Sunday, December 30, 2007

Confessions of a Doubting Liberal

I have been having a discussion with my friend Tobie, a law student attending Bar Ilan University in Israel, on my recent post Some Good Christmas Tolerance. Tobie has strongly objected to my suggestion that minorities owe a debt to the society around them for putting up with them. Tobie’s essential argument, and it is one that most readers of this blog would probably agree with, is that one does not owe someone something merely for doing the right thing.

I thought that it would be useful to take this opportunity to explain something that underlies much of my thinking and that often leads me into lines of thinking, such as in this case, that may, at times, perplex and even disturb people. Ultimately, you are probably still not going to agree with me, but hopefully you will understand where I am coming from.

Despite what many people might think of me, I consider myself a liberal, or at the very least a part of the liberal tradition. My liberalism though is something that I actively came to through a process of doubting that closely parallels my journey through Judaism. I was interested in politics ever since I was a nine year old kid watching, from the comfort of my grandmother’s kitchen, Governor Bill Clinton run for president in the summer of 1992. Like my most people growing up in western society I believed absolutely in liberalism in its best sense, in freedom, democracy, equality and tolerance. It was not just that I believed in these things, I saw them as self evident truths that all people, not insane, stupid or just downright wicked, must accept.

In high school I read a book that changed my life. I am sure many of you have had, in your lives, such books. For me that book was J.S Mill’s On Liberty. Mill did two things to my thinking. The first is that, for the first time in my life I was exposed to an intelligent, well thought out attack on liberalism. For example Mill raised the issue that Democracy was not the same thing as liberty and in fact is likely to be a mortal threat to it. More important than any actual argument he offered was that he got me to doubt the tenants of liberalism. For the first time in my life I had to ask myself the question: maybe we would be better under an authoritarian form of government. The second thing was that Mill made me a believer in liberalism; specifically, that for all of its flaws, liberalism held out the best hope of building an intellectually open society. While it is this belief in a liberal society that has the most direct effect on my day to day political views, my thoughts on politics come out of this act of doubting liberalism and my struggle to overcome this doubt.

This struggle with doubting the tenants of liberalism has been made more acute by the nature of my field of historical inquiry. The thinkers that I deal with on a daily basis, such as Maimonides or Isaac Abarbanel, operated outside of the liberal framework, to say nothing of the modern liberal framework. As much as I may want to, I can’t take any of the easy ways out. I respect them too much to simply dismiss them as being closed minded, prejudiced and irrational or to patronize them by saying that they simply lived in a less enlightened times and did not know better. I have too much intellectual integrity to try to whitewash them and make them into something that my liberal sensibilities could be comfortable with. That leaves one option, to deal with them as they were and to come to terms with their political thought as they understood it. This means I spend much of my time exploring systems of thought that do not operate on liberal assumptions and in fact assume things that fly in the face of liberalism. I do not have the luxury of simply dismissing such thought; I have no other choice but take such views as serious intellectual options.

Because of this, I am constantly forced to confront the issue of what do I believe, why I believe it and am I justified in my beliefs. It is not that Mill made me doubt and then offered some nice clean solution to save me from doubt, like what one might expect from some religious outreach professional; I continue to doubt. Amongst many other things, I struggle with Mill himself. Was he himself too dismissive of his own questions? Do his answers really hold? While I believe in tolerance and all the other major tenants of traditional liberal thought, for me these are not givens. I follow these tenants for very specific reasons and that there is a price to be paid for those liberal beliefs; not everything is neat and clean. Other people, upon examining the issues, are likely find that price to be too high and seek alternatives to liberalism. By doing this they are not being close minded, prejudiced and irrational any more than the many great thinkers of the past, who also did not accept the basic tenants of liberalism.

To bring this all back to Tobie and my Christmas post, for me Jews being tolerated by American society is not something to be taken for granted as a basic level of morality. I recognize that there can be sane, rational and decent people that want a different sort of society than the one offered by liberalism. Furthermore, I recognize that it is possible that such a society might have little use for someone like me. At times I even suspect that such people might be correct in their rejection of liberalism. For me this is not an attack on liberalism but a reason why it is all the more urgent to defend it.

1 comment:

Tobie said...

First of all, yay! Blog plug!

Secondly, I do now understand where are you coming from (whence you come?) a lot better, and I heartily approve of that way of approaching liberalism. I attempt to do so myself with all issues, although my fewer encounters with other opinions may make that trickeier.

Thirdly, I still am not sure that all this justifies the Christmas point. I still maintain that for a deed to merit my gratitude, it must 1) benefit me and 2) be regarded by me and/or by the giver as beyond the call of duty. The fact that I and/or the giver could reasonably be of the opinion that this deed is beyond the call of duty does not effect the gratitude owed so long as neither of us actually are of that opinion. Although I recognize that one could reasonably view basic tolerance as beyond the call of duty- I do not personally believe so and therefore I do not feel any debt to those who, similarly feeling it to be a duty to do so, extend it to me.

But I think we may have succeeded the farthest possible level of clarification on this point and are simply not going to agree about it. And so we'll just have to tolerate each other's opinion. (Well, when I say "have to"... ;) )