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Monday, May 16, 2005


Many thanks to Michael for giving me this chance to talk to all of you.  So, without any further ado:

My talented student Brent Kinser (I wish I could claim some credit for his abilities) defended his dissertation last week: a study of Victorian intellectuals’ responses to oncoming democracy.  Each of the writers he considered—John Stuart Mill, Anthony Trollope, Walter Bagehot, and Thomas Carlyle—viewed the future with alarm.  But each of them also held firmly to some reed—no matter how slim—of hope.  For Mill it was liberal institutions and the conviction that the individual is, finally, the best judge of his or her own interests.  For Trollope it was English decency and deference.  Bagehot practically invented himself (albeit with a huge nod to Edmund Burke) that mystical document (which exists nowhere) that protects an Englishman’s liberties: the constitution.  And Carlyle trusted in Providence, who would eventually make sure that might and right were exactly aligned.

I am drawn to the idea that intellectuals have a responsibility to be hopeful.  Certainly, the scorched earth pessimism of writers like Martin Amis and Kathy Acker holds no appeal for me, while the late-career curmudgeonly phases of Harold Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth have been painful to witness.  (Roth’s latest, “The Plot Against America,” actually reverses the trend—and I think that gratitude for the shift in tone is partly responsible for the extravagant praise the novel has received.) The trouble with Bloom, Bellow, and Roth is not pessimism; it’s the peevish insistence that fools and nincompoops rule the roost.  If only sensible men like themselves were given the reins, all would be well. 

Contrast their contempt for 99% of humanity with the dignified, if devastating, pessimism of J. M. Coetzee.  His books are not about scoring points. The stark impersonality of his narrative voice, while terrifying, has the clarity and force that come from simple statements unmarked by special pleading.  Obviously, as the case of Coetzee shows, we can’t demand that our intellectuals be hopeful.  But, for me at least, the most bleak writers had better seem to be moved by something far from personal pique and speaking from a position within the maelstrom they deplore, not from a comfortable perch outside it.

All of the Victorian intellectuals Brent discussed were moved by a genuine fear that England was heading into potentially dangerous waters.  Democracy, they each believed (to different extents), would unleash powers that would be unpredictable in their effects and very hard to check once established. 

Leftist intellectuals in America today are plagued by equally potent fears about our country’s future.  The limited progress that this country has made toward curbing the worst excesses of economic exploitation and inequality, toward protecting the environment, toward securing equality before the law, toward providing a modicum of education and the opportunities it affords, and toward protecting civil liberties is threatened by the country’s move to the right. Add the mind-boggling financial irresponsibility of the current administration and it is very easy to spend much of one’s breath exclaiming against this or that outrage or dangerous trend or ignored fact or hidden crime. 

But the left needs to stop whining.  It needs to articulate better than it has done in the past six years the positive values that underwrite its vision of what America can and should be. 

The left has two basic pillars on which to rest its hopes: democracy and liberalism.  The two are not the same and can, in fact, be in conflict with one another at times.  Neither can be abandoned, even when their marriage is rocky.  Liberalism is the bulwark against tyranny.  Liberal institutions and liberal civil rights are, to a certain extent, shielded from the decisions of the demos.  The left has to affirm—even if it is sometimes against our own instincts—that liberal safeguards against the abuse of power act as a check on pure democracy. 

That affirmation is so necessary because the liberal check is so very fragile.  The sovereign power in a democracy rests with the people, and there is every chance, at every moment, that that power will overwhelm all the constraints that a liberal constitution places upon it.  In the long run certainly, and in the short run arguably, the liberal checks cannot hold out against a majority determined to have its way.

So the major hope has to be placed in the people themselves.  It’s either that—or no hope at all.  There is no other mechanism or force out there.  (Hegel’s and Marx’s great mistake was to think there were impersonal forces and inevitable outcomes in human affairs.) Either the left recognizes that the only hope rests in doing the rhetorical, political, and intellectual work of getting the people to affirm its vision of what this country is now and what it should be in the future—or leftists will end up offering their own versions of Bellow’s and Bloom’s peevish rants. 

Posted by John McGowan on 05/16 at 08:29 PM
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