Interview with Patrick Deneen on Liberalism Intent
Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – “People think that these are perversions of classical liberalism, or liberalism as secularly defined. As you point out, no, no, this may not have been the intent of Hobbes, Locke, etc., etc., but it is definitely the fruit of their work, right?” Check out today’s transcript for the rest….
Begin Mike Church Show Transcript
Mike: Expound a little bit upon your essay, which I didn’t discover until this year, but it was published on or around the 15th of December about some of the stuff you may have just heard me talking about, about how some of the things that we’re living amongst, these are the fruits that liberalism produced. People think that these are perversions of classical liberalism, or liberalism as secularly defined. As you point out, no, no, this may not have been the intent of Hobbes, Locke, etc., etc., but it is definitely the fruit of their work, right?
Patrick Deneen: Well, I actually would go so far as to suggest that in fact there is some intent here. I spent a lot of time reading and thinking and teaching these authors. The more time I spend with the foundational authors of broadly the enlightenment tradition, out of which aspects of the American founding were derived, the more clear it is that liberalism, when we think about it — typically when we describe it we think liberalism is structures of the Constitution, separation of church and state, free speech, etc. Really most of those aspects of what we think of broadly as constitutionalism really have a pre-liberal origin and are in fact inheritance of Christendom. They really come out of the developments in the Middle Ages. I think what’s distinctive about liberalism is the idea and indeed the ideal that human beings are, in their essence, autonomous, free, unencumbered, fundamentally unfettered creatures. What liberalism really has done and is increasingly doing is reshaping the world and the image of that ideal of the human being.
Mike: That’s what you’re seeing on display with some of the silliness that is on display with these very broad-based, generic, yet fervent exaltations or exhortations of “We Stand with Charlie,” We’re All Charlie.” We’re all promoters and defenders of this abstract idea of free speech, but we also seem to be, what goes along with that is yes, you have the freedom to use the alleged liberty, but apparently you are also free from any responsibility for using it.
Deneen: It’s actually quite extraordinary. I’m certainly not the first to notice the irony of the juxtaposition. At the same time we have these demonstrations and fervent expressions of standing with Charlie and free expression and free speech, we see all across the country, and increasingly in the Western world, a sense that there are certain things that can’t be said. There are certain forms of speech that can’t be stated. There are kind of speech codes that are becoming rampant on campus with a chilling effect of those codes. There’s an article in the Wall Street Journal today called “The Scandal of Free Speech” by Bret Stephens that talks about, for example, Dan Savage appeared at the University of Chicago, one of our great universities. In the course of his speech, he used the word “transgender,” short for transvestite, and was roundly criticized for a form of microaggression. Students demanded that such occasions no longer occur on their campuses.
I think in fact what we see is that the speech that tends to be protected, or when we think of free speech, it’s the speech that accords with this liberal conception of the human being. Anything in a way that can undermine or attack the conception of the human being as fundamental in a kind of Christian sense, fundamentally connected to other people in and through the trinity, in and through of the fact of our relationality. The speech that is substantially protected then is the speech that can always be used in some ways to undermine that understanding or who we are. Speech that may limit that or forms of speech that may challenge that are regarded as offensive, as microaggressions, as impermissible in our current atmosphere.
Mike: Patrick Deneen is with us from — now, you’re at the University of Notre Dame?
Deneen: That’s correct.
Mike: But you’re at a couple other campuses, too, right, or were you there?
Deneen: I have jumped around a little bit. Princeton University and then spent a number of years at Georgetown University before departing for Notre Dame.
Mike: What I heard you say just now, let me follow up on that and we’ll take this in a slightly different direction. We can use the events of two days ago. The arm-in-arm, Kumbaya moment of the solidarity march that we saw Angela Merkel and David Cameron and the French president. Yes, there was a member from the Obama administration, but not a high-enough ranking one, so it wasn’t a good event from that perspective. They marched and they had a million people behind them and around them, what they called solidarity.
What is ironic to me, or what was not lost on me — you’re the professor here, so you can help me out. In studying, there are two facets of Christendom that we are largely missing today. One is subsidiarity. We have no subsidiarity. Our government is supreme to our God. See the First Amendment trumping Commandment Two today, yesterday, and the day before. Secondly, there used to be a concept in Christendom and among the Christian peoples known as solidarity, not this fake hullabaloo that we saw yesterday but real solidarity. How did that solidarity work? What’s the difference between it and today?
Deneen: It’s remarkable if you think about this march yesterday. The march was in some ways an expression of universal or near-universal, certainly in the West, assent for and support for relativism. The irony is that the one thing we can agree upon is that we all agree that there is no truth in anything and everything should have the ability to be expressed. What’s being defended is the Voltairian statement: I don’t necessarily agree with you, but I defend to the death your right to say that. The one thing that can bring us together in the West today is our agreement on relativism. This is, of course, a profoundly paradoxical and ultimately contradictory expression of what solidarity is. Solidarity is really at base a profound sense that we share something, we share a common faith, a common origin, there’s something deep that brings us together and that we share.
What’s ironic then is the one form we can express that today is around something that really can’t ultimately sustain that sense of what you think of solidarity. At the same time, what seems to be the end station of what the liberal, relativist worldview arrives at is the ultimate disassembling of the actual forms of solidarity in the churches and communities, and, of course, in the family as well. The actual sources of solidarity are seen as threats to the liberal self. The only thing the liberal self can rally around is the shared belief in a relativistic worldview.
