The Problem with Liberalism Today

Over at The National Interest, my Crooked Timber co-blogger Henry Farrell has a dissection of a certain strand of contemporary liberalism—embodied in the critiques of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald offered by Sean Wilentz, George Packer, and Michael Kinsley—that is well worth reading.

Some highlights:

Yet their problems go deeper than sloppy practice and shoddy logic. For one thing, Wilentz, Packer and Kinsley are all veterans of the Clinton-era battles between liberals and the Left. Wilentz in particular poses as a latter-day Arthur Schlesinger, shuttling backwards and forwards between his academic duties and his political fealties. As for Packer, he has championed a muscular liberalism, pugnacious in the fight against moral purists at home and political Islam abroad. And Kinsley, a veteran of the wars over neoliberalism, has always been a contrarian with a talent for repackaging the common wisdom of the establishment as something edgy and counterintuitive.

Each has manacled himself to an intellectual identity forged in decades-old combat with the Left. Each, as a result, is apparently incapable of understanding the actual challenge that Greenwald and Snowden pose to American politics.

Snowden and his companions have shown that national-security liberals’ arguments for deference rest on false assumptions. The truth is that not only are America’s overseas interventions problematic by themselves, but they are also increasingly undermining domestic liberties. Intelligence efforts that are supposed to be focused abroad turn out to have sweeping domestic consequences. It’s impossible to distinguish intelligence data on domestic and foreign actors. Security officials in various countries can work together across borders to circumvent and undermine domestic protections, actively helping each other to remake laws that restrict their freedom of operation. And at home, officials can use these new arrangements to work around and undermine civil rights. This commingling of domestic and international politics is complex and poorly understood. It helps explain why national-security liberals have such difficulty in comprehending—let alone refuting—Snowden’s and Greenwald’s arguments.

Hence, it is unsurprising that Wilentz should view Greenwald and Snowden—the one a left-wing skeptic of American foreign policy, the other a libertarian skeptic of the state—with unabashed horror. What is rather startling, given Wilentz’s prominence as a writer and historian, is the absence of a coherent argument to structure and discipline his detestation.

The whole exercise in amateur taxidermy has the rhetorical purpose of stitching two very different claims together, creating the illusion that they are naturally conjoint. The first is that Wilentz’s antagonists are enemies of the “modern liberal state.” The second is that they are enemies of the “national security state.” The first, obviously, is rather more likely to worry liberal readers than the second. However, Wilentz’s evidence largely concerns the second. He eschews logical argument in favor of a superficially impressive accumulation of quasi-relevant details about his antagonists’ personal histories, which appear intended to suggest connections where none exist.

The resulting artificial monstrosity, like P. T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid, doesn’t hold up on close examination. Bits fall off if you poke it at all hard. If Wilentz’s underlying thesis—that it’s profoundly illiberal to oppose government spying—were expressed in seven words rather than seven thousand, it would be so obviously ridiculous as to be unpublishable in a serious magazine.

GEORGE PACKER’S indictment of Snowden and Greenwald is better structured than Wilentz’s, and by far better written. Perhaps no writer alive is as skilled as Packer at conveying an air of weary and hard-won rectitude in a world of ethically ambiguous choices. It is unfortunate that this moral aristocratism is so deplorably misemployed. If anything, Packer’s article is more actively misleading than Wilentz’s.

Perhaps, then, Packer’s patrician disdain can in part be forgiven. What is quite unforgivable are Packer’s own dubious standards of argument, which are starkly at odds with his de haut en bas style of ethical condescension.

Kinsley here exemplifies a broader problem. Halpern has observed that Kinsley and other critics of the leakers like to focus on Greenwald’s and Snowden’s purported personal flaws rather than the issues that motivated them to act. Put differently, Kinsley, Wilentz and Packer have a hard time distinguishing between personality and politics. Each apparently believes that Greenwald’s and Snowden’s radical political beliefs show them to be paranoid demagogues, while their paranoid demagoguery demonstrates the worthlessness of their radical beliefs. This circular reasoning allows them to circumnavigate the difficult question of whether Snowden and Greenwald might be largely right, and what this might mean for liberalism.

In short, Wilentz, Packer and Kinsley are a dismal advertisement for the current state of mainstream liberal thought in America. The fundamental problem is not that they’re disagreeable to their opponents (who can certainly be disagreeable themselves). It isn’t even that their unpleasantness is hypocritical (although it surely is). It is that the unpleasantness and hypocrisy conceal an intellectual void. When the screen of misrepresentations, elisions, prevarications, misleadingly curtailed quotes, historical grudges and ad hominem attacks is removed, there is nothing behind it.

