Rich Lowry actually has a moderately interesting article on liberalism and Piereson’s Camelot and the Cultural Revolution:

American history no longer appeared to be a benign process, but a twisted story of rapine and oppression. “With such a bill of indictment,” Piereson writes, “the new liberals now held that Americans had no good reason to feel pride in their country’s past or optimism about its future.”

There are some problems with this interpretation, not least of which is that the liberal acceptance of a narrative of continuing progress did not actually end in November 1963.  The glossing over of Vietnam, as if it were incidental to the changes on the American left, seems inexplicable.  To the extent that Piereson is right that liberalism became less comfortable with a simple narrative of American history as the advance of freedom and goodness (I think Obama’s understanding of American history, shared by plenty on the left and right, proves that this thesis is actually pretty weak), the disillusionment that resulted confirms that it was the previous naively optimistic view that set liberalism up for any so-called Fall.  Only an absurd kind of patriotism makes taking pride in your country a function of its purity and sinlessness (you might call this the “moral proposition nation” view).   Naturally, no such country has existed or ever will exist in this world, and anyone who starts with the assumption that his country is such a pure and untainted one, somehow outside history or beyond the fallen state of man, will either spend his entire life deluded or will see this fantastic illusion destroyed before his eyes sooner or later.  This is a patriotism that inculcates love of an imaginary place, rather than the actual place where you live, and it encourages disappointment with the reality because it continually fails to live up to the high (and unrealistic) standards of the imaginary world.  Having embraced an insubstantial myth, such a person is unprepared to face the complex reality of his country’s history.  If he cannot see his national story as the unfolding of a morality play, he loses interest or becomes alienated from his own country’s past. 

Perversely, and this is where Piereson appears to have gotten the interpretation wrong, the disappointed optimist becomes even more obsessed with the future (which, as we remember from Camus, authorises every kind of humbug) because the past now appears to him as a string of injustices that mar the image of his country.  In the future, there is the possibility of improvement, while the past offers little or nothing.  His patriotism will be one projected towards a future country in which various “ideals” have been realised.  The more that history fails to match mythical fantasies about the past, the more the optimist will abandon more and more of his country’s past as virtually irredeemable (except for those few precursors and seeds of what came later).  Yet the one thing that the optimist will never abandon fully is the madness that is optimism itself.  Like an addict, the optimist becomes progressively more dependent on the destructive drug of optimism even as it steadily ruins his life.  The worse things get, the more that optimism is shown to be a lie, the more the optimist feels compelled to believe in the lie.

Advertisement