Damon Linker is a respected writer, columnist for The Week, and editor (University of Pennsylvania Press). He is also a Facebook friend of mine. I enjoy his columns, and often exchange comments with him.
He has offered strong and admirable criticisms of Trump, and of the ways the Republican party and especially its conservative leaders and base have enabled Trump. His writing often is very nuanced. But lately he also has had a habit of disparaging what he calls “liberals” that has seemed strained. A few days ago he took “liberals” to task for responding critically to Trump’s recent rants against Amazon and against Jeff Bezos. Going beyond the sensible point that Amazon deserves criticism even if Trump says so, he declared that Trump’s comments were “indisputably right” and liberals were foolish for failing to acknowledge this.
Today he has gone further, declaring that “Liberals Believe Politics Can Be Settled. They’re Wrong.” He begins by taking to task “liberals” for strongly objecting to conservatives such as Bret Stephens, Bari Weiss, and Kevin Williamson, who challenge liberal shibboleths, and who sometimes even call for the silencing of such conservatives. He proceeds from there to a more general claim: that liberals foolishly and idiotically imagine that the rights they have fought to achieve can be regarded as “given” and beyond further “contestation.” Thus his headline.
The main problem with Linker’s arguments in these pieces is that his criticisms of “liberalism” are overly general, and that on the basis of selective readings of one or two commentators whose opinions he finds especially foolish, he makes broad claims about the naiveté or worse not simply of these commentators but of “liberals.” Linker is a complex thinker, and this rhetorical tactic is beneath him.
Here’s why Linker is wrong about liberals.
First, because in at least some of the examples he cites, things are more complicated than his rhetoric suggests — as he himself acknowledges. Thus, after commenting in general on liberal “outrage” at some pretty outrageous things — Williamson’s claim that women who have had abortions ought to be killed, or Weiss’s dismissive reference to a Japanese-American as an immigrant—he proceeds to discuss two liberals, Michelle Goldberg and Jessica Valenti, who offer what by his own account are rather sensible comments. We can debate each of these commentators. But why declare, on the basis of so little evidence of liberal foolishness and some real evidence of liberal seriousness, that “liberals declare,” in some simplistic sense, that politics “can be settled?” For in the two examples cited, what the “liberals” seem to be saying is not that there reaches a point where politics simply is settled, but that it is wrong for certain achievements to be unsettled. Far from being a flight from public discourse, such claims are interventions in public discourse, and they accomplish three eminently sensible purposes: they advance an ethical-political position, they appeal to those who do or might support this position, and they also announce to those who oppose this position that liberals will fight their opponents. Sometimes liberals might make these arguments in limited ways. That is life, and that is politics. But if people like Michelle Goldberg really thought that their values should simply be accepted, case closed, then they would not feel the need to publicly articulate and defend these values. Linker’s claim, then, rests on flimsy evidence and questionable reasoning.
And this brings me to the second, and deeper, reason why Linker is wrong: because he grossly simplifies the “logic” behind the way that at least some liberals defend the achievements they value. He asserts that liberals foolishly imagine that such things as reproductive freedom are simply “rational,” and beyond “reasonable disagreement.” He claims that such foolishness rests either on some naïve conception of “reason” or on some kind of metaphysical faith (thus Obama, citing King, speaks of “the moral arc of the universe”). Linker insists that the universe has no moral arc, and that at every moment in time, anything can be contested, and thus nothing is ever permanently settled. And he is right about this. But he is wrong to claim that liberals must or even do think otherwise.
