The fence is sometimes a painful thing to sit on. Trust me: it’s much easier to be anything but a liberal these days. When I say liberal, I mean something different from what George. W. Bush means — he clearly intends the word to suggest something like “closet Stalinist who performs back-alley abortions for kicks, while fisting.”
No, I’m using the word in a slightly more traditional sense. Although it still requires defining. “Neocon,” for instance, means something like “classical liberal.” Yet I am not a neocon (even though otherwise beloved friends are). “Ted Kennedy” means something like “American liberal.” And yet I have never left a girl to drown in a car.
I guess the closest thing to my definition of “liberal” would be the term as currently employed on campus. Which is to say: it designates a person reviled by the left, and despised by the right. Or, in geographical terms, it designates — for Americans — a Canadian.
I am, nominally, a Canadian. I was born there — in Toronto to be precise — although I have spent most of my life running like hell from the place. I am currently a resident alien stationed officially in Manhattan, and if I had to define myself in terms of geography, I would call myself a New Yorker. When you think about it — despite obvious differences — New York occupies pretty much the same political ground as Canada. Occasionally New Yorkers and Canadians hold their noses and vote Giuliani, or Tory — generally when the left is getting a bit too anarchical. Occasionally they drift towards actual socialism, but get stopped short by concerns about fiscal responsibility. Both places often fall prey to Political Correctness, but here New York puts Canada to shame: my country of birth has nothing remotely like the First Amendment. (Some day I’ll write about the recent pogrom at Concordia University, as a result of which the administration decided that Jews should be seen and not heard.) Still, despite our differences regarding the joy of censorship, there’s a reason why 200,000 Canadians live in New York.
If you want to continue to define my brand of liberalism in terms of geography, you could point out that I am in semi-exile in Mexico. This is something liberals are doing a fair bit these days — or at least talking about doing: since they can’t seem to get their votes counted by hand, they end up voting with their feet.
In many ways I am not happy to be a liberal. Let’s face it, in terms of political theory, we have to make do with the least interesting, and by far the least poetic thinkers. We look enviously at nihilists (like Leo Strauss) who are defined essentially by Nietzsche, and can pretend to believe in Plato. These last are the two most beautiful writers in the philosophical tradition, and arguably the most interesting. No, we have to make do with John Stuart Mill, who is — despite being a bit dull, and considerably less profound — one of the only truly decent guys wandering the canon. (At least we’re spared the tedium of Marx.)
Luckily, you don’t have to read a lot of liberal theory to be a liberal. You can read the essential texts, which are vaguely unsatisfactory, and get it over with. Then you can spend all your time reading those great illiberal works, in order to define what you aren’t. I once asked Rabbi Fackenheim, a philosopher of the Holocaust, how a Jewish atheist might find God. He told me to read Nietzsche. The same is true with liberalism: if you want to find your way there, read Strauss. Or Heidegger. Or any of the great Haters of Liberalism. They’re fascinating, and frightening, and will ultimately lead you to a variant of Churchill’s Theorem: mine is the the least satisfying flavor of political theory, except for all of the others.
As far as poets and playwrights and novelists, liberals truly get the short end of the stick. Neruda, the greatest poet of the century, was an unrepentant Stalinist. Yeats occasionally wore a brown shirt. T.S. Elliot was an antisemite, and Nabokov, while an admirable foe of antisemitism (and Eliot), embraced McCarthy. Celine was a collabo. Goddamn.
So who do we end up with. Slim pickings, really, in terms of greatness. (This is unfortunate, and by no means consonant with John Stuart Mill’s theory. While Straussians and their ilk criticize liberalism as a recipe for mediocrity, Mill in fact intended his ideas to clear a space for great men to achieve.)
We do have a couple of shining lights. Philip Roth, perhaps the greatest living American novelist, is one of us. In fact, The Human Stain pretty much defines what I consider true liberalism: Philip Roth rightly conflates Political Correctness and Republican censorship, and cleaves to the sacred middle ground occupied by Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. By all means let presidents fuck their interns, as long as they remain decent men and fine leaders. Celebrate the fucking of interns! Better a man who loves life and thongs than a pinched censorious pornographer like Kenneth Starr, or a vicious hypocrite like the home-wrecking Senator “Mr.” Hyde. Better a cigar-wielding Bubba than a cigar-slicing Catherine MacKinnon. They say that Roth is not the most lovable guy on the planet, but I love him.
Mordecai Richler, Canada’s greatest novelist, was the country’s Philip Roth — and the uncomfortable center can lay claim to him as well. Everybody hated Richler, from leftist séparatistes to bootlegging plutocrats. A very great artist, and my kind of liberal.
The man who makes me happiest to be sitting here on my pointy fence is, believe it or not, Samuel Beckett. Beckett of course would have loathed the liberal badge, and considered his writing completely without moral content (he sometimes insisted it was without meaning at all); but Beckett the man was very much one of the good guys. While many of those who joined the Resistance (or cheered it, wall-eyed, from the safety of the sidelines) were really dying to replace Nazism with their own brand of vicious tyranny, Beckett was no Stalinist. He was no anything. He simply decided it was time to fight the Nazis because they “were making life hell for my friends.” When James Joyce, an almost-good-guy, was too busy fretting about the acceptance of his most recent masterpiece to be concerned about the slaughter of the Jews, Beckett was appalled. Samuel Beckett may not have called himself a liberal, but he was my kind of nihilist. A truly decent man. (With the good taste to keep his decency out of his art.)
No, we liberals get to count few of the greatest writers among our own — and we’re saddled with a whole raft of soggy moralists — but the few that we do get are enough to make the stigma bearable.
It’s not a glamorous thing to be, liberal. We don’t get to sport berets or boaters. We don’t get nifty armbands with sickles or swastikas. Let’s face it: chicks dig leftists. Except for the few who love a man in a uniform. If you wanted to get a liberal tattoo, what would it look like?
Liberalism is not sexy; it’s not comfortable; it’s not fun. It’s like Mormon underwear. We’re not talking hair shirts, however: liberalism doesn’t even offer the masochistic thrill of true suffering. It’s just not attractive. Hell, I wouldn’t want to sleep with me.
And yet I am a liberal. I am happy to be where I am, even if it doesn’t make me happy. I shall remain where I am, even if I can’t quite identify the topography except in terms of the much more interesting sights to either side. And I welcome you to join me, even if I know it’s an invitation to a dull party, where all you’re likely to meet are tedious and unpleasant people who are, even worse, essentially decent.
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