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A Revolutionary Moment?

with Daniel J. Mahoney,
hosted by Richard M. Reinsch II

Richard Reinsch:

Today we have Daniel Mahoney to discuss with us all things liberalism. Daniel Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College. He’s the author of many books, essays, and reviews, including most recently The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity. He’s also the author of The Other Solzhenitsyn, and currently is working on a book called The Statesman as Thinker: Ten Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation. Dan Mahoney, you are one of the most trenchant, wise voices in conservative political thought out there. We’re glad to welcome you back to Liberty Law Talk.

Daniel Mahoney:

Oh, my great pleasure, Richard.

Richard Reinsch:

Dan, a situation that has bothered me, it’s bothered you. It’s a very recent controversy amongst many other recent controversies that keep piling on is the fallout inside the editorial board of The New York Times, a newspaper that bills itself as the leading newspaper in our country. The end of last week and the beginning of this week, the second week of June, there was intense controversy over an op-ed written by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton that was published in the initial days of the protests and the riots where he called for the military to be deployed, and the content of that op-ed, as many will now know, led to an internal revolt, particularly among younger editors and staffers at The New York Times who said that this piece constituted violence, particularly against their minority friends, and was unacceptable, and should not have been published. This has now led to the resignation of the editor of the editorial page, James Bennett. Ross Douthat today Friday, June 12th, his column takes his colleagues to task, and he says they are now engaged in something that supersedes liberalism, and is a psychology of anger. It’s a psychology of paralysis, crisis over identities, and seeks to use words really as weapons, not as an attempt to understand truth or political reason. Your thoughts on what, if anything, this crisis might mean for American liberalism.

Daniel Mahoney:

Well, I think for a long time now American liberalism has been post-liberal or anti-liberal in a very aggressive way. We can talk more about whether the American political order rightly understood is simply a liberal order. I don’t think it’s just a liberal order, but it has a very important liberal component, and that has to do with respect for dialogue, respect for persons, respect for fundamental liberties, a proper prejudice against censorship, against the idea… not that there’s truth, but that any person simply possesses the absolute truth, and has the right to impose that on everyone else, et cetera, et cetera. I think, and perhaps going back to the ’60s where we saw the rise of anti anti-communism, and then a series of cultural issues, a tendency to write off half of the American population as horrible or homophobic, or to make it out like pro-life Americans are anti-woman. These kind of currents have been around for a long time, but in the last 10 days or two weeks we’ve seen a tremendous radicalization of a large part of the left. These are categories as Ross Douthat properly says that are far beyond the liberal order, and that are filled with anger. By the way, I would add these are not voices that defend human dignity because they have replaced one absolutely unacceptable position that some people, some races are superior to another. By the way, very few Americans ever defended that proposition, even when racism was rampant in American society. They’ve replaced it with a different kind of Manichaeism. They are absolutely certain who the victims are. They are permanent victims. They are absolutely certain who the oppressors are, and they demonize the oppressors, who are whole groups of people and not persons who share mutual accountability, and they justify the silencing, and perhaps much more to the future of those who have been demonized. What we are witnessing at The New York Times, and our universities, among the wider intellectual clerisy is a totalitarian logic, not totalitarian yet in practice or fully totalitarian, but it’s heading in that direction. It’s not even a particularly soft totalitarianism. It is the justification of silencing many people of goodwill who do not accept a… It’s the tyranny of ideological clichés. I’m afraid that increasingly are present and unless people resist and show intellectual and civic courage it’s most certainly in our future. The episode of The New York Times is what Charles Péguy called a cas éminent, an eminent case, an eminent case that reveals the new liberal logic at work or proto totalitarian logic at work.

Richard Reinsch:

When you say totalitarian logic, this position that one group is ontologically a victim, and can do no wrong. Another group is ontologically an oppressor, and can do no right. Where does that lead?

