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Last year, Kim R. Holmes discussed his book, The Closing of the Liberal Mind: How Groupthink and Intolerance Define the Left with our own Ben Weingarten. After the political and cultural upheavals of the intervening months, their conversation is all the more illuminating and relevant to the state of liberalism today.
With The Closing of the Liberal Mind out in paperback this week, we present a full transcript of their discussion from 2016, slightly modified for clarity.
You can also listen to their interview in its entirety below. And be sure to subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store.
Ben Weingarten: Your book is all about [big] ideas, both the good and the bad throughout history. I want to talk about the practical implications of those ideas and the theoretical ones as well, but let’s start right here, given where we are today. How much do the elections of 2008, 2012, and this current presidential election illustrate the triumph of illiberalism over liberalism as classically defined?
Kim Holmes: Well, I think the “liberal mind,” as I describe it in my book, has been closing for a number of years, even a number of decades now. Particularly in the universities and popular culture, you’re seeing more and more instances where people who describe themselves as progressive liberals are trying to use public shaming rituals, and even coercive efforts through the law and the courts to shut down dissent and opposing points of view. So this has been going on for a long time, but I do, I believe, and I also argue in the book that the process accelerated under President Barack Obama, because he is a man definitely of the progressive left, what I call the postmodern left, which really believes that the traditional constitutional order, traditional values — even about the family and the society that had evolved over centuries that had made America a great place for Americans and even for other people in the world — he believed that that America was outdated. And he believed that it was inherently flawed. And so he wanted to transform it. He was very open about it, and he has endeavored in every way to do that.
But in doing so, he has moved over into what I call illiberalism, that is the use of coercion and even abuse to get his way. You see it, not just in the most obvious, like the IRS targeting political opponents…[but] in his abuse of executive orders and executive action to consciously get around the Congress and the Constitution. You see it with the use of the Justice Department to go after politicized investigations, police departments, political jurisdictions, and frankly even individuals in some cases. There’s even the case of going after some nuns, for example, who were protesting the ObamaCare mandate. So there have been very, very illiberal in their abuse of regulations and the law to go after their opponents and to get their way. So even though it has been going on for a while, it definitely accelerated under President Obama.
Progressive liberals are trying to use public shaming rituals, and even coercive efforts through the law and the courts to shut down dissent and opposing points of view.
Ben Weingarten: You talk about basically, in effect—and Melanie Phillips has spoken of this—the world being turned on its head. And that’s in effect what progressivism is when you get down to it. It’s justice turning into injustice, it’s the victim turning into the victimizer, and as your book speaks to, it’s liberalism turning into illiberalism. Explain a little bit, and you walked through this in your book in some detail, how we went from a natural law tradition to historicism, Hegelianism, pragmatism, scientific thought, progressivism, and then ultimately the postmodern left, as you term it.
Kim Holmes: Yeah, it’s a long story, over 215 years. I’ll try to do it justice as I can. If you start out with the principles of the founding of the American Republic, it’s roughly a classic liberal view of the world that rights are individually-owned. The government exists to protect those rights. My rights as an individual only go as far as me not offending or imposing on your rights. Private virtue is very important. It was believed that you had to be a moral person. This was the classic liberal view of the world.
And at the end of the 19th century, with the rise of industrialization and the like in the large cities that happened in America, we had of course the progressive movement of Herbert Croly, Woodrow Wilson and even Theodore Roosevelt, who challenged this original classic liberal view. They thought it was outdated, they didn’t like individualism, they believed in a community and they believed that the state that should enforce the due values of the community. And they introduced the idea, the nascent idea of the welfare state that of course was developed by FDR, and particularly Lyndon Johnson.
Then you had the New Left in the ’60s, which imported ideas of cultural revolution from Europe, primarily the Frankfurt school of neo-Marxism, which was a cultural Marxist view where they would fuse with not only the old Marxist categories of revolution against capitalism, but…with pornianism, the idea that sexual politics and the release of the individual through sexual experimentation was the way to overturn the old traditional order, not only of capitalism, but of religion and the like. And that gave rise to this big explosion of the youth movements in the ’60s and the radicalization of the student movement. And many of these people became professors, and they introduced ideas of feminism and identity politics certainly into the university curriculum. They marched through the institutions. They went largely dormant through the Reagan and Bush eras, but they were always there and they were always teaching our children, even when President Reagan and President Bush were in the White House. So this marching through the institutions has been quite successful. And it’s all the institutions now. It’s not just the university. It’s certainly Hollywood. It’s increasingly the corporate boardrooms. If you look at Apple, PayPal, Amazon, Starbucks, all of these big corporations are thoroughly progressive left in their culture.
