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‘[The 16th century Dutch Republic] encouraged self-discipline and norms that put limits on the display of wealth.’

UD wondered if David Brooks’ moral endorsement of limits on the display of wealth extended to, well, David Brooks.

At first, finding he not long ago sold a house for $4.5 million, she was ready to pounce.

But when she realized that the UD houselet, bought in 1996 for a virtuous pittance (by ‘thesdan standards) and owned outright, is valued at $1,001,200 — not all that much less than what Brooks paid for his current non-showy house on Capitol Hill — she was inclined to shut up about it.


As to other stuff in this defense of liberalism: Brooks, fundamentally a religious cultural conservative, is always going to have trouble truly defending liberalism, which tends toward secularity and restless change. He puts the search for meaning, transcendence, and community at the forefront of everyone’s basic life demands, but if you’re really itching for these, liberalism ain’t your best bet. Let me cite a passage from an earlier blog entry.


In a recent interview, Adam Gopnik, who wrote a book defending liberalism from left and right attacks on it, observes that

[O]ur hunger for [collective] identity, our need for connection, is overwhelming and … liberalism [some argue] impedes it. Liberalism acts as a stopper on it. [This is Charles] Taylor’s point: We [have a] need to ask, “Where am I?” and liberalism [which is much better at giving us time and space to ask “Who am I?’] doesn’t seem to give a good answer to that.

But, Gopnik continues:

What liberals, I think, would say in response, what my liberalism would say in response, is first of all, liberalism has actually been very good at the project of making community. It’s why we live in New York. You know, I never get over the miracle of New York… A tolerant community is another kind of community. A pluralistic community is another kind of community. I delight exactly in the variety of kinds that I can find every time in New York. That’s not an absence of community. It’s a particular kind of community that we relish.

Is it, though, a community without roots, without stable collective identity, without inherited meanings, symbols, rituals?

Damn right it is.

Is a lack of meaning really worse than a lack of freedom? … What liberalism’s critics appear unable, or unwilling, to address is whether a lack of meaning is a worse problem to have than a lack of freedom.”

Maybe liberalism – “the political order that privileges non-negotiable rights, personal freedoms, and individual autonomy” – issues in some degree of conceptual confusion, and maybe even in a difficulty or refusal to commit oneself to clear philosophical/theological convictions and collectivities – but is this really so unbearable a position to be in?


UD thanks Tammy for the link.

Margaret Soltan, April 1, 2024 8:41AM
Posted in: snapshots from home

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5 Responses to “‘[The 16th century Dutch Republic] encouraged self-discipline and norms that put limits on the display of wealth.’”

  1. Dmitry Says:

    The self-centeredness of New Yorkers has reached London/Paris levels. Gopnik asserts without proof that things are well there but much reportage says otherwise. A lot of that is chronicled on your blog: Selfishness, wealth disparity, insular communities refusing to give the slightest damn of others, and social services stretched and manipulated in unexpected directions and beyond the breaking point.

    Before 9/11, I would hear and read about life in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and Chicago. Occasionally, Dallas, Seattle, Los Angeles, or San Francisco would be in the mix. No longer after that date. If it is good in New York, that’s good enough for everyone. If it isn’t, take from the rest to make NY whole.

    That same New York bred Trump, Giuliani, and a host of others who’ve spotted the lack of community and have turned it into a potent weapon. Some miracle.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Dmitry: I fear that dystopian accounts of the US play right into the hands of Trump.

    NY, a vast city, is not only the civic disaster you sketch. It is also a civic miracle. Gopnik’s right that it is the world’s greatest city, a miracle of social dynamism, entrepreneurial and cultural energy, and all the other great things you get when people enjoy what liberalism offers: freedom, autonomy, a tolerance for change, a tolerance for differences among people, etc. What I do on this blog, what DeLillo does in novels like Cosmopolis, is offer criticism of American/NYC culture; but that doesn’t mean we don’t love the city for the greatness it continues to embody.

    I often think of Don DeLillo’s essay about NYC, written right after 9/11:

    With the end of communism, the ideas and principles of modern democracy were seen clearly to prevail, whatever the inequalities of the system itself. This is still the case. But now there is a global theocratic state, unboundaried and floating and so obsolete it must depend on suicidal fervour to gain its aims…

    [Walking around the city after 9/11, I saw a Muslim woman on a prayer rug placed between two street vendors.] I looked at her in prayer and it was clearer to me than ever, the daily sweeping taken-for-granted greatness of New York. The city will accommodate every language, ritual, belief and opinion.

  3. Dmitry Says:

    There is still something to admire about the US but I will leave the unreadable Gopnik and DeLillo to you. My contacts in the US and certainly outside of it wouldn’t agree with annoying American exceptionalism being further concentrated in NYC. It is a major city but also a petri dish for a lot of disease. People go there to take what they can get and damn the rest. Trump has shrewdly tapped into this.

  4. Rita Says:

    This is pretty weak sauce in my view, like all things written by Gopnik. Seems obvious to me that post-liberals are quite happy to say that lack of meaning is worse than lack of freedom. Hell, even Locke himself could be read to say this, though of course he never thought in terms like “the meaning of life,” but simply in his distinction between liberty and license, whereby liberty is defined as conduct in accord with the law of nature. You have to believe in a law of nature for that to hit, and that entails at least a minimum of teleological thinking about the purpose of human life. Also seems obvious historically that you don’t need liberalism to have freedom, or to put it another way, every non-liberal regime has not been a despotism. I don’t see how setting freedom against meaning really gets us anywhere. What’s better: being a heroin addict living in a tent but having the freedom to choose your gender, or being a 16th C. French nobleman unprotected by a Bill of Rights? Not a hard question, but also probably not a useful one. Way too many more likely outcomes in-between.

    You might like this essay though, by a friend of mine, that tries to define the positive purpose of liberalism in a way that accounts for anti- or non-liberals: https://muse.jhu.edu/pub/1/article/922839.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Major LOL: “but having the freedom to choose your gender”.

    I’ve begun reading your friend’s piece, but I was sidetracked by a link he provided to a rather strange Michael Walzer dance to the music of liberalism. Will go back to the other piece shortly.

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