when they were the ones who had fits over wording and believed that “silence is violence.” When President Bush said “You’re either with us or you’re against us,” it seemed ridiculous to me. Why push away potential allies? Why characterize reasonable reservations as enmity? Republicans in Congress changed menus so that “French fries” were called “freedom fries.” Absurd, I thought. A small symbolic change with no effects other than to salve the feelings and prove the power of those who had pushed for it. Plus, everyone was going to keep calling them “French fries” anyway. But it is precisely these sorts of changes that form the core of identity politics activism: removing names from buildings and the credits of movies, altering the sigils of prestigious institutions because they relate in some obscure way to events nobody alive is old enough to have even been a part of. The DREAM Act for us as the PATRIOT Act was for them. And it is the left, now, that pushes away centrists, that says that even center-left liberalism aids and abets fascism. Fascism — and racism, sexism, even capitalism — these things are the left’s “terrorism.”
I remember thinking the “War on Terror” was a bit of a joke, too. How do you declare war on an emotion, on a tactic, on an abstract concept? Surely this would mean a conflict with no end, a conflict in which the enemy was always being redefined, a conflict which sought even to create enemies where none had been before. But the production of such enemies is now a central part of what it means to be a liberal social scientist or journalist. Test after test to tell people how racist they are, deep down, where even they can’t quite see it; the new specter of the “authoritarian personality” to explain the rise of Donald Trump. Dissenting voices from within disadvantaged groups are said to have “internalized” various biases or oppressive systems. I can imagine, too, someone telling me that I had “internalized terrorism” in 2003, when I wore all black to school on the first day of the Iraq War. And what did they say back then? “Support the troops” — the same sort of simplifying, polarizing call for solidarity we now hear in “Believe women” and “Protect black bodies.”
I remember someone asking at one of the presidential primary debates in 2008: “Only three thousand people died on 9/11. How many people die in car crashes? To cancer? Why don’t we shift some of our counterterrorism budget to those things?” At the time, this seemed like a very liberal thing to say — the sort that might trigger those virtue-signaling, flag-pin-wearing conservatives. And yet, now, if you talk about the high tolls of diseases and accidents and compare them to the relative infrequency of police killings or the relative lack of consequence of street harassment or microaggressions, good liberals and leftists will accuse you of “whataboutism.” They may even say you are arguing in bad faith, that you’re making seemingly logical points in order to distract from “systemic” or “structural” problems in the organization of economic and cultural life. They will even blame you for donating to charity.
I remember that academic freedom was a liberal value, then; I stressed and fumed over article after article about Middle Eastern academics who were denied visas, detained, or otherwise “deplatformed” from American institutions. The point was never that they were singular or irreplaceable scholars, though they might have been. The point was the principle. These people were trying to figure out the truth, was what we thought then. These terrorist links were shadows, or artifacts of their well-intentioned research. You can’t just ban from the conversation anyone who thinks American power abroad is a net negative. If you do, you won’t be able to make a critical examination of American power at all. But now major corporations and institutions of higher learning find ways to keep out controversial viewpoints, and especially to stifle dissent when it comes to symbolic identity politics, based on similarly shadowy links.
I remember when endless, pointless war was a bad thing. But these people want a war against -isms just as the Bush administration did. And just as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld wanted to tap your phones in case you made a joke about a bomb, they want to monitor your every interaction to make sure you’re not doing anything problematic. They want to tell you what songs you’re allowed to sing along with in your own car, by yourself. They want to institute an elaborate “sex bureaucracy” to manage and control the clumsy hookups of college students. I remember that being a liberal meant believing in privacy — the privacy of consenting adults in their own homes, for instance. But now anyone is at risk of exposure for an off-color social media post or a wrong move on a date. If privacy were a liberal value, why did liberal journalists gleefully dig into the Reddit posts of mild-mannered Ken Bone after his red sweater was a hit at a town hall debate in the fall of 2016? Why is it so easy to know so much about romantic encounters between celebrities and their fans, between senior and junior journalists, between pairs of people I haven’t even heard of before? If liberals still value privacy, then why is it considered politically necessary to publish so much of this stuff?