The final phase in the transformation of liberalism, is what I call the “postmodern left.” And that’s happened in the last 30 years. The most day-to-day manifestation of what I mean by the postmodern left is mainly cultural. It’s the belief that morality is completely relative, it’s only individually defined. In philosophy that’s called ethical relativism. But it’s also true about reality — it’s highly subjective and there is no truth, no physical reality. It’s only a matter of interpretation, epistemic relativism, and the belief that this relativism is manifested in the postmodern left, mainly in identity politics, where a person’s identity is, whether it’s sexual or transgender or gay marriage, whatever the issue is…thoroughly the property of the individual. And only they have a right to say who they are and you — though, this is where the issue of equality comes in — everybody else, must conform to that individual point of view. So on one hand, it’s radically individualistic — that’s postmodern — but on the other hand it’s the old New Left agenda, which is radical egalitarianism, that’s defining this new radical individualism as a new kind of equality.
Tolerance becomes really a gateway for intolerance, because if you don't accept their point of view in the public square, you're the one that's intolerant and they have a right to be intolerant towards you
So if I don’t conform or agree to a person’s belief that same-sex marriage is the same thing as traditional marriage, or if I don’t believe and accept — I don’t mean tolerate — I mean accept the fact that a man who thinks he’s a woman, a transgender man is a woman, I am now out of step with the new morality. I don’t just offend that one person’s basic rights, according to them, I’m also somehow denying that class of people their equality. That in a nutshell is the postmodern left. It’s very slippery, it’s very confusing and for conservatives who were raised in the natural law tradition or even just the old-fashioned progressivism, all the categories of individual versus society, authority versus freedom, is turned completely inside out. And if you don’t know what it is that they’re doing and saying, it’s so easy to get confused, and if you get confused, next thing you know, you’re using their language. For example, it’s about “civil rights,” it’s about “discrimination,” it’s about their “rights,” and you’re denying them their rights and you have no right to your opinion.
And so tolerance becomes really a gateway for intolerance, because if you don’t accept their point of view in the public square, you’re the one that’s intolerant and they have a right to be intolerant towards you. It’s this kind of a confusing situation which I think philosophically is incoherent but politically is powerful because it’s slippery. You can adapt it to anything. And also, it’s based upon a fraudulent claim. The fraudulent claim is that they’re just making the relativistic position: “All morality is gone, my morality is as good as yours.” But that’s not what they really are arguing. They’re saying “my morality is right and yours is wrong, mine’s normal now and yours is abnormal.” So it’s based upon a fraud, a fraudulent claim. But in the popular culture, that fraudulent claim is completely missing. It’s not seen, it’s not known. And that’s why I wrote the book, The Closing of the Liberal Mind, was to expose this fraud.
Ben Weingarten: As the Founders spoke to, a free society can’t exist without morality. And what you just spoke to, I think, is maybe the most critical part of all, that these folks [postmodern leftists] are moral relativists, but they believe that their morality is the right morality; their morality which says anything goes and whatever I say is moral is moral. So in effect, they’re trying to overturn the moral order, thus the cultural order and ultimately the political order. So I have to ask in thinking through the implications…when we talk about winning the Cold War in the conventional sense of the Soviet Union collapse, no one would deny that; from an ideological perspective, did we win that war?
Kim Holmes: We won the old war, the Cold War…The old battle against Marxism and communism and the systems of communism…I would argue that you’ve got to make a distinction between the ideology at what Marxism stood for and actual power of the Soviet Union. Power in the Soviet Union persisted a lot longer than the credibility of old-fashioned Marxist communism, and the New Left in Europe and the socialists of the ’60s and ’70s, they didn’t want to be associated with that kind of communism. So they invented a new kind of socialism, a New Left, what I’ve been talking about here, mainly a sort of cultural Marxism combined with a sort of advanced welfare state socialism. That was more or less democratic in the sense that you respected elections, so it wasn’t totalitarian in the sense of the Soviet Union. So when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early ’90s, in some ways we had already won an ideological war against the old communism, which was a 19th century phenomenon, and so there was an historical lag. And I think many conservatives still think they’re fighting the old battles, but they’re not. We have to realize who our opponents are. They left that worldview behind a long time ago.
And the essence of being of a postmodern leftist is to have no system, no logic that you can tear apart, no fancy dialectics and grim historical determinism that you can get at philosophically. You just want to go off and make everything about individual choice and tolerance and the like. And yet, as a political and intellectual weapon of deconstructionism, which is what it was, you could do a lot of dismantling. As a matter of fact, that is where most of the progressive left has been focusing its efforts over the last 40 or 50 years. And I think a lot of conservatives have been caught fighting their old battle, they need to fight this new battle. They need to go engage in the culture and take head-on some of the ideas that are being used to justify this approach.
They're saying 'my morality is right and yours is wrong, mine's normal now and yours is abnormal.'
Ben Weingarten: As you speak to, this is a battle. It’s a multi-front battle that one side is heavily engaged in and, as you mentioned, has been engaged in for 50 years. And we already had to deal with the effects of Woodrow Wilson progressivism, let alone the postmodern left, more adroitly, I would say, going after the culture rather than merely focusing on the political institutions. One of the more pernicious areas that you speak to in terms of where the postmodern left causes real, lasting damage, is in the area of the law. Explain how the law has been warped to basically become a weapon, rather than something that provides justice and truth.
Kim Holmes: Well, in history if you command control of the public mind, the law will follow. So, the more advances that the postmodern left and progressives have made over the last 40 or 50 years in the culture, they’ve been looking for openings to go beyond just trying to convince you or me through a public debate, but actually seal the deal and make my expressions and my opinions illegal – [to] in some cases, criminalize them. Authoritarian regimes and totalitarian regimes have been doing this for many, many, many years. But it’s now happening in a few areas.
The most obvious one is the area of hate speech. Hate speech was developed by legal theorists, people like Catharine MacKinnon and others who, 25 or 30 years ago, introduced the idea and the law that pornography, for example, was a kind of sexual discrimination against women. And it was a very clever tactic because conservatives don’t like pornography either. But they introduced the idea, therefore, if you want to control pornography…you expand a definition of what that means, and then you get into the area of a kind of a radical feminist view, that if you happen to express other kinds of opinions that feminists believe are offensive, not just pornography but other kinds, then that can become something that you can control through the law.
Then it got expanded as multiculturalism spread to all kinds of minority groups — so, not just women but blacks, any other kind of racial minorities, and then increasingly so-called sexual minorities, people’s sexual preferences and the like. It all got put into the same area of protection, and so the theories were developed through the law that if you express any kind of disagreement or criticism of these groups, you are doing so because you hate them and therefore the speech can be curtailed.
The point I make in the book is that what has happened is that belief in a new kind of equality was used to curtail freedom of speech. Freedom of speech had been a classical liberal virtue, at least on the surface. Even back in 1964, the rise of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, the right to dissent, it was called the “Free Speech Movement.” Even the progressives afterward were wanting to believe in dissent and freedom of speech. But my point is is that, the postmodern left started basically jettisoning free speech in the name of equality for these new identity groups. And that was the wedge in which now there are a lot of people on the postmodern left, Stanley Fish, for example, who believe free speech is a complete fiction, it doesn’t exist. Everything is a social construct and so if it doesn’t exist, then there’s no ethical value to it and therefore it can be regulated by the law.
And that is what we’re dealing with, because the average Americans just think, “Well, I don’t want to be offensive to somebody so maybe I really should tolerate somebody else’s losing their freedom of speech so long as nobody touches mine.” And that’s the way it was working because it [the postmodern left] was going after people and groups that were unpopular with the American public. So, if they denied them their freedom of speech, it wasn’t a big issue. But the saving grace is, the Supreme Court has had no use for this. The Supreme Court has defended freedom of speech and the First Amendment fairly consistently. And so the hate speech ideology, so far, has not entered the Supreme Court. But what happens if you get, for example, Hillary Clinton elected and you get a new Supreme Court Justice who believes in this stuff?
Ben Weingarten: And you already have an Attorney General who is there arguing it.
Kim Holmes: We already have an Attorney General…she believes very much in hate speech. At that point, you shift. You could have a fundamental shift of the paradigm in favor of the Supreme Court making hate speech unlawful.
The postmodern left started basically jettisoning free speech in the name of equality for these new identity groups...that was the wedge
Ben Weingarten: I think it’s worth noting also that Hillary Clinton in particular supported at the UN a Human Rights resolution which basically called for punishing anti-Islamophobic speech, in effect, which is de facto and may end up de jure enforcement of Islamic blasphemy laws in the West. So that speaks to how pernicious this is.
Kim Holmes: That’s right. All you have to do in the hate speech ideology is maneuver your cause into a protected-in-law position. Once you’re there, then you can mobilize the whole ideology to protect yourself, no matter how crazy it is. Most secular liberals would not have the time of day for radical or for Islamic views of marriage and sexual relations and the like, and so they just compartmentalize it all because they know that’s no threat to them, number one, ’cause they’re not a majority. But number two, they know that they are a minority inside the larger American culture and it’s more a conservatives’ fear and belief. And also, to be very honest, they believe that it’s a good counterweight to the Christians in American society. So if you get in that position, you can get away with an awful lot even if it’s completely philosophically and morally incoherent.
Ben Weingarten: You write that in practice “Identity and equality work against each other.” I think that would be mind-blowing to most college and postgraduate students today. Explain that.
Kim Holmes: Obviously, in practice they have been fused, and politically it’s been quite successful for the average college student to see them to be two sides of the same coin. I’m just saying it’s philosophically incoherent. It’s incoherent in the sense that if the ultimate arbiter of truth and morality is what the individual says it is, and if you derive in the society or in the civil society, you derive your rights as an individual solely from your membership in a group, in a gender, in a certain race, then it doesn’t matter what you do as an individual, whether you discriminate against somebody or not as an individual, or whether or not you are discriminated against as an individual. Your entire identity, first of all, is individually owned, and yet it’s only expressed and justified as a matter of equality by being a member of the group. And then the group becomes the thing that you have to protect in your cause of equality. But you can see these are logically inconsistent ideas.
The idea of equality, and the classical liberal idea was that all individuals had their rights, whether it’s from natural law or from God, as individuals. And so we had possession of our rights because we had something in common with everybody. We were human beings, and that had not been applied to blacks during slavery, and that was the great injustice. But once they were free and once civil rights recognized them, it was perfectly in sync with the classical liberal view that blacks were no different than white people, they’re individuals, they derive their rights from being human beings.
In multiculturalism and identity politics, it’s what you do differently and how you’re different from somebody else. If you have a different color of skin or if you have different sexual practices, that is what you supposedly have that gives you your special protection as a right and that as a matter of equality must be protected. But you realize instantly that it’s not based upon anything common, and you actually have to change the definition of things in order to pretend they’re the same. After all, if gay marriage was traditional marriage, then you wouldn’t have to change the law. Obviously, it’s not the same thing, and so it’s not about equality, it’s about changing the definition of something for everybody else in order to act as if what they have is the same. So when you start thinking through the claims logically, it becomes philosophically incoherent.
Ben Weingarten: You pull out a very fundamental insight that I think encapsulates all that we’re speaking about and what your book speaks to. You bring up a quote in your book from Yuval Levin of National Affairs who speaks about progressives today effectively imposing their religion by means of the state, that is secular humanism, the secular humanist faith on the body politic. What are the ramifications of that?
Kim Holmes: The ramification is the complete destruction of the American constitutional order, which is based upon the freedom of civil society, respect for individual rights, checks and balances in the government and the rule of law, because you cannot have the imposition of any one ideology, religious or a secular, as an official ideology and have all those things preserved. That’s what made us different from the European revolutionary movements. The American Revolution was a classical liberal revolution. It wasn’t a French revolution. It wasn’t an ideology of liberté. It was an ideology of freedom. It wasn’t an ideology of Virtue with a capital “V” that’s going to be discovered by a philosopher like Rousseau and imposed on the entire society and, if you happen to disagree, you might find yourself with your neck under a guillotine. That’s the way they practiced it over there, and that revolution was taken over into the Bolshevik Revolution. That’s the European revolutionary tradition.
And the French sort of toned it down with their kind of secularism today. And they’re not anti-democratic in that sense…But the point is that if you’re going to have an official ideology and you’re going to treat it like a religion, and it’s a moral, political equivalent of a religion, which means you have no room for disagreement, then people’s rights are going to be denied and you’re going to have more authoritarian measures. There’s just no way around it.