There is a very strong liberal tradition of thinking about liberal democracy “public reason” that links such writers as John Rawls, Bruce Ackerman, and Jurgen Habermas. On at least one reading of this tradition, what is considered “reasonable” is a historical achievement grounded in a history of argument and contestation and codified in law. At one point in time women were considered by most people and by the state as second-class citizens. Then this was contested by women and their male supporters, and women came to be considered equal citizens, i.e., their equality, which was never accepted by each and every individual, came to be recognized in public-political discourse and constitutional law. A similar story can be told about African-Americans. And a similar story can be told about reproductive freedom. At a certain point, social movements successfully established, as a matter of public rhetoric and constitutional argument, that women were not simply child-bearers, but individuals with rights, and that reproductive freedom, within some limits, ought to be codified in law. Obviously, none of these “settlements” was ordained by God. All were achieved in historical space and time, each has been opposed and is still opposed by some, and all can be contested. It is obvious that all are being heatedly contested.
The question is this: does it follow from the fact that nothing is simply settled, once and for all, that nothing should be regarded as settled in a more complex and qualified way, because there are good historical and constitutional reasons for doing so, because doing so accords with the historically evolved self-understandings of the society at large, and because revoking these settlements is likely to produce great harm, more harm than the status quo causes?
What is the difference between Linker’s insistence that “everything is always up for grabs” and the kind of “relativism” that it is hard to imagine Linker actually embracing?
Sure, reproductive freedom is historically contingent, and contestable, and vulnerable. So too is civil freedom (the 13thAmendment too is a historical artifact, right?). So too is liberal democracy itself. Liberals might like press freedom. But the truth is many people hate press freedom, and indeed hate liberals. Is this true? Yes. Is this something that liberals ought to shrug their shoulders at because what they value is simply what they value and everything is up for grabs? No! Of course no freedom can be taken for granted. And many people, liberal and conservative, have become too complacent about freedom. And now, in the age of Trump and Orban and Erdogan and Putin, we must understand that such complacency is a luxury we can ill afford. Liberals need to fight for liberal democracy. Of course. That’s what many of us are doing. But this fight cannot be mindless. And so, while we of course know that long-established achievements are not in jeopardy, we cannot treat these achievements as mere oddities and contingencies that may or may not be valuable and may or may not be politically recognized. We must treat them as valuable achievements that represent progress, and we must regard efforts to roll back these achievements as efforts to move us “backward,” to reinstitute forms of privilege and authority that we no longer regard as legitimate.
Of course, we are forced to develop arguments on behalf of what we value, and as the challenges evolve, so too must the arguments. Just as importantly, as Richard Rorty — no naif about reason — noted long ago in his Achieving Our Country, we need to develop narratives about our history and the values that best define it. Of course our narratives are our creations, and we can claim for them no deep metaphysical security. But the achievements they narrate represent a historical benchmark, an evolution in the halting and imperfect development of moral understanding and political democracy.
Linker is wrong to caricature liberalism, and to use a broad brush to disparage “liberalism” as a whole. At this moment, when liberalism truly is on the defensive, he is wrong to issue grandiose statements like “liberals are wrong” about politics (in general), or “Trump is right about Amazon” (in ranting against Amazon as part of his broader assault on civil liberty). I honestly do not understand the rhetorical point of such declarations.
Linker concludes by stating that “the alternative in politics isn’t between political vulnerability and invincibility. It’s between those who deny the vulnerability — the contingency and provisional character of all political ‘victories’ — and those who accept it, and wage the battle accordingly, with their eyes fully open.”
I believe my eyes are wide open, and I would put it rather differently. The political alternative, now, is between those who are struggling to revoke important liberal achievements and to enforce a new conception of “national greatness” that privileges exclusive and authoritarian conceptions of nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, and sexuality, on the one hand, and those who are struggling to defend and to extend liberal achievements, on the other. Of course there are many shades of gray here. Of course all politics involves limits, and compromises. Of course easy forms of vilification or silencing ought to be rejected. But this is precisely why liberal democracy needs to be defended — because it allows for real contestation, among civic equals, in a way that all known alternatives do not.
Does Linker think liberal democracy is worth defending?
If he doesn’t, then why is he so critical of Trump?
And if he does, then why does he wage rhetorical war on “liberals?”