I’ve never been accused of optimism.
Well, okay, I was a happy happy kid, likely to believe that the Good will out, but nothing like a bout of life to kick the stuffing out of such positivity.
That said, I do think part of our political resistance ought to have nothing to do with politics at all, that it is not enough just to resist: we must celebrate the Good in the world. There should be dancing, and lovey-dovey: We want bread and roses, too.
In my piece on Modernity’s Ideologies I divided the response to the historical moment, Modernity, into particular worldviews (Liberalism, Totalitarianism, and Reaction), and extend the various ideologies out from those worldviews.
This can lead to a bit of confusion, insofar as I identify both Liberalism as a worldview, and liberalism as one of its ideologies. I’ve considered changing Liberalism to, say, Pluralism (which would then contrast nicely to Totalitarianism), but I think the term as I mean to use it is so entrenched in political theory that switching it up might simply lead to greater confusion. (I still might be convinced otherwise, but at this point, I’ve stuck myself with Liberalism and liberalism.)
What does this have to do with anything? Well, Liberalism can itself contain and tolerate a variety of illiberal elements, but its ideologies (liberalism, conservatism, and reform socialism) will generally seek to uphold and even further a Liberal worldview, even as they may, at times, be used to further what its opponents might argue are illiberal goals.
See, for example, disputes over whether business must serve all customers or if they may choose to turn some away. Those in favor of serve-all refer to principles of equality and justice, while those against might call on individual liberty and, yes, justice as well. These partisans are using Liberal values to advance/defend their particular ideology.
Now, various disputes about campus activists, safe spaces, trigger warnings, etc., often bounce back and forth between worldview and ideology, and often in ways which obscure the level at which the dispute is taking place. So, for example, someone like Jonathan Chait or Mark Lilla might chastise those campus activists as behaving illiberally, when it seems their real beef is that they appear to be acting against pluralism and tolerance, i.e., against Liberalism.
I’m not convinced of this, not least because I think Liberalism can also contain fierce partisanship and passionate, intemperate, even intolerant argument. I think, for example, that instead of smacking the activists as bad Liberals (which they probably could give a shit about, anyway), the tut-tutters should engage the argument at the level of ideology—by which I mean, actually engage the fucking argument instead of dismissing it as impolitic.
In other words, while I do think it’s necessary for liberals (and conservatives and reform socialists) to defend Liberalism, I also think that liberals (and conservatives and reform socialists) and anyone else gets to fight for what their version of the Good, and to do so without apology. If you disagree, fight back.
That, I would argue, is a great way to defend Liberalism.
But let’s get back to the fighting-for: we need to do more of this, without apology. I don’t mean nastily or triumphantly, but sincerely (jesus, did I just write that?) and profoundly and yes, even giddily.
As a bread-and-roses socialist, I want more dancing, more music, more art, more celebration of all we could possibly be. These are good, and part of the Good of human life.
This celebration needs a political grounding and goes beyond it—and in so doing, helps to justify the grounding itself. Liberal politics are often criticized—I’ve often criticized it—as deracinated, worn-out, and in its pure-procedural form, it is; but Liberalism is not just proceduralism, it’s also about possibility, an openness to what we can’t yet see. It’s about something more.
So let’s claim that, that openness and art and possibility, without apology.
I don’t want to reduce all of life to politics—too totalizing—nor demand that all celebrations celebrate all things—again, too totalizing. But when we have the chance to say, This is good, this song, this movie, this dance, is good, let’s take it.
When we have the chance to dance, let’s take it.