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Friday, May 11, 2018

Adrian Vermeule’s Anti-Liberal Chic?

I cannot tell whether Adrian Vermeule is perfecting what I will call, as a nod to Tom Wolfe, the style of “anti-liberal chic.”

Tom Wolfe’s 1970 essay describing " Leonard Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers was delicious satire, because the swanky opulence of Lenny’s Park Avenue penthouse was glaringly inconsistent with the Panthers’ message of militant racial struggle that Bernstein pretended to endorse, indicating that the ostensible endorsement was merely a fashionable pose. Anti-liberal chic is just the right-wing version of Lenny’s faux Left radicalism. The performer who conveys anti-liberal chic attitude appears to attack the basic principles of liberal democracy for the sake of the frisson that comes with being a dangerous iconoclast. But the basic presuppositions of the performer’s life suggest that attack is really just a pose.

Vermeule’s talk on the relationship between liberalism and democracy, delivered at the invitation of the Polish Consul-General, sounded a bit like Lenny in his Park Avenue penthouse. It is a little hard to tell, however, because Vermeule’s remarks were so cagey. He may have said that a government’s harassing its critics through police surveillance and arbitrary arrests is a legitimate democratic choice. Or he might have said merely that Jarosław Kaczyński‘s Law and Justice Party in Poland has not actually been engaging in such non-liberal behavior. After the jump, some thoughts on why that very ambiguity is the kind of coy flirtation with authoritarianism that might qualify as anti-liberal chic

1. What did Vermeule say?

Vermeule was asked to discuss whether Poland’s election of the Law and Justice government suggested tension between liberalism and democracy. Vermeule responded to the question by asserting that liberal critics of the Polish government suffer from “professional hysteria.” Poland, after all, is not nearly as repressive as China or Saudi Arabia, so why all of the fuss? Those “nonliberal” Polish voters who elected Law and Justice politicians are, according to Vermeule merely protecting “the particularistic solidarities that are constitutive of so many of the goods of human life” from “experimental individualist projects of self-actualization by educated elites.” Liberals who protest against this regime are just peeved that Polish voters rejected some liberal effort at this sort of cultural erasure by rootless cosmopolitans, thereby “expos[ing] the elite character of the liberal project.”

2. Is Vermeule saying that Poland’s doing fine because it is not illiberal? Or because illiberalism doesn’t matter to democracy?

Because Vermeule never described in any detail why anyone was actually upset with the Law and Justice Party, it is hard to tell whether he is applauding Polish anti-liberalism or instead denying that any such Polish anti-liberalism actually exists. This silence rendered Vermeule’s whole speech mystifyingly ambiguous.

On one hand, Vermeule might be suggesting that EU critics of the Polish government are being hysterical because the Polish government has not actually been anti-liberal. Sure, the government has been criticized for cracking down on dissenters. According to Amnesty International, Poland’s Law and Justice government arrested anti-government street demonstrators arbitrarily, deprived them of a right to see a lawyer, and subjected them to harassing police surveillance. That government also signed into law a statute that criminalizes any statement charging the “Polish nation” with complicity in the Holocaust. The government not only did not condemn, but even refused even to acknowledge the existence of, marchers in Warsaw’s Independence Day chanting “white Europe!”

But nobody’s perfect. Poland still has a robust civil society, an independent judiciary, and a reasonably free press. Compared to China or Saudi Arabia, Law and Justice’s petty repressions seem like small potatoes. Likewise, the Polish Sejm’s giving itself the power to select members of the national judicial council (i.e., the body responsible for nominating Polish judges) might not be a cause of concern, because those judges will still enjoy some protections from the majority party like civil service tenure. Moreover, the Sejm’s electoral accountability might suffice to deter blatant legislative attacks on judges who resist the majority party. The EU’s invoking Article 7 to strip the government of its EU voting rights is, therefore, a hysterical over-reaction, because Poland essentially still remains a liberal democracy.

