Why Liberalism Failed - A Review

I think there are probably a half dozen people in the world that think things are about as good as they could be. They are probably either in a coma or eating ice cream at the moment. For the rest of us, it is pretty obvious that something stinks in the kingdom of Denmark.

In the United States and across the Western world, liberal democracies are teetering on the edge of populism. The levels of misery are climbing in areas of the United States as more and more people are dying “deaths of despair,” often by overdosing on opioids in an attempt to dull the ache inside.

Where did we go wrong? What happened to the home of the free and the brave?

For some, the growing sense of dis-ease fuels a call to return to some earlier state of supposed greatness. This is a call to turn back the clock to halcyon days when contentment was higher (in some circles) and the stressful influences of social isolation were much less prevalent. For others, the same conditions are cause for increasing centralized government control, increasing redistribution of wealth, and passing laws to make people conform to the sort of behaviors that are deemed beneficial by the people that really know. Both of these call for variations of a sort of social liberalism (distinct from progressivism). Patrick Deneen argues that the best remedy for what ails us is moving away from liberalism, because the populism and dis-ease we are experiencing is a feature, not a bug, of the liberal political order.

Although the meaning of the term “liberal” or “liberalism” has changed over the years and is often used to denote progressivism, liberalism is a broader political philosophy that includes both classical liberals (i.e., conservatives) and progressive liberals (i.e., progressives). As a definition of the term, Deneen writes, “Liberalism was premised upon the limitation of government and the liberation of the individual from arbitrary political control.” This led, in its early application, to a representative democracy in the United States with assurance of free speech, the freedom of religion, and robust property rights. In its early implementations, liberalism was supported by the premodern political order that still believed in virtue as a necessary and worthy human ideal.

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For all the benefits of liberalism (and there are many), it has within it the seeds of its own demise. Liberalism lacks the ability to reproduce virtue, because its foundation lacks substance. Liberalism is something of a content-free philosophy. It functions more as an organizing framework for other substantive philosophies. However, this contentlessness quickly becomes its own content, much like Seinfeld, a show about nothing, had a strong satirical message that tended to deconstruct social norms. Just as Seinfeld worked because it borrowed the substance from the world and made it appear irrelevant, so liberalism has worked borrowing from the substance of other philosophies.

That’s all fine and well until there are no other philosophies broadly held by a culture that are strong enough to support liberalism. According to Deneen, that is what we are experiencing. Thus, we have an anti-culture that really serves as a reaction to whatever came before. We have a progression toward dis-integration of social structures to the point that even obvious realities like maleness and femaleness are up for debate, or, in truth, considered to be forms of violent oppression by an elite, but culturally powerful minority.

Deneen’s book is a bit jarring in its pessimism, but there were few points that I could find strong counter arguments. If anything, I think he may simply be a bit more negative about our chances of maintaining the goods of liberalism than is really warranted. Time will tell. I still think that Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West may be the better path, where we push toward a more beneficent version of liberalism. It is, as Goldberg argues, very hard work, but I think it may still be the way to go.

Still, Deneen’s proposed path forward, which he does not bring up until the conclusion of the volume, is worth considering. He argues that we need to move away from liberalism to something new. He proposes three initial steps:

1.       First, acknowledge the legitimate achievements of liberalism. There is no question that our material condition has benefited greatly from the advancement of philosophical liberalism, with the ability to move, to innovate, and to retain more of what we produce.

2.       Second, he argues we must “outgrow the age of ideology.” This will require us to “focus on developing practices that foster new forms of culture, household economics, and polis life.” I think what this means in context is focus more on people than on big ideas and grand restructuring of the world.

3.       Third, we must implement the first two steps, by building on and not abandoning the good things that have come before. This is the least clear of the three steps, but I think Deneen is calling for progress that does not try to begin de novo, as the Enlightenment project of liberalism. The hope is that we can use the positives of liberalism in combination with the treasures of ancient wisdom to forge a more humane future.

