Liberalism (RW53)

This story was recorded on 2017-01-20, the day of the inauguration of Donald Trump as the president of the United States.

How to transition from mild times?

John was thinking about posting a picture of his shoes on Instagram, but it felt a little bit light-weight given that he probably is going to be in the radical political opposition in a world ruled by a lowbrow kleptocracy over the next several years. Is he supposed to communicate the same kind of transient culture as if we were still living in mild times? Although John was personally wrestling with current events, he tried to maintain a light-weight social media presence without contributing his voice, primarily because he assumed people following him either have drunk the same Kool-aid aid or they are not going to be swayed by his snark anyway. John's social media is right now full of people vociferously espousing a leftist rebellion. All his friends feel obligated to man the barricades and most of it is based on what they see happening and what they assume it means about the thing that is going to happen. They feel assaulted and their respone is to start burning tires, to throw chairs and get ready for the tear gas.

The problem is: Half the time they are saying "Everyone unite", but the other half of the time they still maintain that hectoring, lecturing tone, like "White people need to read this!" Who do they think is following their social media account? People who haven't read it already? Or people who still have to read it and have their minds blown about it? It is highly unlikely that anyone who follows John's social media account hasn't read Martin Luther King. What he reposts are in general legitimately surprising things, not in the form of "Here is what we need to do to persevere our rights". On the other hand, maybe not every one of John's followers has read Tocqueville, because people are not really sharing Tocqueville quotes, but they are sharing some pretty basic stuff. John is churning on how to maintain the culture he had been enjoying before, a culture that came during mild times when their president was a reader and the government was being managed by people that John perceived as, maybe not high-minded idealists every minute, but certainly high-minded pragmatists instead of swing-for-the-fences, shoot-from-the-hip people that are hostile to education and hostile to elites.

Visible street activism vs trying to convince people

John is not sure how to handle this transition and if somebody with his engagement or his education and the responsibility that comes with it can continue to be so shallow, but he hasn't figured out what his responsibility is yet. He has been up against this for his whole life: John is not a hammer swinger of the Habitat for Humanity. Jimmy Carter was out there building homes, literally swinging a hammer and it feels like a wonderful gesture, but a little bit underused if that is all he is doing. To whatever degree Jimmy Carter has the ear of statesmen around the world, he should be using that time more constructively. Activism like building a house presumes street engagement as the most authentic response: "Get up, get out, get marching!" John has marched in a lot of things, but he has never felt to swing a hammer and that might be part of the problem, but he doesn't think so.

There are a lot of people working to surgically remedy the cleft palate epidemic of Central America. The work they are doing, every single cleft palate they restore, changes the life of the person and is hugely appealing because it is very visible. It is much harder to do invisible work like convincing people and John feels he this is his role and he is underperforming. These aren't mild times! It is time to get up and do something, but John doesn't want to make his Instagram feed a bunch of screenshots of aphorisms, telling white people that they need to wake up. What can he do that is honest and authentic, reflects the seriousness of now and is actually usefull? All of this is part of John's overall project after election day in order to take a big step back from preaching. He was still commenting on Donald Trump because he is hilarious, though.

The elite as the common enemy

John did no longer have confidence in the premises that drive the populism of the left, because populism on both the left and the right presumes the same enemy: The elites! The populist left thinks the Democratic Party elites were in bed with Goldman Sachs and the populists on the right feel like the Democratic elites were in bed with Goldman Sachs. Now we do have a government of Goldman Sachs and the progressive left thinks that proves their point and the radical right is shortly also about to feel like that proves their point. In other words, everyone thinks that everything that happens proves their point and no one is ever wrong. No one ever says "Wait a minute! We were wrong!". The premise of democratic populism is that we get the elites out and that we get the real authentic people from the streets in. That was the premise of the people who voted for Donald Trump as well: The people from the streets know better than the people who have dedicated their lives to the service of the larger whole, the people who have studied government in school, the people that have been in government their whole lives or the people that have studied administration.

Bureaucracy as the foundation of civil society

John's has learned from traveling overseas that one of the things that makes America amazing is the bureaucracy. Going to a place without a functioning bureaucracy is frustrating, and going to the DMV is a pain in the ass, but try to get a drivers license in Belarus or Kasachstan and you will see how much the bureaucracy itself is the foundation of what we call a civil society. There is a due process. If someone encroaches on your land, if someone builds a fence 10 feet into your property and says "Fuck you!", there is a process by which you can file a complaint and this complaint is ultimately taken seriously. In so many countries of the world you are screwed if that person is brothers in law with somebody.

