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.