Jul/Aug 2019 Nonfiction

A Radical Liberalism

by Ben Adams

Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman

Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman

When I was a child, my parents had to deal with an unenviably awkward situation arising from their son's particular choice of ideological affiliation. At the age of six, I was a Nazi.

Now, perhaps—driven by the deeply aware empathy required of a social worker and a psychiatrist—they comforted themselves with the idea that, as Walter Sobchak tells Jeff Lebowski upon encountering a gang of hypocritically entitled German nihilists, "Say what you want about the tenants of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos." Nevertheless, one suspects that framing my youthful attachment to fascism as, at least, an expression of life affirming (if ethically misguided) belief in something bigger than myself, would not quite have been enough to blunt the discomfort of accompanying their blonde, blue-eyed child around in public while he insisted on dressing in some—admittedly haphazard—version of the jackbooted, swastika-banded regalia favored by Hitler's Waffen-SS.

The whole thing was made even more delicate by the fact of my two Godmothers being, themselves, German Jews—sisters who had been sent away to London before the war. As you can imagine, this necessitated an early private negotiation with issues that have, more recently, gained ever greater purchase in public discourse—questions of whether to censor this politically wayward primary-schooler or, rather, allow his misguided ideological allegiance to play out and, hopefully, fade away of its own accord.

I wasn't a Nazi, of course, but rather a boy who, along with many others his age (and, predominantly, his gender) was drawn to representations of martial strength, heroism, and adventure. Playing with small molded figurines holding Luger pistols or flame-throwers, lining them up in sandpits alongside die-cast tanks and fighter aircraft. Firing plastic assault rifles or metal cap guns, or wearing cheaply bought dress-up costumes from the Adelaide Central Market Arcade. These were the acting out of army-men fantasies, participating vicariously in some world unavailable to me, marching to the beat of my own imagined, still incipient masculinity.

That's how I might describe it now, at least. Really, the Nazis just had cool helmets that slanted down and back around the ears. Their insignia were boldly colored and brightly fascinating. They caught your attention, is what I think it must have boiled down to.

I can't remember many details of how the change occurred, whether it was a gradual shift or some revelatory moment that laid bare the full horror of what those helmets stood for, but within a few more years I had transitioned my need for affiliation: from a taste for black shirts and shiny boots—the amorality of blind aestheticism—into something more like admiration for the good.

American GIs outmaneuvered storm troopers in my backyard reconstructions of Second World War battlefields. In pencil-sketched panoramas of evermore elaborately imagined military scenarios, infantry squadrons advanced toward enemy lines across barbed wire barricades or crocodile infested streams, while commandos secretively approached fortified strongholds atop precarious cliff faces. All were drawn as if from the perspective of a side-scrolling video-game but always, now, my winning side appeared not in the distinctively coal-scuttle shaped Stahlhelme of Wehrmacht troops, with its brutally steep drop around the face, but rather in the more gently curved profile of US military "steel pot" helmets—in service, as it happens, for more than 40 years from World War II until the year before my birth, in 1985.

Whatever the murky realities of US cultural imperialism and military power, it seems likely that my shift from a doctrine of Third Reich lebensraum and racial purity to apparent regard for safeguarding the American Dream came as something of a relief—certainly to those who were responsible for my care and social presentation. This was a step, undoubtedly, in the right direction. Or was it a welcome left turn?


It's always made a certain kind of sense to me that people would move from simple into more sophisticated ideas about how things around them work, rather than going in the opposite direction. The world today, however, seems to be in many ways an increasingly simplified one. I can laugh at my own childhood forays into fascist iconography because they were just that, childish and without reason or rationale. They faded away, not of their own accord but through gradual exposure to a public sphere that always seemed, at least—notwithstanding its many flaws in practice—to be anchored in twin principles of compassion and openness to complexity. A society in which the liberal status quo led us to believe that punching Nazis was a self-evident act of cheer-inducing righteousness performed by whip-cracking, globe-trotting archaeologist matinee heroes, not an event to elicit hand-wringing discussions about the rights of uncivilized thugs to promote their propaganda.

Many have argued recently that we are witnessing the end of liberalism, that it can no longer contain the various tensions at its heart. We live in a radical age. Complexity can seem like a liability. I know we want to flip cars in the street.

Nevertheless, I want you to start thinking about liberalism now, just a little bit. And to begin conceiving of me as a liberal, in the broadest sense you are able. But I digress.

