The Problem with White Male Liberalism
Review of The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, by Jonathan Rauch
I have a review of Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, up at the Claremont Review of Books. It focuses on the problem with what we may call “white male liberalism.” As the article begins,
Over the past decade, practically every institution controlled by liberals — from universities and non-profits to the Democratic Party — has been taken over by political correctness. The identarian Left has managed to radicalize even those institutions that were once relatively apolitical. Free speech, academic freedom, and colorblindness — long considered foundational principles of the Left — have become as much right-wing clichés as American exceptionalism or free market economics. This total victory of identity politics over its side of the political spectrum was no accident. Liberalism legitimizes race- and gender-based criticism of Western society, then finds itself unable to resist that criticism when it is turned inward against liberalism itself. Feeling guilty about how white and male their movement is, more tolerant liberals have two options. They can bend over backward for diversity, which often means compromising their principles to achieve the right demographic balance. Or they can ignore the issue, having no good answer to the question of why people should join a movement in which white males predominate.
When Harper’s Magazine published an open letter from liberals last summer expressing concern about censorship and cancel culture on the Left, its organizers had to go out of their way to find women and minorities to sign. When the letter was published, some of those same women and minorities renounced their involvement upon reading the full list of signatories. This episode was emblematic of the challenges liberals face. So was the termination of New York Times columnist Donald McNeil, Jr., at the behest of black employees working at the paper. When older white men are purged, they take their more dated understanding of liberalism with them; firing the old guard ensures that all who remain will affirm the new, identity-based dogma.
The identity politics crowd says free speech and Western institutions are too white and male. The moderate liberal’s answer is to either ignore the issue or go “no, look, Ayaan Hirsi Ali agrees with me too!” But most of the time, within liberal institutions, women and non-whites don’t agree with them. And if you grant any credence to the idea that being too white and too male is a bad thing, it’s a debate you cannot win.
Whether he realizes it or not, Rauch’s commitments to science and viewpoint diversity are in tension. He talks of his admiration for the “epistemic breakthroughs” of Enlightenment thinkers, despite their works being “flawed with the inequities and blind spots of their eras (one of which is reflected in the fact that all of them were men).” Yet isn’t it perhaps remarkable that the systems and thinkers Rauch admires so much came from one sex, in one broadly defined culture, making up a small minority of the world’s people? If the institutions such men created are so incredible, perhaps diversity of perspective and opinion aren’t as important as Rauch would like to think. I note that while the author criticizes what social media have done to our brains and our public discourse, the one website he really admires for upholding epistemological standards is Wikipedia — which is often criticized, as he points out only in passing, for being too male.
The idea that the modern economy, the American system of government, and contemporary science were created by white men is not a fantasy the woke imagined out of thin air… Their implicit argument — that these great things happened to be created by white men only through some accident that has no implication for how they function today — does not seem very credible. The far Left, by contrast, has an easy answer to this conundrum: deconstruct the institutions and demand something more representative to replace them.
Given their internally coherent message and willingness not to flinch from the radical implications of their principles, it is little wonder that the woke have routed the old Left so completely. Ironically for Rauch, it was the academy — the institution that puts the most faith in peer review and subject-matter expertise — that seeded the ideas that would ultimately undermine the liberal project.
Not that conservatives have an answer here either, and they often do stupid things that affirm the moral worldview of their opponents. But that’s a separate issue, and conservatism, by at least accepting people who the left thinks are borderline or completely “racist” and “sexist” within its coalition, has some natural defenses against these things. Modern liberalism really doesn’t, and hence the institutional transformations of the last decades.
The full article is here, though unfortunately paywalled.
As a matter of logic, I don’t think it’s that hard to defend the old guard liberal position. Rich white men lucked out — through the whims of history and geography, they were in a position to first discover certain very effective principles in political and economic theory. Call this the extension of the “Guns, Germs, and Steel” argument to the realm of human affairs. The application of those principles has, itself, expanded the pool of people entitled to participate fully in our democracy (as well as business, academics, etc.). Thus, while there is an accidental set of historical circumstances that mean that white men first discovered and implemented these principles, the principles are available to anyone and indeed demand that everyone be allowed to participate.
There are plausible objections to this narrative, of course, but as a narrative it holds together well enough.
I think the old guard liberal position has struggled for three reasons. First, under the influence of (I’m sorry to use this term) post-modern academic thinking, liberals have abandoned the core idea that liberal principles are universal. Second, the above argument is just rhetorically more difficult than the new left argument. It’s harder to fit in a tweet or on a placard than “Old white guys — they suck, amirite?” And third, some of the rhetorical force of the old guard position and its claim to universalism has been squandered on patently awful experiments in export like Vietnam and Iraq, to say nothing of a fair amount of brutality and hypocrisy at home. Failure to live up to a principle doesn’t make the principle wrong, of course — the fact that your doctor doesn’t exercise doesn’t mean he’s wrong that exercise is good for you — but as a knee-jerk heuristic people have a hard time trusting someone who fails to follow his own advice.
So… liberalism struggles.
Thanks for sharing this, Richard. I'd been a long-time subscriber to The New York Review of Books, but as my politics and theirs have both changed from 2010 to the present (I became more skeptical of modern progressivism, they became less), I've been searching for a replacement publication. The Claremont Review seems like it fits the bill. I'll tell them you sent me.