The American Revolution was a classical liberal revolution. It wasn't a French revolution. It wasn't an ideology of liberté. It was an ideology of freedom. It wasn't an ideology of Virtue with a capital 'V' that's going to be discovered by a philosopher like Rousseau and imposed on the entire society and, if you happen to disagree, you might find yourself with your neck under a guillotine.
Ben Weingarten: So the final question then, naturally, is: I mentioned before, you can go back to Woodrow Wilson and you can say that’s the time period where we started to go in this direction. Some people might point to earlier, some people might point to FDR and then LBJ and the like but, bottom line is, we’re at least 50 years and maybe 100 years behind. And we’re in a battle that, as you’ve spoken to and elucidated in this book, concerns every single aspect of our society. Given the constraints that we have and the conditions today, how do we reverse it? How do we win ultimately? Does it start with taking back the language? Is it the institutions? How do you do it?
Kim Holmes: First thing you do is read my book, Closing of the Liberal Mind, in order to understand what you’re up against, understand the problem and stop shadow boxing; stop believing that Herbert Croly and Woodrow Wilson are our main enemies. Frankly, stop believing even that Karl Marx is our main enemy. The opponent today is much more sophisticated, much more slippery. You have to know…You can’t beat somebody if you don’t know who your enemy is and I think that that needs to be clarified.
The second thing is, start taking ideas seriously. And don’t look upon ideas just exclusively as instruments, marketing instruments or political instruments, to get power or something like that. The great genius of the postmodern left is they do both. They actually take ideas seriously, at least in the university, to the point where they write these large tomes and explain them, but they also are masters of the instrumental idea, of turning them into useful politics. We conservatives sometimes think that we can just do one, the instrumentality without the form. I don’t think William F. Buckley Jr. thought that, but he’s no longer with us. Of course, you have great institutions like Encounter Books that are committed to dealing with serious ideas, but not all the conservatives are there yet.
And the third is you’ve got to do something about taking back the American university. And, if you do that, I think the education system would follow. But this means insisting on more intellectual and ideological diversity in our universities, and even attaching funding requirements to that. State legislatures are in charge of the funding of these state universities, and yet do nothing about how monolithic these universities are; how intellectual conformity outside the science and engineering departments is stifling. And so why should we be surprised at these students that engage in these shenanigans, and these antics that are almost akin to what you would find at a university under Mao Tse-Tung? Why are we surprised they’re acting that way? That’s because they’re acting out of what they’re taught. They’re acting out what they were taught in their queer theory course that they took — that’s their words, not mine, and whatever issue, transgenderism, that they’ve studied. That stuff has been developed in the universities. And yet try to find a good course on the history of natural law; try to find a course on John Locke these days; try to…you can find plenty of courses on Hegel and Marx and all that; try to find a course on Adam Smith and free market economics
We are classic liberals. We want to have an open debate. We want to let people as individuals express themselves and be free. But that's not really what the postmodern leftists promise. They're promising a new authoritarian regime where the new ideology is going to be administered by the state through the coercion of law. And there's not gonna be any room for a classic liberal in that America.
The last thing I’ll say about this is that I had a real eye-opener one time when I was Assistant Secretary of State for George W. Bush. I was up at the United Nations headquarters here in New York and I was trying to put together a luncheon of all the countries, the ambassadors from all the countries that scored well on the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. There were about 30 of them. These were countries with free economies, capitalist economies, and so they were practicing what Adam Smith believed. So I brought them all together, and I said, “Why don’t we coordinate our policies at the UN?” And there was just silence around the room. Nobody wanted to touch it again. And finally, after the luncheon was over, one of the ambassadors came up to me and said, “The problem is is that we don’t wanna bring attention to this. We think we’re doing really well, and the problem is is that if you talk about economic freedom, that’s too ideological.” So even the people who believed it were censoring themselves.
And why do conservatives censor themselves? Why do they do that? It’s because they are confused, they don’t want to be criticized by a majority culture. But you have to have courage. And the only way you’re going to have courage is to have some faith in yourself. And the only way you’re going to have faith in yourself is to learn what you believe in — and believe in it at your core and understand it fully — and sort of take back, if you will, the great postmodern meta narrative that’s out there right now that conservatives are evil, and we want to impose our views on everyone else. We are classic liberals. We want to have an open debate. We want to let people as individuals express themselves and be free. But that’s not really what the postmodern leftists promise. They’re promising a new authoritarian regime where the new ideology is going to be administered by the state through the coercion of law. And there’s not gonna be any room for a classic liberal in that America.