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

What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy