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Yesterday’s Liberal

Mark Lilla wants to make liberalism great again

“It is a sign of how polluted our political discourse has become that any mention of the term citizen leads people to think of the hypocritical and racist demagoguery that passes for our ‘debate’ on immigration and refugees today,” Mark Lilla writes in The Once and Future Liberal, his recent diagnosis on what is currently wrong with the United States. A professor at Columbia University, Lilla is an eminent public intellectual who is featured regularly in the New York Review of Books and the New York Times, with a post-election op-ed piece in the latter being the germinating seed for this book. So what, a reader might rightfully wonder, is Lilla going to add to the debate? The answer arrives briskly, in the next sentence. He writes, “I will not be discussing such matters here, and what I have to say about citizenship implies nothing about who should be granted citizenship or how noncitizens should be treated.”

This appears, mind you, not in the main text but in a footnote in Lilla’s book, a pallid complaint about minorities, feminists, university students, peasants, and the great unwashed of the world, a book so poorly conceived, so erroneous in some of the details it peddles as truth, and so badly written as to make it genuinely difficult to decide whether its greatest failing is bad politics or bad writing. Even after he has pushed “debate” into the ghetto of the footnote and arranged the barbed wire of scare quotes around it, Lilla has nothing to say about citizenship, whether in its specifics (on how minorities, refugees, and immigrants are steadily targeted by the administration even as Donald Trump hands out a presidential pardon for a racist torturer and explicitly encourages police violence) or as an idea, including the relation between citizenship in the United States and settler colonialism, imperialism, and nationalism.

A footnote, the critic Fredric Jameson said in a reading of Theodor Adorno, could in the right circumstances be a “lyrical form” where “living thought . . . pursues its fitful existence in the small print at the bottom of a page.” Not in this book, where thought is dead before it arrives on the page, whether above or below. Arguing that a flawed commitment to identity politics—flawed for reasons both ethical and tactical—lost the Democrats the last presidential election, Lilla manages to relegate to a footnote not only his non sequitur on the citizenship “debate,” but also Bernie Sanders, and that only to make the point that Sanders’s campaigners were too devoted to identity politics and would be better off reading Theodore Roosevelt in order to learn about American-style progressivism.

Above stairs, things aren’t much better. Leave aside the book’s flawed history of the United States (including a time of “Sunrise,” marked by “young Peace Corps volunteers spreading American goodwill abroad” and by “standing for the national anthem” at home), its alternative facts (“We now find it much easier to . . . rely on an all-volunteer force, then [sic] to give soldiers priority boarding on planes and thank them for their service”), its haranguing of the contemporary American left for being too identity obsessed and not Marxist enough, and of the old American left for being too Marxist and not identitarian enough, its defense of majoritarians, racists, and bigots as “fellow citizens with different views” and of Black Lives Matter as “a textbook example of how not to build solidarity.” More than an argument, this book resembles the deranged, unhinged expression of a privileged liberal’s worst fears, reminiscent of Lionel and Diana Trilling hyperventilating at Columbia that the barbarians are at the gates, a parallel that comes to mind because Lilla even manages to get in a dig at the protests against Columbia’s plans in the sixties to construct a segregated gym in Morningside Park. Someone, give him a safe space to do his pilates so that he can get over it!

In Lilla’s book, we see the common cause between the prissy men with advanced degrees and the demented ranters on Fox News.

Yet the book serves an unintentional purpose as a barometer for the times. Why is American liberalism unable to provide a better defense of its values than this? Always eager to pursue violations of human rights abroad, although only in those countries not directly in thrall to American power and capital, conditions at home could surely provoke liberals into a fresh appraisal of the significance of individual rights and a free press. But this is where liberalism’s long, benighted history comes to the fore, the flip side to its professed commitment to free speech, free elections, and free market. Lilla’s complaints about minorities and the disenfranchised, the supreme disdain revealed in his reference to the Democratic Party’s website, which includes links to seventeen groups, as reminiscent of “the website of the Lebanese government” brings to the surface American liberalism’s long history of red baiting and race baiting, its anti-communism and its anti anti-imperialism, its hostility toward Palestine and now to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

It is fear that is the driving force of such liberalism and that pulses throughout this book. In good times, such as the flat terrain end of history promised not that long ago, this characteristic doesn’t surface. Instead, one gets arrogance and hubris, think tanks and op-eds, the certainty of everything in its right place. But now that the clamor of the world, its uneasy disturbances, are beginning to be felt even in the hallowed confines of Brooklyn and the ivory tower classroom, one sees the teeth behind the smile, the fist under the glove, and the common cause between the prissy men with advanced degrees and the demented ranters on Fox News.

Like the demagogues on the right it is supposedly opposed to, Lilla’s book understands something as having gone wrong. In that, perhaps, we are all in agreement— liberals, neo-Nazis, antifa, and the various categories beyond and between. Further than that, however, it cannot go, and so it attempts endlessly to square the circles it has set up, creating a spurious category of citizen and demanding what it calls “civic liberalism” as the sure-fire answer to a time of widespread cultural, economic, and climate crisis, unaware that it is simply rephrasing the same, exceptional Americanism that serves as the rallying call for Trump and his supporters.

The Once and Future Liberal? An excellent, alternative title for Lilla’s book would be Make America Great Again, not least because it shares with Trumpism delusions of past grandeur as well as a fundamentally American unawareness of the world, unconsciously echoing a majoritarian patriotism that reverberates through Britain, Turkey, Russia, India, and Burma. Lilla’s book wants everyone to come together under the category of American citizens but it will not say who those citizens are. It wants minorities to treat racists as fellow citizens with different views and it wants noncitizens to go quietly toward deportation while awaiting pronouncement on their ontological status. It wants feminists to shut up and intersectionality to understand itself as a joke. It wants us to think of citizenship as the solution, even though the dog whistling that accompanies this solution makes its citizenship no different from ethnic nationalism. It wants us to think that it is opposed to what Trump stands for even though it is very clear—from everything it says as well as from everything it does not say—that they are not very different at all.