Perceived racism in America

John no longer has any faith that the people from the streets have any business in overturning what they perceive as the elites. First of all, they are wrong about who the elites are and what the elites do. They are just fucking straight up wrong about it, and you cannot convince them that they are wrong, because everything that happens in the world proves their point that America is a racist, patriotical kleptocracy. The fact is: America has more equality than any other country in the history of time for such an incredibly large and diverse population. If you want to point to Finland, go right ahead! Finland is not fucking diverse and it is very easy for Finland to accomplish what they do, given the smallness of their population and the homogeneity of it. America right now is as good as humans ever managed to create a pluralistic society with people from all around the world with so many competing ambitions and yet we perceive it to be this diseased and broken organism that needs this radical enema in the form of 22-year-old college students who think they know what government is.

People from the streets

According to them, all we need to do is approach government completely idealisticly with no sense of real politics, with no sense of the fact that there are competing world views, that there are ranchers in Arizona who have a very different feeling about what the water should be used for than environmentalists in Southern California. It is the same fucking water, and you can't just walk in there as an idealistic 22 year old with a degree in sociology and start managing those systems. Those systems spider-web out. They fractal out across the world of government and John doens't want 24 year olds from Antioch having any fucking say in it, frankly, nor does he want truck drivers from Missouri having any say in it. He does not any longer feel confident that populism from any direction is the solution to a god-damn thing.

The premises of Liberalism

John is not necessarily advocating for an oligarchy or a philosopher princess, but the idea that the world is created by recapitulated patriarchy and elitism is maybe an idea from mild times and when things get practical, John is starting to feel like we have to step back and evaluate where we are: We had a lot going on that we were not grateful for, we had a lot more freedom than we were prepared to say and we had a lot more equality than we were prepared to acknowledge, because it felt like idealistically we needed more: we needed perfection in those realms and now we stand to watch that stuff walked back by people who don't believe in the first premise of it: They don't believe that there is a psychic injury from slavery 150 years ago. They don't share that notion and they don't agree with it. There are millions of them! Whether they are racist or not, they just don't understnad the concept that there can be psychic damage and systemic racism that is invisible to them, but that is there nonetheless. That is a premise that everyone on the left shares and that very few people on the right even take into account. It is not convincing to those people on the right to double down on the idea that anybody who does not acknowledge that premise is just a fucking racist and fuck them!

Those premises that we use to base decisions, choices and the ideas of liberalism on are complicated! We accept a whole chain of them before we even come to as simple an idea as affirmative action, which is based on 25 assumptions. John believes in every one of them, like psycic damage that transmits through generations or systemic racism, but if you are on the right and fail to accept just one of those, like you don't accept that it can be remedied by reperations, then you are bounced out of liberalism and you are somewhere else into a realm of the educated conservative who agrees that all this is true, but their remedy is to reject the whole premise and start with the equality now. They imagine reperations systematice a new kind of inequality. That's not a libertarian argument! Even if this mythical conservative agreed with you 9/10 of the establishing liberal premises, but he just didn't like the last one, then he is all of a sudden over in the other quadray. Now it feels like there is this unbridgeable chasm which John doesn't believe is real. The people in his circle are now reflecting on how good we've had it.

Secondary reflection

Nobody is saying it like that because there is a very vocal contingent who regard any kind of secondary reflection beyond just the initial "we are under assault and can't abide it" as some form of appeasement which is repulsive to them because they have already established that 50 million Americans are racists and we don't appease racism, therefore they condemn any attempt to take a step back and think about the story we have been telling, and whether or not it is an accurate picture. We can see the flaws in their argument, but can we see the flaws in ours? Rejecting the process of self-examination as appeasement or capitulation is the opposite of liberalism, which is inherently self-reflecting! Self-reflection is the advantage of liberalism! We do have a much more complicated argument to make and the complication of the argument needs to be presented in a better way than what we have been doing so far.

During mild times we have been saying: "Now we have unisex bathrooms and if you don't like it, you are going to be on the wrong side of history!" John has seen unisex bathrooms in Seattle and it works great. It is just a much better system, but the whole notion is a very complex chain of presuppositions from the right who are just saying that there are boys and girls and there aught to be boy's and girl's restrooms! To them this is a pretty simple idea and the notion that the simplest explanation is the best is one that has governed human decision making for a long time. On the left we say gender is a social construct and we have this whole lexicon with this whole chain of thoughts that go into it and we have not done a good job of explaining our argument. The idea "unisex bathrooms, accept it or fuck off!" hasn't been persuasive to at least 50 million people. There are a lot of people on the left who accept the need for affirmative action, but who are not so sure they want transgender people in their child's high school bathroom. Our compassion for people is often expressed in very dynamically unsympathetic terms. You have compassion for people or you are going to be run over by the steam roller of liberal ascendancy.

