How to Raise a Good Liberal

A book of virtues for the right-thinking left


Read the first chapter of

vine picture THE best response to a story being another story, I can't resist the temptation to begin talking about this anthology by telling a few tales of my own.

Once upon a time my father, a less than modestly successful businessman, came home from work. That's it. That's the end of the first story. He lost his job and did not go back to work for a long time, no matter how hard he tried to find another job. What sometimes happens happened next: he declared bankruptcy, and eventually he and my mother divorced. There's no moral at the end of that story either--only my life, which continued unpredictably and incalculably (as did my parents' lives).

I'd always been a reader, but at around the time my father became unemployed, when I was sixteen, I turned more purposefully to books--especially fiction, poetry, and drama. That good, bad, glad, sad, mad Hamlet; helpless, murderous Raskolnikov; Cordelia, so absolutely right and so absolutely wrong; haughty, vulnerable Darcy; monstrous, pathetic Ahab; poor, weak, stupid, heartbreaking Hurstwood! Unlike my father's bankruptcy and my parents' divorce, the incidents in those characters' lives never stood humiliatingly alone, trapped behind the bars of monotone facts. I read about situations and personalities, words and gestures, that rose up into the imagination on layers of meaning--so many layers that all these overlapping meanings could cushion a guy when he bounced off the hard rock of social reality and started falling. Art imprismed me in its extenuating colors, and the multiplicity of truth--of morals to be drawn--set me free.

I went off to college after that, and the first semester there I found myself in a course on nineteenth-century European philosophy, taught by a Professor Bridges. There were mostly working-class kids at this school, kids who, like me, wore their best clothes self-consciously and glowingly to class. Bridges himself strode into the room on the first day in a flannel shirt, jeans, and work boots, and delivered the news (this took place fifteen years ago) that he stood for radical change, in the tradition of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. That was fine with me. So long as the revolution had room for people in nice shirts and pants, I would be there. I excitedly prepared to listen to Professor Bridges blow a hole in the hard social facts, the way my favorite authors did.

But that's not what happened. Professor Bridges just kept bouncing our heads off the hard social facts. Bourgeois art--and he considered all "high" art bourgeois art--lied, deceived, oppressed, and betrayed. It offered a way out as a way of keeping us in the system. It did not accurately reflect the forces that crush, as art must always do; rather, its multiple meanings smothered the impulse toward concrete collective action. Bridges was cruder (and more casually dressed) than other supposedly radical professors I encountered when, years later, I attended graduate school in a tonier academic setting. But his crudeness was just the thing to overrun my defenses. I began to hate my bookish ambitions, and to hate the telltale formality of my clothes. He stripped me bare inside and out, and I sat there shaking with the shame and anger I'd felt when my father lost his job.

Since then, as American politics has moved to the right, I've dug in my heels left of center. And as the culture has moved to the left, I've . . . well, let's just say that I've stuck to "high" art and to its saving complexities--those complexities that are neither liberal nor conservative. Two years ago I reviewed William Bennett's The Book of Virtues for The Nation and tried to give Bennett a good taste of his own scourge. My father's experience led me to respond caustically to all that cruel blather about lack of character being a more fundamental social reality than social arrangements themselves. And yet no one had screwed things up like my father. Thus, entangled like Laocoön in those layers of meaning, I read through this new moral anthology, edited by the progressive educators Colin Greer and Herbert Kohl--a volume described by its publisher as the "liberal alternative to the bestseller The Book of Virtues"--and began to recall Professor Bridges.

IN purpose the two anthologies are decidedly similar. Both contain stories, poems, and essays meant to be read aloud by parents, so as to facilitate the moral education of children during their pre-adolescent years--though Bennett thoughtfully adds that he has included some difficult material for children to read as they grow older. Bennett's goal is "to help children achieve . . . moral literacy." Greer and Kohl aim to "encourage young people to read, talk and think about moral issues." In both books editorial commentary highlights the various moral messages that the authors intend their selections to illuminate.

Open these two big books to their tables of contents, however, and they begin to split apart like the primal elements. Bennett divides his anthology into ten sections that cover the moral "field," as he puts it, from self-discipline to faith. Greer and Kohl weigh in with sixteen sections, from courage to love, the sections themselves sorted under four main headings: "Values That Relate to One's Self," "Values That Relate to People One Knows," "Values That Relate to People One Doesn't Know and Nature," "Values That Relate to Love." The two anthologies share six values: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, courage, loyalty, and honesty. Bennett has four that didn't make it into Greer and Kohl's volume: friendship, work, perseverance, and faith. Greer and Kohl have a whopping ten that Bennett never thought of: integrity, creativity, playfulness, generosity, empathy, adaptability, idealism, balance, fairness, and love.

You know that when you have "work" in a volume without "playfulness," and "playfulness" in a volume without "work," you're looking at a genuine difference of opinion. But the gulf between The Book of Virtues and A Call to Character is at its widest when it comes to the values they share. Take the booming introduction to "responsibility" in Bennett: "Responsible persons are mature people who have taken charge of themselves and their conduct, who own their actions and own up to them--who answer for them." Here are the multiculturally sensitive Greer and Kohl on responsibility--after having specified that they compiled this anthology for children aged eight to thirteen:

Responsibility is . . . a readiness to step forward as needed, a capacity to make sound preparations for certain and uncertain prospects. . . . This means paying attention, because it is inattention to the hurt, which can be caused by thoughtless habit and ill-considered convention, that produces so much ill will and conflict between people.

In the former you hear the deadly yin of defunct entitlements, in the latter the pedantic yang of the condescending group leader. Both visions of character are essentially public visions with public aims--character as a vehicle for social change.

ONE person's concept of responsibility has often been another person's burden, and fine sentiments won't pay your health insurance. God loves the poor and helps the rich, as my paternal grandmother told me when I once asked her why she didn't lend my father money. But I marvel at how there can be such a chasm in this country over the idea of character, with liberals on one side and conservatives on the other. It speaks of an intellectual hatred between the two sides, and as Yeats wrote in "A Prayer for My Daughter," "An intellectual hatred is the worst."

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