The Stupidest Day

Many folks of mixed will are still busy opining on what transpired at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. I, only half-jokingly, referred to that entire 24-hour period as “the stupidest day in American history.” A friend of mine, Kevin, replied, “The stupidest day so far.”

I have not, admittedly, digested the full range of photos, videos, and first-hand accounts of what transpired in Washington, D.C. two days ago. No matter how convincing (or damning) a particular clip or anecdote may be, there are always those who will say that the entire debacle needs to be placed in its “proper context.” For instance, there are more than a few voices on social media saying what occurred “wasn’t that bad” compared to, say, the French Revolution or the storming of this-or-that government/royal building in the Middle East. Maybe, just maybe, what happened wasn’t “that bad” when compared to the wave of protests that rocked most of the United States during the summer months of 2020. Certainly, those protests, which are commonly (though perhaps not accurately) referred to in the collective as “Black Lives Matter protests,” resulted in more property damage than what occurred in D.C. The human toll was higher, too. Still, I am unconvinced that even those out-of-control escapades carried the same symbolic purchase that storming the Capitol and interrupting an active session of Congress did.

When flipping through the news channels on Wednesday, I heard words like “insurrection,” “sedition,” and “rebellion” spewed casually by a range of anchors, pundits, and everyday folks on the street. The two learned hosts of a law podcast I listen to ran through a host of U.S. statutes criminalizing such behavior while speculating which could be applied to not only those who breached the Capitol building, but President Donald Trump and his cohorts as well. At the same time, there were other voices, mainly from what might broadly be called the Right, which downplayed the whole affair. These were not, I should say, the voices of pure hacks who labeled the intrusion, violence, and destruction as a “false flag” operation staged by a consortium of “deep state” agents and Antifa. These voices were of those who, despite all the evidence, believe they cannot wholly abandon the spectacle of the last four years without sacrificing a piece of their political souls. These voices admit that something disruptive was afoot the other day, but at the close of business it really did not matter. The United States is still standing! The transition of power will occur! What is there to worry about, really?

Then there are those such as me who are left to wonder what this all means not just for the future of any particular political ideology in America, but the ways and means of the country itself. It is raw silliness to presume that Trump’s exit from the White House will reset the political field to where it was 10-20 years ago. “Trumpism,” meaning simply an admixture of the politics of resentment with fear mongering, posturing, and buffoonery, is here to stay for the immediate future. It could, I suppose, fade away in the coming years just as the so-called “Tea Party” movement faded. I doubt it. Already there are those at the local and national level looking to repeat what Trump did, namely turn politics into a pretty plaything for their own personal service while heaping the hopeless masses with unfulfillable promises. Why certain types of persons, specifically certain types of Catholics, find these promises so personally warming when the good Lord Jesus Christ has promised eternal life is a question worth considering, but I will leave that for another day.

Against Thanksgiving

Some people won’t like this, but I find no reason to celebrate Thanksgiving. Yes, yes, I know, according to Dale Ahlquist over at Catholic World Report, today is allegedly a “Catholic holiday” because the Patuxet Indian Squanto, who converted to Catholicism after being sold as a slave in Spain, arranged a harvest feast with the Plymouth invaders. From there Thanksgiving was born (or so they say). I imagine more than a few Catholics stormed the Bastille, too, but I see no reason why any should celebrate its commemoration. (I do think Catholics should celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, but I’ll save that matter for another time.) Thanksgiving has also become a day when Catholics (and other Christians) celebrate America’s “proud legacy” of religious freedom despite the fact that no such legacy actually exists. It took Catholics centuries to find pockets of toleration in America and once they thought they found it, what happened? Secularization set in and now bishops, priests, and laity alike gladly surrender to the Zeitgeist in order to prove they are “good citizens.”

An Antiochian Orthodox priest I was once acquainted with was told he had to celebrate the Divine Liturgy on Thanksgiving. Vexed at the idea that he would be inadvertently celebrating a bunch of heretics killing indigenous people and stealing their land, he flipped his parish to the Julian Calendar for one day only so the Thanksgiving Thursday would align with the feast of St. Gregory Palamas. This year’s Julian Calendar feast is of another great saint, John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople. St. John pulled no punches during his lifetime, which in no small part explains why he reposed in exile. He admonished the wealthy of his day to first donate to the poor before buying a golden chalice or other ecclesial ornaments for the church. What, I wonder, would the Golden Mouth have to say to contemporary Christians who gorge themselves on sumptuous meals before passing out drunk in front a football game when thousands upon thousands of Native Americans wallow in squalor on barren reservations “furnished” to them by the Government of the United States?

