One of the dangers of contemporary liberalism is that its totalitarian tendencies trade on vague sentiments and slogans–mental gestures that, even if they are not irritable (as Lionel Trilling said of conservativism), are certainly irritating, not to mention pernicious.
Contemporary liberalism works its dark magic through empty avatars like “freedom” and “justice,” which mean nothing more or less than whatever ad hoc significance any given ideologue needs them to bear for his unrelated doctrinaire (and usually lucrative) goals that happen to obtain at the moment.
The problem goes back–as most of our current political problems do–to the French Revolution. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn offered a cogent critique of this tendency to promise that one could eat one’s cake and have it through political means–that one could have, say, both “liberty” and “equality”–as well as the French roots of that tendency in a 1993 address on the Vendée uprising. He stated:
It would be vain to hope that revolution can improve human nature, yet your revolution, and especially our Russian Revolution, hoped for this very effect. The French Revolution unfolded under the banner of a self-contradictory and unrealizable slogan, “liberty, equality, fraternity.” But in the life of society, liberty and equality are mutually exclusive, even hostile concepts. Liberty, by its very nature, undermines social equality, and equality suppresses liberty – for how else could it be attained? Fraternity, meanwhile, is of entirely different stock; in this instance it is merely a catchy addition to the slogan. True fraternity is achieved by means not social, but spiritual. Furthermore, the ominous words “or death!” were added to the threefold slogan, thereby effectively destroying its meaning.
Bob Dylan noticed the same usefully incoherent confusion and sent it up–at the very height of his popularity as a purported figurehead for political and social causes, no less–in 1964 in “My Back Pages.” There, in a delightful savaging of self-important and self-righteous activist academics, he wrote:
A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now
One of the things that is so sharply observed about this, in a way that makes the lines surpass the eloquence even of Solzhenitsyn, is the way that Dylan picks out the way that such affirmations of “liberty” and “equality” function within the supposed intellectual fortress of the liberal university, viz., as dogmatic, sentimental, Romantic, and sacralizing confessions of faith : “I spoke the word/As if a wedding vow.”
Such confessors regard themselves as being on the right side of history, of having evolved to a higher state of insight, of having matured. But it’s a joke, and they’re not in on it; for such empty sentiments are signs, not of an advanced consciousness, but rather of adolescent arrested development that pretends to the wisdom of age. “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”
Under such slogans, vacuous and yet pregnant with a frightening and occult brood, we are currently witnessing one of the greatest revolutions, among many contenders, in American history. And as Solzhenitsyn said, “I would not wish a ‘great revolution’ upon any nation.”
P.S. Do yourself a favor and watch this version, with Tom Petty, Roger McGuinn, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Neil Young–and G.E. Smith!