The Book of Liberal Virtues: Yes, They Exist. and They're the Best Tools We Have for Countering the Right's Assertion That Everything Is Political

By Mattson, Kevin | The American Prospect, February 2006 | Go to article overview

The Book of Liberal Virtues: Yes, They Exist. and They're the Best Tools We Have for Countering the Right's Assertion That Everything Is Political


Mattson, Kevin, The American Prospect


I HAVE NEWS FOR YOU: CONSERVATIVES ARE WINNING the culture wars. OK, that might not come as a shock, but here's the scary part: They have reason to be winning. The fight has done a superb job at exploiting certain weaknesses on the left; liberals, in the meantime, have become gun shy. But we should not duck the culture wars. Instead, we should see them as a golden opportunity to stand up and explain just what we think is right for America in terms of values and culture. Liberal values are in stronger shape than many believe.

Look behind the right's cultural crusades--David Horowitz's 'Academic Bill of Rights," the push for intelligent design, the attack on secondary education as mere liberal indoctrination, and the assaults on the media--and you start to notice a consistent worldview emerging. Call it conservative postmodernism. It is composed of numerous cultural strains that feed off one another. There's anti-intellectualism, mixed in with a populist distrust of professionalism and higher education as well as "objectivity," which is seen as a smokescreen cloaking the sinister ambition of imposing a liberal worldview on unsuspecting students or media consumers. For the conservative mind of today, everything is political; there is no set of competences that rises above the struggle for political power. Following from this, there is no real truth. There are only clashing viewpoints relative to one another, all deserving equal treatment in the public square.

If you step back and examine these strains, you notice that a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. The looniest aspects of the far left during the 1960s morphed into the looniest aspects of the far right today. An attack on intellect and objectivity grounded in a belief that everything was political (including the "personal") fueled the student movements of the late 1960s. It's the excesses of that time that Horowitz and the right's cultural warriors of today represent. Liberals fought those excesses then, and they must do so again today. We actually do have values that we stand for that can resonate to large numbers of Americans, and now is the time to articulate them.

ANTI-ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM

Anti-intellectualism is the linchpin of the postmodern conservative mind. The critic who did the most to explore it was the historian Richard Hofstadter. "Our anti-intellectualism ... has a long historical background," he wrote in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Busting on eggheads came easy and grew out of central themes in American cultural history: Evangelicalism, which prioritizes emotional faith over theological education; the pragmatism of the business world (which pressured the public school system for more vocational education); and the legacy of frontier democracy, with its Jacksonian hatred of refinement and sophistication. For Hofstadter, there was no limit to portraying intellectuals as "pretentious, conceited, effeminate, and snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous, and subversive."

Hofstadter didn't spell out a countertradition to anti-intellectualism. He was a critic and not as interested in offering solutions to the problems he outlined. Nonetheless, some of his points can be teased out in order to frame arguments that are useful in waging a liberal culture war today. For instance, Hofstadter made a great deal out of the Sputnik scandal, when Americans suddenly discovered that they had fallen behind Russians in terms of math and science skills that buttressed space exploration. This realization prompted self-introspection on the part of Hofstadter's fellow citizens about the state of their collective intelligence (or lack thereof). He showed how American history moved back and forth between times when anti-intellectualism dominated and times when it didn't. He spelled out certain intellectual values, like the ability to embrace "nuances" and to see "things in degree." Though Americans might be prone to anti-intellectualism, he suggested, there were other cultural tendencies that encouraged what Hofstadter's friend Lionel Trilling cited as the "moral obligation to be intelligent. …

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