“Once causes are determined, then there is talk of social injustice and the privileged begin to resist.” –Gustavo Gutiérrez
I recently watched a video called Why I Left the Left featuring comedian and talk show host, Dave Rubin, who seems to be popular among clever, secular, atheist (in the worst sense), libertarian “free-thinker” types (Rubin is also a good buddy of Sam Harris, apparently. Do I need to say anymore?); I’d not heard of him until now and only watched the video because one of my Facebook friends had shared it. Rubin doesn’t like progressives (although he used to call himself one) and now describes himself as a “classical liberal” which, from what I can tell, is really just another way of saying libertarian.
I want to reflect on a few things here that Rubin talks about in the video:
1) The “Progressivism” (or “regressive left”) that he rejects/criticizes in the video
2) The “Classical Liberalism” (or libertarianism) that Rubin espouses in the video
3) Freedom, free speech, and trigger warnings
I don’t claim the label of progressive for myself, but it’s for different reasons than Rubin. As I understand it, progressivism really is just a louder form of liberalism, as Rubin says. Although progressives may have a more radical egalitarian approach to some cultural/social issues, they often can be categorized on the existing American political spectrum as center right to center left; so in other words, some progressives are fine with settling for a humane form of capitalism achieved through fundamental reform (center right), while others are focused on the fundamental empowerment of the working class in capitalism but only within capitalism (center left). Essentially, progressives are better than the typical old fashioned U.S. social liberals but generally do not go far enough in challenging structural problems such as the capitalist mode of production that is one of the staples of liberalism, and this is why I personally don’t think of myself as a progressive.
Now, let’s talk about “classical liberalism.” This is what Rubin calls himself, a “classical liberal” (or, let’s be honest, a libertarian). When I hear the term “classical liberalism” here is what I think: the philosophy formed during the Enlightenment by White European thinkers like John Locke, Voltaire, Thomas Hobbes, Rousseau, John Stuart Mill et al. This philosophy provided the driving force for both the American Revolution and the French Revolution. It can be very insufficiently summed up by key concepts like the idea that the autonomy of the individual should be maximized (liberty), and the individual should be freed from whatever institutions are preventing them from reaching their potential (life, liberty, property ((Locke))), be it the Church or the State. Liberals are also famously supporters of democracy, secularism and free markets. Cool, right? Sure. Except history doesn’t stop there. New things are being created in each freaking moment. It turns out that liberalism, while going a long way in helping the West to get over things like feudalism and monarchy, doesn’t go far enough. It’s vision of “liberty” is an anemic, feeble, and parochial one. Liberal/libertarian “liberty” is NOT liberating enough largely because it has zero to say about power.
This brings me to freedom. In the video, Rubin gives a bunch of examples of why he thinks progressivism should really be called “regressivism.” To directly quote the video:
“Progressives used to say: ‘I may disagree with what you say but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it.’ Not any more. Banning speakers who’s opinion’s you don’t agree with from college campuses; that’s not progressive. Prohibiting any words not approved of as politically correct; that’s not progressive. Putting trigger warnings on books, movies, music, anything that might offend people; that’s not progressive either. All of this has led me to believe that much of the left is no longer progressive but regressive.”
Essentially, Rubin thinks progressivism and (I assume) other more radical leftist schools of thought, like Marxism and Anarchism, are regressive because they’re more sensitive to the very real existence of things like power hierarchies and how they shape societies and dictate how people are able to live. Humanist thinker, James Croft, who has also criticized Rubin’s naive libertarianism recently, says it well:
“The classical liberal dream of a level playing field in which individuals, each judged by their character and not their group membership, make their own way unfettered, is precisely that – a dream. It cannot exist until all the restraints of class, money, race, sexuality, gender, ability etc. are removed – exactly what the “progressives” Rubin disdains are trying to achieve.”
This is a critical point to understand. Freedom is a very deceptively complex concept; at face value it seems simple but the fact is that our individual freedoms are constrained by many, many things. For instance I may, conceptually, in another reality (one in which I’m a billionaire) have the freedom to hop on my private jet and jaunt off to my Florida golf club anytime I want. Unfortunately, in *this* reality I DO NOT have that freedom. But you know who does have that freedom? Donald Trump. This is because Donald Trump is a) a billionaire and b) the President of the United States. He’s got power on top of power on top of power. The constraint of geographic distance from Washington DC to Florida does not impede upon his freedom. The constraint of travel cost does not impede upon his freedom. The environmental concerns surrounding owning a private jet and burning jet fuel does not enter his conscience and thus is not a constraint that impedes upon his freedom. Simply put, Donald Trump has more freedom than me because I have more constraints on my freedom.