In any case, it always just stood to reason for me (at least, once I'd reached a certain level of reasoning and reflective ability to start with) that people's thoughts, ideas, and opinions about something as infinitely complex and unknowably vast as the entirety of both human and natural existence—it always stood to reason that people's engagement with such a thing could only, conceivably, become more complex and speculative, less simplistic and certain, with the passing of time and their accrual of knowledge, experience, or both. This is not a defense of what some might hazily describe as moral relativism. Rather, it has always seemed to me, the very idea of enlightened skepticism and scientific method rely on not just willingness, but indeed an enthusiastic propensity for, changing one's mind in response to new information, perspectives, or interpretations.

For children, of course, any such change begins ultimately from nothing, from the most basic or uninformed impressions of their world that gradually develop into something like a world-view. There is one fleeting memory remaining of my own early growth into a conception of things based on facts and my own moral interpretation, rather than ignorance, of them. This was at least a part of my realization that Nazis were most definitely The Bad Guys. It must have been my parents—eventually feeling I was old enough to understand or, more properly, too old not to—who told me about the camps: the cattle cars and the gas, too, possibly, though maybe not at first. What I remember being most affected by, though, was less the abstract horror of innocent death on an industrial scale, but a more concrete inability to comprehend the kind of hate that would deny its own material interests by committing genocide rather than simply enslavement. I discovered later that, of course, the Nazis did make awful use of forced labor by those Jews and others whom they subsequently killed or left to die in barbarous conditions. But my initial reaction is one that continued and, perhaps, continues to inform my particular heuristic of inhumanity. Conflict, war, the pursuit of land, wealth, or resources were all one thing in my head, complex things I did not particularly agree with or even know anything much about, really. But I could understand the concept of doing something for a rational purpose, a concept far less terrifying or abject in my own mind than its alternative, which the writer Charles Bukowski once described in reference to his sadistically abusive father as "pain without reason."

I can recall interrogating this distinction for myself quite deliberately with reference to various action-thriller or superhero films, putting forward the philosophical question of whether it was better to be faced with the violence of an insane man who believed in his cause, or instead a detached hit man, a killer driven by dollars, a professional. Inexorably, I would opt for the latter. Die Hard's Hans Gruber was clearly a less threatening, more ridiculous villain after McClane's ex-wife Holly realizes he is no more than a "common thief" rather than any kind of terrorist ideologue. Similarly, it seemed preferable to me (if not ideal) that Gotham's mafia dons wanted to control the city in pursuit of money and influence—but the Joker wanted to burn it all down. (I was clearly not yet ready to confront Bruce Wayne's own questionably unstable motivations for becoming the masked vigilante Batman, or the implications of his and Commissioner Gordon's decision to lie about a series of murders committed by their city's District Attorney rather than addressing those crimes and their context openly in the courts.)


In one sense all of this is to say that I have long been drawn to a preference for order, in some form, over chaos. But really, this is not to say so very much at all. I asked you earlier to begin thinking about things, about me, about this, in terms of liberalism—and indeed the desire for certain kinds of order is a very liberal trait. But it can be found equally among conservatives, most of the non-anarchist left, and famously, in National Socialist fascism. Rather, what most people would see as the particularly liberal element of such examples is their preference for Rationality. The shadow of that word is long, stretching across the Enlightenment rationality of particular scientific or philosophical methods, through a more general idea of the ability to see the big picture of your own interests rather than getting side-tracked by particular instances of emotional response, all the way to economic rationalization and the specific ideological program of neoliberalism that has become increasingly dominant since the 1970s.

The idea of rationality with most relevance for my youthful excursions within existential philosophy, however, was that which let you know a man could be dealt with, reasoned with in one form or another. While some kids were entertaining superhero hypotheticals along the lines of whether or not X could beat Y in a fight, I was asking the question: was it worse to be someone in control of whom and why they killed, who committed violence not indiscriminately but for a set of negotiable, changeable and, in that sense, potentially controllable reasons, or to be someone unhinged from any semblance of rational goals, who killed for the sake of it, without reason except for the act itself, the suffering caused? Although even then I found the problem fascinatingly complex, my answer nevertheless remained firmly, no. It was better to have a flawed system of order with which to negotiate, than hope for a figure of chaos to come and blow it up.