I remember when due process was a liberal refrain, too. Graduating from college ten years ago I applied for (but didn’t get) a job at the American Civil Liberties Union, where I would have been a paralegal working to support lawyers representing Guantanamo Bay detainees. There was a moment when I thought to myself: Can you really help out terrorists, murderers, killers? Some might be innocent, but what of the others? But I felt two things very strongly: first, that it was only through a fair and principled process that innocence or guilt could be determined to begin with; and second, that even the clearly guilty had a right to representation, as a matter of basic dignity and humanity. These days, the anti-due process rumblings are coming from liberals, too. In my discipline, philosophy, there is a fairly large and active group of professors who believe that there’s a pervasive sexual harassment problem amongst philosophers; in this group there has been talk for years of the idea that “due process culture” is “outdated.” These accusations are of things so heinous, so horrible, that we should alter our sense of fundamental norms and rights in response. What should the takeaway be, for an aspiring liberal? That mass murder and terror aren’t so heinous or horrible?
I remember that when Osama bin Laden was killed and American social media celebrated, many of my friends were somber. They wrote things like: “We should never rejoice in the death of another human being,” and “To find comfort in the passing of an enemy is to excuse oneself from the effort of understanding them.” My paraphrases, of course. Deep thoughts, I remember thinking. Gee, I’ll try to do better. Now: what do you think many of these same people were saying after the deaths of Andrew Breitbart, or Margaret Thatcher, or Antonin Scalia, or even, most recently, Billy Graham? They panned the idea of respect for the dead as a useless civility, a gutlessness when it came to vanquishing the enemies, the evil avatars of fascism, and misogyny, and white supremacy, and capitalist exploitation. I do not think the source of this inconsistency is that these liberals and leftists actually think terrorism is acceptable. But it has become difficult to explain to conservative interlocutors just what else would explain the divergence.
There is a danger in remembering, for we can only remember what we noticed — what we were around to notice. I wasn’t old enough to closely observe the left under Clinton, but one curious thing about leftist intellectuals during the Bush years was that they actually blamed themselves, and the conceptual tools they’d developed in their critiques, for some of the administration’s excesses. Sociologist of science Bruno Latour asked in Critical Inquiry “why critique ha[d] run out of steam.” He wondered if postmodern relativism had served to enable conservative denialism about climate change, evolution, and other politically-charged scientific topics. Similarly, law professor Jack Balkin wrote of “the other side of critical legal theory.” The crits, who had worked so hard to destabilize notions like the impartial rule of law, found themselves falling back on such ideas to attack Bush administration decisions and policies when it came to war, torture, the trials of terrorists, surveillance, state secrets, executive power, and so on.
Everyone was scrambling to reassess. This was partly the result of the shift in power. “Everything is permissible” sounds much better when the people who can do the most things are your people — people you trust or who share your values. It was also partly a shift in cultural orientation. The playful early stages of postmodernism fit the 1990s perfectly: the growth of the internet, the sense of freedom and invulnerability that followed the Cold War, the economic surplus which President Clinton left for President Bush. But the millennium brought a recession, then a terrorist attack; a series of wars, then a far more significant recession. Everything wasn’t so free and easy anymore. This sense of insecurity continued to grow during the Obama years, and the left learned from the Bush-era right just as the right had learned from the Clinton-era left. By fall 2015, the first year with a huge season of college protests, one could scorn liberals, just as I had scorned conservatives under Bush, with Ben Franklin’s famous saying: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Perhaps the most interesting dynamic post-Trump is that there has been no reassessment this time. Instead, there’s been an acceleration. Just as a terrorist attack can be spun to support counterterrorism policy — it’s not that the policy didn’t work; it’s that we need more of it! — the 2016 election seems to have proven to liberals not that their shift in principles was wrong, but that they didn’t shift enough, because they didn’t realize just how powerful the hateful, mystical forces arrayed against them really were.
