Jonah and the Libertines – In his recent NRO Column, Jonah Goldberg maintains that “cultural libertarianism” is the great threat to the American Order. Goldberg has long been grinding his anti-libertarian ax, and here he outdoes himself, putting forth Virginia Postrel and Nick Gillespie as symptoms and causes of the relativistic cultural decline that brings us John Walker.
Goldberg says that while the genuinely open cultural libertarians are less hypocritical than liberals (whose tolerance is a ruse), that openness is really just a symptom of nihilism, which is bad. According to the cultural libertarians:
There are no universal truths or even group truths (i.e., the authority of tradition, patriotism, etc.) ? only personal ones. According to cultural libertarianism, we should all start believing in absolutely nothing, until we find whichever creed or ideology fits us best. We can pick from across the vast menu of human diversity ? from all religions and cultures, real and imagined ? until we find one that fits our own personal preferences. Virginia Postrel can write triumphantly that the market allows Americans to spend $8 billion on porn and $3 billion at Christian bookstores, because she isn’t willing to say that one is any better, or any worse, than the other.
This is wrong. I count myself a cultural libertarian, yet I believe that all truths are universal, in the sense that if a truth is a truth at all, it is a truth for everyone. Who says that we should ever believe in “absolutely nothing”? We should always believe what our careful thought about the available evidence indicates, and these beliefs may be quite firm. Now, I don’t have any idea what a group truth is. Goldberg mentions the authority of tradition, or patriotism. It’s peculiar that he picks these, since tradition and nationalist sentiments are notorious dens of dangerous untruth. But if there is are truths in either, they are grounded in facts independent of the tradition or the sentiments of the people toward their nation.
The truth of a proposition certainly isn’t relative to the individual who entertains it. If it’s in fact good for Bob to become a pianist, then that’s just true, no matter who you are. However, the thing that makes it good for Bob to become a pianist is both something about Bob and something about everyone. Everyone should nurture their talents and pursue goals that inspire them. But Bob should become a pianist because he’s good at it and really likes it. So the grounding for certain univeral truths are in part personal. There is thus no tension between picking from the menu of human diversity and the existence of universal truths.
Here is a universal moral truth: It is good to have a happy, satisfying, meaningful life.
We cultural libertarians understand that there is a great deal of variability among individuals. And the things that are likely to give rise to happy, satisfying, meaningful lives can be very different for different people. Now, if you pick a person, and consider her constitution, experience, capabilities, and so forth, there will be some objective facts about what sorts of things will lead her life to go well. These facts will overlap with the facts that will make anyone’s life go well, just insofar as there are commonalities in human nature. Everyone should have friends, love their families, have meaningful productive work, enjoy aesthetic pleasures, have a good sex life, take time for leisure, etc… The way any particular individual might go about achieving such values is variable and, yes, relative to the person. But this in no way entails or suggests nihilism.
If you ask whether porn or Christian books are better, you have to ask “better in what respect?” If you want to get your rocks off (a genuine moral value!), you’re best with porn. If you want to build your life around limiting, elaborate, socially constructed falsehoods, try a Christian book.
Goldberg is talented at making arbitrary assumptions about the Good in order to attack folks without his peculiar set of prejudices. Here he goes after Nick Gillespie for enjoying himself, and then makes a dumb non-sequitur:
Gillespie confesses that when he was younger, he did “pot and alcohol, mostly, but also acid, mescaline, Ecstasy, mushrooms, coke and meth… Mostly I did drugs because they were fun and I liked the way I felt when I was high.” In other words, if it’s good for me, it’s good for everybody.
Goldberg’s paraphrase has no relation to Nick’s statment. Nick says that the drugs were fun, and that they made him feel good. I’m not sure what Goldberg has against fun and feeling good (he often strains in a striving geek way to project a Sinatraesque alcohol-and-cigars ethic of masculinity), but in any case, Gillespie said nothing about “everybody.” Knowing Nick a little, I think he’d allow that some folks might not feel good and have fun on mescaline. And so they shouldn’t do it. And that they shoudn’t do it would be a universal moral truth.
Golberg owes us moral arguments against porn and drugs if he wants to be taken seriously. Preferring porn over Christian literature isn’t a symptom of nihilism; it may rather be a symptom of a firm grasp on reality, and on what it means to live a really satisfying, non-deluded life on Earth.
What of Johnny Taliban? Golberg writes:
You don’t turn children into responsible adults by giving them absolute freedom. You foster good character by limiting freedom, and by channeling energies into the most productive avenues. That’s what all good schools, good families, and good societies do. The Boy Scouts don’t throw a pocketknife to a kid and say, “Knock yourself out, kid. I’ll be back in a couple hours.” The cultural libertarians want to do precisely that.
If cultural libertarianism is just a synonym from egregious negligence about the well-being of people we love, then to hell with cultural libertarianism! But is Goldberg serious? Does he really think anybody thinks this? Well, if he does, he’s stupid, and if he doesn’t, he’s dishonest. Take your pick.
Cultural libertarianism isn’t a philosophy of child rearing. It is the belief that because there are a vast multiplicity of ways in which human beings might lead happy, satisfying, meaningful lives, we should keep it open to people to find the truly best way for themselves, and we should encourage a dynamic creative culture that reveals new, perhaps liberatory possibilities. But not all possibilities are equal. Some are contrary to basic aspects of human nature, and so should be avoided. Some will be contrary to aspects of a certain individual’s natures. We should certainly limit our children’s liberty in order to keep them safe, and yes, in order to channel their energies into endeavors we believe will lead them to have truly good lives. What about cultural libertarianism, properly understood, contradicts that?
If I had been Johnny Taliban’s dad, I would have argued with Johnny about Islam, because Islam is unintelligent and harmful to a full, happy life. If he would have gone and become a muslim anyway, I would have told him that he’s being stupid, and that I don’t admire him for it. I might even take away the car keys!
I suppose I could characterize conservatism as the belief that one fosters good character by authoritarian suppression of independence through frequent beatings. But conservatives don’t believe that, so it would be stupid to say it. Right?