The problem with this benign interpretation of Vermeule’s talk is that Vermeule never offered any such defense of Poland. Instead, he seemed to say that it is hysterical to protest any law as undemocratic if election that produced the legislature was “free and fair” and “the passage of legislation” was “according to constitutional procedures.” One does need to be Alexander Meiklejohn to believe that this is a pretty anemic definition of democracy. If the purpose and effect of Poland’s new law on the selection of judges were to staff Polish courts with stooges from the Law and Justice Party who will uphold prosecutions of all and only anti-government demonstrators, then how is such a law consistent with “free elections” in the future? Such a slender definition of democracy seems to be “one person, one vote, one time.” If one believes that the democratic right to choose one’s leaders is inalienable, then Vermeule’s minimalist definition of democracy looks simultaneously anti-democratic and illiberal.

3. Is Vermeule just flirting with anti-liberal chic?

In the end, it might be that Vermeule is just indulging in anti-liberal chic. By refusing to acknowledge that some sorts of procedural protections are necessary for a regime to count as democratic, he allows his audience to speculate that he is a seriously bad-ass radical anti-liberal, someone who does not blanch at laws that make the courts into the majority party’s tool. Think of such a gesture as like wearing a Che Guevara tee shirt — a really cheap way to signal one’s willingness to offend without putting any specific cards on the table about one’s own specific views about, say, the acceptability of locking up demonstrators who offend the regime in power.

This studied ambiguity with which Vermeule brushes aside liberal criticisms of the current Polish regime as elite “hysteria” makes me a little queasy. If Vermeule thinks that the Polish government is not at risk of using the police against political opponents, then he should say so (and say why). If he thinks that it does not matter whether the police harass the regime’s opponents because those opponents offend the “particularistic solidarities” of Polish voters, then he should also say so. The former sort of statement would make him an ordinary liberal. The latter sort of statement would make him an ordinary anti-liberal. But mocking the Polish government’s critics as “hysterical” without explaining why seems less like any sort of liberalism or anti-liberalism and more like a chic gesture worthy of Lenny.

Posted by Rick Hills on May 11, 2018 at 12:02 PM | Permalink


I’m not sure I understood the question, Patrick, but I’d guess that Deneen would take issue with Rawls’ very narrow definition of “reasonability” in Political Liberalism (as would I). Fortunately, the sorts of institutions that conventional “liberals” defend — for instance, judges who are not beholden to the executive branch for their jobs — do not require any such super-narrow definition of what it means to be “reasonable.”

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 13, 2018 6:06:59 PM

erratum: ... with both John Dewey and John Rawls, both of whom were ...

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 13, 2018 8:12:05 AM

Rick, I have not read Deneen's book but am curious as to how you (or perhaps Deneen) would characterize the well-known critiques of contemporary and classical Liberalism (which, like other political ideologies, is not a logically complete and self-consistent system of ideas) that are, at the same time, endeavors to reconstruct same, as is the case with both John Dewey and John Rawls (both of whom were keenly sensitive to the manner in which capitalism and modern technology often combine to distort if not destroy the central principles, values, and institutions of Liberalism which, in turn, serves to disfigure or diminish democracy, viewed alternatively as an ideal, a method (or methods), or a process (or processes). (Perhaps not surprisingly, in both instances this led to a belief in the need for 'democratic socialism,' [or democracy + socialism] a form of political economy that relies in strong measure on their reconstructed or radical Liberalism.)

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 13, 2018 8:02:18 AM

Kyriarchy writes:

“Rick, you define (bad) Leninism as "unlimited power for a secretive executive with permeating authority throughout society unbound by any standing rules." Does the Holy See fit this definition?”

The Holy See does not have a secret police force and re-education camps. I am happy to protect and even promote illiberal (in the 1a sense) institutions within a liberal (again, 1a sense) state. Those illiberal groups do a lot of good, actually, just so long as they do not carry sidearms and arrest people.

But, like I say, this all requires another post.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 12, 2018 9:02:43 PM

Rick, you define (bad) Leninism as "unlimited power for a secretive executive with permeating authority throughout society unbound by any standing rules." Does the Holy See fit this definition? If so, your argument is going to be a non-starter for many Catholics (although my reading is that you're within the descretion zone there with regard to the temporal power, see e.g. John Courtney Murray). If it doesn't fit this definition, why not? I would say, by the way, that the Vatican, and the Church exercising its temporal power, /is/ actually bound by standing rules, namely the natural law (which normatively binds all regimes, including the secular) and the faith revealed through the magisterium. Those rules aren't all written down in a single legal document, but that doesn't mean they change.

