The Need to Be Right02-05-2020
By Roger Berkowitz
Jon Baskin in The Point identifies a disturbing tone in liberal culture. He recalls Lionel Trilling’s 1947 admission of his “deep distaste for liberal culture.” While Trilling identified with liberalism, he wrote that too often,
As Baskin writes, Trilling “did not merely tolerate the distaste others expressed for liberalism’s “sniveling” imagination; he felt it himself.”
“the tone in which these ideals are uttered depress[es] me endlessly. I find it wholly debased, downright sniveling, usually quite insincere. It sells everything out in human life in order to gain a few things it can understand as good. It isn’t merely that I believe that our liberal culture doesn’t produce great art and lacks imagination—it is that I think it produces horrible art and has a hideous imagination.”
What Baskin has riled up is not the program of liberalism—a program he and Trilling both support—but the liberal temperament. His essay is actually a scathing review of Adam Gopnik’s new book A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism. Beyond his review, Baskin catches something important about the liberal temperament today: that unlike Trilling, most liberals such as Gopnik simply can’t imagine that criticisms of liberalism could be true. Liberals, Baskin writes, are so sure of themselves that they simply can’t imagine they could be wrong.
This sense that liberalism is unassailable is, Baskin argues, at odds with the very openness and plurality that liberals such as Trilling celebrate. It is the liberalism of elites who look down on those that dare to disagree with their ideas and lifestyle; it is the liberalism that insists that the cure for dissent from liberal pieties is to educate non-liberals to be liberals. Such an imperial liberalism imagines that all those who dissent from liberalism are simply uneducated and need to be schooled. The elitist liberalism of this sort is precisely the kind of liberalism that rejects plurality as a fundamental condition of human life.
Baskin ends his essay by turning to Zadie Smith as an example of a contemporary liberal writer who understands that liberalism, at its best, includes a humble recognition of one’s own fallibility.
Yet there remain critics today who appear committed to following Trilling’s example of fusing an appreciation for the real virtues of liberal ideals with a critical vigilance about the smug myopia of many who tout them. In an essay called “Fences”—subtitled “A Brexit Diary”—for the New York Review of Books in 2016, the novelist and essayist Zadie Smith tried to come to terms, as Gopnik does in the beginning of A Thousand Small Sanities, with a political event that had shocked and outraged her and her liberal friends. But whereas Gopnik’s impulse in such a moment is to deliver a lecture defending the liberal tradition to his daughter, Smith’s is to subject her own liberal ideas to the “pressure” of her experience as a liberal in London. Her title is meant as an indictment of a dissonant truth about liberals like herself that Gopnik’s writing merely reflects. Wherever the liberals in her generation have flourished, Smith notes, they have built fences—literal fences around playgrounds, metaphorical ones between good and bad school districts, or between those who had the right “taste” in art and culture and those who did not. Brexit had showed Smith how high of a fence separated her from the Leave voters, not one of whom she had ever spoken to. How could she and her well-meaning friends have been so blindsided? As liberals committed to openness and diversity, why didn’t they know more about the people in their own country?
Midway through the piece, Smith recounts a dinner party conversation that has wound its way from disquiet over the referendum to the “younger lefty generation” and its habit of censoring or silencing opinions they believe to be wrong. At the end of the conversation, she quotes a friend she describes as “the cleverest among us”:
Well, they got that habit from us. We always wanted to be seen to be right. To be on the right side of an issue. More so even than doing anything. Being right was always the most important thing.
The insight simultaneously indicates the tallest metaphorical fence in the piece—that separating the liberals for whom the most important thing is “to be on the right side of an issue” from those who had “chosen to be flagrantly, shamelessly wrong” by voting for Leave—and draws a line between one liberal generation’s distasteful self-righteousness and the next’s. It also tells us something about the essential political function of the liberal cultural critic. Neither the desire to be right, nor the reluctance to engage with people who are wrong, are problems for liberal ideology: in theory, as Gopnik repeatedly insists, liberalism is devoted to pluralism and therefore to the toleration and even the encouragement of conflicting perspectives. But to truly engage in political life with people you disapprove of or perhaps are merely uninterested in—to keep from erecting fences between you and them even when you have the power to do so—is a moral and a practical challenge more than it is a theoretical one. It is a problem of temperament. For those of us in the generations below Gopnik and Smith, it will take more than an ideological adjustment to cultivate the imagination necessary to meet it.