For those of us whose values are the liberalism of fifteen years ago — truth, free speech, privacy, due process, pacifism, diplomacy, human dignity — this can feel like a bit of a bummer. We dreamt, I think, that the rest of the tribe would come back to the principles upon which we thought it was founded. It may be a small consolation, or it may be a great horror, that today’s liberal values and strategies will be superseded in turn, and that those who espouse them now will find themselves similarly on the outside of some future liberal group, with their own frustrated remembrances suddenly somehow uncool or corny. They will; but just some of them, not all of them. For while political principles may go in and out of fashion, what never seems to get old is: to forget.
Not at all. If you look at charts where Liberals and Conservatives were in 1994 vs where they are in 2018, you’ll see that the right has only shifted a little bit to the right while the Left has gone to the far deep end of leftism. If you don’t believe so, watch Tim Pool, he covers this several times and explains that, yes, the Left has become insane. The fact that people like Tim Pool, Carl Benjamin and other similar people are called “Far Right” when they’re actually moderate liberals should tell you just how far the Overton window has shifted to the Left. Ironically, with Youtube, Facebook and Twitter banning the far right on their platforms, it’s caused Republicans/Conservatives to become more moderate and want to go further to the right than they would otherwise be while the Democrats/Liberals are so far to the left that the main… Read more »
[…] A Liberal Who Remembers […]
I have always believed in what I called “objective liberalism,” (please not to be confused with the horrid nonsense called “objectivism”) that is, a cohesive set of progressive principles that are rooted in provable facts and logical deductions. But even from the young age when I conceived of this, I found it hard to really find in the political discourse. I still believe in it, over 20 years later, even though it continues to be hard to find, and moreover, seemingly harder than before, although there are still a few beams of light in the darkness. It’s quite remarkable, and discouraging, how many very logically intelligent people who I have come across and even personally known who believed some ridiculously illogical and nonsensical things on which some of their principles were based. (Identitarianism is a big one.) It’s become clear to me, though, that this isn’t a political tendency; it’s… Read more »
If we are smart and honest we travel on a trajectory that allows us to grow. We can abandon old modes and become some different shade of what we were. I’m 50 and I can tell you that I remember a lot of what you do, maybe even clearer and with a few more years perspective. I too have seen rumblings of intolerance on the left, illiberal thinking and suppression of free speech. I’ve been horrified by younger folks who can’t seem to understand why (despite wanting to) its sometimes so hard to teach an old dog new tricks and our frustration at their insistence that we do so immediately, I am also still proudly liberal, proudly willing to incorporate new ideas (like gun ownership) into my permanent ideas of liberty and justice for all, health care for all and stopping the wholesale degradation of people of color. I can… Read more »
I don’t think the author ever was a liberal. Being a thirtysomething is not really old enough to have perspective on one’s beliefs.
His so-called liberal days were during the period that the political midpoint was being dragged far right of center. This was when true political centrists were called “the left” and the real left had no voice. This is why today past Republicans (Eisenhower, Bush Sr, and even Reagan) sound more liberal than modern day so-called centrist.
The biggest thing missing from this article is the perspective of history. And this is very odd for someone who claims to value “facts.” The article is more about the author’s feeling than anything else. But instead of owning that he wraps his musing in a layer of faux analysis. The result just seem both pompous and naive.