Apart from anything else this might say about me, I think it probably helps contextualize my consistent and ongoing skepticism about the kinds of philosophical outlook that would see violence or the exercise of power as, in-and-of themselves, always, morally wrong. In other words, I am not and never have been (at least to my knowledge) either a pacifist or anarchist. This might also explain my youthful, surprisingly well-formed (if not informed) support for interventionist foreign policies—or, at least, my apparent resistance to blanket anti-interventionist positions. The earliest particular example of this I can recall was from March 1999, when I overheard my seventh grade teacher voicing concern about NATO's recently launched bombing campaign against Yugoslav forces during the Kosovo War. The United States and NATO were, I knew, the Good Guys, and so it seemed to me odd, if not misguided, that anyone should oppose them coming to the aid of others against what must have been, by definition, the Bad Guys.


But the biggest perceived clash between Good and Bad Guys to occur in the immediate post-Cold War period of my own Western childhood and adolescence did not happen, of course, for another two and a half years. It bears remarking, if only to better situate my own set of experiences, that news of the event and initial contemplation of its effects came to me, and some few others, both in relative isolation, but also situated within the conspicuous trappings of material privilege. It seems to me now this gave the whole thing some added sense of apocalyptic unreality, as though we'd all found ourselves transported into John Marsden's Tomorrow, When the War Began series, bourgeois teenagers suddenly faced with the fact of their world's previously unrealized brutality. I was nearly 15 in September of 2001, when I and several other students, teachers, parents, and coaches were on a rowing camp at Walker Flat, near Mannum on the Murray River in South Australia. We had a rickety, cathode ray television set up on a school A/V trolley in the campsite's rec-room, and it must have been lunchtime on the 12th that news reports started coming in of those two planes and the towers. My response was a sense of being witness to some immense, terrible but utterly well defined moment of moral challenge. Though even then I was no particular fan of George W. Bush, my basic reaction to what had happened was the same as his. There were Good Guys and Bad Guys, and we were going to go get 'em.

This attachment to stark and easily understood binaries is nothing unique in me, of course, nor is the focus of its admiration on America especially surprising for someone born and raised into a liberally educated, middle-class Australian family. At the same time, there is something initially odd about such a connection—particularly in our present context whereby the lines between competing political and ideological affiliations have become, simultaneously, more rigidly defined and increasingly blurred, if not seemingly incoherent. On current metrics, to be a scion of the liberal, educated middle-class is, indeed, to be a globalist and interventionist—to value abstract, high-minded ideals of spreading equality across the world through open minds and borders (and free markets). What this forgets, in much current estimation, is the small and local. It forgets the ties binding communities and tribes, forgets taking care of our own. It forgets class.

I was only 12, after all, but in this admittedly ret-conned reflection I can at least see, then, how admiration for the big, global, democratizing power of America to intervene against the localized tyranny of despots like Slobodan Milosevic may have filtered through my still-limited awareness as something grand and good. Even more understandable, I should think, for me at 14 to react similarly in the aftermath of what was, perhaps, the most terrifyingly dramatic, theatrical act of violence ever suffered by—or broadcast widely in—the western world since US and Soviet troops, respectively, liberated Mauthausen and Theresienstadt in May 1945.

But I know, I know—this suddenly doesn't seem very global or open-minded at all, does it? I mean, what on earth does it mean to say a thing like that? To draw a through-line from the liberation of Holocaust survivors to what occurred in New York City, some 56 years later, as though all the rest were a blank page, a not-worthy-of-note milieu to our own tribal mythology? Those Soviet troops who broke open the bolted gates on Hitler's last concentration camp were themselves, of course, fighting under the flag of an authoritarian regime that murdered millions in Stalin's gulag and purges. In the same month, in order to end the Pacific war, American planes dropped not one, but two, atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first was an arguably necessary act of strategic desperation. The second, an undeniably ruthless piece of posturing, designed to kick-start and violently assert America's strength in preparation for the coming brinkmanship of a long Cold War.

America's role in Vietnam some 20 years later famously began to bring footage of that war directly into the Western public's view, with television reports and embedded journalists covering the increasingly brutal, chaotic, and indiscriminate violence—both physical and psychological—visited on civilians, Viet-Cong insurgents, and US troops (along with their allies) alike. And this was even before the far more extensive broadcast, into the homes of American families and others, of the air-bombardment designed supposedly to push back Saddam Hussein's Kurdish incursion 20-odd years later again. This particular intervention prompted the post-structuralist philosopher Jean Baudrillard to reflect on how such narratives of representation are curated and thus affect our vision of the world. In 1991, he published a collection of essays with the rhetorically provocative, metaphorical title of The Gulf War Did Not Take Place—a title which, of course, was then widely, woefully, and wilfully misconstrued as to be intended literally by critics more interested in constructing imagined arguments for their intellectual or ideological opponents, rather than engaging in good faith with their actual ideas.