As for religious freedom, is it not time for us to cease genuflecting before that stripped altar? What toleration is left in this country for authentic Christianity is quickly fading. In a generation or less it won’t exist at all. And then what shall we have to be thankful for? What celebrating will occur then? Hopefully the only celebrations that truly matter: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass or the Divine Liturgy. Instead of being thankful that we live in a country which legally slaughters babies, denies workers their just wages, and refuses to pay true reparations to the original inhabitants of this land, we can instead give thanks to God for Christ’s salvific death on the Cross and the hope of Eternal Life. Perhaps then we can take what meager material wealth we have left and spend it on bread for the homeless instead of beer for ourselves. Or maybe in lieu of griping about our “loved ones” and rolling our eyes at our in-laws, we can spend that time in prayer, asking our Lord to spare this country the wrath it deserves for its innumerable offenses against its only true head, Christ our King and Redeemer.

Bernard Harcourt on the Alt-Right

Columbia University law professor Bernard Harcourt is a provocative thinker who, in the course of his storied career, has managed to smash the “broken windows” theory of policing and exposed the internal contradictions of “neoliberal penality” in his excellent study, The Illusion of Free Markets. Harcourt is also known for his pro bono work on behalf of death row inmates, including Doyle Hamm, an inmate that Alabama attempted to brutally execute via lethal injection last year and failed. Part of Harcourt’s ongoing work at Columbia includes hosting a series of critical seminars with academics from around the globe, covering such topics as Nietzsche, Foucault, and uprisings. His latest venture, a 13-part series entitled “Critique & Praxis 13/13,” dealt in part with the so-called alt-right and similar surrounding movements. A video of the 2 ½ hour seminar, plus supporting readings and blog posts from contributors, is available here.

For the moment I want to look at Harcourt’s own analysis of the seminar, entitled “Neo-Fascist-White-Supremacy-Ultranationalist Counterrevolutionaries.” Harcourt struggles to develop a working catch-all definition for the alt-right, thus leading him to bifurcate the American and European iterations of this movement into two clumsily labeled categories: neo-fascist-white-supremacy-ultranationalist counterrevolutionaries (American) and neo-fascist-European-nativist-counterrevolutionaries (European). I do not expect either of these labels to catch on.

Regardless, Harcourt’s linguistic wrestling match unveils inadvertently the fact that the alt-right is hardly a uniform movement that is internally coherent. While there is something to be said that “white supremacy” could be the glue that holds the whole movement together, at least in the United States, one finds substantial divergences among the alt-right on questions ranging from economics to international relations. There is further difficulty to be found with applying a term like “fascist” or “fascistic” to the alt-right movement. For Harcourt, “fascist” post-1933 contains a genocidal element that was not present when fascism first came into being during the latter decades of the 19th century. Now it is impossible to speak of fascism without genocide, though no fascist movements after World War II have practiced genocide. (I would argue there have been no truly fascist movements until the last decade and even then they have not attained the requisite degree of political power and control to operationalize genocide (if they are even interested in it at all)). Why bring up genocide at all?

To speak of genocide in the context of the alt-right adds a horrifyingly sinister angle to the entire movement even if its goals do not (yet?) appear so “lofty” (if that is the right word for it). In the American context, the alt-right is far more reactionary than it is constructive, and if President Donald Trump is the movement’s de facto (if not de jure) leader, then it is a troubled movement indeed. Trump appears to have as much use for the alt-right as he does for any other potential base of support. If it helps keep him in power, good; if it does not, life goes on. Harcourt, like many on the Left, reads more into Trump’s hamfisted grip on presidential power than it deserves.

While there are several other points in Harcourt’s piece worth considering, I think a word is in order concerning Harcourt’s citation to Leo Strauss. The passage Harcourt quotes is from Strauss’s controversial Persecution and the Art of Writing where, among other things, Strauss presents his esoteric/exoteric hermeneutic. For Strauss, only very capable and learned men, particularly philosophers, avail themselves of esotericism, not for the purpose of changing a society’s opinions, customs, and political life, but to conceal the disrupting, if not revolutionary, character of their thought. The exoteric teaching is almost invariably conventional; the esoteric teaching is almost invariably heretical. It would be a bridge too far, I think, to extend Strauss’s hermeneutic to the alt-right, particularly the American alt-right whose writings Harcourt acknowledges are “boorish” and “crass.”

