Matt Purple, managing editor: I sat out our last argument over pop political theory, touched off back in 2013 by the publication of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, a book I still haven’t read. To make amends, I’m closely following the current controversy over—talk about going back to first principles!—nothing less than the classical liberalism that undergirds the American founding. I’ve already read Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, which rejects that tradition by caricaturing it as a time bomb destined to explode our institutions and atomize us as individuals. Now along comes Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, the opposite terminus of opinion on classical liberalism. Whereas Deneen sees the Western psyche as haunted and lonely, Pinker can’t fathom why it’s so ungrateful towards its inheritance.
I’m only 50 pages into Pinker’s tome, but its very first page can flavor the water. A student in one of Pinker’s classes raises her hand and asks: “Why should I live?” Fear not, Pinker chortles, “my policy is that there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” His answer is pure Bill Nye the Science Guy: you can think! You can reason! You can appreciate the world’s richness, inquire about its mysteries, and improve the human condition! That the soul might need something deeper than this goes unconsidered, at least so far; it is liberation alone that nourishes Pinkerian man, liberation from superstition, poverty, and “authority” itself. If this is liberalism, then Deneen may have a point. Nonetheless there is worth in Pinker’s exercise, if only because affirming our present can dispel the mirages we sometimes see in our past. It is a good thing that we no longer fear witches in the woods or torture criminals on racks, that infant mortality rates have plummeted and famines rarely devastate communities, and we have the Enlightenment to thank for that.
On the fiction front, I’ve been wrapping up the fourth entry in John Updike’s Rabbit series, Rabbit at Rest, amidst news that the novels will be adapted for TV. I’m not entirely convinced this is a good idea. Updike was our bard of the mundane, forever intruding on his dialogue to painstakingly describe what other writers would dismiss as too small. When applied to his favorite subject, the carnal, the effect could be absurd (he once compared a penis to a cucumber, a salmon, a cashew, a banana, and a sweet potato in a single sentence), but when done right it produced little starbursts of familiarity as the reader recognized exactly what he was portraying (on airport music: “plucked strings, no vocals, music that’s used to being ignored, a kind of carpet in the air, to cover up a silence that might remind you of death”—we’ve all been there). But how do you import that onto TV where a background melody is just a background melody? You can’t and I fear the writers will decide to fill the space by magnifying the novels’ (already frequent) sex scenes. We’ll see.
Daniel Kishi, associate editor: If Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now represents one end of the spectrum, and Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed represents the other, Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, published in 1991, falls far closer to the latter.
Much like Deneen, Lasch believes that a liberalism that prioritizes “progress” and is untethered from republican and democratic virtues is a liberalism destined for failure. Lasch believes that “the modern conception of progress depends on a positive assessment of the proliferation of wants.” Allergic to any concept of limits, constraints are anathema.
Lasch is unsparing. This “insatiable” thirst for “more”—more autonomy, more freedom, more material comfort and wealth—animates both the contemporary Left and Right. In Lasch’s estimation, the Right’s commitment to capitalism and an unfettered free market is equally as destructive of families and communities as the sexual liberation project of the progressive Left.
In The True and Only Heaven Lasch identifies historical critics of “progress,” concluding that its most effective critics can be found in the populist tradition of the 19th century. Equally rooted in democratic, liberal, and republican traditions, the populists of this era believed that “property ownership and the personal independence it confers are absolutely essential preconditions of citizenship.” More specifically, it believed in “producerism; a defense of endangered crafts (including the craft of farming); opposition to the new class of public creditors and to the whole machinery of modern finance; opposition to wage labor.”
Published almost three decades ago, Lasch’s critiques will sound fresh to readers in 2018. Cracks in the consensus of the Center have given rise to populist movements on both ends of the political spectrum. Although Lasch, who died in 1994, anticipated this populist uprising, it’s unlikely that he would have been enamored by either Donald Trump (and his faith in the market) or Bernie Sanders (and his faith in states). For those dissatisfied with the fanaticism of the Center—but who find the populist brands of Trump and Sanders unpalatable—The True and Only Heaven is essential reading.