Of course, in the complex non-metaphorical reality that Baudrillard was more than well aware of and, in fact, commenting upon, the last 70 years or so have seen only an ever-increasing volume of both violence and its (often mediated) visual dissemination. This has been violence both committed and distributed by, upon, and within that vague amalgam of geography, culture, and history we nevertheless recognize as The West.

And of course that covers it all, doesn't it? The violence we do, and the violence we see returned. The violence we receive from others and then, our retribution; the violence for which our witness must be given, or the violence that others desire us to witness. The Dresden firestorm and Agent Orange sunsets, the little girl running for her life, an execution on the street in Saigon, the beheadings filmed and broadcast on YouTube, the black flag, burying our enemy at sea.

It bears to wonder just what the West doesn't encompass, then. And what those non-existent others must think of all this. In Vietnam they called it The Resistance War.

On the 11th of September 1973, military forces overthrew the popularly elected socialist President Salvador Allende of Chile and established a repressive, right-wing junta under the dictatorial leadership of Augusto Pinochet, who promptly received full recognition and support from the United States government.

So 9/11 really did happen. In fact, it took place twice.


What kind of an elitist was I, then? And what kind am I now?

The positions I inhabited and expressed about global power, about the role of America—gradually attaining greater form in my own mind—were by any reasonable understanding not those of the so-called leftist rabble, the latte-sipping, chardonnay socialists wedded to bleeding-heart sentimentality and unrealistic idealism when it comes to matters of How the World Really Works. Indeed, to whatever extent my own early political or ideological "positions" could be said to have meaningful purchase, they were likely formed as much in reactionary skepticism about what I saw as the anti-war, moderately left-wing "orthodoxy" represented by friends of my parents, teachers, and others than from any sense of comfortable affiliation with the prevailing ideas I perceived around me. It would seem I was, to some extent at least, the contrarian Placid Lake of chattering-classes anti-Americanism.

Lefty, latte-sipper, chardonnay-socialist, the chattering-classes—these are the kind of terms most often used in the Australian right-wing press and by conservative politicians to describe people on the political spectrum ranging anywhere left of Malcolm Turnbull, but with particular focus on their perceived elitism and lack of concern for Real People's Problems. In America (though less rigidly so after the rise of Bernie Sanders to national prominence) such members of the elitist, educated middle-class are known primarily as liberals.

In my country, however, the term liberal is connected to a political party that has increasingly become committed to liberalism in an economic sense only, drifting ever further rightward in terms of sociocultural ideology since the 1980s. I remember clearly understanding from a relatively young age that "small-l" liberalism was a vastly different set of beliefs from those held by the Liberal Party of Australia, with a Capital-L.

This apparent contradiction or, at least, confusing difference in terminology is not a new observation of mine. Indeed, the much loved progressive Labor Party premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan, once made precisely this point in explaining why he opposed Australian "Liberalism" (the quotation marks were his). Speaking in the 1960s, Dunstan compares Australian "Liberals" (with a capital "L") to English "liberalism" (with a small "l") and notes that writers in the latter tradition such as J.S. Mill "were believers in liberty, and became, in effect, democratic socialists." By contrast, he notes that Australian Liberals appear to believe in an illusory, "unreal" idea of "Free Enterprise" in which "all who engage in it, both buyers and sellers, are so numerous and compete so much with each other that no one has any control over the activities of anyone else, and the best service is automatically provided by the market."

"Small-l" liberalism also involved support for progressive ideals of social inclusion, concern for the poor and society's other less fortunate members, or tolerance for the right of individuals to make their own choices in matters of dress, habit, sexuality, or the like.

On the other hand, to identify yourself as "a Liberal" in Australia (without qualifier) was to suggest that you supported a party whose leadership and platform routinely trampled on the rights and dignity of Indigenous Australians, non-white immigrants, the gay community, labor unions, or asylum seekers, along with demonstrating a cavalier disregard for the concerns of civil libertarians, corporate or government whistle-blowers, anti-war activists—in fact, just about everyone who didn't see Australia's ideal social framework as having already existed in the 1950s, only to be lamentably cast aside by the destructive onslaught of feminism, Aboriginal land rights, multicultural inclusion, and the democratizing power of emergent new media.

