The center of my exchange with Andrew Sullivan was a liberal assumption that he holds as a conviction and which I challenged: that liberalism allows rational, disinterested analysis of facts and policies that then should be worked out in an arena of pragmatic compromise. Critics of liberalism, on the other hand, are skeptical about this; there are no “facts,” per se, and the so-called scientific knowledge on which liberals often base their “objective” view of the world is itself the product of a certain assumptions and faiths. This is the simplest meaning of “there is nothing outside the text”: there is no point where interpretation ends and cold, hard facts settle the question. Human discourse, thought, and history are interpretation all the way down.
I ran across this nice encapsulation of the criticism I was trying to articulate against liberalism, which the philosopher Stanley Fish wrote about after appearing on a television panel with Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker. Here’s how Fish summed up his disagreement with Dawkins and Pinker, who are basically unreconstructed modernists:
The desire of classical liberals to think of themselves as above the fray, as facilitating inquiry rather than steering it in a favored direction, makes them unable to be content with just saying, You guys are wrong, we’re right, and we’re not going to listen to you or give you an even break. Instead they labor mightily to ground their judgments in impersonal standards and impartial procedures (there are none) so that they can pronounce their excommunications with clean hands and pure — non-partisan, and non-tribal — hearts. It’s quite a performance and it is on display every day in our most enlightened newspapers and on our most progressive political talk shows, including the ones I’m addicted to.
This is the reason I’m so dismissive of things like cult of nonpartisanship in Washington, manifested in absurd political third-way projects like Americans Elect, and why I have serious questions for liberalism as a political philosophy. Liberalism (note I mean the whole liberal system, not the American left) is anti-political; it has a constant need to hide its biases, limit the field of discourse, and pretend and that any kind of actual political conviction is a product of “fundamentalism” or crazed partisan zeal. If you read Andrew’s blog or any op-ed columnist in a major American newspaper, you know the deal. The greatest sin in liberal politics is believing in something and refusing to compromise.
I realize this sounds a lot like the complaint of the theocrats on the Christian right, but I am not suggesting we’d be better off with some sort of re-theologized politics. One of the reasons I’m not sure we should be quick to throw liberalism out with the bathwater is precisely that it has more or less protected us from dangerous theocratic politics. But we have an obligation to be aware of liberalism’s limits, and to insist that it be forthright about its assumptions–which, sorry, Andrew, are always and necessarily metaphysical. There is no political worldview or any other kind of worldview without that sort of assumptions. What I want from liberals is that they own up to their beliefs, and drop this deeply ingrained pose of Olympian purity. Who knows, showing some conviction might even help left-liberals win in the era of an increasingly and proudly illiberal right wing.
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