Recent vicious liberal hypocrisies delivered with breathtaking impunity, along with "the despotic propensities of the administrative entitlements state" (Paul Rahe), have turned my mind to the late Richard Rorty. He gives perhaps the most insightful, because refreshingly honest, summation of the liberal mind and how it views conservatives that I've ever come across:
“[W]e American college teachers . . . assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank. . . You have to be educated in order to be . . . a participant in our conversation . . . So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours . . . I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei [domination free] about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft [domination] of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents . . .I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause.”
--Richard Rorty (source).
Rorty is by far the most intelligent of all contemporary liberals. I do not mean this ironically or facetiously. He explicitly affirms what liberals otherwise implicitly or confusedly believe: truth doesn’t really exist. His comparing himself with Nazis, something he does in many places in his writings, means he acknowledges that intellectually no difference exists between his social democracy and national socialism: truth is ultimately a matter of feeling or sentiment, morality a human creation. Even prominent liberal Sam Harris, who vociferously believes science establishes the objectivity of "values," admits in The Moral Landscape that morality (“responsibility”) is a social construct. Tellingly, this is buried in a footnote on p. 217.
This is all to say that, in principle, liberals deny anything is good.
This may seem an outrageous or impossibly vague claim. I offer as an entry-point to its elucidation an interview with British journalist Melanie Phillips (hat tip: Judith Levy) on Israeli television. Therein she made a remarkably courageous and brilliant statement in light of incontrovertible, factual, rock-solid truths about Israel and its right to exist and to defend itself:
“Western intelligentsia is signed up to a way of looking at the world which is what I would call 'ideological' – it’s to do with ideas. And long ago, it lost the idea, it lost the belief in truth. That there’s such a thing as truth."
That this is the most pithily eloquent and incisive comment I’ve ever heard coming from a public intellectual (at least on television) is somehow beside the point. And the issue here isn't Israel per se. Ms. Phillips says, on the one hand, this is a war that must be waged against the Left at the level of ideas. And yet, the whole problem is that the Left is "ideological."
It's an interesting contrast, one which bears some commentary.
A different way of describing Phillips' juxtaposition of truth and ideology is to say that for the intelligentsia facts and truth are essentially projections of will, and as such are created, not discovered. As Rorty intimated in the foregoing quote, the good is willed. The good is willed even though (or precisely because) in principle nothing is good.
But at a perhaps deeper level, the problem is the mistaken belief that facts and truth are equivalent -- or that empirical facts exhaust the realm of what can be labeled true. Belief that the fact/value distinction is true, or that all judgments of good are actually judgments of “value” and hence ultimately coeval with faith, renders the spouting of facts otiose and unavailing against those whose souls (habits, tastes, conception of the good) have been (mis)shaped politically in certain ways or by family upbringing.
All politics and all Western philosophy come down to one fundamental question: what is the given that's outside my will? Or: Are ends and purposes created or given? Will implies creation. If ends are created, then there is no conflict. There is no politics. History is at an end. One is simply a Last Man because the end is created by the will itself: "Willing is resoluteness toward oneself, but as the one who wills what is posited in the willing as willed" (Heidegger: Nietzsche, Volume I, p. 40). As such, the will rejects any notion of good and evil, or any sense of friends and enemies. The will posits its own end.
Ergo the mind of most liberals can be summed up as: "people who feel like me are 'good'; people who don't are bad." Liberalism is driven exclusively by sentiment. But sentiment is just a denomination of the will. The Obamas of the world fundamentally do not have an argument for why a Hitler or Ahmedinejad should feel differently. How does Obama know when liberalism has finally reached its goal? Answer: when Obama doesn’t feel any more guilt or pity. His only real enemies are those who -- no doubt “clinging to guns and religion” -- think America actually has friends and enemies. Any homogenizing statements about Islam linking it to terrorism are tantamount to racism and bigotry, but Tea Partiers who want smaller government are crypto Klansmen. This tracks the extremely peculiar paradox of pacifists: they hate, and they want (if they understand themselves correctly) to make war against, those who want to make war not love.
The nub of the issue is this: Liberals simultaneously will argue for what is relative and for what they take to be true. To make a long story short, they affirm relativism is true. Precisely speaking, nobody is nihilist. No one can fully embrace nihilism. Rather, everyone is political. However, you can’t just go by what people say.
To the extent liberals don't sound like nihilists, they're simply politicizing nihilism. Or they're moralizing amorality. They're moralizing their politics which is predicated precisely on nihilist individuality -- i.e., liberation from all constraints outside the will; liberation from any concrete standard of good (natural or divine) that can guide the will.
Rorty intellectualizes this nihilism; he intellectualizes the paradox of arguing both for relativism and for what one takes to be true. Modern liberalism essentially says: "we know there is no right or wrong" -- the subtext of which is: all right and wrong, and all social roles, are historically based; they are projections of historical will; they are products of evolving standards of decency. But this evolution has devolved into nothing more than a blind leap of faith, as William Voegeli shows succinctly (p. 67, Never Enough). Enter Rorty who says: "I want to dispense with whether something is true or false. I just want to talk about what's good or bad." So Rorty actually writes that Nazism is no less true than his social democratic sensibilities. Consider Thomas G. West who discusses this in his excellent introduction to his Four Texts on Socrates:
[Rorty says] if Hitler had won World War II, it would have established “fascism [as] the truth of man, and so much the worse for us.”
[Rorty:] "There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves, . . . no rigorous argumentation that is not obedient to our own conventions. . . . All thought inevitably derives from particular standpoints, perspectives, and interests . . . [Scholars should abandon] the ideal of objectivity and disinterest" that has been the aspiration of Western science and philosophy at least since Socrates.
--Rorty, "The Fate of Philosophy," The New Republic, October 18, 1982, quoted in Sanford Levinson, Constitutional Faith (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 176.
Rorty knows social democracy is no different intellectually than national socialism. His response simply is to say, quite literally: "who wants to be a Nazi?" Ergo Rorty intellectually embraces the idea that the only thing that matters is will or instinct or feeling. It has no objective meaning or content. Rorty is therefore essentially an intellectual demagogue, because he simply tells passive, untutored, slavish people what they already think: "Feel good about your instincts or feelings."
But this is simply a dodge. Rorty is not fully embracing nihilism.
If he were really honest, he would have to intellectually embrace the politics of something like Nazism -- not because Nazism is true, but rather, on the basis of his democratic slavishness, to actually see, not in some cast-off line in his writings, but to actually see the "truth" of something like Nazism.
He can't have it both ways. He can’t say, "I'm going to deny that the good I seek is true, and that it's just will to power."
In nutshell, what this says is that, to put it in Nietzschean terms, no one except the superman can admit the truth of will to power: that there is no meaning in the world ("error is not blindness, error is cowardice," Nietzsche, Ecce Homo), that all meaning is just a projection of will.