This absence is all the more depressing because Wilentz, Packer and Kinsley are probably as good as it gets. There are no prominent national-security liberals who have done better—and a few who have done worse, lapsing into baroque conspiracy theories. Their failure is not simply a personal one. It’s the failure of an entire intellectual tradition.

WHY DO national-security liberals have such a hard time thinking straight about Greenwald, Snowden and the politics of leaks? One reason is sheer laziness. National-security liberals have always defined themselves against their antagonists, and especially their left-wing antagonists. They have seen themselves as the decent Left, willing to deploy American power to make the world a happier place, and fighting the good fight against the knee-jerk anti-Americans.

This creates a nearly irresistible temptation: to see Greenwald, Snowden and the problems they raise as antique bugbears in modern dress. Wilentz intimates that Greenwald is plotting to create a United Front of anti-imperialist left-wingers, libertarians and isolationist paleoconservatives. Packer depicts Greenwald and Snowden as stalwarts of the old Thoreauvian tradition of sanctimonious absolutism and moral idiocy. Kinsley paints Snowden as a conspiracy-minded dupe and Greenwald as a frustrated Jacobin.

Yet laziness is only half the problem. A fundamental inability to comprehend Greenwald and Snowden’s case, let alone to argue against it, is the other half. National-security liberals have enormous intellectual difficulties understanding the new politics of surveillance, because these politics are undermining the foundations of their worldview.

If you’re still interested in this topic after you finish Henry’s piece, which again is something you really have to read, you might want to check out my own meditation on the fate of the national security liberal in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq War. Mine is now a bit outdated, since it doesn’t engage with the questions of surveillance that Henry raises. But it gets at, I think, what happens to a national security liberalism that was historically oriented around its attack on the left when that left is no more.


  1. halginsberg1963 October 29, 2014 at 9:01 am | #

    There are very few prominent true liberal commentators in American politics today. Sean Wilentz, George Packer, and (obviously) Michael Kinsley are not among them. Farrell attacks the archetypical “liberal” instead of the appropriate target conservadems masquerading as progressives.

    • lazycat1984 October 29, 2014 at 4:51 pm | #

      I think the prominent liberal commentators that deserve the label are Henwood, Ames and … Greenwald. And they’re all categorized as flaming radicals.

      “In short, Wilentz, Packer and Kinsley are a dismal advertisement for the current state of mainstream liberal thought in America. ”

      — I guess that quote ably demonstrates the truth of Hedges’ thesis of the Death of the Liberal Class.

  2. Tom October 29, 2014 at 9:47 am | #

    I haven’t fully read Farrell’s piece, but I will put in my boilerplate refusal to hitch my civil liberties wagon to Snowden. Almost everything he revealed about domestic surveillance was known in 2006; Greenwald even wrote a book about it then. The Greenwald/Snowden alliance has been effective at jumpstarting a conversation about this dormant issue.

    Snowden has also revealed an unknown amount of information about fully legal foreign intelligence surveillance to Russia and/or China. It is completely plausible that the domestic intelligence stuff he dropped was entirely to build himself a whistleblower persona to obscure his disclosure of information to foreign governments.

    • weshamrick October 29, 2014 at 10:14 am | #

      “It is completely plausible that the domestic intelligence stuff he dropped was entirely to build himself a whistleblower persona to obscure his disclosure of information to foreign governments.”

      Absent any evidence, that’s entirely _implausible_.

      • Michael Brown October 29, 2014 at 11:45 am | #

        There is, in fact, abundant evidence to the contrary.

  3. bystander October 29, 2014 at 10:32 am | #

    And, the comments to Farrell’s piece, which was re-posted at Crooked Timber, are worth the price of admission.

  4. weshamrick October 29, 2014 at 10:35 am | #

    Corey, interesting piece from 2005. You wrote:

    “But the infatuation with political fear and imperial deliverance from evil cannot be explained away as mere opportunism. It has a long history in modern politics, arising whenever reform comes up against reaction, whenever movements for progress lose their bearings and buoyancy. At such moments of doubt, nothing can seem as real as fear itself, nothing more tempting than to make evil–and the fear it arouses–the basis of all politics.”

    OK, insofar as prominent so-called liberals have genuine political beliefs, this argument makes sense. And the desire to take on the “irresponsible” Left is genuine. Further, the absence of a strong Left is widely acknowledged. But what explains that absence?