And look, once these constraints on freedom begin to be recognized, it substantially changes things. One can begin to see the severe deficiency of liberalism/libertarianism, it’s minimalist values and myopic, self-centered version of freedom very clearly. Further, when viewed through a more developed, mature, socially aware lens that recognizes all of these various constraints on freedom (class, money, race, sexuality, gender, ability etc.), Classical Liberals/libertarians begin to look…well, let’s be honest, morally reprehensible and nihilistic. In his great essay on why he left libertarianism, designer, writer and anarcho-socialist (a label I also use for myself, btw), Will Moyer, sums up what I’m saying here very well:
“Political libertarianism [classical liberalism] is a deformation…only attractive to those who valued the sentiments of libertarianism but weren’t principled enough to carry it to its logical (and moral) conclusions.”
In his essay Moyer is right to conclude that the logical and moral conclusion of classical liberalism/libertarianism is something that falls under the umbrella of anarcho-socialism. Regarding constraints that restrict our freedom, Moyer goes on to say:
“A poor Chinese factory worker is far more constrained than a rich white businessman. His range of possible options is tiny in comparison. He is less free. The same may be true depending on your race, gender, class or sexual orientation. The way you were treated growing up — by your parents, teachers and peers — may contribute. The way people like you are represented in media and entertainment may contribute. Social prejudices and cultural norms may contribute. These factors don’t mean people are being outright forced to do anything, but simply that they’re constrained by their environment. We all are, in different ways.”
This notion of being constrained is vitally important, especially when it comes to things like free speech and those terrible things that Rubin thinks are so, so regressive: trigger warnings. I suppose that, yes, from a valueless, morally frail perspective like Rubin’s, things like “political correctness” and trigger warnings and are simply terrible because they make it exceedingly difficult for people who have traditionally been able to say anything they want to continue to say anything they want the way they always have. Now, because of “political correctness,” there is a huge danger of white supremacists being protested and comedians being banned from college campuses for cracking racist jokes on stage. Oh no! I’m reminded of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s famous line that “once causes are determined, then there is talk of social injustice and the privileged begin to resist.” Yes, it’s true, what seems like “regression” to the powerful is really progress for everyone else.
I often think about this sort of thing in very concrete and practical terms. No matter how much I wanted to believe I was completely autonomous when I was younger, as a father it has become increasingly evident just how socially interdependent we all are on each other, and thus constrained by each other as well. I mean, I have responsibilities to my loved ones, and because I love them there are certain things I cannot do; I must try to be self-aware and restrain myself is many ways, otherwise I can’t say I’m a responsible person. For instance, I care about my five-year old son and his psychological development and well-being, therefore, I resist the urge to watch horror movies with him that contain horrific violence, abusive language and adult themed sexual situations (until he’s older at least…). In fact, I appreciate the rating systems that movies, video games, and music have for this very reason. The Motion Picture Association of America’s film rating system, for instance, is used to judge a film’s suitability for certain audiences based on its content. Likewise, it seems to me that trigger warnings are just the next logical step in expanding our scope of care/concern for those around us, those that we love. Freedom of speech is very closely connected here; there are limits to it, constraints. We don’t defame, we don’t slander. In the U.S. someone’s right to free speech/free expression is often times revoked in cases of pornography, obscenity, violence, and stealing intellectual property. I mean, geez, liberalism’s hero, John Stuart Mill, came up with the harm principle which is perhaps the most well-known justification for limitation of free-speech.
In an effort to drive his twisted individualistic point home, Rubin references Martin Luther King Jr. in his little video (as is the habit of all White liberals everywhere), specifically mentioning MLK’s desire that people be judged by their character not their skin color. Well if we’re quoting MLK then we should also remember that MLK was a socialist who was critical of capitalism and also famously said that “no one is free until we are all free.” So if a white comedian getting booed offstage for making a racist joke is a threat in the sense that it’s a metaphorical window closing for white dudes (a constraint), let’s look on the bright side and recognize that it’s also simultaneously a door opening for more voices to be heard that previously weren’t.