Beverly Gage over at Slate asks a great question, and answers it without actually saying so. In “Why is there no liberal Ayn Rand?” she lays out the fact that conservative candidates always return to the same philosophical, literary roots.
But one of the movement’s most lasting successes has been in developing a common intellectual heritage. Any self-respecting young conservative knows the names you’re supposed to spout: Hayek, Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Albert Jay Nock. There are some older thinkers too—Edmund Burke, for instance—but for the most part the favored thinkers come out of the movement’s mid-20th century origins in opposition to Soviet communism and the New Deal.
But then she makes a leap in the very next sentence.
Liberals, by contrast, have been moving in the other direction over the last half-century, abandoning the idea that ideas can be powerful political tools.
I think in this instance she’s absolutely wrong. Primarily because of what she says shortly thereafter.
Here’s the key point right here.
The New Left reinvented that heritage in the 1960s. Instead of (or in addition to) Marx and Lenin, activists began to read Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, and Saul Alinsky. As new, more particular movements developed, the reading list grew to include feminists, African-Americans, and other traditionally excluded groups. This vastly enhanced the range of voices in the public sphere—one of the truly great revolutions in American intellectual politics. But it did little to create a single coherent language through which to maintain common cause. Instead, the left ended up with multiple “movement cultures,” most of them more focused on issue-oriented activism than on a common set of ideas.
This is where I feel she loses perspective. Contemporary liberalism differs so markedly from contemporary conservatism, because of the former’s focus on the value of of the individual. Liberalism has redefined itself as a politics that recognizes the complexity of society, the complexity of life, and thus cannot, and should not, pit one group against the other. Your cause is our cause, your rights are universal rights, and the plight of the smallest is the plight of the whole. It is utterly inclusive, often to the point of being somewhat ridiculous.
A complaint I have levied against liberal politics is that we can barely articulate a stance at a rally to give a unified voice. If you’ve been to a political protest in the last ten years you’d know that it’s not just about ending war, it’s about the plight of minorities, about Palestine, about Hurricane Katrina victims, about rape culture, about pot legalization. It’s a crazy quilt of issues, and everyone wanting their voice to be heard. But we liberals believe that our voices, no matter how small, should be heard, because all voices have value.
So, how can we ever begin to develop a corpus of literature, to develop a “consistent message?” We can’t. It’s impossible. As Randall Munroe, very effectively, said yesterday “Human subcultures are nested fractally. There is no bottom.” There are further minority politics embedded deeper into every group. There are fringes on the fringe of the fringe. We just continue to dig deeper, excavate new layers of complexity, and say, “yes, you too are a part of us.” Once we’ve read through a vast body of feminist literature, we then look at different waves of feminism, and how that’s changed over time, and then look at challenges to each subsequent iteration, and then and then and then. The same is true of black studies, queer theory, any other ethnic, religious, and minority group that has ever, or may ever cross through here, and then the deal with the incredible new layers of reality that people are adding to their identities on a daily basis, otherkin, furries, polyamorists, cyberpeople, transhumanists, virtual people, who knows what else may come…
The homogeneity of thought that comes from a canon of literature is great for people who don’t want to have to think about the harsh, and complex realities associated with anyone’s lives other than their own. It allows them to develop a rigid sense of morality, a definite set of what is in and what is out, and allows for the crafting of legislative agendas that move through like clockwork, because they’re not bound up in the morass of having to explore how their ideology impacts anyone, and if it does, well, the fact that they “don’t get it” is reason enough to just let them go.
There is no liberal canon, because we can’t stop saying “Yes, we care. Your life is valid, and I want to understand you better.” The liberal canon is the library, and studying it is the work of a lifetime.