Comments on Palin and Pop Liberal Culture


    Here's a quick response to comments on my post last week re Sarah Palin's stylistic debt to popular liberalism, or more precisely, the culture that popular liberalism helped shape.  Mainly I want to respond to the suggestion that I have maligned liberalism by associating it with Palin's illogic, solipsism, sense of aggrievement and tendency to dismiss criticism as hate speech or libel.  

     I probably should have explicitly acknowledged the obvious --  that, like most isms, (feminism, conservatism, socialism, or libertarianism) liberalism is not monolithic.  It is, however, marked by dominant trends, especially in its popular incarnations.  The liberalism of John Stuart Mill, for example, (notably his defense of free speech) is difficult to reconcile with what passes for liberalism on college campuses today.  It's true that, back in the 1980s, when Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin proposed restricting pornography as a civil rights violation, they met with resistance from many traditional, liberal civil libertarians, (like me.)  It's true that a federal appeals court struck down a local ordinance based on their model anti-porn statute almost 25 years ago.  But while anti-porn feminists lost that battle, they won the war to cast censorship as a respectable, even necessary means of advancing equality.  

     Anyone who doubts the diminished regard for free speech and the enhanced support for censorship among many liberals and progressives might consider the ACLU's recent absence from some important free speech battles; (on the ACLU board, sympathy for restrictions on hate speech has increased significantly in recent years.)  Or review (at speech and harassment codes, sensitivity training or attitude adjustment programs common on presumptively liberal campuses.  (The sanctimonious, small-minded disregard for individual rights reflected in these policies has been sharply criticized and satirized for some 15 years; still it flourishes, and as a result, students with libertarian or civil libertarian sympathies, are apt to view liberalism as synonymous with repression.)  
     The connection between the rise of liberal censorship and pop therapeutic notions of victimization, abuse, and self-esteem is evident, and I have explored it in at least a couple of books. (Analyses and arguments bear repeating when the problems they address persist.) Like censorship, pop psychologies prosper right and left, of course. (The recovery movement that feminism helped popularize in the 1980s and 90s was rooted in religion, and its customs were eventually adopted by modern evangelicals, as Alan Wolfe documented in The Transformation of American Religion.)

     So I would not characterize censorship, solipsism, self-aggrandizement, or a preference for feelings over facts as either liberal or conservative impulses, but I do think it's more than fair to say that the forms they take in contemporary culture owe much to pop liberalism and not incidentally, the drive for diversity and equality.  To persist in believing that popular American liberalism today is dominated by regard for reason and civil libertarianism is to remain in what a recovering person would probably describe as a dangerous state of denial. 

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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