The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla

The United States currently exists in a state of cold civil war.  I’m not the first person to say that, and until it turns into a shooting war, I won’t be the last.  We seemingly can’t talk to one another without getting bent out of shape over the tiniest of details.  How did we get to here?  And, better yet, how can we pull out of it and return to something more balanced and unified?  These are the questions a great many Americans have right now.  As a student of history, I more or less have the answers to the first question, but I’m absolutely interested in answers to the second.  You see, the last time we went down this road, it tore the country apart, and we were fortunate to have someone with true vision at the helm.

Mark Lilla is an American political scientist, historian of ideas, journalist, and professor of humanities at Columbia University in New York City.  In short, he’s one of those who might be in a position to offer some answers to both of those questions, assuming anyone would care to listen to what he has to say.  I opted to listen, and as it turns out, a good deal of what he’s saying sounds a lot like what I’m saying.  The difference, of course, is that he says it better, and he’s got the educational background and authority to back it up.  Me… I’m just a blogger.

So, what is he saying?  In a nutshell, identity politics is killing the concept of American citizenship, which in turn is killing the liberal values (used in the classical sense of the word: liberty) that this country is founded upon and is otherwise working to achieve.  Instead of focusing on what we as a nation hold as our common values, the right is systematically dismantling the ability of a government to protect those values and the rights they claim to hold dear while the left is dismissing the concept of a unified we in favor of the of the personal struggles of the individual.  Or to put it another way, heartless predatory religious oligarchs vs. whiny social justice warrior snowflakes.  He’s more tactful about saying it than I am, but not by much.

I find it refreshing to not only cut through the delicacies, but to actually have a presentation that’s fact-based rather than emotion-based, and to have ideas on how to solve this situation that boil down to one part hope and one part concerted effort.  Sounds pie-in-the-sky?  Well, as I say, we’ve been here before, a few times.  The only limitation is whether or not people will become aware of the message and want to act on it beyond, say, jumping on TwitFace to denounce it because it’s too hard.  Or something equally lame and ineffective.

The biggest takeaway for me is that we have it within ourselves to make this happen, to make the country sane again.  We have only to want it and to get on the same page.  It’s easier said than done, but it requires an understanding of how and why things work, and why they fall apart.  Lilla’s insight is incredible in regards to the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of the political divide.  I would argue that to scoff at it rather than to heed that insight is to place yourself too far at either end of the rift that’s destroying us.

“United we stand; divided we fall.”  What are you prepared to do about it?

This book is one of the many titles on my Freedom and Equality Reading Library list.  I can’t recommend it enough.

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