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E-Pluribus | October 25, 2022
A lesson about populism from across the pond, a new book on revitalizing liberalism, and how writing about cancel culture can help propagate it.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Gerard Baker: Populism Is Behind the British Conservative Party’s Downfall
The state of British politics over the past few months has managed to make our own politics look a little less terrible by comparison. At the Wall Street Journal, Gerard Baker warns that the havoc populism has wrought in Britain’s Conservative party could just as easily happen here (and some would argue it’s well on its way to doing so.)
It’s easy to laugh at Liz Truss, a name destined to be the answer to the trivia question everyone forgets. But she represents only the most extreme symptom of the underlying unseriousness that defines a once-great political institution.
[ . . . ]
How did this happen? There are proximate, local factors. Some observers are tempted to put it down to a pathology in which the combination of post-Brexit psychosis and post-pandemic anomie has sapped all reason and purpose from those who govern. But there are also some characteristics that resonate in American conservatism.
I have said this before, but part of the reason is a dizzying collapse in the quality of our leaders. Across the West, we are led by too many inferior people who shouldn’t be left in charge of a Lego set, let alone the entire edifice of national government. Governing has become a heavily performative exercise played increasingly by a cast of professional political figures who never made a payroll, donned a uniform or created anything other than a sharply worded press release. All this is exacerbated by the unseriousness of a media and political culture in which the demand for constant gratification is met by “owning” your opponent, always on the lookout to exploit some alleged grievance.
But there is one deeper, substantive problem that afflicts conservatives especially. It helps explain the chaos in Britain but also describes the developing debate in the U.S.
Read it all.
M. Anthony Mills: Saving Liberalism from Itself
Francis Fukuyama is famous for writing about “the end of history”, and his latest book is part of his continuing effort to help push back the expiration date. At The Dispatch, M. Anthony Mills reviews Fukuyama new book Liberalism and Its Discontents and writes that while there’s room for disagreement, Fukuyama strong defense of liberalism is just what the current discourse needs.
Today’s critics of liberalism seem to labor under the illusion that they are the first to recognize that liberal society does not provide a substantive moral consensus about the highest good—ignoring intellectual traditions that might help them articulate a humane alternative. Liberalism’s defenders, meanwhile, ignore the fact that individualism does not satisfy the basic human need for belonging. Thus they dismiss the most trenchant criticisms of liberalism, depriving themselves of the resources helpful for a defense of liberal democracy.
What passes for rational debate over liberalism frequently amounts to rival groups shouting past one another—a mutual misunderstanding that gives way to conflict. At its worst, today’s debate offers little more than a performative confirmation of one of the most piercing criticisms of liberalism itself: that liberal discourse masks, rather than resolves, the substantive disagreements that divide us.
In this disheartening context, we should welcome Francis Fukuyama’s book Liberalism and Its Discontents. Its timely defense of liberalism is refreshingly innocent of the limitations described above. Fukuyama places the debate within a historical context that enriches rather than impoverishes. In going back to the origins of liberalism, he learns from, even while rejecting, many of the most substantive criticisms of liberal theory.
Fukuyama’s defense of liberalism—what he calls, following Deirdre McCloskey, “humane liberalism”—will challenge and inform, if not always persuade, those who do not share his starting premises, not least because the criticisms he engages will be recognizable by his opponents as criticisms. Yet Fukuyama’s argument is not without its own limitations, which hamper an otherwise urgent and compelling case for liberal democracy today.
Read the whole thing.
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Eve Fairbanks: Why Wasn’t I Canceled?
Cancel culture is viewed by some as a catastrophic societal problem, a cynical hoax, and everything in between (click here for a reminder of how Pluribus defines it). Eve Fairbanks writes at The Atlantic that her experience with “cancel culture” was considerably less than catastrophic and theorizes that the very discourse surrounding the subject has taken on a life of its own that writers such as herself have a responsibility to assess honestly and directly.
What struck me later was that almost none of what people told me now occurs routinely in American media actually did occur. People do get shamed publicly, now, for offenses that don’t reflect the range of their work. Last week, some on Twitter attacked the prolific, jokey account of a cat named Jorts; one tweet was called out for ableism. But the culture in cancel culture implies that these phenomena—the dire consequence of becoming unpublishable or unhirable, and thought-police-y efforts by media institutions to scrutinize work for its acceptability—are dominant.
[ . . . ]
The experience made me wonder: Why do we assume that cancel culture is a pervasive reality, and what’s the impact of that assumption? When the Times wrote in its editorial that Americans “know [cancel culture] exists and feel its burden,” the paper was referring to a poll it commissioned in which 84 percent of respondents said they believed “retaliation” and “harsh criticism” against opinions now constitute a “serious” problem. But substantial numbers of Americans also believe the 2020 election was fraudulent without that being the truth. I began to think that the way pro-free-speech advocates now talk about speech suppression constitutes a driver of the perception of it. And that, paradoxically, concern about cancel culture has itself become a threat to free speech.
It might sound strange, or even offensive, to suggest that writing about threats to free speech could make people afraid of speaking. The thing is, we know this is how behavior works in other domains. When writers emphasize adverse reactions to vaccines, people shy away from taking them. People clean supermarket shelves out of toilet paper, creating a shortage, just on the warning that a shortage might happen. Americans consistently believe crime is rising nationwide even when it’s falling. In studies on crime and public behavior, researchers reliably find that increased worry in the press, on social media, and in public opinion—the same outlets on which journalists rely to describe cancel culture’s reality—do not correlate well with changes in crime rates. They also find, as one analysis put it, that “ironically, fear of crime” can “lead to other behaviors” that drive crime up: installing ostentatious security features, fleeing “bad” neighborhoods, voting for heavy policing that aggravates conflict between people and law enforcement.
Read it all here.
The Buffalo News editorial board has free speech advocates shaking their heads:
Via Wesley Yang, the mysterious (or not so mysterious) surge in transgender identification in recent years:
Glenn Greenwald expresses his undying gratitude to the German government for allowing him to . . . speak: