he world is colored by our feelings and vice versa. We feel happier when the sun shines and the skies are blue than when it is overcast and cloudy. We speak of bitter weather, of the cruel sea. John Ruskin called this habit of attributing human characteristics to nature “the pathetic fallacy,” and literature would be very much impoverished without it.
There is another kind of fallacy, less literary, but much more pervasive. An example is when we say something like the following: “This is the best book you can read on (name your subject),” or “Go see (name your film); it is the best movie this year.” We make such statements constantly, as do the reviewers of books and movies. If, however, we follow their advice—take the recommended book into our hands and start reading, or pay $15.00 to see the movie—don’t we often find ourselves disappointed? The book may have been good, the movie, too, but really, excellent, the best? No way.
What we consider “good,” “best,” “excellent,” and so on are matters of what, since the 18th century, has been called taste. And if there is one thing we can all agree on, it’s that taste is an individual thing: I like Manet, you like Lucian Freud. Our personal preferences, for this is what they are, will probably change over our lifetime. By the time we reach middle age, what impressed us when we were 20 will seem immature instead. We “grow”: We read more books, we see more movies. Our opinions evolve.
Nevertheless, when we use words such as excellent, we feel that what we love will also be loved by everyone else, especially our kind of people: our spouse, our friends, our colleagues. We attribute our own feelings to others. To a great extent, this desire to share with others what we love is a very human thing: It indicates a certain universality. At the same time, our judgments of taste—for instance, that a painting or a book is excellent or not even worth considering—are value judgments, and they have a coercive aspect. When I assert that something is good, it does not mean that you too might find it good; it means that what I love, you too should love. This would not be a problem if the matter were restricted to books, movies, art, or, increasingly, food—subjects on which few of us come to blows.
But such value judgments encompass the social and political realms as well, with destructive, cascading effects. We can call it “the liberal fallacy.”
It was in empiricist, wealth-producing England, the concept of taste began to replace objective, eternal standards in judging the perfection or imperfection of works of art and literature.
To explain why contemporary liberalism is about taste and not about disinterested principles, we must take an excursus into the past, to the 18th century, which marked the rise of aesthetics. For most of recorded Western history, theorizing about the arts was limited to very few people, mostly men. The growth of industry and commerce by the beginning of the 18th century produced an incipient educated professional class in Western Europe whose aspirations pulled the rug out from under the earlier arbiters of beauty. This class did not make a living from art or literature, but it purchased paintings, it went on the Grand Tour of Europe, it read the newest literary works, it built splendid mansions. As people of independent means, not necessarily dependent on the power of a monarch, they wanted to have their judgments about their purchases taken seriously. In empiricist, wealth-producing England, the concept of taste began to replace objective, eternal standards in judging the perfection or imperfection of works of art and literature.
The philosopher David Hume (1711–1776), while he conceded that there was no “wrong” subjective response to a work of art, nevertheless sought to give taste a firmer footing and to create authority in the realm of artistic judgment. He argued for approval of certain works of literature across time and cultures by positing the authority of a sort of invisible hand, whose judgments on art would be “universal.” Hume was a man of society and no doubt influenced by the shape of the literary public that existed in England, whose taste could be recognized by their clothes, behavior, and conversation. In 18th-century discussions of the arts, it was universally accepted that the ability to render correct judgments was the preserve of “good society.” There emerged in England what we in the literature business call “criticism.” The job of critics—Pope, Addison, Shaftesbury—was to guide the taste of the public.
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) built on Hume with the criteria he laid out in his 1790 work Critique of Judgment. While excluding from the aesthetic realm such changeable subjective preferences as those for food or dress, Kant made the case for why aesthetic judgments could be regarded as “universal.” For him, our very experience of the world and our ability to come to think about it at all is a matter of interpretation by our different mental faculties. Thus, all perception and interpretation are subjective. In the presence of objects without an objective determination, this subjective response is an aesthetic judgment. Feeling, of course, is not knowledge; it is simply the beginning of knowledge. But it is this ability to respond subjectively—whether to the beauty of sunsets or to the Sistine Chapel—that makes our other cognitive accomplishments possible. The fact that all of us can agree that we are seeing the same object—a rose is his example—is the proof that we share a common, universal human cognitive apparatus. It is because we feel that we are also able to think.
How do Hume’s and Kant’s lucubrations on aesthetics manifest themselves in liberal political opinion? Consider the positive attitude of many liberals toward Europe vis à vis the United States. The idea that Europe possesses a nobler culture than ours has been a feature of American intellectual life since the mid-19th century; that was why Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and T.S. Eliot made their homes abroad. But the general American opinion was that Europe was mired in an undemocratic, aristocratic past while the United States was the country of the future. That view began to change somewhat when the economies of the European nations started to rebuild in the 1960s (after a war that, in the majority of American opinion, they had brought on themselves). Owing to a strong dollar that made European goods affordable, more American consumers were introduced to the best European products. Especially among those with considerable discretionary income, ideas about what is most important in life underwent some alteration.
The person of advanced taste is always on the lookout for the newest object worthy of consideration, one that will set him apart from the crowd.
This combination of taste and politics is the key. The conservative complaint that the media are liberal in their orientation does not address the true advantage that liberals enjoy in forming public opinion on political issues. Most people don’t think much about politics, but they do want to know how to talk to one another, to friends and strangers alike, whether the subject is cars or computers or movies or books or, increasingly, “lifestyle.” The many manifestations of media, including magazines and the Internet, have the role of filtering out the chatter and telling us what the newest books and movies mean. Political opinion is simply another aspect of consumer taste, and liberals lead the way in taste formation.
The liberal media, moreover, inevitably create a crushing conformity of taste: Who wants to be out of step with what “everyone else” is agreed upon, whether it be political opinion or clothing fashion? Taste is not static, and the person of advanced taste is always on the lookout for the newest object worthy of consideration, one that will set him apart from the crowd. Thus, the rapidity with which liberal fashions change and the distaste with which liberals regard those who question them. Liberal political opinion and the molding of consumer taste overlap.
My introduction to the importance of correct opinions and of being on the cutting edge of things came early in my college career, in the 1960s, when I attended my first foreign movies. While there might have been differences in the evaluation of the movies of Ingmar Bergman as opposed to those of Jean-Luc Godard, hardly anyone who valued being in the know would have suggested that Hollywood movies were preferable to either of the two. These opinions, as I noticed, were pronounced as if there could be no room for debate, as if no sensible person could think otherwise. You were simply a dimwit if you preferred films that did not portray existential angst.
In truth, such preferences are simply grown-up discriminations. The connection between aesthetics and liberalism goes much deeper.
In a contemporary American household, and indeed in a European one today, for whom is it obvious—indeed, natural—that the world should conform to their desires? Children, of course, but also those lucky adults who have grown up accustomed to things like good dermatological and dental care. This offers a clue to contemporary liberalism’s emergence alongside postwar American prosperity. The Boomer generation in particular was the first in world history to come of age with such amenities and without the responsibilities that have traditionally been required of young people. The changes of the 1960s (which for most of us were really the early 1970s) was the first manifestation of the way in which the standards of children would take over the nation.
It was not that the Boomers were radical. Most who experienced the ’60s to the hilt—the rock concerts, the peace marches, all the grooving and hanging out, the binges, the balling, the grunge, the dope and acid and psilocybin—got it out of their system. They got jobs. Most married and, outwardly, assumed the forms and traditions of middle-class life. As they went forward, they didn’t want to overturn “the system”; it had rewarded them too well. Unlike the radicals of the ’60s (and of today), they didn’t want the capitalists and the warmongers to be taken out and shot, or the banks and corporations to give up making profits and rewarding stockholders. They simply wanted the system to continue to benefit them.
Therefore, as they began to occupy the institutions their fathers had once occupied, they established a political agenda that reflected their youthful desires: largesse without strings, i.e., without the standards of responsibility and accountability with which they themselves were raised in the 1950s. Contemporary liberalism was invented by young people (by definition dependent on others to cushion the effects of their failures), and its success has been achieved by legislating their values and prejudices.
And that is why contemporary liberalism has nothing to do with the fusty political tradition of John Locke and John Stuart Mill—who believed a civil society was based on free expression and free thought, and that the best government would ensure they were not restricted or trampled upon. The liberalism that dominates today is prodigal, openhanded, spendthrift. It is about caring, about manifesting feeling, about who has the biggest heart—and about excommunicating those who see the world in a different way.
Because they feel, liberals believe that they think.