It doesn't seem to me that very many procedural rules are part of the natural law (although I'm willing to be corrected). If the judiciary is trying to ram down secularism by any means necessary, I don't see why it would be wrong for another branch of government to prevent that, if the latter does so through permissible means and towards a good end. As far as the free press, obviously Vermeule doesn't think that's a per se good, much less that it would be present in a just order.

Now, some state actions (such as the police hassling people because of their ethniticy) are against the natural law (and that's true in the US as well as in Poland and Hungary). But I'm not sure that consistent advocacy for substantive goods over procedural rules should be outside the pale for academic discourse, which I believe is where you are placing it. And I'm not sure that everytime a person gives a speech praising the United States system of well-ordered liberty they need address our slave-holding founders, antebellum period, reconstruction, Jim Crow, contemporary police relations, etc. (although I think it would be stronger rhetorically if the speaker did address those objections). See also "And you are lynching Negroes."

Finally, I don't think that Vermeule is saying that WE should dismantle OUR institutions (even though he thinks we should). I think his point in the speech you link to (like almost everything he writes) is analytic: some of the things we think of as liberal and are good (fair trials, electing our law enforcement, a different version of the university) are not actually liberal, some of the things we think of as liberal are bad (free press per se, judicial review when it exists to enforce liberal (i.e. secular materialist) ends), and that there is no necessary connection between a liberal society and a democratic society (and in fact, the two are opposed). A regime (Poland, Hungary, Israel's new judicial review legislation?) that exposes the disconnection is good in that it reveals that we could have a liberal non-democracy (the EU) or a non-liberal democracy (Poland). Whether the regime itself is good will depend on its ends and its means, which ought to be evaluated in accordance with the natural law and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

As far as his "elite hysteria" bit, he does seem a bit overboard on that, but when you see headlines like "CHIEF JUSTICE WARNS: NIXING JUDICIAL REVIEW THREATENS ISRAEL'S DEMOCRACY," it seems to me like its within the realm of reasonable debate. https://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Chief-Justice-Hayut-No-rule-of-law-democracy-without-judicial-review-549856; see also 50 different proposals for the UK to remain in the EU against the will of its voters.

Posted by: Kyriarchy | May 12, 2018 8:57:35 PM

Well, I DID condemn Vemeule for the flirtation: The comparison with Lenny was not a compliment!

I persist in believing that Vermeule’s calculated outrages against “liberal” (ambiguity deliberately maintained) pieties is a PR move, not incitement to the Polish cops. And it is working: He has gotten us talking about him, right? (I even spelled his name right!)

From his point of view, mission accomplished.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 12, 2018 7:04:48 PM

P.S. Of course, it's entirely possible I'm significantly misreading Adrian, in which case I would gladly stand corrected.

Posted by: Marty Lederman | May 12, 2018 6:53:09 PM

Thanks, Rick. I, too, hope that Adrian is not genuinely engaged in 1(a) attacks. But even if he is "only" "flirting with 1a without really saying so, just to give his readers a little frisson of Catholic Leninism," and thereby giving succor to the 1a'ers, isn't that worthy of condemnation, too? (I think we can probably put aside my question about academic freedom--but I suppose that depends what you mean by "censor" (rather than, say, "condemn" or "call out" or "ostracize.")

As for 1(b), I suppose I can imagine there are some people out there--though none I've ever spent time with--who "try to homogenize the world . . . by condemning any belief in a definite human good as 'intolerant.'” If so, however, I doubt there are very many of them, or that they present much of a serious concern. As I read Adrian, though, he believes this describes all, or the core, of "progressive liberalism" today, including the variants practiced by me and many people I know; that its impetus is a need to "conquer" nonbelievers "in a public and dramatic fashion"; that, in particular, it is motivated by an intense desire to destroy the Catholic Church (its "principal target and antagonist"); that it reserves its "deepest enmity" for the Blessed Virgin; and "thus" that its "true identity" is revealed as no less than an instantiation of Lucifer. If I'm not mistaken, you haven't "signed up" for anything like *that.* And more importantly, attacking liberalism in that register helps to fan the flames of intolerance, nativism and anti-cosmopolitanism and its variants, reflected in Orban's triumphant "Rather than try to fix a liberal democracy that has run aground, we will build a 21st-century Christian democracy.”

