On Lilla-Livered Liberals


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The “Great Disconnect” indeed.   Or perhaps I should say The Reckless Mind indeed. I’ll have a lot more to say later on about Mark Lilla’s lead review of Charles Kesler’s I Am the Change in today’s New York Times Book Review, so consider this post a mere placeholder.

Let’s start here: One of the most disgusting aspects of the mainstream media’s toadying to Obama is the total incuriosity about what the man really thinks, or, more to the point, when and how and why he changed his mind (if he ever changed it at all) from the evident radicalism of his college, law school, and community organizing days.  If he’s just a moderate-liberal centrist now (“a moderate and cautious straight shooter,” Lilla calls him), then he must have shed or revised his radical views somewhere along the line.

To hear the mainstream media tell it (and I have heard this directly from, among others, Mark Halperin, co-author of the highly regarded Game Change about the 2008 election), Obama is just a pragmatic-centrist, with no firm ideology or grand ambitions.  Most reporters, it is clear, can’t be bothered to read The Audacity of Hope seriously, or carefully think through any of the antecedents and implications of its arguments.  Is this just general ignorance, a superficial grasp of political life, or deliberate covering for Obama?  (These answers are not mutually exclusive—our elite media today are so philosophically and historically illiterate that all three explanations are possible.)  From most media treatments of Obama, you’d think Obama was hardly interested in politics at all, which, ironically, is one of the revealing affectations of Obama that Kesler plumbs for great value in I Am the Change.

No ordinary media figure like David Maraniss, or pseudo-journalists the Times Book Review is fond of like Jacob Heilbruun, could possibly match up to the depth of Kesler’s book, so they chose well in selecting Mark Lilla as their designated take-down artist.  It’s a truly strange review, requiring the tacit unraveling of much of Lilla’s own previous body of work on the relation of ideas to political life. The defect of the review can be stated in one sentence: it disdains both the continuity of ideas in the background furnishings of the contemporary liberal outlook, and it deprecates the notion that Obama could have any truly grand ambitions in his political quest that brought him to the White House.  Why, you’d think from Obama’s “modest record” (as Lilla judges it) that he’d be just as happy and fulfilled as a member of the Chicago school board.

Is this what liberalism has come to—dismissing the pedigree of philosophical ideas and abandoning its public championing of grand ambitions for a transformed world?  Perhaps in the back of all this is a private understanding of the bankruptcy—and unpopularity with the public if stated openly—of liberalism’s innermost character today.  Harvey Mansfield wrote 25 years ago about “a liberalism that is politically exhausted and bored with itself.”  Under Obama liberalism overcame its exhaustion, but as Lilla’s review shows, it is still very much bored with itself, or at least its modern philosophical history.

A decade ago an interesting author wrote:

Tyranny is not dead, not in politics and certainly not in our souls.  The age of the master ideologies may be over, but so long as men and women think about politics—so long as there are thinking men and women at all—the temptation will be there to succumb to the allure of an idea, to allow passion to blind us to its tyrannical potential, and to abdicate our first responsibility, which is to master the tyrant within.

Who wrote that?  Mark Lilla, in The Reckless Mind (2001).


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