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Neil Jumonville & Kevin Mattson: Liberalism for a New Century

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Jumonville, Neil & Kevin Mattson, eds. Liberalism for a New Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007)

The thirteen essays--unnecessarily divided into three sections--are uneven in quality, but the book is nonetheless worth reading in its entirety. The pieces cover various aspects of liberalism, and touch on everything from Mapplethorpe's photos to Arendt & Niebuhr on the Brown desegregation decision. John Patrick Diggins' essay on "The Contemporary Critique of the Enlightenment" (pp. 33-57) is excellent, and he has gained a new reader for his prolific works. E.J. Dionne's Foreword starts the book off well,

The liberalism that emerged in American politics during the Progressive, New Deal, and civil rights eras was not simply a set of nice thoughts and good intentions. It was the essential concept in creating the America that conservatives, no less than liberals, now embrace as their won. Put another, way, absent the achievements of liberals, I doubt that conservatives would love this country as deeply as they do today. (p. ix, EJ Dionne Jr., Foreword)

followed by the editors' Introduction:

Our book of essays seeks to explicate ideas and values, and we do not seek to dodge the culture wars but to fight them by explaining what liberals believe. In this collection, we and our fellow contributors are less interested in explicating policy that in illuminating core liberal principles of the past and in exploring how they can become more relevant today. (p. 9, Neil Jumonville, and Kevin Mattson, Introduction)

As an example of the pieces chosen for inclusion in this volume, contrast the following paraphrase of Arthur Schlesinger's views:

To Schlesinger, American conservatism was little more than a smoke screen to advance the economic interests of business. It was dangerous because the business community, incapable of seeing beyond its own short-term interests, would provide poor political leadership. (p. 65, Jennifer Burns, "Liberalism and the Conservative Imagination")

to this quote from far-right favorite Ayn Rand (excerpted from John Galt's infamous speech in Atlas Shrugged):

"Now you have placed modern industry, with its immense complexity of scientific precision, back into the power of unknowable demons-the unpredictable power of the arbitrary whims of hidden, ugly little bureaucrats. A farmer will not invest the effort of one summer if he's unable to calculate his chances of a harvest. But you expect industrial giants-who plan in terms of decades, invest in terms of generations and undertake ninety-nine-year contracts-to continue to function and produce, not knowing what random caprice in the skull of what random official will descend upon them at what moment to demolish the whole of their effort. Drifters and physical laborers live and plan by the range of a day. The better the mind, the longer the range. A man whose vision extends to a shanty, might continue to build on your quicksands, to grab a fast profit and run. A man who envisions skyscrapers, will not." [emphases added]

How would Rand modify this observation in the present era, when industrialists plan in terms of their personal golden parachutes, look no further ahead than the next quarter's profit statement, and eschew anything resembling long-term goals (e.g., investment in R&D, funding pensions and health insurance plans, etc.) that might benefit anyone other than themselves? She certainly couldn't claim that society's investments in education and infrastructure are anything other than long-range vision: far longer than short-sighted business executives and investors.

I write this not to belabor Rand's well-known shortcomings, but to indicate the type of ruminations that this intriguing collection can spark. Do yourself a favor by reading it and finding out what conclusions you draw. Amy Sullivan has my Quote of the Day:

The dirty little secret is that conservatives rely on religious rhetoric because they have to. If they don't, Americans might notice that they're not walking the walk in policy. They're not caring for the sick, the poor, the widowed, the orphaned. They're not acting as stewards of God's green earth. They are suffering the little children, but not in the way that Jesus meant. (p. 173, Amy Sullivan, "Liberalism and Religion")

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