Daniel Mahoney:

Well, it’s a fully totalitarian logic. As you know, I have written widely on Alexander Solzhenitsyn, perhaps the greatest human being of the 20th century, and Solzhenitsyn insisted over and over again that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, not through races or classes, nations or regimes, and we need to judge human beings as persons. When we condemn whole groups as intrinsically evil, as you were saying ontologically evil, evil in their being, and others as victims who… and by the way, the victimization part is just as bad as the demonization part because as somebody like Frederick Douglass pointed out or Booker T. Washington in a very different way, Black Americans, like all human beings and all Americans, need a certain degree of pride, of self-respect, and self-help. When they are told they lack agency, when we’re all told we lack agency, that we’re simply prisoners of fate, that we are either ontologically innocent or guilty, we’ve destroyed the freedom, the agency, the mutual accountability at the heart of human dignity and republican self-governance. When I see our civil institutions, when I see our intellectual clerisy bowing before a Black Lives Matter ideology, I’m not talking about the idea that all Black Lives Matter. Of course they matter. All lives matter, but the ideology that accompanies that particular movement, which is not an anti-racist ideology. It’s an ideology of victimization, and demonization. It’s anti-Black. It’s anti-human. It’s fully totalitarian in its logic and effect.

Richard Reinsch:

How did it come to pass? I’m just sticking with this thread of The New York Times. A newspaper composed of we might say certainly a class with great credentials. I imagine most of the writers and editors are Ivy league educated. Certainly, we’ve known for decades this is not just the leading newspaper in America, but the leading source of liberal opinion. What made the liberalism of The New York Times susceptible to accepting the logic of these, quite frankly, millennial editors and staff writers that language is violence, and silence is complicity in it or something like that? How did that happen?

Daniel Mahoney:

Well, it happened because our universities… Gramsci’s long march through the institutions. This ideology that is eating away at our civility, our freedom, our mutual accountability it has been in the universities for a long time now. It colonized humanities departments. It became the default language. English departments don’t teach literature. They teach post colonialism, a kind of para-Marxism. Another version of that ideological manichaenism and ontological demonization we just spoke about. These people weren’t educated in the great books. They weren’t educated in the Western tradition. They weren’t educated in the values of civilized order or with liberty. They were educated in agitprop, and I think I said this many years ago that eventually the spirit of illiberalism, of hate, of ideology that has substantiated their selves at our colleges and universities, and our intellectual class would come to in effect some body politic, and I think that’s what happened. Why do an increasing number of millennials praise Marxist Leninist regimes, think communism is a beautiful idea? Why do they buy into a loathsome “culture of repudiation” to use the late, great Sir Roger Scruton phrase? I think they’ve never been exposed to an alternative. I think the agitprop begins early.

You go to school, and instead of being challenged by what Matthew Arnold called “the best that’s been thought and said.” For the most part, unless you know better, you are initiated in this language of victimization and demonization, and there’s a point I made in the Idol of Our Age that I think is more relevant than ever. I argued that our present situation is marked by a mixture of toxic relativism and toxic moralism. When you no longer have rational standards of judgment that are the basis of a regime of stability, then there is no restraints on moral indignation or anger because nothing, no judgment is ever judged before the tribunal of reason. Michael Polanyi called this a “moral inversion” that people are officially relativistic, but morality goes underground and comes back as moralistic indignation and ideological fanaticism. That’s exactly where we are. That pattern of anti-reason, of toxic moralism, toxic relativism, if it didn’t completely dominate the universities, it was the leading force, the leading presence, and now it’s invaded the body politic. Let me add one more thing. In speaking about why so many left liberals were taken in by communism or today, perhaps, by a certain softness for radical Islam, Polanyi says, “They confuse the homonyms where the communists talked about justice, peace, and equality.” They did not mean what Christians meant by justice, peace, and equality or conservatives and liberals mean by that. These were homonyms with a very, very different meaning. Liberation theologians, progressive, Christians have taken, lots of political pilgrims got taken. I think the same thing is going on now. I think a lot of people have goodwill. I’m not sure whether these younger militants are people of goodwill, but many of them are taken in by the homonyms. They think when they endorse anti-racism they’re endorsing anti-racism. We should endorse anti-racism, but on the ground of rational assertion of human dignity and liberty, not on the grounds of ideological demonization, but the rot, the sickness, has been around for a long time, but now it’s metastasized throughout the body politic.

