Members of the Obama administration have put together a book of “deeply moving stories” that “show us how hope becomes real, sustainable change.”
I welcome Sam Goldman’s very reasonable defense of a reasonable American liberty. First, because he relies on the late Peter Lawler, the postmodern conservative, the American intellectual who showed everyone that wit and wisdom are one. This I offer as a distillation of the principle at work in Sam’s thought: Moderation should never be separated from wisdom. Whatever progress we make in conducting our affairs, we should remember our limits, too.
Secondly, because we are today forced to remember our limits in a very unpleasant way, we all talk of crisis. To discourage this bad habit, Sam proposes to defend the liberties of the person, our associations, and self-government as the American way. Together these liberties allow Americans to live their lives largely as they see fit. It may break our hearts to admit liberty needs defending, but it should also give us something worth doing with our lives.
Like Lawler, who seemed to ramble when he was covering much ground or preparing a shocking insight, Sam also surveys so much history that I must limit myself to human nature when discussing the defense of liberty. He works up a jargon of dubious use for what most of us non-academics call human nature: we all have minds of our own and act accordingly, we are not merely puppets on strings or animals run by instinct. But human nature is now under techno-political threat in impressive ways, both foreign and domestic, that are sure to define our lives for a generation or two.
If we grant Sam’s belief that human nature grounds our liberty, we immediately see how it is threatened, most obviously by China. Sam summarizes our heritage, what we believe makes us civilized—religion, politics, science—but America now has an enemy that embraces only science, and rejects the rest. What if techno-tyranny, including horrifying cruelties and what we call genocide, is perfectly compatible with the height of modernity—Progress?
This is unlike the Nazi and Soviet threats. As the names indicate, these were very limited political movements, not even definitive of the countries they ruled. Obviously, Germany and Russia today do not threaten our liberty, while Nazi and Soviet are mere names reminding us of the possible perversions of our beliefs in Progress. But China, a world unto itself, has nothing to do with the transatlantic modernity Sam discusses. This raises questions about human nature.
Does liberty, as Sam says, include philosophy, politics, or faith? Or only technology, commerce, and tyranny—comfortable freedom from the concerns that make us partisan and quarrelsome? We also glimpse this threat to our ordinary lives in our own elites. They want a managed democracy, i.e. soft despotism, precisely to reduce us to Chinese obedience. If Xi Jinping doesn’t believe human nature imposes iron limits on our actions and China doesn’t collapse like the Soviets did, what then?
As Sam says, liberty is primarily a way of life—not theory. We will defend it, or cease being who we are. Our beliefs and competence will both be tested, whether we can cultivate an elite that will defend and thus also embody them. We need an elite to lead us in this competition with a much more populous country that’s apparently also richer than we are and perhaps more competitive technologically, too. Freedom’s confusions will be clarified in this unique conflict, if we survive.
Perhaps, then, liberty needs to be on the defensive just to have clarity—in opposition to tyranny. But now, we can no longer believe the rest of the world is waiting to believe in and practice the American way of life, nor that America is moving from triumph to triumph on the Progressive road to the End of History.
Lawler didn’t dwell on foreign policy, but he did understand very well the domestic problem facing our confused liberty—our understanding that we are persons. His writing on personhood was primarily aimed against what he called the liberal-libertarian convergence. This makes him a prophet, since most conservatives fear the combination of Silicon Valley and academic Progressives now embodied in corporate HR. Lawler also taught that commerce—corporate capitalism—forms the core of P.C.
This is the deeper danger, the urgent concern about human nature. What if our elites come to believe robots and algorithms are better than people, or a necessary correction to human fallibility? What if elites don’t believe in persons as much as they do in A.I.? Our everyday lives, our desire to make each other more moderate by minding our own business, would face a terrible injustice, the denial of our fundamental rights.
In 2020, everyone noticed what’s been happening for a while, at least going back to the astonishing meeting of Steve Jobs’s iPhone and social media: America has turned into an internet-country. The markets bet on tech corporations above all, and commerce is moving online too; young Americans might not even imagine an alternative to the internet, where they find love and friendship as well as jobs, education, and whatever else they might want. So we have come to the situation in which to be American is to say yes or no to a computer algorithm rather than a human being.
So liberty is now technologically administered, starting with the experience of a preliterate child who masters the algorithms of YouTube on a tablet. The vast majority of young people believe America is an internet-first country. We could only speculate about the implications of this fact, and it wouldn’t do to become histrionic, but we must pay attention to the most shocking change in our lives.
Digital technology will create new challenges for liberty. It’s changing our habits and those habits are our first grasp on our own nature—so we have to face unsettling questions about being human, as opposed to being a machine. Defending our liberties will require mastery of the digital space, given its influence on elites and children. Nor is elite and childhood immersion in these technologies, despite our prejudices, evidence of mastery or even that it’s beneficial, it only demonstrates the charms and advantages of novelty.
The politics of liberty is now defined by the confrontation with these important phenomena, whose power to change our beliefs is independent of our rhetoric. The education of a new generation of Americans is already tied to digital technology and the absence of the belief in American global supremacy. We may ignore this fact or lie about it, but mere words cannot overpower deeds—all the social, economic, political crises of the last 20 years and the migration of life and hope to the internet. Behind our partisanship, the truth is, it’s now harder to believe in human nature and to retain confidence in personhood than it was a generation back. Liberty may now appear obsolete to people who believe the future portends technological domination over life, administered by half a dozen corporations. Not only liberty’s goodness, but its very possibility is in question.
Politics and technology both have come to seem more important than economics, more vital and more personal. Perhaps the domination of economics over conservatism and libertarianism is over. Economics offered a weak basis for grappling with the reality of human nature. Public discourse suffered from the many theoretical and practical attempts to comprehend reality through its lens.
We must find the fundamental things in freedom’s confusions, and the beginning of wisdom is to understand the necessity over and against which liberty emerges as our noblest aspiration. Through this opposition, of which our political partisanship is now only a caricature, we will be able to act and to measure our achievements, as well as the difficulty of our task. We cannot rely on zombie politicians and a rhetoric technological change has rendered obsolete—we have to turn instead to the most important, most obvious shifts in society, to understand ourselves. And we can say for liberty what was said in the past, that it’s worth the tumults.