Sorel

Movement shifting, the sort Georges Sorel engaged in during the sunset of his atypical and prolific writing career, is a luxury reserved to those who live long enough to see everything they believe in fall apart. Depending on who you ask, Sorel spent the end of his life shifting from his idiosyncratic brand of Marxism to syndicalism to integral nationalism and back to Marxism (albeit of a more conventional sort) one last time. Sorel has been so intellectually quirky by some that some now suppose “Sorelianism” to be a “thing” even if it’s unlike that Sorel, despite his eccentricities, was terribly interested in founding a school. Neither a friend of liberal democracy nor capitalism, Sorel looked to the day when the working class would be liberated, when it would achieve a particular renewal uniquely its own, untainted by bourgeois decadence. While critical minds such as Carl Schmitt saw in Marxism/socialism little more than the fulfillment of liberalism, Sorel’s willingness to harness myth, conflict, and ultimately violence in the service of class liberation set him and his ideas a few steps apart from the discussion-based, entertainment-infatuated liberalism that so horrified Schmitt.

Sorel, in the view of thinkers such as Leszek Kolakowski, retained the Jansenist mentality he inherited from his upbringing. However, given that Jansenism was well on the decline in 19th century France, it stands to reason that Sorel’s radical rejection of hedonism and materialism was more than a relic of his childhood. With little-to-no faith to speak of (not even faith in historical determinism and the final triumph of communism), it’s probably not worth speculating too much on the extent to which Jansenism qua Jansenism shaped Sorel’s soul. Asceticism does not demand a fleeting form of Catholic heterodoxy to give it vitality.

It is perhaps safe to say there are no men in Sorel’s mold living today, though certainly there are still some who retain Sorel’s single-minded dedication to a liberating cause. And yes, while both the far Right and far Left have men of violence within their ranks, how many of these things are men of principle? Sorel was not an intellectual. He was learned, even deeply so, but he did not make a living off trading ideas and certainly not off of academia. Even if he was unwilling during his lifetime to acknowledge the benefits of his top-tier secular French instruction, Sorel invested more than enough time in solitary study to credit him with being a self-educated man. The only element missing from Sorel’s biography are some choice tales of direct action, of moments where thoughts of violence gave way to acts of violence, and all in the service of his cause (whatever that happened to particularly be at one point or another). Had Sorel been a politically violent man, he would today be a romantic figure. Maybe he would have even come to be elevated to the status of a legend, like Che Guevara. Instead, Sorel remains something of a lonely figure in radical intellectual history, blamed for normalizing violence for the Left and anticipating fascism in the Right.

If there is anything to be learned from Sorel’s example, it seems to be this: to advocate and agitate for the success of a cause, particularly one dedicated to the liberation of men from something (poverty, racial oppression, sin, etc.), demands not simply personal certitude, but complete self-sacrifice. There can be, or at least ought not to be, any trace of self-interest or personal gain to be found. How difficult this would be to actualize in our social media-saturated age where even the most honest sentiments are hardly ever given without the hope of Likes, up-votes, and re-Tweets. The radical intellectual, certain he has the “answers”—the sort that can only be printed and bound by a university press—never has tenure or paid sabbatical far from his mind. We are not accustomed to calling the sorts “frauds,” though I imagine a good number of persons struggle to admire them. If anything, the Twitter-star Leftist or the posturing academic who landed an Ivy League post via a derivative work that happened to appear at the right time are objects of envy and scorn, not adulation. May they be taken down at the masses’ earliest possible convenience.

In a letter penned in 1907, Sorel, opining on the social power of myths, had this to say: “Catholics have never been discouraged even in the hardest trials, because they have always pictured the history of the Church as a series of battles between Satan and the hierarchy supported by Christ; every new difficulty which arises is only an episode in a war which must finally end in the victory of Catholicism.” Catholicism, as we all know, is not a myth. What is a myth, at least for the moment, is the idea that Catholics are never discouraged. Now history has become a tale of losing battles where the war is more likely to be lost than won. I dare say that when it comes to comparing the faith of the contemporary Catholic and Sorel, dear Georges possessed far more.

The Ecclesiastical Politics of Inevitability and Eternity

In his latest book, The Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder contrasts what he calls “the politics of inevitability” with “the politics of eternity.” In Snyder’s words, the former is “a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done.” This form of politics is acutely known in both the United States and Europe, albeit with different nuances and emphases. The politics of eternity, which in Snyder’s opinion lie at the heart of Vladmir Putin’s Russia, “places one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past.”

Transplanted to an ecclesiastical context, I wonder if it isn’t too much to say that the Catholic Church, with its internalization of liberal premises during the last century embraces the politics of inevitability while the Eastern Orthodox Church, a large segment of which is beholden to Putinism, labors under the politics of eternity. Eastern Orthodoxy’s narrative of victimhood, which is often applied as readily against Muslims as it is Catholics, has become one of its distinguishing features in the last century or so. The Orthodox, and the nations in which they hold denominational control, have no particular responsibility for native corruption, material scarcity, and social disorder; “the Latins” in 1204, “the Turks” in 1453, the “Uniates” in [insert every year here] have entered into a pan-national, trans-historical conspiracy to erode the integrity of God’s one Holy and Apostolic Church and those secular powers duty-bound to protect it.

As for the politics of inevitability, it has been commonplace—at least up until the reign of Pope Francis—for Catholics to turn a blind eye to the problems in the Church and society on the belief that they will work themselves out. Because Christ promised to St. Peter that he was the rock upon which the Church was to be built and “the gates of hell will not prevail,” everything from a decades-long sex scandal to a banalized liturgy to a collapse in sound catechesis are interpreted as mere bumps on the road to a Church just as accustomed to speaking human rights-jargon as it is preaching the Gospel. The Catholic Church, now tasked with being the world’s largest NGO, is present to cheer on and support the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy, freedom of conscience, economic flourishing, and so on and so forth. Just as sure as Christians once believed Christ will come again, the Catholic Church instills an intramundane eschatology among its faithful where the light of liberalism will finally illumine all.

Francis’s pontificate has not overshadowed the Catholic politics of inevitability, at least not wholly. While certain conservatives in the Church may be having buyer’s remorse over Francis’s election and are starting to wonder if the new ultramontanism that swept the Church during John Paul II’s reign was a good idea or not, by and large they believe that better is around the corner. The next pope, perhaps a prelate from “Holy Africa,” shall come to power and correct the errors and the Franciscan papacy. It’s not that Francis is a “bad pope” (for there can be no such thing!) or a “heretic” (what’s that?); it’s just that his “style,” his “charisma,” and his “lack of sophistication” concerning theology and doctrine have sown confusion—the sort that can still be disposed of quite easily and without any significant harm being inflicted to the Mystical Body of Christ.

The politics of eternity, the only politics the Eastern Orthodox seem willing to embrace on a mass scale, may keep their communion ostensibly safe from theological, spiritual, or intellectual trends that could upset their comfortable calcification, but at what cost to the Great Commission? With the exception of some minor incursions into the geographic west (Europe and America), the vast expanses of the world constitute a hostile “other” that threatens Orthodoxy’s wellbeing. For Orthodoxy, now is the time for its particular churches to rally together under the protectorate of a single, state-backed ecclesiastical juggernaut (namely the Russian Orthodox Church) rather than tolerate new assertions of autocephaly. The Ukrainian question, for instance, is about more than the historic rights of the Ukrainian Church; it is about the soul of Orthodoxy itself, including its willingness to accept being true to itself while no longer denying its position as both an heir of and contributor to what may still be called “Western Civilization.”

Should the Orthodox ever break free of their politics of eternity, it is doubtful they will immediately submit to the politics of inevitability. Orthodox history, which is inextricably bound up with the history of Mediterranean, Slavic, and Arab peoples, harbors a harsh realism deep in its bosom; nothing is truly inevitable except the Second Coming and nothing is more impossible than the return of Byzantium. Can Orthodoxy overcome this tension in its character if it ever gets past the politics of eternity? Yes, it can, and the likelihood of it doing so appears, at least at this moment, equal to the chances of Catholicism shifting away from inevitability to what one Cistercian monk called “the politics of nostalgia.”

Metternich on Freedom of the Press

We are certainly not alone in questioning if society can exist with the liberty of the press, a scourge unknown to the world before the latter half of the seventeenth century, and restrained until the end of the eighteenth, with scarcely any exceptions but England–a part of Europe separated from the continent by the sea, as well as by her language and by her peculiar manners.

– Klemens von Matternich, “Confession of Political Faith” (1820), in Memoirs (1881).

Freedom of the press and its annoying sibling, freedom of speech, are today perceived to be cornerstones of a healthy liberal society (if any liberal society can, in fact, be deemed healthy). The idea, which has taken on new vitality in the digital age where every man with Internet access allegedly has “a voice,” is that people have an inherent right to express themselves regardless of talent, training, or temperament. While most who made it out of middle school should know that the right to one’s opinion does not mean a right to having it respected or even not laughed at, there are still far too many adults who accept, on faith more than anything else, that the unhindered expression of thought conveys a vaguely understood good for humanity. Even those who do not accept such nonsense still maintain that while it is no loss that Ben the Baker is restrained from pontificating on politics or Ernie the Economist ought to keep his mouth shut on art, who decides who speaks, when, and under what conditions? Censorship may not be evil per se, but men are evil and will use the power to silence others for their own personal advantage. Better, then, to have a very low signal-to-noise ratio in print, on blogs, and on television than dare allow any authority, spiritual or temporal, to police speech.

The great Austrian diplomat Klemens von Matternich didn’t see it this way, of course. He lived at a time when there was still a glimmer of hope that the revolutionary forces of liberalism, secularism, and nationalism could be thwarted. By 1848, the battle was all but lost and Matternich saw himself going from Austria’s top statesman to a political exile. The Holy Alliance of Austria, Prussia, and Russia, one of the chief accomplishments of Matternich’s storied career, had some success in quelling rebellion throughout Continental Europe, though rampant distrust of Russian actions in Western Europe coupled with inconsistent policies toward nationalistic movements (e.g. Greek independence), soon fractured the various alliances against liberalism that Matternich and others constructed throughout the first half of the 19th century.

In the hopes of stomping out the flames of revolution before they could spread, Matternich advocated for tighter strictures on the press. He knew all too well the dangers of the printing press–dangers that first manifested themselves in the lead-up to the Reformation centuries earlier. Pay no mind to Protestant polemics. It was not the printing of the Bible that undermined the “superstitions” and “heresy” of Catholicism; it was the dissemination of false interpretations of Holy Scripture, including the pernicious and untenable belief in sola scriptura, that poisoned the Corpus Mysticum. By the 19th century, the publication of religious heresy was matched in volume by the printing of what Matternich saw as political heresy, namely the overthrow of the natural order of monarchs, religious institutions, and the imperial system as a whole. Believing, with perhaps more empirical evidence than we recognize today, that some peoples were meant to rule while others had to be ruled, the nationalistic fervor that spread across Europe during Matternich’s lifetime was an abomination, one that Matternich and the imperial powers of his time were ultimately unable to put down.

Today, the liberty of the press and freedom of speech are less the agents of macro-level political revolution and more the pretty playthings of capitalists and other liberal ideologues who seek to dismantle the last vestiges of decency in morality in the name of power and profit. Liberalism, secularism, and, in a modified sense, nationalism are no longer seen as revolutionary but normative. If there is still a revolution to be had, it is against the possibility of restoration, and that will only be successful if truth is diluted with such a frightening volume of error that there will be little hope ever distilling the former from the latter. Matternich, during his time on earth, likely could not comprehend such a catastrophe, for despite his own personal shortcomings, he no doubt believed that the Church and the intellectual fruits of Christendom would continue to witness for the truth, empowering those with eyes to see and ears to hear to halt and eventually overcome the revolution. But since when does the Church bother to speak the truth? What remains of Christendom but some chapters in history books?

The Economist on Deneen on Liberalism

This week’s edition of The Economist contains a review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, a work that hasn’t quite (temporarily) captured the public’s imagination in the way Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option did last year. (Perhaps too many people are reading Jordan Peterson.) The Economist, which has never shied away from its roots as a defender of classical liberalism, is surprisingly kind to Deneen’s book, even going so far as to acknowledge liberalism’s failures in recent years. Where The Economist takes umbrage with Deneen is with respect to his decision to lump many different iterations of liberalism under one roof. According to the anonymous reviewer, Deneen’s “lumping” leads him to conclude that liberalism “lies in freeing individuals from constraints.” On the contrary, “liberalism contains a wide range of intellectual traditions which provide different answers to the question of how to trade off the relative claims of rights and responsibilities, individual expression and social ties.”