Posted by: Marty Lederman | May 12, 2018 6:50:25 PM

Marty and Paul, everything you write suggests another post. But I thought a quick code is necessary here, just to clarify my own meaning (and I will try to be pedantically, ponderously, numbered-paragraph plain to avoid misunderstanding):

1. As I noted in an earlier comment, attacks on “liberalism” or “liberal democracy” are fundamentally ambiguous. They could be (a) attacks on specific institutions (e.g., judicial independence from the police discretion, free press, etc), or they could be (b) attacks on a vague idea like Patrick Deneen’s “individualist anthropology”).

2. If the latter (1b), then sign me up: I am a “conservative” in this sense. I basically agree with Vermeule and Deenen that there is a virulent strain of what some folks (in my view mistakenly call “liberalism”) that tries to homogenize the world in its image, by condemning any belief in a definite human good as “intolerant.” Allan Bloom used to refer to “easy-going nihilism” on campuses. Now it is easy-going nihilism with teeth. (I have posted that it is secularizado Puritanism run amok btw: http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2018/03/are-liberals-anxious-puritans-or-selfish-hobbesians-some-thoughts-on-patrick-deneens-why-liberalism-failed.html Basically, campus liberals are reviving 17th century phobia of “Papists,” meaning intolerant and superstitious people, as if intolerance is the greatest evil. It isn’t).

3. If the former (1a) — if our “integralist” friends are advocating the dismantling of specific institutions like, say, the independence of courts from cops, then they need to say so loud and clear.

4. IMPORTANT POINT (that smart people like Asher missed): Merely condemning “liberalism” does not clarify their meaning. (See (1)-(3) above).

5. Vermeule camouflages his possible advocacy of 1b with a sincere defense of 1a. 1b is boring: LOTS of people say THAT. Ho hum. 1a is indeed thrilling to his audience: It makes Vermeule look much more dangerous. But it also invites social ostracism and genuine indignation not just from campus liberals but from conservatives like me who know what 1a has done to places like China. Leninist Catholic Integralism? Count me out.

6. I regard Vermeule as flirting with 1a without really saying so, just to give his readers a little frisson of Catholic Leninism (being a current resident of China, I use the term “Leninism” knowingly and advisedly).

7. I HOPE that Vermeule is insincere in his hints favoring Leninism — that is, unlimited power for a secretive executive with permeating authority throughout society unbound by any standing rules — in which case I think that my branding him as displaying “anti-liberal chic” is correct.

8. IF Vermeule is serious, then so I am: He is no longer chic but someone to be called out as an irresponsible shill for a repulsive trend at the behest of a dubious government. I have too many friends of friends arrested and tortured by the Chinese police — many of them ardent Christians, by the way — to have any patience with that sort of Leninist nonsense that dare not speak its name but pretends that it is merely lambasting campus “liberalism.”

9. Marty’s reference to academic freedom confuses me. Vermeule has the freedom to say repulsive things (although, giving him the benefit of the doubt, I think he’s just being chic). I have the freedom to censor him and hope others join in.

Hope that clarifies matters, even at the expense of readability and humor.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 12, 2018 6:25:51 PM

As if on cue:


“We need to say it out loud because you can’t reform a nation in secrecy: The era of liberal democracy is over,” Mr. Orban said. “Rather than try to fix a liberal democracy that has run aground, we will build a 21st-century Christian democracy.”

Posted by: Marty Lederman | May 12, 2018 1:42:42 PM

And I appreciate your response. It can be difficult (for me, at least) to engage on these issues productively and without a quick downward spiral, and I appreciate your reply for modeling how to disagree without any such spiral. I am personally less concerned about the anti-Semitic trope concern, and more concerned with whether the arguments he makes about those nations, at least without more detail about what he would consider wrong turns or impermissible actions under a just integralist (or "merely" non-liberal or differently liberal) state, will obscure the possibility of those nations, or forces within them, engaging in actions that are anti-Semitic or harmful to Jews and the Jewish community. But while that may be a real and important difference between us, I don't think the concern you state is unreasonable or anything close to it.

