‘If the essays in “Thinking Politically” share a single theme, or better, a common tension,’ says Adam Kirsch, ‘it is Mr. Walzer’s effort to reconcile his liberal instincts with his leftist commitments to socialism and cultural relativism.’

The problem for Mr. Walzer, as a left liberal, is that the left has never really shared the morality of liberalism, or even credited it…To the left, the liberal love of freedom is a self-deception, designed to obscure the fact that the material conditions of life leave most [people] unable to enjoy their freedom. The danger of this conviction is that, once the love of freedom is discredited, freedom itself usually follows, as the history of the last century shows again and again. And when freedom is lost, equality — which was supposed to take its place, in the Marxist vision — also disappears, since without the liberal respect for the individual, there is no basis on which to erect equality.

Unless you just swap group equality, ‘community’ equality, cultural equality. Which is exactly what a lot of people seem to have done, often without fully realizing it, or the implications of it.

It is only because he is deeply wedded to liberalism that Mr. Walzer assumes that all cultures can converge on the liberal belief that the self-legislating individual is the ultimate ground of value. Ironically, Mr. Walzer seems to be guilty of the very same error that he chastises in his polemics against John Rawls and the Rawlsians: His ostensibly neutral moral deliberation rests on principles that he smuggles in because he cannot openly declare them.

Ah yes – the ever-present danger. I was reading a long article or declaration from the Vatican a couple of hours ago, and noticing exactly that. It makes certain things crystal clear and leaves obscure the implications of those things – because it cannot openly declare them. It smuggles in the principles that make one set of things more important – more clarity-worthy – than others. Always something to watch for (in self as well as others, of course).

“If each of us walks with his own god, then all of us will sit in peace under our vines and fig trees,” Mr. Walzer writes sanguinely. But the assumption that our god wants us to sit in peace, rather than to convert the heathen, is already a thoroughly liberal assumption, which would find no purchase in, say, fundamentalist Islam.

Another assumption is that we will all even be able to sit in peace under our vines and fig trees. What will actually happen is that prosperous men will be able to sit in peace under their vines and fig trees while women do all the domestic work and unprosperous men cultivate the vines and fig trees.

The alternative to this illusory neutrality would be openly to confess that liberalism is a positive creed, which holds some human types and some forms of society to be better than others. Such an admission would considerably ease Mr. Walzer’s difficulties in articulating a criticism of the enslavement of women — a practice he clearly loathes but finds it hard, given his axioms, to directly condemn.

Yes. JS and I are busy doing that for this book that articulates a criticism of the enslavement of women (that’s why I was reading a Vatican declaration a couple of hours ago). We openly confess that we hold some forms of society to be better than others. That item is much too big to smuggle.

4 Responses to “Smuggling”