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Lionel Trilling’s Warning

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Lionel Trilling’s Warning

As the great literary critic cautioned more than a half century ago, liberals increasingly reduce a complex world to black and white. May 27, 2021
Politics and law
The Social Order

In 1950, literary critic Lionel Trilling published a collection of essays called The Liberal Imagination. It contained a presciently devastating critique of modern American liberalism’s grasp of reality. Liberalism, he wrote, “drifts toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination”:

The world is a complex and unexpected and terrible place. . . . It is one of the tendencies of liberalism to simplify, and this tendency is natural in view of the effort which liberalism makes to organize the elements of life in a rational way. . . . We must understand that organization means delegation, and agencies, and bureaus, and technicians, and that the ideas that can survive delegation, that can be passed on to agencies and bureaus and technicians, incline to be ideas of a certain kind and of a certain simplicity: they give up something of their largeness and modulation and complexity in order to survive.

By “imagination,” Trilling didn’t mean the ability to invent. He meant the ability to resist simplistic, reductive, and morally gratifying explanations of reality and to see the painfully immense complexity of truth and perspective that is at the heart of life.

Consider a few test cases of the efficacy of the liberal imagination. Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene recently wrote in a Tweet that a grocery store chain allowing its vaccinated employees not to use masks so long as they wore a logo on their shirts was “just like the Nazi’s [sic] forced Jewish people to wear a gold star.” Denunciations of Greene for making such an unhinged analogy swiftly followed. Yet with a little complexity, a little modulation, and a little context, you might arrive at the conclusion that Greene is crazy like the proverbial fox. Perhaps she intuits that in American politics, celebrity almost guarantees success as a political candidate, and that notoriety is the quickest route to celebrity. But why ruin all the fun? Greene and her adversaries are linked arm in arm in a thrilling race to the bottom.

There are Holocaust analogies, and then there are Holocaust analogies. Recently, CNN fired Rick Santorum, the network’s token conservative pundit, for saying elsewhere that the U.S. was founded on “Judeo-Christian values” and that its colonists and settlers “birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.” Callous? Sure, but Santorum was not denying American Indians’ death and destruction at the hands of white settlers. He was carelessly stating facts that were nevertheless historically accurate—America was founded on Judeo-Christian values; and American culture doesn’t owe much to Native American culture, if by “culture” he meant the organized expression of thought and feeling. Santorum later apologized, but he was quickly canceled by a newly minted class of moral scholars, led by Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians. Sharp publicly told CNN that “televising someone with [Santorum’s] views on Native American genocide is fundamentally no different than putting an outright Nazi on television to justify the Holocaust.” Yet the Holocaust and the tragic destruction of American Indian civilization in the course of America’s westward expansion are hardly identical. Should Sharp be canceled for making such a careless analogy? Of course not.

Reach back a little further to President Biden’s Gethsemane moment—the press conference that Donald Trump held after the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which Trump spoke the phrase that now rests at the very center of the new woke faith: “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” What Trump was clumsily saying was simple in its complexity, as clear as it was vaguely incoherent: most of the people who showed up at the initial rally were there to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. They came for all sorts of different reasons: anger at being told they are racist; upset at having a familiar fixture of life made to disappear; existential dread at having the very fibers of their mortal memory—dates were made, appointments kept, cherished moments of life commemorated at that statue—torn up and thrown away. They were trying to preserve their individual place in time. No doubt many had stopped identifying the statue with Lee, just as New Yorkers who still say they will meet other New Yorkers by the lion never associate with jungles and the pursuit of prey the leonine statues in front of the main library at the crossroads of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

A compulsively belligerent president, unable to concentrate for long on any one subject, not blessed with verbal gifts, and known for irrational bursts of enmity was, in this moment, expressing a rational embrace of a messy reality. The “neo-Nazis and the white nationalists” should be, he said, “condemned totally.” “But you had many people in that group,” he continued, “other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.” About these people, the ones who were not white supremacists, Trump said that “the press has treated them unfairly.” One reporter, however, responded as if Trump had not spoken those very words: “You were saying the press has treated white nationalists unfairly?” Blathering, bloviating, tweeting Trump was the very paragon of complexity that day. He might as well have been reading the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who believed, in the cumbersome words of one scholar, that “the desires, habits, feelings and customs of the common people and of the most marginal social groups do count.” And one can agree that the rally did not consist solely of white racists while still being appalled and revolted by the white supremacists who did attend.

Today we are surrounded by demands that we pay history its due and punish those who do not acknowledge history’s crimes. Yet these demands are in fact abstract pieties drawn from the present, not the past. They deny the existence of both actual history and human psychology. In an essay titled “Reality in America” collected in The Liberal Imagination, Trilling traced this progressive reduction of history to a set of prefabricated moral imperatives in the work of the progressive American historian Vernon Parrington, and excoriated it:

Karl Marx, for whom history was indeed a sixth sense, expressed what has come to be the secret hope of our time, that man’s life in politics, which is to say, man’s life in history, shall come to an end. History, as we now understand it, envisions its own extinction—that is really what we nowadays mean by “progress”—and with all the passion of a desire kept secret even from ourselves, we yearn to elect a way of life which shall be satisfactory once and for all, time without end, and we do not want to be reminded by the past of the considerable possibility that our present is but perpetuating mistakes and failures and instituting new troubles.

The extinction of history, the establishment of “a way of life which shall be satisfactory once and for all, time without end”—that is to say, the establishment of a single, reductive way of looking at the world that does not tolerate disagreement or dissent: the triumph of the liberal imagination thus spells the end of both liberalism in the classical sense and of the imagination itself. The ruins of that triumph are piling up around us.

Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

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