    I’d say it’s opportunism” — careerism, to be exact. I think you’re right that “mere opportunism” doesn’t explain the precise character of the politics of security-state liberals, or their view of the Iraq war, but I think it does help explain how they got to that point. And the hollowness of their arguments? Again, that’s careerism. In a political system that is characterized by careerism above all else, what becomes important is not thinking deeply and carefully about political problems, but shibboleths and platitudes. There’s a subset of people who can read Wilentz, Kinsley, et al. and nod their heads in agreement. Those are the people that matter and that’s the problem.

  5. Roquentin October 29, 2014 at 11:54 am | #

    While I agree with the general premise of this article, seeing Glen Greenwald referred to as a ” left-wing skeptic ” was like nails across a blackboard. There is nothing left wing about him. Liberal, absolutely, but those aren’t the same thing. What I find comically absurd about the libertarian crowd is that in spite of how much they hate things like the NSA, they are utterly incapable of seeing how the economic system they love and imperialism they support abroad are only able to continue because of it.

    Truth be told, my eyes start to glaze over about a paragraph in to essays like this. It’s why I couldn’t force myself to read Crooked Timber if I tried.

    • Corey Robin October 29, 2014 at 12:00 pm | #

      Glenn Greenwald most definitely does not love the US economic system nor does he support in any way imperialism. I’d say in recent years he’s become increasingly critical of neoliberal economics in the US — and has since he became a prominent blogger in the wake of the Iraq War been opposed to almost every instance of US imperialism.

      On Wed, Oct 29, 2014 at 11:54 AM, Corey Robin wrote:


      • Roquentin October 29, 2014 at 7:34 pm | #

        He used to run with the Cato Institute. I will grant you that he has become critical of US foreign policy. Saying he supported US imperialism wasn’t fair. I suppose that comment was needlessly harsh. He’s on the right side of things more often than not. Something about him doesn’t sit quite right with me, but that might just be personal preference. Maybe I’m just being really unfair. It’s hard to tell.

  6. Frank Wilhoit October 29, 2014 at 5:18 pm | #

    None of this is to the point. The labels have lost their meaning. There is only one issue left, only one question that can be asked: Shall the law be enforced or shall it not?

    Recent practice is overwhelmingly on the side of “…against whom?”. It seems to be working, for those whom the law protects but does not bind. It’s not working, for those whom the law binds but does not protect. It’s not *really* working for anyone.

    If there were anyone today saying, in a coherent and focussed manner, that this is a problem, the persons saying it would most likely self-identify as “liberal”; but there are (effectively) none.

  7. BillR October 29, 2014 at 7:53 pm | #

    George Packer an exemplar of “moral aristocratism”? I remember a few choice descriptions employed by Rick MacArthur of Harpers in a review of Packer’s Rashomon like take on why US invaded Iraq more to the point when it came to getting a measure of this icon of latter-day journalism: “insufferable,” “soft-headed”, a “useful idiot,” and a “hypnotized Trilby.”

  8. jonnybutter October 29, 2014 at 10:52 pm | #

    [Greenwald] used to run with the Cato Institute.

    I think that is just mistaken, Roquentin. I know you didn’t make it up – it’s a weird kind of slander though.

    • Labitokov October 30, 2014 at 7:12 am | #

      After about 12 seconds of deep research I found this reply from GG about the Cato charge.

      • Roquentin October 30, 2014 at 8:25 am | #

        Oh yeah, what say you to this:

        Why is his picture proudly displayed on the website? I’m sure it pisses off the people at Daily Kos, but I don’t care for them much either. There were a whole series of articles in NSFWcorp, back when it existed, about this feud.

      • jonnybutter October 30, 2014 at 9:48 am | #

        I misread Roquentin’s comment. I thought he said that Greenwald used to ‘run’ Cato. He said ‘run with‘. That is less wrong, but still unfair. As GG says in the piece Labitokov cites, he – along with many other civil libertarians – wrote a couple of articles for Cato. So what? ‘Run with’ sounds a lot like ‘fellow traveller’. Are you sure you want to say that Roquentin?

        I don’t think I would particularly like GG personally, but what difference to this discussion does that make?

      • Roquentin October 30, 2014 at 11:07 am | #

        Look, before these replies got going, all I was trying to argue was that Glenn Greenwald is not left wing. That’s as far as I wanted to take it. I don’t think he’s a bad person and I don’t have it in for him. I think what he did with Snowden was good. I merely objected to the characterization of him as left wing. He’s not, and I stand by that assertion.

        He’s a liberal, sure, and probably neoliberal (in the economic sense) to a degree. He wants to reform that system, but not break with it. That’s why he doesn’t sit right with me. Neoliberalism can’t be reformed, and it’s not something that’s even worth saving. Corey tends to argued that classical liberalism is distorted by today’s libertarians, but I don’t hold similar opinions. I think this thinking always has been a part of liberalism, that the lassiez-faire attitude towards the market always has been a part of their conception of freedom.

        I’m less well read on this subject than he is, so I probably don’t have that great of a case. Call it a gut feeling, or the impression I’ve gained in whatever texts I’ve read.

      • jonnybutter October 30, 2014 at 1:12 pm | #

        I’m sure this is not a big deal either way, Roquentin.

        Someone in the American press calling GG a ‘left wing sceptic’ doesn’t grate on my nerves, particularly in this context. I mean, sometimes *everything* in the regular American press grates, so why single this out? (and why the rigidity?)

        His issue is what we call civil libertarianism, which I think ought to be fundamentally important in any ‘left’ viewpoint. That’s just me though.

      • Roquentin October 30, 2014 at 6:44 pm | #

        Perhaps this is what we disagree on. I don’t give the same degree of importance to “civil libertarianism.” If I’m going to be blunt about it, it’s the bone the bourgeoisie throws people in this country to keep them complacent. Well, at least the semblance of a bone. I guess maybe GG is like an angry dog whose favorite chew toy finally fell apart. Now he’s tearing up the furniture.


      • jonnybutter October 30, 2014 at 7:48 pm | #

        Well, I’d say that civil liberties (like the 4th amendment, ahem) might not be sufficient, but something like them are essential in any ideal system. A bone is better than nothing, if it’s a real bone.

        I notice that lots of right libertarians (mainly) would agree with you that concern for so-called civil liberties in the US is misplaced. They think so because it’s ‘too late’, you because Civ libs are a sop.

        By far the easiest way to lose rights like these is to pretend they’re not important. Regular Americans don’t seem to care that much about the bill of rights, historically – definitely now. How can it be a sop if people don’t care?

      • Roquentin October 30, 2014 at 8:16 pm | #

        I know I talk about it too much, but during that month I spent in Russia in 2005, during the height of the Putin era, I was more shocked by how little difference it made. I mean, it was worse, but it wasn’t bad like I was expecting. That was more or less living in a de facto dictatorship. It really made me reconsider my priorities, what mattered politically and what didn’t.

        Just sayin’, maybe you don’t have it all figured out like you think you do.

      • jonnybutter October 30, 2014 at 10:14 pm | #

        It’s *always* a possibility (or a probability) that I don’t have things figured out as well as I might think I do. But you haven’t shown how a critical concern for civil rights makes things worse – I assume by some sort of diversionary or homeopathic (?) mechanism. Your implication is that civil libertarianism a la GG (or jonnybutter) makes things worse.

    • Roquentin October 30, 2014 at 10:44 pm | #

      It’s not about “making things worse” so much as it is misplaced concern. While I agree the revelations about the NSA were troubling and I commend Snowden for bringing that out into the open, it’s just not the central political concern for me. Maybe it is for you. It obviously is for Greenwald. My life has been affected very little by these revelations, in fact any impact it has had on me has been nearly imperceptible. Do I like the idea that such massive amounts of spying are going on? No. Can I do a damn thing about it? No. What does this change about my day to day existence? Practically nothing, but I guess I’m a little more paranoid about what I type into Google.

      Also, I get really annoyed by the idea that this was something new. That the police state we live under just arose in the past decade or so. That’s a total crock of shit. We were born in a police state. In fact, most of the reason the FBI was created a century ago was to suppress anarchists in the wake of the McKinely assassination. It’s never been anything but this, or at least wasn’t for so long that it’s hard to think of the US in any other way.

      In short, these kinds of discussions bore me to tears and it’s not an important fight to me.

      • jonnybutter October 31, 2014 at 3:56 pm | #

        I know this argument has run its course. I don’t care about having the last word. This will be mine though.

        The internet didn’t exist in JE Hoover’s day – it’s *our* issue. It strange how we are so oddly blasé about the internet, which is, of course, earth-shaking technology. Maybe we are relatively blasé about it because we are in the middle of such a huge wave (i.e. a long wavelength) that we can’t see it.

        So when an earth-shaking technology comes along, especially one so perfect for mass surveillance, I’d say it’s worth it to at least try to keep some privacy rights. And it’s rationally defensible to try even if you know you have strong odds for failing. The downside is that you run the risk of being ‘bored to tears’. I think it’s worth that risk.

