It Takes All Sorts to Make a World: A Defense of Gentle Liberalism in a Fiercely Partisan Age
The full post is for subscribers only, but there’s a lengthy preview below for all readers. Thanks so much!
A scene from Howard’s End.
These are not easy times for liberals.
Terms first. Liberal is a wonderfully elastic term, one that means different things to different people. Conservatives (another rubbery word, but not my topic today) often use “liberal” as code for those who support “big government expansion” or “moral decay.” Folks on the far left, meanwhile sneer at liberals for their timidity, their insufficient radicalism, and their inevitable and exasperating failure to grasp the urgency of the moment.
I am no political philosopher, and I defer to those who are. I am clear that when I call myself a “liberal,” I like to think I am standing in a tradition that traces itself back into the Enlightenment – a tradition concerned with defining liberty as something that belongs first and foremost to individuals, not states or communities or governments or churches. Communities are collections of individuals, but they have no special rights beyond those given to their individual constituents. For the community to trump the conscience or choices of an individual is a very serious thing, and only to be done as a last resort. (You’re already thinking of vaccine mandates, and the gloriously maddening ambiguity about what constitutes a “last resort.”)
The Mel Gibson movie “Braveheart” came out in 1995, during my second year of full-time college teaching. It was close to the subject of my doctoral dissertation – the Anglo-Scottish wars of the 13th and 14th centuries – and I had great fun lamenting the film’s dramatic license with actual history. What I remember as well as anything else is the final cry that Gibson’s William Wallace utters at the moment of his execution: a defiant “Freedom!”
In my classes, we sometimes talked about that, and about the different concepts of what it means to be free. William Wallace, dying brutally for Scotland 800 years ago, did not mean freedom in the liberal sense. He was not dying for the idea that individuals should be able to order their lives as they see fit, regardless of the views of the community in which they live. He was dying for the idea of a collective freedom, mostly that of the Scottish nobility and gentry. Freedom had nothing to do with rights for women or gay people or non-Christians or anything of that sort – it had to do with the right of the leaders of one particular ethnic group to exercise dominion over their clans without interference by another ethnic group.
Smarter people than I have written a great deal about what it means to be free. This argument about what liberty means still animates our most basic disagreements. Some define freedom as primarily the right of the individual to move through life with minimal governmental oversight – but with lots of oversight from, say, the religious community. (I think of my friends on the right who oppose mask mandates on liberty grounds but want to organize together to stop “Drag Queen Story Hour” at the local library.) Some define freedom as the right of the community to be kept safe: they support mask and vaccine mandates out of a desire to be kept free from disease. (They are more interested in the freedom from things than they are the freedom to do things, though they will usually try to convince you that the first freedom will lead to the second eventually.)
Everybody believes in freedom and liberty (for my purposes, two interchangeable terms, though I know smart political scientists and philologists who disagree). We all define freedom and liberty slightly differently, and we take these definitions deeply personally, as perhaps we should.
I grew up with a handful of slogans that defined “true” liberalism:
I despise what you have to say, but will defend to my death your right to say it. (Apocryphal Voltaire)
Better to let 99 guilty men go free than to hang one innocent man. (Apocryphal Ben Franklin.)
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. (Definitely Thoreau.)
How dare Schlegels despise Wilcoxes when it takes all sorts to make a world? (Forster, “Howard’s End.)
I still take comfort in all those epigrams.
The liberalism to which I belong, and which I inherited at least in part from my mother’s family, is the genial liberalism rooted in a mix of humility and class consciousness. I’ve written often that my family half-jokingly deploys the phrase “Our Kind of People” to describe how we dress, speak, and behave. (For example, Our Kind of People don’t mind teen couples having premarital sex when they visit the ranch. We just mind being obvious about it. So, we put their luggage in two separate rooms and indulgently ignore nocturnal traffic. We’re not telling kids they’re supposed to have sex, but we’re hardly in the business of preventing them from doing so.) There’s a smidge of snobbery in the idea of “Our Kind of People,” but there’s also a colossal modesty too: we do not think our way better than anyone else’s, nor do we think our way offers special benefits that all should consider. Other Kinds of People can make all sorts of equally wonderful decisions which we tend to avoid: they can mix navy blue and black, they can speak in tongues on Sunday afternoons, they can celebrate the Fourth of July by four-wheeling through mud – or they can denounce the holiday as white supremacist nonsense. None of these are wronger or righter than any other choice. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
The liberalism in which I was raised, and in which I raise my bunnies, is what the developmental psychologists call “commitment within relativism.” Put simply, that means we have made a decision to commit to a particular set of civic and cultural values without believing that our way is superior to anyone else’s. Our manners are not evidence of superiority (indeed, to believe that one’s manners made one superior would be to demonstrate that you didn’t have the manners you thought you did). They are just “our thing,” and folks born into this family are free to embrace or reject these values, or cobble together their own mix of “our thing” with “other people’s things.”
One of the key tenets of liberalism is a reverence for real diversity. I don’t just mean diversity of ethnic or racial background, or of gender. Those matter, of course. A commitment to embracing diversity means accepting that other people can see the world in stunningly different ways without being mistaken. This is the diversity of radical humility: there may, liberals concede, be some absolute truth somewhere. But to quote the apostle whose message most of us reject, “we see through a glass darkly.” The truth, if it exists, is always obscured. Different people at different times might catch different glimpses, but they are just that – glimpses.
Perhaps you know the parable of the blind men and the elephant. As Wikipedia explains it:
“It is a story of a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and imagine what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant's body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their limited experience and their descriptions of the elephant are different from each other. In some versions, they come to suspect that the other person is dishonest and they come to blows. The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people's limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true.”