Again, I am no expert on integralism, although I'm interested, intellectually and otherwise, in its rise (as many liberal and centrist Catholics are, for various reasons; and although I'm not a Catholic, I have visiting privileges in some of those circles). What I find *interesting* or valuable about Adrian's writing on these issues, of both the humorous and deadly serious variety (and irony can be both, of course), is the exposure it affords to a new (to me) set of ideas. From what little I know, I think it should be possible to be an integralist who believes in, inter alia, religious freedom and concern for minority groups (with, certainly, some different vision of the moral duties of the state and/or of state support for religion). But I can't pretend to more knowledge about integralism than I have. And even if I had more, I assume that there are going to be divisions between different people or groups who so describe themselves, and that (as with any general set of beliefs put into practice or just employed in political discourse or its lesser online equivalent) some people will misuse the ideas or follow their own quite different agenda. (Without making any assumptions about equivalence, I would say the same thing about people who label themselves "progressives," or "conservatives," or what have you.)

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 12, 2018 12:01:26 PM

Thank you, Paul, for that thoughtful response. A couple of quick things:

First, I *don't* think, and didn't mean to imply, that Adrian's claim that progressive liberalism "has its own cruel sacraments—especially the shaming and, where possible, legal punishment of the intolerant or illiberal" is (in your words) "potentially worse or more troubling than the other numbered points [in Adrian's earlier post] or than the points made in the speech that's the subject of this post." I do think that claim about what animates liberalism is absurd, but I agree that Adrian is hardly alone in making it and, more to the point, that his other claims are much more troubling. The reason I mentioned that point was not to draw some sort of equivalence between that and his more alarming provocations, but more as a lead-in, or necessary predicate, to Adrian's broader account of what purportedly animates contemporary liberalism--namely, that we are quite literally (I don't *think* he's only being metaphorical) the agents of Satan, devoted above all else to the destruction of the Church, and the Blessed Virgin in particular.

Second, I agree with you that I've never seen anything in Adrian's writings that sound in, or suggest, anti-Semitism. Deliberately or not, however, the sort of Manichaean, battle-of-fundamental-eschatologies account he offers is redolent of--or at least it resonates with and thus encourages--classic anti-Semitic tropes about the Jews' responsibilities for Jesus's death (although, again, I'm fairly confident that is not Adrian's intent). It's playing with fire, in other words, particularly when it's conjoined to the sort of anti-cosmopolitanism that animates Adrian's writings and his (quite literal, I think) association of liberals with Satan.

Posted by: Marty Lederman | May 12, 2018 11:30:06 AM

I'm not sure why the (i) in Marty's comment above should be viewed as potentially worse or more troubling than the other numbered points he offers or than the points made in the speech that's the subject of this post. There are arguments against (i), of course. There are even stronger but more particularized arguments that even if this general description is true, the religious metaphor is potentially misleading or distracting (a common risk for metaphors), and that the phenomenon described is not about liberalism as a more abstract theory but about "liberalism" or "progressivism" as practiced on the ground by groups or individuals for whom this approach is not a considered philosophical view but a standard display of human nature.

But the general view, at least if it is reduced to a statement about actual practice in public discourse and action and not a general philosophical statement, is not obviously wrong and certainly not obviously beyond the pale. It is possible to worry about this from within liberalism and from within a more-or-less functioning liberal state--and many people do worry about it, both on its own terms and for its unintended consequences--without being anti-liberal or arguing for state actions of the sort that are at issue in this post. William Deresiewicz is surely a liberal, but he has argued interestingly that "[s]elective private colleges have become religious schools," with their own dogma and heresies, a frequent conviction that "we are already in full possession of the moral truth" (a conviction that he writes can be characterized as religious and definitely not as scholarly or intellectual), and that in important respects this "religion" involves not only "political correctness" but, more interestingly, a combination of a religion of political correctness and a "religion of success." In that view, political correctness "is a fig leaf for the competitive individualism of meritocratic neoliberalism, with its worship of success above all. It provides a moral cover beneath which undergraduates can prosecute their careerist projects undisturbed." (He made these arguments in that notoriously illiberal journal The American Scholar.) This view may be wrong, but it is widely shared, crosses ideological lines, is disdained and dismissed by the votaries of the establishment, and is not inconsistent with--in fact is entirely consistent with--at least some forms of liberalism itself, and with leftism, although perhaps not with most actually existing elite progressivism.