        The larger discussion on this blog of Arendt and her insight about evil is apposite here. Far from excusing evil, Arendt is – to her great moral credit – de-romanticizing evil, draining it of some of its tang and allure. She’s saying it tends to be shabby, mediocre, drifting down the line of least resistance. Thoughtlessness. Entropy.

        Unfortunately this is often the default human response to ethical problems. Authoritarianism gains most of its ground ‘without firing a shot’ as it were. People surrender fairly willingly, and not because resistance is too hard – just because surrendering is so easy. So I would observe that it’s not as hard to gain or hold ground as you seem to think it is. Life is ridiculously contingent.


      • jonnybutter October 31, 2014 at 4:20 pm | #

        Just to be clear, Roquentin: I am not calling *you* ‘mediocre’, thoughtless, etc. I am just saying I don’t believe in your ideological determinism.

      • Roquentin October 31, 2014 at 6:37 pm | #

        Heh…oh yes, the last word.

        We don’t see eye to eye on this. I look back on the absurdity of the 90s tech boom, when people thought the internet would actually change something, with little but contempt. Nothing changed. Capitalism doesn’t change. Kind of like Paul Virilio says, things just get sped up. I flatly disagree with this idea that the internet has fundamentally changed any of that. As if COINTELPRO would have been the least bit different if it were online.

        The Dialiectic of Englightenment looks better all the time. Every new technology which supposedly will usher in a utopian era can just as easily support the worst barbarism. Adorno and Horkheimer saw it clearly way back then.

  9. BillWAF October 30, 2014 at 12:00 am | #

    What I find odd about Wilentz is that he comes from a left-wing background. Why did he move to the right?

  10. uh...clem October 31, 2014 at 12:23 am | #

    I’m quite sure Glenn Greenwald spoke at a conference of socialists within the past two or three years. I was surprised, yet pleased. I can’t think of any other “liberal”, even broadly-defined, who would allow his or her name to be seen in a conclave of socialists. Chris Hedges, maybe.

  11. Anonymous October 31, 2014 at 11:08 am | #

    To answer BillWAF’s question about why Wilentz moved to the right, there are a lot of libertarians who used to identify as hardcore Republicans, but they moved slightly to the left to the “libertarian” view when Republican views ended up screwing them over in some way (for example, if they were arrested for crimes they didn’t commit, or if they don’t like our foreign wars that Republicans cheer for, etc.).

    So as an opposite analogy, it’s possible Wilentz might have moved to the right because left-wing ideas screwed him over in some way.

    I have some misgivings myself, and the fact that the Left cannot recognize others might have a reason to HAVE misgivings in itself contributes to those misgivings. Recently, just like the Right, the Left also seems to desire that people not behave as individuals with dreams or feelings or hobbies etc., that they be punished (or rewarded) as a collective, regardless of whether or not they’ve chosen to do anything wrong as individuals.

    Our current society is much like The Jazz Singer book, where you’re mocked or punished if you choose to pursue the arts instead of pursuing riches and material success. The Left is right to oppose such a state of affairs.

    But my own feeling is that the Left is ultimately not as opposed to forcibly “fitting people into pre-existing society” as it says it is, it just wants to change what the “pre-existing society” is (so maybe rewarding people for pursuing arts practiced by the working classes, and punishing people for arts that require wealth to sponsor like some branches of classical music).

    Now instead of a globalized world that stifles community and native culture, the Left would return us to a world where everyone sticks to their own tribe, and stifling travel and “broad learning about the world”, in the theory that “this would make people nicer and more loving to each other within those communities.”

    Just take everything the Right believes in, and “reverse the value judgments”, or “swing the pendulum the other way”. As the Right argued and continues to argue that you’re either with them or against them, my fear (and I acknowledge it might not be justified) is that the Left similarly cannot see value in any ways of thinking other than its own.

    I come from a very left-wing background, but in very recent years I’ve seen some very unreasonable behavior on the Left when it comes to the idea of, for example, collective punishment.

    The Left used to argue that collective punishment was unreasonable, when it forced poor children to pay their parents’ debts, or resulted in blood feuds and the like. The Left tried to persuade people that people should not be negatively stereotyped, and punished as individuals, only when they’ve actually done something wrong. This was seen as breaking the power of harsh religious group-based punishments that were out of proportion.

    But now the Left is arguing that people should be treated as a collective based on which groups they belong to, and thus they ignore the individual personality. It doesn’t occur to them that it is precisely dividing people into their own little groups and cultures that causes mistrust, and thus war, in the first place.

    So, while I still hold mostly left-wing views, I can see why Wilentz moved to the right.

Leave a Reply to Roquentin Cancel reply