Richard Reinsch:

The toxic relativism was to clear the way. You undermined. You dismissed, mocked, ignored, laughed at, I’ll say a stand-in, Jerusalem. You laughed at Athens. You dismiss the bedrock foundation of American constitutionalism as racist. You say our society is built on slavery. All of those things clear the way for something else to replace it. Do we have a coherent sense of what those in the streets right now in June are trying to erect in its place? It seems to me there are a lot of demands. We see corporate America scurrying to try to placate them, try in many cases to enlist themselves in their cause, or to be seen as such. Is there a coherent package yet, or is that to come once they think they’ve got one, if not both, political parties subservient to what they want?

Daniel Mahoney:

No. There is no coherent project, but it’s a project of intellectual political and moral destruction. That’s why I mentioned Solzhenitsyn. When you see educated Russian society, members, middle class educated people, rich people, regime officials, intellectuals mouthing the slogans of nihilists, a radical culture of repudiation, as you said, you attack our religious traditions rooted in this rich tradition of logos, and ethical affirmation in scripture, and the larger religious traditions. If you reject the metaphysical truths or the practical reason inherent in Athens in our philosophical traditions, if you assault the West as an essentially culpable civilization. One of my favorite lines is from W.B. Yeats, “Come fix the accusing eye on me. I thirst for accusations.” Well, if the West was just the only truly self critical civilization in history, is ontologically condemnable, we’re talking about nihilism. We’re talking about nothingness. So they have no positive program, except self loathing. Well, if these rituals we’re looking at… Again, we haven’t reached the point of blood or official tyranny and, hopefully, we’ll never reach it, but the structure of it is so similar to that self-loathing one saw in Paris in ’68 or Dostoyevsky’s novel, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Somehow the idea that negation is liberating. This is so anti-political because it cannot give rise to rapport. It can only destroy, and I don’t know how this kind of indignation goes on forever. It destroys agency. It destroys dignity. It destroys the pride necessary for common life, but while it lasts, it’s a force of pure destructiveness.

Do you remember Eric Voegelin’s definition of ideology that it’s the forcible imposition of a second reality on the real world? I think that’s what we’re seeing now.

Richard Reinsch:

How does a tough-minded liberalism begin to respond?

Daniel Mahoney:

Well, a tough-minded liberalism is also a tough-minded conservatism. I wrote a book a few years ago called The Conservative Foundation For the Liberal Order. Pure liberalism has always been a problem; freedom without ends and purposes, progress without tradition. Michael Polanyi once said, “The goals of Tom Payne can only work if they’re wedded to the ideas of Edmund Burke, tradition, continuity, order, civilization.” So a liberal order, first and foremost, can only survive and be worthy of surviving if it repudiates the culture of repudiation. If it renews itself with respect for our principles of our order, which are not racist. I was appalled the other day to see a piece of Public Discourse, an otherwise fine piece by Marco Rubio, saying the American Founders believed that Blacks were three-fifths of a human being, the old canard. It was the anti-slavery North that wanted to count blacks as three-fifths for representation precisely because they didn’t want a slave-owning oligarchy to dominate the new constitutional order.

Richard Reinsch:

The men who introduced the three-fifths compromise were men from northern states who were opposed to slavery. I think it was Elbridge Gerry and James Wilson, if you read the debates. I’m not sure.

Daniel Mahoney:

Absolutely.

Richard Reinsch:

It’s incredible.

