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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Good Week for Civil Liberties and (Maybe) Old-Fashioned Liberalism

It is now a commonplace assertion that in various ways, our social dialogue, especially on college campuses, is echoing or repeating the debates over "political correctness" that gained great prominence in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. Although an article by Jonathan Chait helped lend a lot of attention to the "we're reliving the 90s, give or take Kurt Cobain" thesis, it was on many people's minds for some time before that. Initial critical responses to Chait's argument were interesting. Many were primarily ad hominem, while studiously avoiding the thesis itself; others agreed with the thesis and deplored some excesses while describing it as an "internal problem"; nothing to see here, folks! While there was certainly some skepticism about the general claim, few denied it outright. (I have no problem with the skepticism as such, incidentally. How to characterize the mass of people's views, when to conclude that anecdotes are indicative of a social trend and when they are not, and what weight to give it are standard problems of recent history and subject to standard contests. It is fair, however, to note that it is a common problem. We have long since accepted, more or less, a standard narrative of the 1960s in America that makes sweeping characterizations about the wider culture based on the complex, mixed actions of a relative few, and that asserts a connection between the hippies and protesters of the United States and more revolutionary movements in Europe, rather than seeing them as incidental or exceptional, or finding more kinship between these American individuals and 50s liberals, or hedonists of any age, although the long-term arc of that generation was at least as much careerist, self-serving, and establishment-oriented as revolutionary. Moreover, contemporary progressives also rely on anecdotes to make sweeping and optimistic, albeit different, arguments about the narrative of our own time. Such is the ineluctable nature of contemporary historical argument.)

The events of the last week--at Yale, especially, and the incident involving a reporter at Missouri--have shifted that narrative rather quickly, although perhaps no more justly. Anecdotes are still anecdotes. Still, Chait (sorry to focus so much on him; it's not a matter of strong identification or agreement, so much as that he nicely represents and records the shifts I'm discussing here) is probably right to observe, with a certain amount of earned satisfaction after the personally directed drubbing he took, that it is okay for more people, including supporters of the movement, to talk about "political correctness" now. We needn't and shouldn't make much of the label itself. The point is that more people are now willing to accept as an actual trend an impassioned movement stressing identitarian issues, strongly privileging a forceful form of egalitarianism over potential competing liberty interests, arguing for a radical departure from traditional interpretations of free speech rights, and insisting that, both as a matter of initial description and in those cases where they must be balanced against other interests, free speech rights conventionally understood should be subordinated to equality interests. That is, indeed, the 90s debate redux. Of course there are differences--in controversies, language, institutions, and so on. There are also differences between mallards and blue-winged teals. But the kinship is clear and more people, on both sides of the debate, now accept it with less caviling or outright resistance. 

What was missing was the ability to foretell where things would go next. In the 90s, ultimately many lessons were learned from the movement, but its more non-liberal edges, particularly in the area of free speech, were smoothed over. Ultimately, there was significant pushback from liberal institutions and individuals, on and off campus, who reasserted their views and authority--or hegemony, if you prefer.

My sense is that the events of the last week have gone a long way to complete that half of the 90s-analogy equation. The critical--or reactionary, if you prefer--response has been swift and pretty widespread. Civil libertarians, rather thin on the ground this past decade, have been more vocal. Most important, perhaps, and this was true and essential in the 90s as well, many of the critical voices have come from within the liberal, and even the progressive, fold (if one thinks of the two terms as involving more than propaganda strategies and sees an actual difference between them, as I do). We always and necessarily see through a glass darkly. But my sense is that, precisely because of and not despite these high-profile incidents, this has been a very good and encouraging week for traditional civil libertarian views of free speech. 

Two notes are worth making here. The first is that, although my preferences are perhaps plain, this is intended mostly as descriptive, and whatever agreements or disagreements I may have with particular movements and arguments, my description does not depend on any conclusion that the current campus movement has no legitimate grievances or insights to offer. It has both, in my view--although, of course, that hardly requires unquestioning acquiescence on characterizations, goals, or remedies. Nor, although I tend to have fairly traditional liberal and civil libertarian views on free speech and related matters, does the increased likelihood as of this week that those traditional views will reassert themselves, on the ground and in public dialogue, immunize them from ongoing criticism and revision. Differing views about broad, fundamental, and incommensurable goods and values are always on the table. It is no more illegitimate for progressives of a strongly egalitarian cast to push for a recalculation of the balance between liberty, equality, dignity, and so on than it is for religious conservatives to argue for a readjustment of the balance between private conscience and public legal obligations. These things are always up for debate and renegotiation, and arguments about who is on the "wrong side of history" have little intellectual value on this side of the Eschaton. I suspect the recent incidents will lead to a reassertion of the hegemony of more conventional and less radically egalitarian liberal views on free speech; but I will be perfectly content if this is not accepted uncritically as a good thing. 

The second and, to my mind, more interesting question is whether, if I'm right about the general prediction that this was a good week for traditional civil libertarian and conventional liberal views, much or any of that good will end up credited to the account of what used to be a fairly substantial social force: liberals and liberal institutions. If the 90s debate ended up with a reassertion of intellectual or institutional authority by liberals, as against more radical views on campus, that depended on the existence and power of both establishment liberals and liberal establishments. It made a difference that there was a Henry Louis Gates to write "Let Them Talk," a New Republic to publish it, and a White House to stock the magazine as its in-flight reading (as TNR's publicity department never tired of reminding people back then). Are the same institutions there today, or as likely to assert the same views? The New Republic has changed owners and philosophies, demonstrated an eagerness to disavow virtually the entire magazine's past in response to criticisms of its current status as a vertically integrated thingamajig, and was silent on all these issues for a week (despite running countless other items on transient matters) until it ran a piece today--and that piece was largely about validating and appealing (in the sense of appealing for their readership) to student activists, while mostly studiously avoiding any discussion or position on civil liberties questions. The Missouri ACLU spoke out about matters of press access. But the ACLU as a whole, given issues on which it has switched positions or avoided much vocal activity altogether, is less strongly associated with liberalism or even conventional civil libertarianism today than it was 20 or 50 years ago. Its public prominence on these issues has largely been claimed by groups solely concerned with campus civil liberties, or by groups more closely associated with conservatism. (Often, rightly or wrongly, the former groups are categorized by many as members of the latter set of interest groups, just as the ACLU was traditionally lumped together with liberal interest groups by many despite asserting that it had no political valence.) The center of liberalism, or progressivism, has shifted considerably, a matter on which I again take no normative position here. Having shifted, it's not clear that there will be as many liberal groups or thinkers ready, willing, or able to take on the role, or acquire the credit, that ultimately accrued to conventional liberal figures and institutions 20 years ago.

My sense, and prediction, is that this will have turned out to be a good week for the reassertion of more conventional, old-fashioned, liberal and/or civil libertarian views on matters of campus speech, free speech more generally, and the eternally difficult balance between liberty and equality. But I am much less confident that any benefits or acclaim for this will accrue to liberal groups or institutions, as opposed to groups and individuals that identify as conservative. If I'm right about that, I will tend to think of it as cause for regret, although I don't think my feelings about it are terribly important.  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on November 11, 2015 at 01:46 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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