lifestyle; rather, it must be given politicalrnrecognition as an authentic moralrnstance. Tendencies, behavior, and orientationsrnpreviously classified as deviantrnnow demand civic and political approbation.rnThis kind of “identity absolutismrnlends itself to expressivist politics, therncelebration of feeling or private authenticityrnas an alternative to public debaternand political judgment.”rnThe “politics of difference” could berndescribed as multiculturalism run amok.rnIt is at the confluence of two rigidly held,rnbut perhaps irreconcilable, convictions:rnthat humanity is divided into discrete,rnincommensurate moral, cultural, or ethnicrnidentities, and that all of these identitiesrnare morally equivalent. As Elshtainrnexplains, the process actually begins withrna suspicion of equality, which, it is supposed,rnhas the effect of imposing thernsame set of social or political standardsrnand expectations across ethnic, sexual,rnand cultural lines. Such an impositionrnis a denial of the unique characteristicrnattributes of groups, and to this extentrnit is violent and dehumanizing. On thernother hand, our deeply egalitarian sensibilityrnwill not allow us to regard one wayrnof knowing, or any single form of culturalrnexpression, as superior to another.rnTherefore “we now impose a commonrncondition on ourselves in the name ofrndiversity.”rnObviously our condition is rooted inrndeep individual and group resentment,rnthe wooden stake in the heart of any politicalrnregime. Resentment may manifestrnitself either through direct violencernand coercion, or through retreat into discreternenclaves which demand to be seenrnas different from, but treated the samernas, everyone else. Or, it demands thernsame social and political status. In eitherrncase, reasoned political discourse is oncernagain the victim. A politics of resentmentrnwill always be a politics of irrationalrnpower, in which argument surrenders tornassertion.rnElshtain does a nice job of parsingrnthese and other social pathologiesrnin our contemporary democratic society,rnand of pointing to the serious possibilitiesrnof future discord and strife. Hers is arnsobering (though never hopeless) vision.rnHowever, a few shortcomings in herrnanalysis leave the reader dissatisfied.rnElshtain’s unrestrained commitmentrnto pluralism is a blind spot in her analysis.rnFor instance, she begins curiously byrnidentifying John Courtney Murray, S.].,rnas “the great American Catholic pluralist.”rnNow, to be sure, Fr. Murray was arnpluralist, but of a very restrained sort; itrnwas not his primary identification. “Religiousrnpluralism is against the will ofrnGod,” he once wrote. “But it is the humanrncondition; it is written into thernscript of history. It will not somehowrnmarvelously cease to trouble the City.”rnElshtain nicely summarizes the troublesrnof the modern City, but she fails to askrnwhat role pluralism, inevitable as it is,rnmight play in these troubles.rnThis is by no means to suggest thatrnpluralism ought to be condemned orrnovercome; indeed, properly understood,rnpluralism can be a blessing to any society.rnBut some of the social problems inrnour democratic culture may be rootedrnnot in a corruption of pluralistic democracyrnbut in the genius of the systemrnitself. Elshtain’s failure to note this isrnexemplified in her tendency toward thernend of the book to lump all politicalrnpositions into the seemingly exclusiverncategories of “democrat” and “antidemocrat.”rnThe onus for any critic of our currentrndemocratic malaise is to show how it is arncorruption of liberal democratic pluralism,rnrather than an inevitable result of it.rnSuch an analysis must start by askingrnwhat it means to claim that we hold itrn”self-evidently true” that “all men arerncreated equal.”rnThe idea that there are such things asrnself-evident truths is itself highly problematic.rnBut leaving aside the epistemologicalrnproblem, the political implicationsrnof such an idea can be extremelyrndangerous. If I hold self-evident truthsrn(or truths I think are self-evident), thenrnby virtue of that I am a rational person.rnBut if you do not share my understandingrnof these self-evident truths, this is evidencerneither of your irrationality or ofrnyour bad faith. In either case, you cannotrnbe expected to be a democratic citizen,rnas you will not yield to obvious reason.rnAnd, of course, if your obduracy isrnthreatening to me, I may be forced tornimpose some sanctions against you.rnThis is especially a problem if you do notrn(or at least pretend to) hold it to be selfevidentlyrntrue that all men are createdrnequal.rnOn the other hand, if all men are createdrnequal, then the obvious implicationrnis that all men’s opinions are equal (exceptrnthe opinion that not all men are createdrnequal). And if all men’s opinionsrnare equal, the possibility of one personrnmaking a rational judgment about therncontrary opinions of another is eliminated.rnAny “disagreement” will be a functionrnnot of rational analysis and deliberation,rnbut rather of willful assertion. And,rnas Elshtain understands, such willful assertionrndoes not even rise to the level ofrnauthentic disagreement, since disagreementrnrequires a common arena of rationalityrnin which we can agree on whatrndoes and does not count as being reasonablyrnvalid. In such a state of affairs, conversationrnceases, shouting begins, andrnviolence is not far behind.rnNow few people (if any) really believernthat all men are created equal. The axiomrnis a useful tool, by which we all agreernto treat one another as we wish to berntreated. But the idea can still be used asrna powerful weapon against dissentingrnopinions in a political society based uponrnconsensus. If all opinions are equal, thenrnno opinion may be overridden, since torndo so would violate one of the truths wernhold to be self-evident. It is easy to seernhow group rights and the politics of differencernand displacement grow fromrnsuch a state of affairs. If I declare myselfrna sovereign opinion-holder, and ally myselfrnwith other like-minded sovereignrnopinion-holders, then no one has a rightrnto exclude me from the conversation.rnMoreover, by the canons of our mutualrnlife, my group and I are entitled to thernsame respect, dignity, and public affirmationrnas any other person or group.rnJean Elshtain has a written a concisernaccount of many of the pathologies thatrnbeset our democracy. But she fails tornlook deeply enough into the question ofrnthe roots of these pathologies. For instance,rnshe notes that “each time we feelrncalled upon to justify something politically,rnwe tend to make our concerns farrnmore individualist and asocial than theyrnreally are by reverting to the language ofrnrights as the ‘first language’ of liberalrndemocracy.” But “rights talk” is the firstrnlanguage of liberal democracy, and werncannot deny its role in shaping our politicalrnconvictions. In short, if, as Elshtainrnrightly asserts, “Democracy . . . is aboutrnthe habits and dispositions and everydayrndoings of a people,” then democracy, perrnse, cannot be exempt from scrutiny asrnwe search for the causes of our politicalrndifficulties. We are becoming what wernhave told ourselves we are; we have removedrnthe idea of public good from ourrnpolitical foundations, but we continue tornexpect people to respect the public goodrnitself.
January 1975April 21, 2022By The Archive