Daniel Mahoney:

By the way, you could not even find a South Carolinian in 1787 who said slavery was good, at least anyone at the Constitutional Convention or in the ratifying debates. That all developed as we know much later with people like George Fitzhugh, and John Calhoun. Yeah, but what’s going to happen is under the guise of anti-racism, a false anti-racism, a racist anti-racism, an ideological approach to things so that our past is going to be erased. For me to publicly make the argument, as Frederick Douglass did in 1852, that our constitution is a fundamentally anti-slavery document, to make the kinds of arguments that the great Abraham Lincoln, and I should also say the great Frederick Douglass, made in his Peoria Address of 1854, and the Cooper Union Address six years later, showing that in no sense was the Constitution pro-slavery. The Supreme Court was wrong in Dred Scott when they said, “The Declaration and Constitution are instruments of oppression.” They’re instruments of ordered liberty, of human dignity, and they were, as Martin Luther King still recognized in his famous speech in I have a dream in November 1963, it’s precisely because of going back to those promissory notes, the Declaration, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, that our political order is able to actualize our founding principles, which are principles of liberty and human dignity. I’m absolutely convinced that the new ideology will say, “I make the argument of Frederick Douglass, of Abraham Lincoln, of Martin Luther King.” I don’t mean me personally, but anyone who makes this argument, is ipso facto racist, or this is a form of violence. Do you remember Eric Voegelin’s definition of ideology that it’s the forcible imposition of a second reality on the real world? I think that’s what we’re seeing now.

Richard Reinsch:

Voegelin says you can’t ask questions.

Daniel Mahoney:

That’s right. The reason why in his probably most polemical book Science, Politics, and Agnosticism from 1959, Voegelin said that Heidegger, and Marx, Nietzsche were swindlers, he said in every case, whether it’s Nietzsche’s atheism or Marx’s atheism and revolutionism, or Heidegger’s turn to Hitler in ’33. I’ll give you an example. In part two of the Communist Manifesto, Marx is making his argument for the four abolitions, so property, family, religion, and nation, and he says, “I am not even going to respond to arguments made against my position in the name of natural right or natural justice.” He just dismisses any kind of moral or philosophical or political objection, and, of course, Marxism, which is one example of explaining that away, attributing nefarious motives to people who are simply philosophizing, searching for truth. So this is where we’re heading. We will not be able to ask questions, and we will not be able to dissent from answers that are not rooted in empiricism, and by empiricism I don’t mean positivism. I just mean the world around us, experience. We’re going to be forbidden to raise the questions or to provide dissenting answers.

Richard Reinsch:

We’ve been talking about this throughout the interview. It’s this position also of your thought is determined by who you are. You aren’t actually capable of reason, of logic, of conscience, of subjectivity. You are Dan Mahoney, middle-aged white man. You are therefore incapable of telling me what an anti-slavery regime is. You’re complicit within it.

Daniel Mahoney:

I noticed when I first started teaching in the ’80s that women who were the most influential political women in the world, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, were not considered to be women by the hardcore feminists or their academic allies. To be a woman was an ideological category. Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, Shelby Steele, Robert Woodson, who by the way if there is a more noble voice for Black America, I can’t think of one, they’re not Black because they’re in some ideological category. By the way, a homosexual who is against gay marriage or a woman who is for the right to life, they don’t fit these preconceived ideological categories, so they simply are written out of the narrative. This is very, very dangerous for all sorts of reasons. It’s the attack on agency. That’s why I think this radical sociologism where people are wholly determined by race, class, and gender. You asked before where this came from. Let’s not read Shakespeare. Let’s say he is the project of the English patriarchy. He’s a white guy. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture has got to go,” as the marchers chanted as they destroyed the great books program at Stanford. How demeaning to all people, how demeaning to black America, how demeaning to free-thinking people. It just means that nobody can think. Nobody can reason. Everyone is a prisoner. By the way, why are these ideologues and activists now not prisoners of their own experiences, something they’re incapable of answering?

Civility really isn’t just, “I won’t shoot you and you won’t shoot me.” Civility is always grounded in some kind of mutual, moral consensus where we recognize the common world of reason, a common world of citizenship, a common world of mutual accountability. Without that, it’s war of all against all.

Richard Reinsch:

I think it is philosophically the move against nature. There is no nature. There is will. There’s the naming of things. There’s the determining things according to political categories, and that’s it. That, of course, immediately would shut off liberal education. What would be the point of that? Do we even have a conversation about truth, or what man could know about himself, what it means to be a human person? Why have conservative liberals, tough-minded liberals, sober liberals, whatever you want to call them, found themselves on the back foot? Did they do something wrong, not necessarily in the last two weeks, but 10 years ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago? Your thoughts?