[…] in Power brings us essays on topics we all remember, Berlatsky here has reminded us of issues we might have forgotten. The very first piece, for example, is about Barack Obama’s drone warfare. It has one of the […]
[…] A Liberal Who Remembers (this one is really interesting) […]
The right is everything that is terrible about politics, but the left right now is everything that is terrible about culture, and culture is more visceral and easy to understand than politics, so its more ‘common sense’ to prefer the right and ignore federal abstractions. Rationally or not, people will react much more strongly to a screeching undergrad than an argument about health care. It’s just the case. The only area this piece kind of glazed over were the Obama years – I do think Obama failed to provide “hope and change”, i.e., continued drone strikes and mass surveillance while promising an end to the Bush mentality, and combined with a half-measure healthcare program and not much else to his legacy, people felt like it was worth flipping a coin again than continuing Obama-era liberalism. He threw his whole weight behind Hillary and it wasn’t enough. If Obama really delivered,… Read more »
Risibly smug and self-congratulatory. It’s not your fault, you were somehow 100% right/omniscient *and* blindsided because, according to the rules of the game that you just made up, you’re only responsible for “what we were around to notice.” Inb4 some tautological nonsense about how you literally don’t remember what you weren’t alive for, etc. Yeah, we get the physics of time and biology and shit. No, clearly you meant something else; that you are, for reasons unstated and wholly mysterious, both ignorant of everything that happened before your high school years and proud of that. Here’s a possibility: you should be ashamed of not “remembering” anything that happened before Colbert told you shit when you were 15, and also therefore barred from commenting on anything ever. Nevertheless, we can still say you should be humbled by your own lights. Because what *you* were around to notice is conservatives telling you… Read more »
Joan Didion might provide a part of the answer as to why. Consider her essay ‘Fixed Opinions; or the hinge of history.” She might have been, if not the first, then probably the most insightful and articulate person to notice the “infantilism” that pervaded America a few months after 9/11. This infantilism become cultural, it grew and rooted in many parts of American life—politics, media, education. Generations of Americans came of age or grew up with this as lessons in their lives. I believe some philosophers describe some behaviors as “the new infantilism.” Those behaviors resemble their predecessors in Didion’s infantilism.
It’s a matter of power. When Bush was in power, everything he did was opposed by progs simply because they hated Bush. But when Obama took over and continued the same policies, they were okay because Obama was at the helm. So, never mind Obama destroyed Libya, served Jews in arming terrorists against Assad, and even worked with Neo-Nazis to bring down the regime in Ukraine. Let’s face facts. The US is ruled by Judea or World Jewry. It’s not about left vs right at the top. It’s about Jewish supremacists wanting to keep supremacist power indefinitely. Jews will use ‘left’ and ‘right’ to secure their power. Of course, the dummies fall for ‘left’ vs ‘right’ nonsense, all the more so since ‘leftism’ today means ‘worship the homo’ and ‘rightism’ today means ‘worship guns’. Jews know that the ‘left’ is stupid, just like GOP elites know the ‘right’ is stupid.… Read more »
Well argued and a pleasure to read. Since I first learned that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican (being an ignorant Canadian, I’d assumed he was a Democrat), I’ve been fascinated by the inversions of left and right that play out over the years. Thanks for this piece.
I agree with most of this, although in some cases, the comparisons between right and left engaging in the same sorts of behaviors don’t fully work. For instance, there is a fundamental difference between the invasions of privacy by the state during the War on Terror and the invasions of privacy that occur when an individual is shamed on social media by SJW’s for something they publicly said, those on the left who seem to desire more legal or state based investigation and sanction of unfashionable opinions do exist, but they are a noisy but small minority. Although, the use of shunning as a means of social control is something I used to associate with conservatism. Also, while this was touched on a bit in the essay, I would add to the list of formerly right wing attitudes on the left the tendency of many left/progressives to call for broader… Read more »
“I feel your pain”. – Bill Clinton
If group identity is now key, maybe getting shunned by the group is a potential path to new understanding if people are too young to remember on their own. Too bad identity politics (and maybe a kind of authoritarianism) are popular with many on right and left at the moment. Czesław Miłosz, Solzhenitsyn and Karl Popper are making some sense right now…