Last November, as I noted in a recent DEMOCRACY journal review, a New York Times essay by Columbia humanities professor Mark Lilla set off a yuuge controversy by blaming the outcome of the 2016 election and even alt-right rage on liberal Democrats’ captivity racial and sexual “identity politics.” By implicitly casting most whites, especially white men, as privileged, racist, and sexist, liberal Democrats had only added insult to those people’s real economic injuries. So doing, they'd given cover to Republicans claiming to represent and defend the injured and insulted, even as Republicans implemented Reaganomic policies that were ravaging them. Or so Mark Lilla insists.
But why has this supple interpreter of Western political thinkers come down now from the hills of intellectual historiography — from which he watched the electoral Battle of 2016 — to shoot the wounded, politically correct survivors who've already taken body blows from the conservative campaign to discredit them and from Trump himself?
Some of Lilla's own past writing has explained why he’s doing this.
In 2009, rebuking liberal academics for shunning conservative scholars and viewpoints, Lilla told Chronicle of Higher Education readers that he’s touchy about it because “I have experienced similar reactions throughout my academic career. In the early 1980s, I helped edit the neoconservative public-policy journal The Public Interest, and though I haven't considered myself a conservative for at least two decades, many academics I meet are astonished to learn this little fact. Some are rendered speechless. Others ask, ‘Are you still a neoconservative?,’ by which they mean, ‘Are you still beating your country?’”
Lilla isn’t beating his country, but he's letting it down. That he was once a neoconservative of sorts doesn't answer my question about why he’s as hot to correct what he considers a self-indulgent, myopic liberalism as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was eager in 1949 -- in his book The Vital Center -- to rescue liberalism “as an instrument of social change, not of private neurosis” by purging it of its world-saving romantics.
The difference is that the romantics whom Schlesinger was assailing were Communists who’d run Henry Wallace’s 1948 third-party presidential campaign, which almost threw the election from Harry Truman to Republican Thomas Dewey. Although Lilla doesn’t say it in The Once and Future Liberal, the book will reinforce some readers’ belief that Bernie Sanders’ supporters did even more damage than Wallace’s by facilitating Trump’s victory. But Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton, who bested Trump by two million votes.
In blaming identity zealots for liberalism’s setbacks, Lilla is indulging his own romantic, world-saving inclinations, which he described in 2005 in an insightful public self-examination in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. There he recounted that he’d undertaken many different crusades to save very different groups -- secular, religious, left, right – from their illusions and sins.
He wrote that, raised as “Roman Catholic in a blue-collar Detroit suburb,” he was a fairly typical, Mad Magazine-reading, atheistic 13 year old before attending a Christian rock concert that inspired him to join an exhibitionist crusade for Christ. He then read the Bible so intently that it became “my only portal into the realm of ideas - ideas about morality, justice, cosmology, psychology, eschatology, mortality.”
“All teenagers are dogmatists; a teenager with a Bible is simply a more intense teenager,” he reflects. “I relished being a prophet without honor in my own homeroom. Not long after I was saved, I… asked a friend to make me a large leather cross, which I wore around my neck every day, just so people knew where I stood. I prowled the school halls with a leatherbound Scofield Reference Bible tucked under my arm, looking for victims. I even took on teachers, whose skepticism struck me as a sign of spiritual degeneracy… I was doing them a favor.”
“Conversion stories are slippery things,” Lilla reflects. “‘My new life as an evangelical Christian ended almost as abruptly as it had begun, and was followed by other rebirths that took me to college, to graduate school, to journalism, to stints living in Europe, and now to middle age as a professor.”
Each rebirth unleashed a passion to bring along others not yet reborn. Long after leaving Christianity, he went to a Billy Graham rally with a friend for whom it was “an anthropological expedition.” He fell into a discussion with a young true believer in Graham’s message that one must be born again.
“I felt a professorial lecture welling up in my throat about the history and psychology of religion,” Lilla recalls. “I wanted to expose him to the pastiche of the biblical text, the syncretic nature of Christian doctrine, the church's ambiguous role as incubator and stifler of human knowledge, the theological idiosyncrasy of American evangelicalism. I wanted to warn him against the anti-intellectualism of American religion today and the political abuses to which it is subject. I wanted… to help him see there are other ways to live, other ways to seek knowledge, love, perhaps even self-transformation…. I wanted. . .to save him.
The energy and urgency in this passage overwhelm the irony in it, and they haven’t left Lilla yet. “The curious thing about skepticism is that its adherents, ancient and modern, have so often been proselytizers,” he writes. Working on that neoconservative journal in the 1980s under Irving Kristol, whose Two Cheers for Capitalism is a sophisticated apologia for corporate America, Lilla in effect proselytized readers to share his skepticism about liberal Great Society programs.
But in 2004, he marched with liberals in midtown Manhattan to protest Republicans’ gesture to post-9/11 New York in holding their national convention there to re-nominate George W. Bush, the progenitor, with neoconservatives, of the Iraq War fiasco. Lilla had been reborn as their adversary. And now, in The Once and Future Liberal, he's been reborn to save liberals from themselves, not as a conservative or neoconservative but as the liberal he thinks they really ought to be. He wants to do them a favor.
But this is psychodrama, not political engagement. Last year, the death of Robert Silvers, co-founder and editor of The New York Review of Books and another of Lilla’s mentors, prompted him to pen a brief memorial tribute that concludes: “In reading the Review, you always learn something. In writing for Bob, you became something. It was a gift none of us really deserved.” Perhaps Lilla really meant to say that in “becoming something,” he’d been reborn.
So now, too, yet again?