Daniel Mahoney:

Well, I don’t know. You probably have seen a couple of these essays that Joshua Mitchell, a very good political theorist at Georgetown, has written about the whole low culture. Josh’s argument is this is, as I said before, a toxic and angry moralism that is radically pagan in the modern sense of the term. I don’t mean Cicero and Aristotle. I mean, post Christian, anti-Christian. That means it has no room for humility, limit, or recognition of imperfection, and sense, and above all, no room for repentance or any penitential involvement. The cancel culture really says, “If you said something, it doesn’t have to be really unacceptable. It just has to be perceived today with these ever-changing quasi totalitarian standards as unacceptable.” You are written out of the human race, like the great Soviet encyclopedia of the ’30s where people would get notices saying, “Cut out the picture of so and so, or cut out this article. These people no longer exist.” Orwell has a few things to say about that in 1984. This lack of mercy, this hardening of hearts, this treating of people as if they’re not persons worthy of consideration, it all flows from the animating categories rejecting nature, personhood, and agency. A decision has been made that a person no longer belongs to the human race.

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah.

Daniel Mahoney:

By the way, I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but I think that’s more or less the spirit that animates the reckless anger of people in The New York Times newsroom or the editor at The Philadelphia Enquirer is a liberal, and pointing out that burning down buildings, and people’s homes, and livelihood is a form of violence. They matter, too, and to be dismissed for that?

Richard Reinsch:

The editor of The Philadelphia Enquirer fired for approving of the headline “Buildings Matter, Too”.

Daniel Mahoney:

Absolutely. By the way, you may have seen the headline about the progressive newspaper, one of the Carolinas, when the mob was attacking it. They said, “We’re with you. We’re with you.” It reminds me of a scene in Eugenia Ginzburg’s first great memoir about the gulag. She was a Soviet communist, but she ended up in the camps anyway. She talks about a refugee from Mussolini’s Italy who is arrested for no good reason, and he is about to be shot, and he’s yelling, “Io sono comunista!” I’m a communist!

Well, it doesn’t matter. These editors are woken up. It’s the radicalization that took two or three years in the French Revolution happening at least in a symbolic way overnight, and I think these institutions are hopeless. Now, thank God we’ve got a great independent newspaper like The Wall Street Journal.

Richard Reinsch:

They’ve been indispensable in this.

Daniel Mahoney:

Yeah, and thank God people can criticize Fox News all they want. It adds to the sum total of pluralism, and by the way, we talk about liberalism. One thing tough-minded liberals and tough-minded conservatives can agree on, all of us committed to the liberal order, in the fullest sense of the term is that pluralism is an essential good. Not a relativistic pluralism that says, “Who’s to say what’s right or wrong?” The great John Courtney Murray put it, “Where civility operates.” Civility really isn’t just, “I won’t shoot you and you won’t shoot me.” Civility is always grounded in some kind of mutual, moral consensus where we recognize the common world of reason, a common world of citizenship, a common world of mutual accountability. Without that, it’s war of all against all. I think these intellectuals accepted that premise, but it’s really kind of amazing. They accept nihilistic premises, but they think in the end justice will arise. That’s absurd.

Richard Reinsch:

You’ve written a lot about, you’ve thought about the French political thinker Raymond Aron, who had wonderful thoughts about the events in May, 1968 in Paris where they almost topple the government, and were finally stopped by General de Gaulle. Are there things we can learn from him, even though he’s 50 years ago in France for our present situation?

Daniel Mahoney:

Oh, well. Aron his wonderful book La Révolution Introuvable, the Elusive Revolution, he reproduces many of his columns from Le Figaro from May, June, July 1968. He was a one-man voice of truth. When everyone was going mad, Aron says, “Everyone played a role in ’68.” He said that, “A lot of people did a good job acting like the Jacobins, or Robespierre, upper-middle class students.” Aron says, “It pains me to see these demi-educated students praising Che Guevara, while in fact, an authentically great man like Charles de Gaulle,” and Aron had his differences with de Gaulle, but Aron says, “Well, I sort of played the role of Tocqueville, what Tocqueville had played in 1848.” The sort of voice of reason against this insane radicalization all around him, and Aron really saw it as this tyranny of ideological clichés. One of the most famous is it is forbidden to forbid. Boy, that manages to be totalitarian and nihilistic all at once, and Aron was a conservative-minded liberal. He stood up to the totalitarian intellectuals in the ’50s with his great books The Opium of the Intellectuals. He stood up for the liberal university, and for the French Republic in ’68, and he made many, many enemies. He even set up a committee to stop terrorism in the universities. So he was a man of utmost courage, and he just could not understand why people who lived in a free and prosperous society were committed to destroying it. I think he thought it was a kind of intellectual contagion, a kind of madness that simply needed to… I think Aron’s example is really good because without Aron, I think ’68 might have had a different… Without Aron or de Gaulle, ’68 may have had a different outcome because so many people had given into this ideological madness, and still in France. I mean, La Révolution Introuvable was re-released last year, but every five, 10 years when there’s a celebration of May ’68, it is hagiographical. You know?

These Maoists and terrorists, and people who intimidated, and they’re celebrated.

Richard Reinsch:

Well, they moved through the institutions, and write the scripts now.

Daniel Mahoney:

They do. They do, and my French friends always say that ’68 is the turning point when a kind of liberalism rooted in the larger arc of Western civilization really… They didn’t establish their Maoist utopia, but they institutionalized the culture of repudiation, and post structuralism, deconstructionalism, anti-Western narrative. That’s the leading import from France in the last 60 years. It’s part of our problem, too. So there’s direct connection between May ’68 and what’s going on now.

Richard Reinsch:

What makes liberal political orders weak or are they? Why is that the case? We think about an array of voices writing now on the right, even in America, also, wishing for the end of liberalism or equating liberalism with the things that are happening now, not making any distinctions. What do we make of that?

Daniel Mahoney:

Well, I think liberalism has been prone to radicalization and self-subversion. When mutual respect and civility become a debilitating relativism… Deborah Lipstadt the great critic of Holocaust Revisionism pointed out in one poll 25% of students said, “Holocaust Revisionism ought to be given a hearing because they’re afraid to say any intrinsic ideas are right and wrong,” and that goes… Things like this, liberalism, sometimes has a hard time standing up to its enemies, and so many liberal intellectuals or left-of-liberal intellectuals apologized for totalitarianism in the 20th Century, saw communism as more democratic than democracy, so there are problems, but those problems cannot be addressed by some mindless anti-bourgeois repudiation of the American founding. Even this talk about a radicalization doesn’t mean that the radicalization is inevitable or can’t be resisted.

But we need Churchillian fortitude. We need people who stand up, are courageous, who are not worried about “The herd of independent minds.” So we have a lot of conformity around now. It takes some risk. 

Bob Reilly in his new book America On Trial he talks about there were American founders all the way back in the 1790s, especially Hamilton, and Adams, but also George Washington. They knew the French Revolution had nothing to do with us. They didn’t like the unreason, the false reason, the murder, and the pillaging, and the anti-Christianity. I think if we’re going to defend liberalism, we need to save it from the people who love it too much. That’s the same with my friend, Pierre Manent, that to love democracy well is to love it moderately, by which it doesn’t mean we love our political order moderately. It means this pure democracy or pure liberalism where all the contents of life: authoritative institutions can be wrecked, including the family, including religion. We’ve already wrecked the universities. Without authority, without order, without the moral capital that the Founders largely presuppose, but sometimes have earned. They all believed in rational, moral sense. They weren’t relativists. They were not enemies of the Christian religion. I think the liberalism we need to defend is it needs a place for statesmanship, for Lincoln, and Churchill, and de Gaulle. It needs a place for intellectual authority. You can’t be afraid of truth, but I’ll tell you. No good comes from condemning the American founding as part of the problem. I think as you put very nicely in your review in National Review of Bob Riley’s book, you end up agreeing with Justice Kennedy in his famous claim that American liberty is some kind of juvenile existentialism. It has no end. It’s just about anything. David French is the other extreme. He says, “The Constitution is founded on neutral principles.” No, not neutral principles, but not the syllabus of errors. We need a constitutionalism that defends liberty and human dignity, and rejects the culture of repudiation. It’s so clear to me. I don’t understand these binary distinctions between integralism and the woke rejection of the Founding.