While I do think there are communities for which Vermeule's statements would indeed be "chic"--often more interesting communities than the standard establishments, which have their own views about what is "chic" and what is beyond the pale--I agree that whatever the limits of Adrian's arguments, he is not simply poking holes or acting as a provocateur, although that is indeed one thing he does regularly in his tweeting and people should appreciate both the seriousness of those tweets and his frequent use in that forum of deadpan, irony, and other valuable forms of writing. However wrong I may he think he is about Hungary and Poland (and I am still trying to work out exactly what he thinks, and among other things am still trying to learn enough about integralism, or his own views of integralism, which I do not find easy to grasp properly), I also think it is at least hasty, and I would say inaccurate, to charge (as an earlier commenter does, *not* Marty) that he is engaging in coded anti-Semitism. One may ask whether his writing (as opposed to Vermeule himself) is insufficiently concerned with the risk of emergent anti-Semitism in those countries without concluding that he is himself engaging in coded anti-Semitism or harbors anti-Semitic views. I don't know him personally, aside from some few contacts, but I don't see much in my encounters or in his tweets to suggest that that's really at the bottom of his writing. I find plenty of cause for concern, as well as interest, in his writings without feeling compelled to conclude that that's his motivation or underlying message.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 12, 2018 11:05:58 AM

1. You refer to "the regimes he is defending." Assuming you're right that he is defending them, doesn't that answer your question?

2. "No Harvard prof should lend his name to cops’ beating up demonstrators or politicians’ packing courts." Wouldn't Adrian say that he's not defending the merits of these policies, but instead "merely" arguing that they aren't as alarming as the "professional hysteria" of modern liberals makes them out to be, at least not if they result from a "democratic" process?

3. What does his being a "Harvard prof" have to do with it? Are you suggesting that support for such policies is actually outside the contours of acceptable discourse protected by broad notions of academic freedom?

4. If so--or even if you merely think (as I do) that it would be deeply alarming for a "Harvard prof" (or any other prominent public intellectual) to defend such regimes--is this latest critique of liberalism actually worse--more beyond the pale--than this one (https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/11/a-christian-strategy), in which he argues (i) that progressive liberalism "has its own cruel sacraments—especially the shaming and, where possible, legal punishment of the intolerant or illiberal"; (ii) that the "essential thing" from the "liberal standpoint" is to "provoke opposition from the forces of reaction, who may then be conquered in a public and dramatic fashion by the political mobilization of liberal forces"; (iii) that the Catholic Church is progressive liberalism's "principal target and antagonist"; (iv) that liberalism's "deepest enmity" is reserved for the Blessed Virgin; and (v) "thus" (thus!) that "Genesis 3:15 and Revelation 12:1–9, which describe the Virgin’s implacable enemy, give us the best clue as to liberalism’s true identity"? [Spoiler alert: Those verses refer to the serpent/Satan--in Vermeule's apparent view, the embodiment of liberalism's "true identity."] You wrote about that column earlier, but it didn't seem to trouble you as much as this one. Just curious why not.

5. Say what one will about these and other of Adrian's attacks on liberalism, I don't think it's fair to accuse him of adopting some sort of "anti-liberal chic" pose. For one thing, there's not much of an audience for whom it'd be viewed as "chic" at all (far as I know). More to the point, he sounds deadly serious, and sincere, to me; far as I can tell these aren't written in the register of a mere provocateur.

Posted by: Marty Lederman | May 12, 2018 10:35:18 AM

"[Vermeule] seemed to say that it is hysterical to protest any law as undemocratic if election that produced the legislature was 'free and fair' and 'the passage of legislation' was according to constitutional procedures.'” This is entirely consistent with Vermeule's defense of the administrative state in the US against charges that it violates the constitutional separation of powers.

Posted by: Douglas Levene | May 12, 2018 2:30:57 AM

'The regimes he is defending do not give a damn about when “liberalism” arose: From Hungary to China, they just want drastically to enlarge the power of the state to enforce conformity to what they regard are proper moral and cultural norms'.

Cf. Article 444 of the Belgian Criminal Code and Canada's Bill C-16.

But, wait: aren't those rules defending 'liberal' values?

Posted by: Let'scloneandfarmmammothsforthemeat | May 12, 2018 1:40:37 AM

Kyriarchy, that’s an excellent question and one that really requires another post.