Mike: Very well explained. Thank you very much. I’m glad I left that task to you and didn’t try to do it myself. Rod Dreher at American Conservative magazine had pointed out last week — and this is how I originally found your essay about liberalism — some things that we’ve already touched upon. He also pointed out, from your essay, some of the things that modern man may be able to relate to if they haven’t fully grasped and prayed upon and meditated and studied the solidarity and subsidiarity that we talked about. They certainly do understand, though, the concept of the town hall. I don’t think there’s any disagreement on that. They understand the utility and usefulness of community coming together to have the officials and discuss something they believe to be vitally important, maybe even existential, and to discuss it in one common place as one common people. We do still have some of the infrastructure, whether it’s mental or whether it’s physical or intellectual, needed to get back to where we were. Rod had written about that. He thought you had tapped into that. What would be your comment on that?
Deneen: It’s actually extraordinary the residual appeal of phrases like the town hall meeting, something that Alexis de Tocqueville admired when he came to the United States in the 1830s. He admired the fact that Americans that he witnessed in contrast to the French that he saw, the world that he came from, were politically engaged and were oriented toward the good of their communities. They would gather together to advance the good of those communities. He praised the place where I grew up, the townships and downtowns of New England, as places of extraordinary kinds of forms of communal commitment and gathering. Today we use that phrase town hall with extraordinary promiscuousness, and it seems to me deep and profound inaccuracy. We typically use that when we describe, for example, a portrayal of a false or contrived debate on CNN and we call that a town hall meeting. What we’re actually doing is showing the deep kind of paucity and weakness of the actual existence of the town hall as it once existed in the way that Tocqueville once perceived.
One of the things that’s striking — and I’ve written quite a bit about this — is that liberalism in fact wants to have the sense of community but only after the actual forms of community have been eviscerated, in other words, when the actual forms of community in which people once gathered, the towns, communities, families and networks of families, have been weakened to the extent that they have been today. Then the modern liberal mind can say: What we need now is a reconstitution of the town hall in nowhere with no actual community. What we’ve done is we’ve created a world of radically individualized selves that can now see that their community is the world community, it’s the cosmos, but that’s no actual community of no actual gathering of people. That’s the kind of community and solidarity that we see on offer today.
Mike: And how disquieting it ought to be. You just mentioned the cosmos. The cosmos apparently does not include the God of the cosmos.
Deneen: That’s absolutely right. The cosmos is simply the cold, material world that we’re supposed to find some comfort in, shivering together but fundamentally apart.
Mike: We have just a couple minutes left here with Patrick Deneen, who is a professor at the University of Notre Dame and a writer. You’ve written books, correct?
Deneen: I have, mostly academic kinds of books. The piece that we’re talking about today is actually a chapter in a book that I’m working on right now so stay tuned.
Mike: I will stay tuned. We’ll keep track of you. I’m fascinated by the fact that you and some others that write for The Imaginative Conservative and other sites like this, you actually are teaching us. You actually have some direct, up close and personal experience with today’s youths as they arrive at university. I’m always reminded of the secular / atheist professor Allan Bloom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind. Some of the parts that he got correct, though, was some of the analysis. One of his analyses, Patrick — I’ll just go out on a limb and say you probably read bloom — was that he was amazed. When he started at the University of Chicago in ’66 or ’67, by the time he finished up — I think he finished up at Dartmouth. By the time he was at Dartmouth in the ‘80s, he could not believe — and it pained him to the end, which is why he wrote the book. He could not believe — you used the word paucity earlier, so let’s go back to that one. He could not believe the paucity of how the intellectual state of those young people had just been so eviscerated, almost eliminated to the point where it wasn’t there. This was in the ‘80s. We are almost 20 years past Allan Bloom. How bad is it today?
Deneen: What bloom was talking about was the fruit of relativism, in the parlance of the time when he was writing, multiculturalism. That’s really another word for relativism, what we would now would talk about diversity, etc. What Bloom was really putting his finger on was that it wasn’t so much that students came in ignorant, because students always come in with a certain amount of limit to what they’ve read and what they know. What he was remarking on is they came in with a profound sense of lack of curiosity, in a way that hadn’t been the case when he began his career. He put his finger on the reason for it. The reason for it was the relativistic worldview that they had been raised in. When he talked about the closing of the American mind, the irony was that he was actually pointing to the fact that all the students came in with open minds, which is to say, they actually had concluded there was no truth. They had actually concluded that there was nothing to be known in any kind of profound and fundamental sense, so that everything they might learn was simply a matter of opinion. There was no actual truth that could be searched out. They came in with a kind of profound lack of intellectual curiosity.
I would say that today’s students are very much like the students that Bloom described, except they come now, I think not only with a lack of intellectual curiosity — the most recent Pew study on the millennial has shown this — they come in also with a deep sense of lack of commitment to anything or anyone. This is, I think, deepened by the environment of social media in which they’ve been raised. The millennials today, the young people today, the people in our colleges, the people who will be running the country in another decade or two, are the least likely to be married by the age of 30 of any generation in American history. They’re the least likely to have any kind of commitments, political commitments of any type, the least likely to have religious commitments, to attend church, or even to believe in a particular religious tradition. In other words, across the board, you see this kind of relativism, not only bleeding into the intellectual world but in their lived experience with other human beings.
It’s one of the things that I really do worry about with this rising generation, at least if we follow through Bloom’s analysis and we look at some of the current data, is whether or not this generation, as the culmination of trends we’ve seen in the last 30, 40, 50 years, will have the capacity to shape and form a civil society that has to be in existence if we’re going to have a society that’s going to have the capacity for people to act on their own, with a kind of responsibility, to be able to do things for themselves and not simply turn and look to the government to do things for them. Again, the deepest irony perhaps of this generation is that on the one hand, they’re the most libertarian in how they live their lives, but they’re also the most supportive of government of any generation that’s ever existed in American history. The government is the only entity to which they can turn that can provide them the things that a kind of civil society can no longer afford.
End Mike Church Show Transcript