Liberalism Tangled in the Web

Responding to fans and critics of my recent article: “Liberals: Please Chill Out.”

Henry Wismayer
Jun 22, 2018 · 8 min read
Photo by Jeroen Bosch on Unsplash

Firstly, thanks to all who took time time to read, share and comment on my recent essay on the crisis of liberalism. Given the contentious premise, it was perhaps no surprise to see that responses ranged from indignation to effusive praise.

From one email correspondent:

“Keep up the amazing work! It’s been a long time since I felt like an author had the command of language and peculiar insights into our changing world.”

From another:

“I think you are so full of shit it blocks you eyes from the real world of what is happening it this country today…blame the liberals.. like they really give a rats ass if you eat a greasy spoon…ass-hole.” (No, me neither.)

Such is the roller-coaster experience of writing something vaguely provocative on the internet in 2018.

If you look through the replies, there are a couple of incandescent liberals haranguing me for betraying the “good guys”. There are a handful of right-wing nut-jobs claiming a win (I don’t feel good about offering them validation, though I’d argue that they are too far gone at this point, so politically it makes little difference). But in the main there are dozens of people who seem to think that it touches upon an exasperation they share.

I responded to as many people as I could, but those conversations spawned lots of reconsiderations and clarifications that I thought it worth consolidating into something more cogent here.

As with its predecessor, this article is addressed to liberals, not staunch Trumpians, so if you think liberal society has been hijacked by George Soros to secure Jewish hegemony, it’s probably best if you toddle off to Breitbart for your next baby-bottle of snake-oil.

What motivated you to write this piece?

Anyone familiar with the rest of my Jeremiad series, of which this was the tenth chapter, would know that my politics veer pretty far left, and that I am far from contented with the current status quo. Like many of you, I am raising children in a callous, warped and divided society, and the question of what I can do to reform that society preoccupies me almost as much as the more selfish question of what I can do to shelter them from its depredations.

But I’ve come to realize, increasingly, depressingly, that many of the ways I express that preoccupation, even if they feel instinctively correct, are having a minimal, even a counter-productive, impact. All the proselytizing on social media, all the railing in the pub — if anything, the anger I feel, however just, only serves to deepen the fault-lines that have led us to where we are today.

It was this sense of futility that led me to question the scattergun nature of modern liberal protest. Every day, there are millions of angry lefties out there posting stuff on-line about the latest furore, the latest bad-guy, the latest shitstorm. I know, because I’ve been doing it myself for years, but I’ve tried to tone it down recently, as it’s become apparent that, beyond earning approbation from the choir and humiliating a few dickheads, it wasn’t achieving much at all.

Take the last few days on the hamster-wheel of liberal rage. For much of this week, left-wing dissent has been rightly focused on the situation on the Texas-Mexico border, where an executive order from the Trump White House has led to the children of illegal immigrants being separated from their parents, and incarcerated in cages. Here we have an unequivocal blight on democratic society that should be a rallying-point for the left: an unforgivable human-rights abuse perpetrated by the government of the Land of the Free.

But by Thursday lunchtime, liberals here in Britain had already changed the channel. The new object of their outrage? A stupefyingly racist tweet by Lord Alan Sugar (coincidentally, the figurehead for Britain’s version of The Apprentice), comparing Senegalese World Cup footballers to sunglasses hawkers on a Spanish beach.

“Sack him!” the Twitterati screamed. “Launch an investigation into BBC bias,” some vocal progressives demanded. And just like that, Trump’s abominations in Texas melt into the background. And tomorrow it will be the next thing, and the day after, the next. Meanwhile, the sea-levels keep rising.

I have become convinced that this unfocused and cacophonous scream of liberal discontent has become a handicap, because it fails to account for the natural antipathy with which most people respond to self-righteousness. People simply don’t want to be confronted with newsfeeds full of sanctimony and angst when they only logged on to look at photos of their friends’ babies. At its worst, the pomposity this practice exudes can be so alienating that it’s tempting to speculate the worst perpetrators have been secretly funded by The Heritage Foundation.

The analogy that struck me when I was writing my original essay was deemed too provocative by the editors, but I recapitulate it here in the hope that it clarifies my perception of the phenomenology involved:

Modern liberalism has begun to feel like Chinese water torture. The effects are cumulative, the malaise infectious not through epiphany but through attrition.

Are we really surprised that people — not just horrible people — are switching off from this overwhelming and tedious exhortation to rage and woe? I think if you’re entirely immersed in a #Resistance/activist on-line eco-system you could remain oblivious to it, but I see it happening every day.

We are spraying bullets at everything, hitting nothing. And the nightmare marches on.

Why blame liberals for the mess the right-wing made?

I’m not. Punch all the Nazis you want.

At no point did I suggest that liberals need to be nice and gentle towards right-wingers — all the apologias recently granted prominence in legacy media about how lefties should stop swearing and be more understanding of morally indefensible reactionary opinions drives me as nuts as it does you.