Richard Reinsch:

I think what we’re dancing around here, too, is the weakness of a liberal republic is does it transfer and teach its tradition to the next generation? I don’t think we’ve done that for two, maybe three generations. Inevitably, that vacuum gets filled with a new account of truth, a new account of meaning, and to me when I read, say, the Catholic right is doing this, or we look at, say, The New York Times editorial board, that’s really what we’re witnessing here is a new account of truth filling a spiritual void.

Daniel Mahoney:

I agree. By the way, I have some sympathy for these Catholic traditionalists who their political and historical judgment is wrong, but they are responding to the regnant nihilism, and-

Richard Reinsch:

I agree with that.

Daniel Mahoney:

… again, they’re making the terrible mistake of conflating the principle of our political order with the present madness, and I think that’s wrong for a thousand reasons, but the renewal is going to have to involve, to use a fancy word, a dialectical reflection where we repudiate this faux liberalism and leftism, while reaffirming the deepest resources of our tradition, and the problem with this kind of position, the position of Brownson or Tocqueville or us is that it can’t be argued in two or three easy steps. It involves liberal education, civic education. Why did conservatives, why did people with good sense, why did political moderates, why did we allow the elementary and high schools to be colonized by people who teach young people that our civilization is evil, and our founding order is corrupt from the beginning? How do we expect this economic determinism on the right that thinks, “Oh, as long as the stock market’s going up and we have economic growth, let the kids learn all the nonsense. Ideas don’t have consequences.” I think there was a blindness among too many people who do love this country thinking that all that nonsense, all those race, class, gender nonsense, that doesn’t have anything to do with the real world. Yes. It does. It’s an absolute subversion of the civic order in the real world, so-

Richard Reinsch:

Well, I think, too, it was lessons looking back. It’s a willingness to look the other way because you don’t want to roll up your sleeves, and really fight on these hard battles that you have to fight over.

Daniel Mahoney:

I think that’s exactly right.

Richard Reinsch:

It was politically incorrect. I think I look back at George W. Bush’s presidency. Of course, it was subsumed by war, but very little desire to take this on, and it seems to me that was a crucial point when a lot of things were lost. That’s just my judgment.

Daniel Mahoney:

Yeah. You know it’s funny. George W. Bush now is considered to be this humane alternative to Trump. He was as freely compared to Hitler and Nazism as Trump is.

Richard Reinsch:

He was hated, reviled.

Daniel Mahoney:

Yeah, and I’m disappointed when somebody like him, he issues a statement last week, praising the protestors in the street, but not a word about the violence, and the nihilism, and the group think. It’s cheap. There’s an easy phrase for it. It’s called cheap grace, easy redemption. You know?

But we need Churchillian fortitude. We need people who stand up, are courageous, who are not worried about “The herd of independent minds.” So we have a lot of conformity around now. It takes some risk. We don’t live in a totalitarian regime that’s going to send us to the gulag.

Richard Reinsch:

Well, you might lose your job, which can be very painful.

Daniel Mahoney:

But you might lose your job.

Richard Reinsch:

You might lose your reputation.

Daniel Mahoney:

Yeah.

Richard Reinsch:

My point about just to clarify President Bush, was, more specifically, the focus on No Child Left Behind. The nationalizing of a curriculum around one metric, which would just be sort of a utility of education, and what it can prepare you to do. What the left has really been focusing on, and it’s now become very clear they’ve succeeded is not that. It’s soulful education as they deem it. Even under the Common Core standard, that was the same thing, utility. We have to become much more forthright about, I would argue, the soul, and what’s the good, and what should be read and thought?

