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The Liberal’s Lament

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Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish was hauntingly beautiful, and his style often borders on the elegiac. Sometimes, though, he risks being smug, which considering his talents is both understandable and infuriating. His current piece in the New Republic reflects all of this. It strikes me as important, trenchant and timely, but also a bit too quick in the move to certain judgments. In any event, however, an essential read.

On the day that Clinton pragmatically announced that “the era of big government is over,” liberalism forgot itself. Pragmatism has a dark side. The allure of pragmatism was lost on the conservatives, of course. They sought power so that they could act on what they believed. And when they got their chance, they ran the republic down in almost all its aspects. We must not draw the wrong conclusion from the rubble. The problem was what they believed, not that they believed.

Of course Clinton’s embrace of aspects of the Reagan mantra was driven by pragmatism, and looking back from our current economic pit it does seem appropriate to call this a “dark side.” But Wieseltier forgets that the rejection of big, intrusive government was also a part of the American liberal mantra from the early age of the Republic–a part that seems to have gone lost around the time the Depression arrived and the modern commitment to experimentation arrived. And as for the self-described conservatives of the Bush team, the problem surely is what they believed—but also that it was a comic book version of the conservatism that has formed the American political culture.

Wieseltier is right to be concerned about the cheapness of the current political dialogue, especially on the conservative side. The tone of modern discourse lacks reflection; it’s demagogic, even violent—just the sort of talk which can destabilize a democracy in time of crisis. We are in a crisis. It should give rise to some deep introspection as to how we have come to this low point and how we can climb out of it. Those who brought us here in particular bear this moral obligation. And we see no evidence so far of any intention on their part to discharge it.

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