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10/15/2004

Liberalism and Honesty

Political Liberalism is unbelievably resilient to outside challenge – almost too resilient, to the extent that it quickly co-opts and demobilizes legitimate criticism. Carl Schmitt from the right and the Frankfurt school from the left hurled devastating attacks at the position, but were sucked into it as soon as they tried to justify their criticisms. The shield of Liberalism is the simple question: "why?"

When Schmitt claimed Liberalism quashed authentic emotion, or eliminated political enmity through technocratic economizing and moral rumination, his school was rebutted by Habermas' simple questioning: why is this the case? Schmitt and his acolytes responded, not with the sword, but with an answer, an attempt at persuasion. When Horkheimer and Adorno claimed that instrumental rationality was a dehumanizing mask for crass political interests, they were answered by the same question. They, too, responded with an attempt at justification.

This is the core of Liberalism – public justification, the belief in the possibility of rational communication that can persuade people and eventually of convince them, if not of the rightness of the substantive decision, at least that their concerns were recognized, that the processes which led to a decision were fair, and that the question is not permanently settled. I used to think that if someone avoided recourse to the sword, Liberalism would eventually emerge triumphant.

My confidence in the resilience of the system began to fail in the run-up to the 2000 election, as an alternative to the sword began to emerge: brazen dishonesty. The practice of public justification is founded on an assumption that those offering the justification are presumptively honest, that their justifications are offered in good faith. With the modern conservative movement, operating on that presumption will get you a knife in the back.

 

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