Daniel Mahoney:

We need a recovery of soulcraft in education. Yeah. I mean, it became far too common. I think you’re right about the Bush Administration. They pushed STEM. They pushed the utilitarian view of education. They pushed sort of the standards, rather than the content of education. The chickens have come home to roost, and all the while the left was redefining what it meant to be an American. They were faulting the fundaments of our civilization, but again, this didn’t matter. This is just ideas. A presidential candidate the last go around said, “Why do people study Greek philosophy? You’re not going to get a job with that.”

Richard Reinsch:

That, too, was Rubio.

Daniel Mahoney:

That was Rubio. Yes.

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah.

Daniel Mahoney:

Yes. I didn’t mention him on purpose because I didn’t want to pick on him twice, but-

Richard Reinsch:

Well, he needs it. All right.

Daniel Mahoney:

Yeah. He needs it, but what silly stuff. You know? Conservatives need to defend authentic liberal education or true liberals need to defend authentic liberal education, liberal enquiry, and not confuse it with the imposter that has taken over the humanities, and increasingly the social sciences in the universities. Again, I don’t know if that’s going to be possible because I do already sense a terrible hardening, kind of. This is not hyperbolic. It’s a new totalitarianism in the university. People are going to get fired.

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah. Well, my sense is there has to be a shake up. It could be federal government directed. We could see some red state legislatures really wake up. It could also just be market forces. I mean, my understanding from James Hankins, a piece that ran on Law & Liberty this week, is the finances and revenue for higher education are very thin, and many universities could actually close in the next few years because of that, so that, too, would be an opening, I think.

Daniel Mahoney:

Well, I have been pretty confident with the overall response to COVID, but nonetheless, it did great damage to our smaller colleges and universities, maybe just all educational systems, and I thought colleges and universities simply out of necessity would not be able to double down on the thought control, but events have a way of intervening. No. Hankins is right, but that doesn’t mean that what’s left of American higher education won’t end up being more liberal, more coercive, more mindless. Maybe we need new universities. I don’t mean just conservative universities, but the kind of thing Warren Treadgold has written about, major effort to establish places where liberal enquiry, and not ideology dominates. That’s going to depend on a renaissance of liberalism, a true liberalism, and because conservatives can’t do it themselves. They’re going to need allies, and we’ll see if perhaps this madness doesn’t give rise to a new sobriety, a kind of recovery of the old verities that have been forgot. That’s at least the hope.

Richard Reinsch:

My hope is new political coalitions form in defense of a certain liberalism, and the good that it has to offer, and those coalitions could look very different from the ones we have now, so we don’t know.

Daniel Mahoney:

You know we don’t know. De Gaulle once said, “The future lasts a long time.” I think we have every obligation to respond to the madness around us, and by responding to it we can contribute in our small way to making sure that it doesn’t become institutionalized or instantiated in truly awful and dangerous ways, but we don’t want to overreact in the sense of saying, “Everything is finished,” because it may very well be that the American people, many of them are looking around now and saying, “What the hell is going on? This is not justice. This is not the country I want to live in.” The salvation is not going to come from the intellectual clerisy. It’s going to come from sort of with the remnant of the deliberative sense of the American people of a kind of common sense that isn’t quite dead, yet.

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah. Dan, well said. Thank you for your time, and we’ll keep doing what we do.

Daniel Mahoney:

A great pleasure, thank you, Richard.

Richard Reinsch:

This is Richard Reinsch. You’ve been listening to another episode of Liberty Law Talk, available at Lawliberty.org.

Reader Discussion

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on June 27, 2020 at 17:42:55 pm

This interview is highly substantive and well worth hearing or reading. It is a defense of our beleaguered culture and a call for the re-affirmation of our founding virtues in resistance to the blitzkrieg of political nihilism that has been launched across a killing field of educational rot.

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on June 20, 2020 at 11:31:22 am

[…] Why? Because the trenchant Daniel J. Mahoney always offers conservative brilliance, that’s why, and that’s what you’re looking for in these here parts, right? Right! Now at Law & Liberty’s “Law Talk” podcast, host Richard Reinsch chats with Dan about the sober liberalism you can believe in during a time of widespread unrest, anger, and sadness. Do listen here. […]

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

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