Trump, Trump’s enablers, the proto-fascists of the alt-right, the shadowy think-tanks that have spent decades corrupting our perception of reality in the service of libertarian billionaires —these people are wholly culpable for the iniquities being perpetrated in the name of conservatism. They are enemies of humanity, a threat to global stability, and no amount of politesse is going to win them round to the liberal world-view.

But there are millions of others, perhaps even the majority of voters in any given democracy, who remain either mired in the con or befuddled by the growing extremism and intolerance exhibited by both ends of the political spectrum. Many of them might be potential campaigners currently sitting on their hands. Some of them might be disenfranchised non-voters refusing to engage. Hell, some of them might even have voted Trump, and spent the time since his election desperately justifying that aberrant decision to avoid the guilt and introspection that must follow.

Humans are flawed, biddable and impulsive. Are we really going to stick with the idea that the people burying their heads, or wallowing in cognitive dissonance, are inherently wrong and evil? Or are we going to acknowledge that things are a bit more complicated than that? For the sake of my sanity, and any shred of hope that our democracies might be salvageable, I’m believing the latter.

In this analysis, liberalism’s failing is not a moral or an ethical one. Instead, it seems to be, as one responder put it, a failure of “tactics.”

To return to the separations on the Mexican border for a moment, a card-carrying liberal would think that the only possible human reaction to that news and those pictures would be horror and incandescent rage of a sort that could only damage the Trump administration. And yet read this article about Stephen Miller that ran on The Atlantic website a couple of days back, and you realize that the calculus behind the policy is murkier than it may first appear.

“For Miller, the public outrage and anger elicited by policies like forced family separation are a feature, not a bug,” writes McKay Poppins, “A seasoned conservative troll, Miller told me during our interview that he has often found value in generating what he calls “constructive controversy — with the purpose of enlightenment.” This belief traces back to the snowflake-melting and lib-triggering of his youth.”

And there you have the whole alt-right methodology distilled. Strategists for the monstrous new conservatism that has hijacked American democracy have weaponized leftist outrage, safe in the knowledge that it always benefits them in the long run. You could have a situation where 90% of the population believes a policy is wicked, but while the policy can always be disabused or even U-turned on, the disorienting, scary and divisive atmosphere cultivated by all that outrage endures. To the right-wing propaganda machine, it becomes yet more evidence of “American Carnage”, which only the unapologetic strong-man can combat. And that ends up pushing people right, or at the very least pushes them to disengage from politics altogether.

We have been caught in the alt-right’s web, and the more we kick and scream, the more tangled we become. This article was my attempt to cut a few threads.

You offer a diagnosis, but what’s the antibiotic?

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have any panacea to throw at this dilemma, and I’m still thinking it through.

As I hopefully made clear at the end of my original essay, a significant proportion of what might be characterized as liberal over-reach is a right-wing construct, fringe views that have been exaggerated by right-wing media outlets for years. Tomorrow’s exemplar of political correctness gone mad might be a soap-box issue for only a few hundred people, but Fox News will make sure we all know about it by lunchtime, whipping up the predictable vortex of anti-liberal vomit in response, which provokes liberal outrage in turn.

I’m not sure how to counteract this pattern, but at a personal level, I guess the best we can do is to pick our battles more wisely, galvanizing support for the biggest issues while backing off from relative trivialities.

If we witness someone saying or doing something unutterably wicked, we must call them out. But that doesn’t mean we have to leap upon every cause du jour without first considering what it might contribute to the wider atmosphere of toxicity. And if your conservative aunt or uncle regurgitates a Daily Mail talking-point, try to resist the urge to excoriate them. Talk it through, explain your different opinion, make them think. Ask why they feel the way they do without making presumptions.

Don’t play the right-wing’s game. Don’t whatabout and broaden the context. And if someone sticks their head above the parapet to question the party-line of liberal instinctivists, don’t immediately assume that they are saying we should all go out and hug a Nazi.

In summary, the left needs to figure out how to channel anger at the right issues at the right time, while also offering an optimistic vision of the future for people to get behind. Until then, the chasm will widen, good people will continue to turn away, leaving only the angriest and most polarizing voices screaming at each other across the void.

The clock is ticking.


About this Collection


The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'jeremiad' as 'a long, mournful complaint or lamentation; a list of woes.' Following a tumultuous few months in global politics, our collective list of woes grows longer by the day. Henry Wismayer's jeremiad offers some theories on how we got here, and why the succession of political tremors that have left people screaming "this is not normal" are in fact nothing other than a return to business as usual.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'jeremiad' as 'a long, mournful complaint or lamentation; a list of woes.' Following a tumultuous few months in global politics, our collective list of woes grows longer by the day. Henry Wismayer's jeremiad offers some theories on how we got here, and why the succession of political tremors that have left people screaming "this is not normal" are in fact nothing other than a return to business as usual.

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