Italics mine. most of us filter the world through our own limited senses and experiences. There is a real elephant, but liberalism is, chiefly, the reminder to squelch the temptation to believe we can ever map it. Everyone has a different elephant.
In 2005, with the Iraq War raging, I was a youth leader at All Saints Church Pasadena. In March one of the priests on staff approached me. “I need you to talk to Jim,” the priest said; “He wants to enlist in the Army after graduation. His parents are frantic. He respects you, and they were hoping you could talk him out of this.”
Jim was a high school senior. I’d known him since he was a freshman. We sometimes met for coffee in Old Town Pasadena. I like to think I knew his heart. I told the priest I’d be happy to talk about the Army with Jim, but that my main concern would be what was best for him. That might be the military, or it might not, but I sure as heck couldn’t go into a conversation with a teen with a preconceived agenda about what they needed most. The priest rolled her eyes. “Hugo, this war is both lethal and unjust. I think you can help Jim see that.”
I smiled politely, said I would do my best, and later that week spent an hour chatting with the lad about his hopes and dreams. Long story short, Jim had thought this through – and it was clear to me that the Army was the right decision for him. The first principle of youth leadership for me is the first principle of liberalism: different things are right for different people. Some kids will thrive in the Army; some won’t. Some kids are ready for sex in high school; some aren’t. Some folks like to dip the consecrated wafer in the chalice, some folks want to take their own sip. I ended up annoying the priest -- and disappointing Jim’s parents -- because I affirmed his desires without redirecting them. (Jim joined the Army, did a tour in Iraq, came home and went to college.)
Jim’s parents saw one part of the elephant. Jim saw another. My job was not to explain the true nature of the elephant – as if anyone could! -- it was to affirm that his experience of the elephant (and the world, of course) was as valid as anyone else’s.
Not long after Jim graduated, I had lunch with an evangelical friend of mine. I told him the story of Jim, and my friend was glad that the boy had enlisted. He did not think much of my philosophy, however. His description of my liberalism was memorable: “Hugo, it’s mighty thin gruel.”
What my friend meant was that this kind of good-humored tolerance --mixed with skepticism, humility, and a reluctance to confront error (or even admit the existence of error!) – was not the sort of thing that would sustain many people through hard times. In crisis and conflict, folks don’t want to hear that truth is subjective, that there is good in our enemies, and that the best thing we can do is affirm everyone’s viewpoint as equally valid. Folks on both the far right and far left insist that this kind of open-minded liberalism ends up being nothing more than complicity with injustice. “You can’t be so open-minded the wind blows through,” my friend said.
Perhaps. Or perhaps that just means the wind blows a great many people into your life whom you might otherwise have judged or dismissed.
I grew up on the songs of Woody Guthrie. I was a little boy when I first heard Woody sing “Lonesome Valley” on one of mama’s records. (The authorship of the song’s various versions are intensely disputed, but it seems to be derived from a traditional spiritual. Besides Woody, the Carter Family have one of the definitive early recordings.) In Woody’s version, the last three stanzas are these:
There's a road that leads to glory
Through a valley far away,
Nobody else can walk it for you,
They can only point the way.
Mamma and daddy loves you dearly,
Sister does and brother, too,
They may beg you to go with them,
But they cannot go for you.
I'm gonna walk that lonesome valley,
I'm gonna walk it by myself,
Don't want nobody to walk it for me,
I'm gonna walk it by myself.
My left-leaning Christian friends don’t like that song, because they believe salvation is communal and corporate. They don’t like what they see as an almost heretical, deeply American focus on the individual. I smile politely at them, because I take their point, but that’s not the song means to me. To me, it is a celebration not only of the fact of our death but the reality that our most important journeys are, in the end, always singular. We can love others, bond with others, sacrifice for others, but in the end, there is something only we can do, and we must do it in solitude.
Liberalism is not synonymous with individualism, but it is rooted in reverence for individual autonomy and individual choices, even if those choices are inexplicable and mysterious to all others. Liberalism, as I understand it, believes – contra Woody and the Carters – that there are many paths to glory, however you define it; the ocean will refuse no river. You may choose to follow your own path, or walk as best you can in the footsteps of your ancestors, or switch between valleys as you wander. If you get lost or lonely or fall down, you deserve to have people be there for you. Society itself should be there when you fall – but society is only there to get you back on your feet, brush away the mud, and say, “off you go again!”
Ain’t nobody here can walk it for you. And ain’t nobody here can tell you how to go on your lonesome journey.
Like many classical liberals, I have no home in either party. I don’t think either party minds losing the likes of me; the most intense energy belongs to the frothing populist right and the perpetually anguished progressive left; as different as they are, both groups share a disdain for the irenic and guileless tolerance that traditional liberals espouse. Our reverence for process and individualism and civility is nothing more than a tiresome obstacle to the real work that needs to be done, so it would be best if we shut up and get out of the way.
And when I hear that, I smile politely, and think that just maybe, someday, there will be a need for gentle and welcoming people who can “hold space” for erstwhile enemies. There will always be a need for trustworthy youth leaders who can see each child as a unique bundle of desires and talents, and help them find their way through his or her own valley, without judgment or preconception. You might not like my politics, but you just might call me for advice when your teen is in a really dark place. And my politics are inextricably linked with what will make me such an accepting, thoughtful resource in that crisis.
In the end, someone has to say, I honor the steps with which you march to a drumbeat only you can hear.