But here’s an off-the-cuff answer: There is ambiguity in the term “liberalism” that, I think, makes these debates about being for or against “liberal institutions” really confused. Vermeule exploits that confusion to generate excitement about how daring he is in a way that preserves plausible deniability when someone presses him about the very real, very specific abuses of power in which regimes from Poland to China engage.

On one hand, there is an insistence that “liberalism refers to a JUSTIFICATION for certain rules that emerged in the early modern period (say, with Locke, or maybe the French Revolution, or perhaps the 19th century English Radicals, or some even later period). On the other hand, the term is taken to refer to the RULES THEMSELVES, without regard to any such historical moment. In the latter usage, “liberal” institutions could have emerged during, say, the revolution of the Catholic Church launched in the 10th century. (Just fyi that latter view is my belief: Gregory VII, not Locke or Robespierre, invented the western liberal state. But that’s a topic for another post).

Whatever one thinks about how this term “liberalism” ought to be defined, however, it is really, really, really, really important to clarify whether one is against the justification or the institutions when one says that one is “nonliberal.” Being opposed to the early modern justification, to my mind, is a trivial matter: Who really cares what the pedigree of the idea is? That’s just the academic epidemiology of ideas (“the idea arose in 1789! No! 1689!” No, 1642!”). Being opposed to the institutions, by contrast, is really serious stuff: No Harvard prof should lend his name to cops’ beating up demonstrators or politicians’ packing courts.

My beef with Vermeule is that he is not clear about whether he is against the basic institutions or just the justification. He thrills his audience with sexy appeals to “non-liberal politics” while concealing whether he thinks that the police ought to be permitted to harass people for (say) being Jews. The regimes he is defending do not give a damn about when “liberalism” arose: From Hungary to China, they just want drastically to enlarge the power of the state to enforce conformity to what they regard are proper moral and cultural norms. So anyone who accepts an invitation from one of these governments to speak on the government’s behalf needs to be crystal clear about where they stand on those expansions of state power. Otherwise, they are providing political cover for what many in their “non-liberal audience” — say, Deneen — would regard as abusive behavior. If Vermeule wants to defend the specific actions of Orban or Kaczynski, that’s fine — but he should say what he means and not coyly suggest aid and comfort for rubber-truncheons and tear gas while preserving plausible deniability by pretending to engage in a Deneen-style debate about human anthropology. If he does not defend such behavior, then he should also say so rather than flaunt an anti-liberal chic of supporting radical departures from existing norms.

But, as you can see, this point requires yet another post!

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 11, 2018 8:22:14 PM

Rick, can you explain in what sense "trial by an adjudicator not controlled by the police" is a liberal institution, given the historical fact that the trial is a pre-liberal institution?

To be more direct: you can't just take the good things that are found in liberal regimes and declare them liberal (see also, universities, hospitals, local and regional charitable organizations)

Posted by: Kyriarchy | May 11, 2018 7:45:08 PM

Asher, the problem with Vermeule‘s formulation is that we really have no idea what he means by “nonliberal form of democracy.” In some versions of “nonliberalism“ — for instance, Patrick Deneen’s — non-liberal regimes respect traditional political and civil liberties. “Liberalism,” in this lexicon, is just a commitment to a vaguely defined “anthropology,” and rejecting it does not entail any rejection of traditional rights like, say, trial by judges independent from the prosecution. As Deenen tells us (page 19), “[m]oving beyond liberalism is not to discard some of liberalism’s main commitments—especially those deepest longings of the West, political liberty and human dignity” but instead requires us to jettison only “ideological remaking of the world in the image of a false anthropology,” which he later describes (page 30) as “1) anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and 2) human separation from and opposition to nature.”

So if Vermeule is merely endorsing Deneen’s version of “nonliberal democracy,” then, of course, no big deal: Poland’s rejection of “a false anthropology” is no cause for concern, and getting excited seems like hysteria. If Vermeule means rejection of basic liberal institutions like, for instance, trial by an adjudicator not controlled by the police, then Poland’s turn to “non-liberal versions of democracy” seems more worrisome. Throwing around the word “nonliberal form of democracy” is like wearing a Che Guevara tee shirt: It is a meaningless gesture that could mean nothing much or very scary things.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 11, 2018 6:26:17 PM

How do "the basic presuppositions of [Vermeule's] life suggest that [his] attack is really just a pose"? I don't think you ever pay that opening salvo off.