But even beyond these particularities of the Australian context, the divergence between these different meanings of "being liberal" has existed since at least the late 19th century, when the "new liberalism" of British intellectuals such as T.H. Green and L.T. Hobhouse sought to address those social inequalities created by liberal support for policies of laissez-faire capitalism during the industrial revolution. This is what James L. Richardson describes in his 1997 article "Contending Liberalisms: Past and Present" as "two widely divergent strands—that which endorses the prevailing patterns of political and economic organization, including the massive privileges which they confer on the advantaged; and that which finds these patterns and privileges unacceptable and contrary to its understanding of liberal values." The first strand is generally associated with concepts like classical liberalism, economic rationalism, or neoliberalism, while the second falls under a cluster of labels that encompass social liberalism, the progressive left, and democratic socialism.


I've been thinking a lot about my own relationship to liberalism recently. Liberalism as both philosophy and practice—in all its complex, often competing strands—has never been free of critiques or challengers. But it has been put under particular question in the decade since 2008, with the global effects of a financial crisis born from the unchecked circulation of speculative capital. This skepticism about the liberal status quo was then made even more striking with a by-now well-repeated check-list of political upsets and unexpected shockwaves most powerfully signified by, first, the UK public's narrow vote to leave the European Union in June 2016 and then, less than six months later, Donald Trump's election as President of the United States.

Liberalism, in the broadest sense, has come under pressure from two main directions. From the left, there has been an increased mainstream awareness of a political spectrum that extends far beyond those relatively narrow confines of the post-war, largely Anglo-American status quo. There is a greater realization and embracing of the reality that being "left-wing" doesn't only mean taking a more tolerant, or even actively welcoming, liberal position on social issues such as gay marriage, the plight of refugees, drug policy, censorship, and government transparency or the like. Rather, social and economic issues are, inevitably, always intertwined, and to address one without the other will fail to account for rather large aspects of human experience and the challenges we collectively face. The political spectrum is a bigger, broader, more complex place than any narrow binary separating economic and social issues might suggest and, it seems, more people now understand that complexity.

In short, socialism is popular again.

Meanwhile, various strands of aggressively conservative ideology have gained increasing traction, with movements ranging from the nationalist push for states to retreat from global institutions, to reactionary nativism of the kind that helped Donald Trump and various parties of the European Right into power, usually by targeting campaigns of distrust or outright hatred toward Muslims, immigrants of all kinds, and even, it now seems, Jews—this last usually framed in terms of anti-Zionist conspiracies involving (at least the implication of) Jewish control over global economic, political, and social power structures. Frequently, these strands of far-right nationalism, xenophobic hostility, and outright white supremacy are joined to equally vicious ideological hatred of feminism and women, the LGBTQI community, and, to a lesser degree, the educated intelligentsia—which in practice means anyone who speaks out with a genuine curiosity about the world's complexity, or displays empathy for the injustices suffered by too many of their fellow human beings via marginalizing power structures or systems of oppression. The reaction against such ideas, people, and communities is, in far too many cases, nothing less than fascism taken neat.

Or to put it more bluntly, proper Nazis are back.


This is not an essay about which is the one true political ideology. Obviously, I've some thoughts about which are better and which, perhaps more importantly, are morally untenable. But to proceed on the assumption that one particular, specific form of ideological and political organization will provide the panacea for our problems is, perhaps, to entertain a (for once) genuinely misguided form of "political correctness." This has less to do with the centrist or technocratic idea that ideology should be separated from practice (as if that were even possible) than with the observation that often, similar political sentiments and moral priorities express themselves under the banners of supposedly distinct ideological "tribes." The division between socialism and liberalism, for example, is not anywhere near so great as many professed adherents to both ideologies sometimes claim. Indeed, as the socialist writer and political theorist Ed Rooksby argues in the abstract for his essay "The Relationship Between Liberalism and Socialism" (2012): "Socialism is best regarded as the radicalization and transcendence of liberalism. Socialism draws on the normative principles that drove the bourgeois revolutions and which liberal society professes to embody, and demands that these ideals are more fully realized."

One primary difference is usually identified as being the greater emphasis liberalism places on individuals as discrete, self-contained beings, as both the starting point and proper end focus of any sociopolitical system. I still believe in the individual, for what it's worth, but certainly not in the absolutely self-contained, solipsistic terms of both libertarian fantasy and collectivist nightmare. It was Ernest Hemingway—that great father of feminist identity politics and the New Left, patron saint of the neo-Marxist social justice movement—who titled his novel about anti-fascist opposition during the Spanish Civil War For Whom the Bell Tolls, after a phrase taken from the poet and cleric John Donne's Meditation XVII:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Striving toward social cohesion by demonstrating compassion for others and sympathy for the less fortunate certainly doesn't strike me as anything new, or strange. Indeed, these used to be called good Christian values.

