What the Latest Critique of Liberalism Fails to See

March 12 2018

In Why Liberalism Failed¸ the political philosopher Patrick Deneen takes aim not merely at the ideology of the mainstream of the Democratic party, but at the entire liberal tradition from Francis Bacon and John Locke through John Stuart Mill, which he rightly understands as the shared inheritance of both the American right and left. Eric Cohen finds “much to admire” in the book but concludes that it is nevertheless “deeply flawed.”

Deneen . . . believes that the liberal idea of human nature—and especially the liberal idea of freedom—is a perversion of the real truth about who we are as human beings. We are not simply autonomous individuals; we are members of distinctive families, communities, and nations. We are not simply free to choose who we are and how we live; our identities are limited by webs of inherited obligations that give life meaning and purpose. . . [Now] human nature is finally getting its revenge, as evidenced by the cultural depravations all around us, from collapsing birthrates to ecological deterioration, from broken communities plagued by opioid addiction to massive governmental and personal debt, from tween sexting to the collapse of liberal education. . . .

[But] Deneen [himself] treats American society as if it is simply a Lockean (or Madisonian) abstraction. For a book that celebrates the importance of particular peoples—with histories and heroes, stories and songs, rituals and traditions—it is remarkable how little attention Deneen pays to the real American story. Yes, liberal ideas informed the American founding; and yes, modern American culture evinces many of the degradations of advanced liberal society that Deneen so ably observes. But Deneen’s cold abstraction is not the American story. We are a nation that remembers (or could be reminded of) the cracked bell in Philadelphia emblazoned with a passage from Leviticus; Washington’s heroic crossing of the Delaware; Hawthorne’s mythic house of the seven gables on the waters of Salem; Lincoln’s log-cabin origins and soul-shaping rhetoric; the huddled masses entering through Ellis Island; the Jewish woman whose poetry adorns our Statue of Liberty and the rabbi who arrived as an American chaplain when Hitler’s extermination camps were finally liberated by American force of arms. To reduce America to mere liberalism is a crime against memory being committed by a thinker whose aim is to elevate our memories and our attachments.

And to reduce modern Americans to small and selfish men is to ignore the selfless citizens—especially in the American military—who see America as a story of freedom, not simply an abstract idea of freedom. And that distinction, entirely missed by Deneen, makes quite a difference.

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More about: History & Ideas, John Locke, liberal democracy, Liberalism, United States

Hizballah Is in Venezuela to Stay

Feb. 21 2019

In a recent interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned the presence of Hizballah cells in Venezuela as further evidence of the growing unrest in that country. The Iran-backed group has operated in Venezuela for years, engaging in narcotics trafficking and money laundering to fund its activities in the Middle East, and likely using the country as a base for planning terrorist attacks. If Juan Guaido, now Venezuela’s internationally recognized leader, is able to gain control of the government, he will probably seek to alter this situation. But, writes Colin Clarke, his options may be limited.

A government led by Guaido would almost certainly be more active in opposing Hizballah’s presence on Venezuelan soil, not just nominally but in more aggressively seeking to curtail the group’s criminal network and, by extension, the influence of Iran. As part of a quid pro quo for its support, Washington would likely seek to lean on Guaido to crack down on Iran-linked activities throughout the region.

But there is a major difference between will and capability. . . . Hizballah is backed by a regime in Tehran that provides it with upward of $700 million annually, according to some estimates. Venezuela serves as Iran’s entry point into Latin America, a foothold the Iranians are unlikely to cede without putting up a fight. Moreover, Russia retains a vested interest in propping up [the incumbent] Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and keeping him in power, given the longstanding relationship between the two countries. . . . Further, after cooperating closely in Syria, Hizballah is now a known quantity to the Kremlin and an organization that President Vladimir Putin could view as an asset that, at the very least, will not interfere with Russia’s designs to extend its influence in the Western hemisphere.

If the Maduro regime is ultimately ousted from power, that will likely have a negative impact on Hizballah in Venezuela. . . . Yet, on balance, Hizballah has deep roots in Venezuela, and completely expelling the group—no matter how high a priority for the Trump administration—remains unlikely. The best-case scenario for Washington could be an ascendant Guaido administration that agrees to combat Hizballah’s influence—if the new government is willing to accept a U.S. presence in the country to begin training Venezuelan forces in the skills necessary to counter terrorism and transnational criminal networks with strong ties to Venezuelan society. But that scenario, of course, is dependent on the United States offering such assistance in the first place.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Mike Pompeo, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy, Venezuela