Other than that, I find his remarks characteristically clear; he says at the top that he's assuming for sake of argument that Poland is experimenting with a nonliberal form of democracy.** He then argues that that's alright if it's true, or at least nothing to be hysterical about. So I don't see this ambiguity between, on the one hand, saying that "Poland's doing fine because it's not illiberal" and saying that "illiberalism doesn't matter." He's undoubtedly arguing the latter.

** "Many have observed that Poland and Hungary have been experimenting with nonliberal versions of democracy. Assuming this to be true for the sake of discussion, it still does not explain the hysteria . . . ."

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | May 11, 2018 5:26:14 PM

I'll try this again...

Vermeule has been clear that he is anti-liberal. Here's a Novemeber 2017 post collecting his stuff, and he's written more (and hosted a conference at Harvard on the topic) since then: http://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2017/11/papers-on-liberalism-and-catholicism.html

He is anti-liberal because he thinks government should be ordered toward substantive goods (namely, Catholic goods) and liberal government supplants its own (evil) substantive goods under a guise of procedural neutrality. So he likes that the legal sovereigns of Poland are Jesus Christ and Mary the Mother of God, and that the secular government and the bishops participated in those ceremonies, recognizing that legitimate governmental authority is derived from God.

I don't know if he denies the coercive police actions you allege, but I am imagine his rule of thumb would be "error has no rights," although he might strategically deploy a content neutral "freedom for all" argument when Catholics are not in control of the temporal power. See https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/11/a-christian-strategy .

Seems like he's put up a clear record of "authentic anti-liberal" and not "posing anti-liberal", and his Twitter feed makes that even more explicit than his popular audience/magazine works

Posted by: Kyriarchy | May 11, 2018 4:45:16 PM

Not sure why my comment wasn't approved?

Posted by: Kyriarchy | May 11, 2018 4:03:14 PM

"Sounds less like "anti-liberal chic" and more like coded anti-semitism. "

Crude. You chaps need to be more subtle than that.

Posted by: Art Deco | May 11, 2018 3:25:29 PM

1. Leonard Bernstein? You have an affection for bad (and manipulative) analogies.

2. Amnesty International? The crew who classified Wesley Cook (aka 'Mumia Abu Jama) as a 'prisoner of consciences'?

3. You neglect to acknowledge an actual complaint against Law and Justice: They used their lawful authority to take institutions of state away from the political opposition. Your counterparts in Poland are no different from you. They fancy the courts and the public broadcasting station are their property.

4. And you elect to neglect another complaint: they've asserted national sovereignty contra Brussels, and are not willing to allow Poland to be a dumping ground for the Merkel Migrants. All European countries should deport the Merkel Migrants to Germany or back whence they came.

Posted by: Art Deco | May 11, 2018 3:24:23 PM

Sounds less like "anti-liberal chic" and more like coded anti-semitism. Merely coddling up with the illiberal anti-semites in Poland is shocking.

Posted by: Brian | May 11, 2018 1:19:53 PM

Maybe not different at all. But I suppose it is relevant that (1) this law is accompanied by another statute lowering the retirement age from 70 to 65, removing 40% of Poland‘s 86 judges, (2) judges have been dismissing prosecutions of demonstrators, and (3) the PiS leadership has denounced the judiciary as a nest of former Communists who are bent on subverting the government.

Firing 40% of your judges after they rule against you in cases involving prosecutions of demonstrators might be regarded by some critics as a bit different than replacing the bench a few judges at a time without regard to how they voted in your latest criminal prosecutions.

Again, I am sympathetic to a tailored argument that says this particular reform is not grounds for an Article 7 proceeding based on the particular facts on the ground in Poland. (Maybe those judges ARE a nest of former commies bent on disrupting Poland’s democracy). But I am mystified by an argument that, ignoring all of the context above, declares that whatever the people decide to do after a free and fair election is just fine. I was not hysterical about Poland before I heard Vermeule defend the Polish government — but now I wonder if I should be.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 11, 2018 1:09:37 PM

Could someone explain to me how Poland's new law giving its parliament the power to appoint its judges is very different from our Constitution's procedure for appointment of federal judges?

Posted by: Biff | May 11, 2018 12:53:25 PM

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