Why Liberalism Failed deserves to be read and the ongoing discussion that has spawned from Deneen’s work is worth the attention it has received. Nearly everyone agrees that something is wrong. The two main answers we have in the US in the DNC and GOP do not seem have anything like a realistic vision for future flourishing. A healthy conversation about what society ought to be and how it ought to be shaped is a necessary and worthy endeavor.

Amusing Ourselves to Death - A Review

Neil Postman’s classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business, is an assessment of the shifts in Western culture since the advent of modern communication technologies. This is the sort of book that was prophetic in its day and, although somewhat dated, still communicates significant warnings to readers now.

Amusing Ourselves to Death was published in 1985, during the Reagan presidency. It certainly does not escape Postman’s notice that the ascendency of an actor to the highest political office supports his point that entertainment has become the central purpose of American culture, though that fact is more a capstone illustration of the book’s greater point than the central argument of concern.

What Postman notes, however, is worth paying attention to. His central premise is that the medium is the metaphor. This is an intentional deviation from Marshall McLuhan’s famous slogan that the medium is the message.

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Postman’s clarification is helpful, since it separates the content of the message from vehicle that carries the message. In other words, the facts of the news are the same (if written well), but the secondary signals created by the means that the news is transmitted also shape the reception of the news.

For example, Postman notes that prior to the invention of the telegraph, most newspapers focused almost exclusively on local news. The telegraph sped up the spread of national and international news, so that information could be had within minutes rather than days or weeks. The change was not wrought overnight, but the shift of concern from local issues to global ones has completely overtaken us today. Notably, it is much easier for me to find out about the personal lives of political leaders across the globe than to find out what the local city council is talking about.

Not only has news changed, but education has changed. Instead of doing the long, hard work of training minds, much of our educational methodology has shifted to entertainment. Postman notes that Sesame Street is a prime example of this, though certainly neither the worst nor the only platform that does this. According to Postman, whatever good is done by teaching through entertainment is undermined as it forms the learning human to expect education to be exciting. Thus, the endurance to learn and slog through difficult tasks has been diminished by the medium that is very effective in achieving short term gains.

It would be easy to claim that Postman was merely clutching at pearls, if the evidence did not point overwhelmingly toward the aggravation of the problems he identifies.

The point is not that technology is bad, but that technology is most effective if it is used in a particular manner. As a result, it is most commonly used in its most suitable manner, which shapes the media consumer in powerful ways. The efficacy of each medium to convey certain parallel signals effortlessly alters people’s epistemologies.

(Epistemology is the study of the way that people know things. Whether or not we know how to spell it, everyone has an epistemology.)

Not only how we acquire information but how we know is shaped by how information is received. Media is forming our minds to perceive in particular manners.

We need look no farther than click-bait internet articles to see that Postman is correct. There are entire companies that feed off of deceptive headlines that declare one thing in their headline and argue something entirely different in the body of the article. Even news sources that are still considered credible have recognized that few people read beyond the headlines and those who do are unlikely to get past the perspective that the headline has already presented, whatever the evidence is that runs to the contrary.

The reshaping of epistemology is radically important, even more so now than it was in 1985. Our elections have been tampered with by agents from other nations who spread misinformation with just enough truth to cast doubt. Our news sources have recognized this, along with the inability to discern opinion from fact in most of the population, and thus they have largely abandoned anything like an attempt at objective reporting because getting their constructed truth out is more important the facts. Additionally, with the wide array of “news” shows of varying degree of accuracy and political leanings available all 168 hours each week, the presentation of information has to be even more entertaining than before. In our current milieu, there appear to be a fair number of people that get their news through comments on social media rather than any legitimate news source (regardless of its bias). So, the cycle continues and the hole gets deeper.

Postman’s warning is an important one. It may even be easier to accept now that a quarter of a century has passed and the challenges have morphed.

Lacking from Postman’s analysis is an answer the for the disease that ails us. He’s standing athwart history yelling “STOP,” but does not provide a solution.

The truth is that there is no easy solution, and that the simplest solution (i.e., turning everything off completely), is unworkable because we and our children would be functionally disconnected from so much of society. However, we have to figure out a way to throttle the flow, learn how to think and exist without electronic devices, and recover some of the humanity that is being eroded with every flicker of our many screens.