As for ideas about which ideological paths are not to be trodden, well—I've known that Nazis are The Bad Guys since I was in primary school.

It should not be a complex moral problem to work out that those espousing, or even tangentially defending, elements of ideas about racial or gender superiority, or how people are allowed to dress or behave, what they are allowed to identify as or who they can, or cannot love—it should not be a complex matter to see such people for what they are: narrowly minded individuals blinded and trapped by their own unimaginative mental horizons at best; at worst, callous defenders of nothing more than a brute, biologically determinate right to power and control—and to stand against them.

Equally, it should not be so much more difficult to also recognize where the main, meaningful axes of power lie in our society and, having done so, to generally align yourself in solidarity, or at least in sympathy and support, with those who benefit least from those structures of opportunity and privilege.

Unfortunately, in recent years I've seen far too many educated, supposedly progressive-minded people engage in commentary on the current state of world affairs as if it were somehow the feelings of objectively powerful (or at least relatively advantaged) people that should be protected from harm, rather than disenfranchised people's right to material safety and systemic equality. I've also seen much commentary that seeks to frame the working class as some kind of inherently conservative, white cultural demographic, rather than one defined by an often exploitative economic relationship that can and does necessarily impact people of any race, gender, creed, or culture.

There is an irony at the heart of these discussions, which seek to explain and account for the Brexit vote, the election of Trump, the backlash against a #MeToo movement supposedly "gone too far" or the inchoate anger of so many young men who dull and soothe themselves in the comfortingly stern proselytizing of a Canadian psychology professor whose directions boil down to cleaning their rooms and blaming politically correct, postmodern neo-Marxism for the rest.

In the wake of these and other such trends, there has been no shortage of writers and commentators ready to speak out against the alleged perils of identity politics and political correctness, which have supposedly led the left to abandon what should be its primary commitment to working class issues in favor of an elite, "virtue signaling" concern with policing language. While some of this commentary has come from self-described, dyed-in-the-wool conservatives and others from the contemporary Right, much of it has also come from those who in many ways are, or at least consider themselves to be, open-minded progressives of the broadly liberal political left.

The irony is that while so many of those writers who have been quick to offer solidarity with, defenses of, or at least sympathetic explanations for the feelings of hurt, grievance, fear, or vulnerability expressed by groups (or at least, those who presume to speak for groups) such as the white working class, men (and some women) skeptical of #MeToo, or the feelings of alienation from modern and, especially, progressive social norms experienced by fans of Jordan Peterson—the irony is that in almost every case, the common thread connecting these groups, binding them together in a posture of resentful defiance against much of the modern political landscape, is a professed opposition to the supposed privileging of people's feelings over facts.

But neither progressive liberals nor the socialist left are talking about anyone's feelings when they campaign to raise the minimum wage; or lower the rates of sexual assault on college campuses, workplaces, and elsewhere; or reduce the disproportionately high number of black lives being taken in unjustified police shootings; or make efforts to mitigate the entrenched cultural Othering of trans people that only begins in people's refusal to recognize the validity of their existence via language, but too often ends in social exclusion, psychological, or physical violence and death.

These and countless others are moral concerns driven by facts about the material experience of people in the world, not by a desire to protect them from being offended. At least, not in the way ideas of "offence taking" are now cynically deployed by breakfast television presenters embarrassed about being challenged on their own prejudicial ignorance regarding how Other People exist in the world.


The politics of those who have, too easily, found themselves defending some of the most illiberal tendencies of this current age is a blend of reactionary conservatism, unimaginative centrism, and a staid, intellectually lethargic, and self-focused liberalism that sees the boundaries of human freedom extending no further than a petty, abstract right to be our worst selves without fear of reprisal or shame.

If that is so, then my own politics has been and remains a radical liberalism, what Peter M. Lichtenstein called a "revolutionary stance" calling for the "radical transformation of modern industrial society" through developmental individualism, egalitarian solidarity, and "participatory, democratic ideals." A liberalism willing and ready to change, to see old concepts with fresh eyes and new information, to reapply established norms for the benefit—not the frustration—of a still-evolving world. A world that liberalism can help, I still believe, to become not just radically different, but radically more just.


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