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Sunday, October 19, 2003

When is a liberal no longer a liberal?

James Atlas is apparently not an "intellectual." In an article about the liberal writers who have supported (or not entirely opposed) the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Atlas writes that "a mandate of intellectuals is that they be open to changing their opinions. Skepticism, the weighing of options, 'the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind simultaneously,' in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, are the tools of the trade." Unfortunately, Atlas doesn't seem to have these tools in his belt, and concludes that a pro-war liberal is really a neoconservative.

He identifies the basic dilemma, though:

Why should a liberal be required to be a liberal at all costs? What if historical events demand a revision of beliefs?

How could liberalism be liberal if it were immune to history? Historical events always demand the refinement of our ideas — but Vietnam so haunts Atlas that he can only define liberalism as the consensus that emerged in the anti-war movement in the late-1960s and early '70s. Stranger yet, Atlas defines neoconservatives as thinkers who "had discovered the limitations of liberalism." Does that mean that a liberal is someone who can't see (or refuses to look for) limitations in her own worldview? And what are we to make of the ideological rigidity of the neoconservatives themselves, who haven't shown much inclination to examine the limitations of their own worldview?

A key difference between neoconservatives and the writers Atlas discusses — Michael Ignatieff, Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, and Michael Walzer — is that the liberals are trying to develop liberal principles for the use of American power. They have certainly identified limitations to the popular formulations of liberalism today, but they haven't abandoned their principles. At the moment, the clearest difference between neoconservatism and the liberals Atlas discusses is that neoconservatives defend the use of American power almost entirely in terms of American interests, while the liberals defend the use of American power in the service of liberal ideals. Sometimes, these coincide; at other times — as in Kosovo, Rwanda, Liberia, etc. — they do not.

James Luther Adams, the liberal social ethicist and theologian, would undoubtedly perplex James Atlas. In the early 1940s, Adams wrote, "Liberalism is dead. Long live liberalism!" and proceeded to distinguish liberalism's "general idea" from its various historical manifestions, or "specialized notions." (Click here for more.) At a minimum, liberalism's general idea expresses opposition to "tyranny, arbitrariness, and oppression." Vietnam-era liberals recognized that opposition to tyranny, arbitrariness, and oppression sometimes required opposing American policies and perhaps even some American interests. Some liberals today recognize, however, that liberalism cannot become a synonym for anti-Americanism — and that there are forms of tyranny, arbitrariness, and oppression that require the use of American power.

For more on this topic, I recommend the anthology The Fight Is for Democracy, edited by George Packer.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 19 October 2003 at 9:51 AM

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