Re: Freedom for What?

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In response to Freedom for What?

Yuval Levin has some excellent thoughts below about the First Amendment’s implied guarantee of the freedom of association. “The question,” as he puts it, is “whether what the freedom of association protects is the capacity for formation or the capacity for expression.” In the end he wants it to protect both: “We should think of these rights” — i.e., those grouped “under the rubric of the freedom of association” — “not only in terms of expressive association but also in terms of formative association.” I think that’s exactly right.

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Yuval also writes:

The freedoms laid out in the First Amendment serve in part to protect our institutions and traditions of formation  —  to enable the development of the capacities we require to be responsible human beings and citizens. To describe what these institutions let us do as “expressive” is to overlook the anthropological assumption that underlies most of these institutions, or to reject it in favor of a shallower view. There is, after all, another kind of anthropology in which a liberal society could try to root itself. This view suggests that the human person is born ready to be free, and requires only liberation from the impositions of oppressive social strictures and some means for self-expression.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that the dispute between these two views of the nature of the human person is the question at issue in our culture wars, now and pretty much always.

Here I do find myself disagreeing slightly. I share the view that institutions play a necessary role in shaping individual character. But I also think that “now and pretty much always” is an exaggeration.

The history of America shows this very clearly on the matter of race; both before and after the Civil War, major legal and civil-society institutions formed individuals in a way that was morally indefensible, and our nation paid a terrible price for it. And on the contemporary scene, while it seems true that the prevailing style of the Left is Jacobinistic and destructive, there are also those who make arguments for reforms of traditional institutions but have no wish to see them destroyed. The expressive role of both individuals and institutional subgroups ultimately makes institutions healthier — by presenting sound reforms when they are needed, and by discharging tensions through discussion even when they are not. We should not forget that historical Jacobinism itself arose partly because the absolutist and morally indefensible ancien régime had incubated a spirit of radicalism by precluding meaningful possibilities of reform until it was too late.

One of the arguments of recent conservative critics of American liberalism — I have in mind people such as Catholic integralists or neoreactionaries — has been that liberalism inevitably degenerates into the kind of cultural Jacobinism we see today. But I think it’s plausible that today’s extremisms trace more directly to prior failures of liberalism.

On the matter of race, I think that’s fairly obvious: My view is that we still have progress to make, but that it’s nonetheless absurd for the Left to perpetuate a language of damnation that would be appropriate only in describing intentional acts of evil. The history of such acts, however, and the social dysfunctions they left behind, makes it hard for a more moderate discourse to take hold.

And while I find it appalling that some on the right continue to believe that Edgardo Mortara should indeed have been baptized without his parents’ consent and judicio-religiously kidnapped  — or, for that matter, that it was right to burn heretics — I can also see the expression of such views as an insecure reaction to an illiberal legal and cultural hostility that religious traditionalists find directed at their institutions and those who freely choose to remain part of them. I suspect that that hostility itself cannot be separated from the tendency, again owing to our uniquely* illiberal racial history, to see all disputed social matters as similar to the struggle for racial equality.

What can save us today, I think, from reciprocal and mutually amplifying Jacobinisms of right and left is a recognition of three things: the formative value of institutions; the reality that institutions are often flawed and sometimes indefensible; and the need for free and open discussion, as distinct from cancellation of dissent and institutional arson.

(*Afterthought: “Uniquely” may be unjustified, given the practice of racial slavery elsewhere; though on the other hand the abolition of slavery in, say, Brazil was not followed by a period of continued legal racial discrimination. In any case, the American practice was uniquely hypocritical in a nation that had expressly defined itself in liberal terms, and so uniquely damaging to that self-understanding.)

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