The Economist then goes further. By “lumping” many different types of liberalism together, Deneen fails to acknowledge liberalism’s capacity for self-reform. Here the reviewer rattles off a short list of liberal crises, most of them economic, which were redressed by targeted legislation and political reform. However, The Economist does not take notice of how these reforms to “correct” or “temper” liberalism have given rise to a century-long quarrel among liberals over the defensibility of these reforms. Take, for instance, early 20th century progressive legislation which, among other things, targeted trusts that placed restraints on trade; unsavory labor conditions, including child labor; and urban degradation brought on by industrialization. Today, many of these reforms and the more radical reforms they inspired are challenged by libertarians as not only illicit encroachments by the state on free enterprise, but economically unsound. Moreover, social reform legislation, such as the civil-rights laws of the 1960s, have been used to push more radical agendas that leave many deeply worried that the triumph of liberalism is the triumph of ideology over religious and moral truth.

It is hard to imagine liberalism reforming itself at this late stage to meet the concerns of its more virulent critics, a population that is likely to expand in the coming years as wealth disparities continue to increase, social and communal ties break further down, and liberal ideology further displaces any and all competing interpretations of reality. The Economist takes it on faith more than anything else that liberalism can continue to reform itself and is silent on how any and all reforms may cause deeper rifts between various liberal camps over such touchy subjects as the role of government in the economy, the place of public regulation to enforce private values, and international relations.

At some point the harder point will need to be made by liberalism’s critics that the problem with liberalism is not merely its internal incoherencies, but the fact that it is plain wrong. However, to do so means taking a step most critics of liberalism are unwilling to make, and that is a step in favor of the truth of revealed religion over the novelties of Enlightenment thinking. That is far easier said than done. Look, for instance, at that great historic bulwark against liberalism, the Catholic Church. For over 50 years, it has become a matter of course in Church circles that liberalism is not only here to stay, but that it represents a positive good in human history. To return to the trenchant critiques of liberalism offered by numerous popes and churchmen from the 18th century onward is seen as nothing less than a giant leap backwards into the “kingdom of darkness” which Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau were said to have freed us from. And even if some soberminded Catholics are inclined to believe the Church has tilted too far in favor of liberalism since the Second Vatican Council, their hope remains for a gentle compromise between the Church and liberalism rather than what those with eyes to see know is coming, namely an irrevocable confrontation.

Lilla on Liberalism – Prologue

Mark Lilla, whose attitude and intellectual posture generate equal parts admiration and annoyance for more than a decade, is never short of things to say. Whether its dismantling the cult of Derrida and introducing Americans to the “European” Leo Strauss in the pages of The New York Review of Books or chronicling the deep theologico-political problem afoot in contemporary France, Lilla rarely fails to bring his erudition to bear. Unfortunately, he sometimes brings his obnoxious arrogance as well. For instance, his review of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation was an unfortunate blend of generalizations and dismissals even if Lilla’s observations on narratives of decline wasn’t entirely off the mark. And that’s the thing: Lilla is seldom off the mark entirely; he just sometimes overlooks (or omits) arguments and facts unhelpful to his positions. Consider, for example, his brief book The Stillborn God. Ostensibly a critical history of the intersection of religion and politics in modernity, the work is guilty of the “slight oversight” of leaving out the Catholic Church.

Now Lilla returns with a bit of political soul searching, The Once and Future Liberal. Lilla, who self-identifies as a liberal in the largely American sense, believes that liberalism has foregone a vision of the common good in favor of tethering itself to identity politics. At the same time, it is also a critique of the individualism of contemporary liberalism, specifically where politics is bound up with the self and what is good for the individual based on his preferences, whims, orientations, etc. The Once and Future Liberal is as pithy as it is powerful; it is a call to action, nay, repentance for American liberalism, one which will no doubt be difficult to hear at this juncture in history.

Not being a liberal in any sense whatsoever, I approached Lilla’s work with integralist, but not unsympathetic, eyes. It is rare that any political, social, or religious movement comes to terms honestly with its own failures in the hope of building itself back up. While portions of Lilla’s book contain obvious finger pointing, it is not unfair finger pointing. Liberal elites within the Democratic Party and society at large should be held accountable for the bad ideological bets made since the collapse of the New Deal-Great Society project in the 1970s. The question now is whether there are liberals with Lilla’s knack for self-criticism and imaginative rethinking who are willing to take up his call for a refreshed liberalism.

In the next four web-log posts, I will consider Lilla’s argument in The Once and Future Liberal on a chapter by chapter basis, including the Introduction. Are there important details Lilla omits from his work? What, if any, lessons can Catholics faithful to the Church’s social magisterium take away from Lilla’s observations? And, above all, is Lilla’s hope for liberalism renewed even desirable at this stage in history? Or does his critique ultimately point beyond itself to what comes after liberalism?