So that is not exactly John stepping back, it is him stepping in. How can he communicate the complexity of his argument without opening himself up to 1000 angry emails from people who aren't appreciating the subtlety of our responsibility and the fact that liberalism is predicated on levels of understanding that not every populist progressive liberal has spent any time in the trenches thinking about? They accept a lot of this on whole cloth. They haven't reflected on the premise behind the premise behind the premise. They just feel the justice of it emotionally and they are out there waving torches in the streets because they were raised in a culture where that is a priori to them. They have been told in school that Columbus is a figure of genocide and they strongly oppose Columbus Day. Well, for 500 years Columbus was a hero and you can make a case he still is. On the other side it is very hard to make a case that Columbus set out with the notion that he was going to eliminate people. That wasn't in his plan! His plan was to find some gold or to find a way to India from the back! If you were raised in a school system that told you that Columbus was a figure of genocide, did you go back and re-evaluate all that evidence and think about who came to that conclusion and what that conclusion means and what that theorices and how it is based on a lot of theory and not a lot of evidence?

Theory-based vs evidence-based arguments

Liberalism has a lot of theory that we tend to think of as proof or prooved, and all too often we present a theory on the left that sounds good to everybody and we call it prooved! We didn't subject that theory to any rigorous examination, because it sounded good, so it is prooved! "The male gaze creates a rape culture": Prooved! There is a lot to think about there! There is less rape in America than anywhere else, and yet the visibility of the conversation makes it seem like every high school football player is being inculcated in the idea that rape is part of how we make America. There are a lot of theories there! It is very hard to say that we need to examine them a little more carefully without being vulnerable to the accusation of being pro-rape. For John as a middle-aged white man to advance any of these notions is perhaps being described as being an apologist for rape-culture because he can not possibly understand because he is a middle-aged while male. That alone is a theory!

On the contrary, the right and their ideology is not theory-based. They look at the evidence in front of them and make the decision based on what seems obvious to them. Trickle-down economics is maybe the one theory they have! 1000 points alight! Besides that, they choose their political candidates by saying: "There are two people standing here and I like this one! Maybe because he is white and the other guy is black, but that's not it! What are you going to do about it? You can't get inside my head!" Then the left looks at that transaction and all of a sudden we are talking about the Hawley-Smoot-tariff or the Portugese in West-Africa in 1820!

John has a lot of studying to do! He has a lot on his mind and all he does on the Internet is posting pictures of him in funny hats. It was the direction he is wearing it that makes it funny. Thank you Dan for getting that!


  • John is unsure how to transition his social media from the mild times of light-weight and funny to something that is appropriate based on the responsibility that comes with his education and engagement.
  • John does not post political statements on social media that all his followers probably already know.
  • John thinks he is underusing himself if all he does is swinging hammers and going on marches.
  • Populists on the left and the right have both chosen the elites as their enemies, but they make mistakes already when it comes to defining who the elites are.
  • Because they have the same enemies, everything that happens proves their point and they are not reflecting if what they think may be wrong.
  • The people who voted for Trump wanted to see someone from the streets, who they think knows better than those who have devoted their life to politics.
  • Bureaucracy is the foundation of civil society.
  • John does not want anybody from the streets in politics.
  • People from the streets see America as racist, which is plain wrong, because mankind has never had a more equal society than what America is today.
  • Things are really complicated when it comes to real politics and John does not think that young people directly from the colleges have any place in politics.
  • We had a lot going on and we had a lot of freedom that we were not enough grateful for. Instead we strived for perfection and this is what we got.
  • The psychic damage slavery did to people 150 years ago transmits through generations and the right thing to do are reparations and affirmative actions. This is a premise shared by the left, but not by the right.
  • There is a chain of premises that build up liberalism and if you do not accept only one of them, you are not a libertarian, but an educated conservative.
  • Conservatives dismiss the notion of reparations as a new form of inequality and want to start with equality now.
  • Any kind of secondary reflection on the current state of affairs is often seen as appeasement. Rejecting the notion of self-reflection is the opposite of liberalism.
  • For the right, the simplest explanation is the best one.
  • On the left, there is this whole train of thought and we don't do a good enough job of explaining our arguments.
  • The populist progessive liberal has not spent enough time in the trenches thinking about the different levels of understanding liberalism, but they are going onto the streets with their torches.
  • Liberalism is based on a lot of theory, but we don't dare to examine the theories enough, because then we are afraid of being accused of supporting a bad argument, even if we only want to examine it to dismiss it.
  • The ideology of the right is not theory-based, but evidence based. They make their decisions based on the facts on the table.
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