I finished reading this book a few weeks back and have been meaning to give it a brief review. James Kalb is an online acquaintance whose work I have been following for more than 10 years (see here and here), so the ideas and presentation were not new to me. Suffice it to say that no one, to my knowledge, has spent as much time and intellectual energy studying Liberalism in all of its sordid manifestations as Jim Kalb. This book, therefore, is essential for anyone who wants to understand Liberalism as a contemporary worldview.
I would think that liberals themselves would benefit the most from this book. Liberals (like most people, in truth) seldom understand their own ideas, or why they hold them, or what their implications are, and this book would be, for them, a very enlightening read. Kalb’s approach is more scholarly than polemical, so I don’t think fair-minded liberals would take offense.
The book was difficult for me to get through, however – not because of any flaw in the book, but because I lost interest in understanding Liberalism some years ago after becoming exasperated with its incoherence and fed up with its inner contradictions. Mr. Kalb is much more patient, taking a sociological approach and examining common ideological threads where they do exist.
The puzzle, for me, is how to reverse the accelerating course of Liberalism in Western society and the rapidly approaching tyranny. Kalb is a recent convert to the Catholic Faith and he concludes, as I do, that only the Roman Catholic Church is capable of presenting a single, viable, coherent alternative worldview in the public square. At the same time, he recognizes that Catholicism does not have the history or the momentum in the United States to effectively resist Liberalism on its own. Therefore, he suggests a restoration of the broad religious consensus that prevailed for so long in this land:
“For example, the initial public religion in a more traditionalist America would likely be the one America had before the judicial coup of the sixties: an informally established, minimally doctrinal, and basically Protestant Christianity. Such a restored informal establishment, however minimal, would move American public life closer to what most people and traditions (including those which reject the American public religion as such) believe proper than does our current increasingly pefectionistic establishment of advanced liberalism. Such an arrangement would not satisfy everyone, but the same is true of every conceivable arrangement. Anything more specific (such as Catholicism) would lack the necessary public support; anything more abstract (such as ‘Judaeo-Christianity’) would be an artificial construction not taken seriously. An establishment that reflects how most people actually understand the world could be more moderate and could accomodate varying views more easily than could an absolutist principle of disestablishment. Catholics and Jews did not like it when psalms from the King James Bible were read in public schools, but that practice was far more friendly to Catholicism and Judaism than what succeeded it.”
This is common sense, for the most part. I hope for the same. Apart from restoring an informal religious establishment, Kalb calls for the decentralization of government power and authority (a renewal of subsidiarity), repealing certain antidiscrimination laws, and other measures that would facilitate more local, traditional, familial and cooperative ways of life.
Nevertheless, I can’t be as sanguine as Kalb about the prospects for success. He refers often to what “most people” consider normal, sane, sensible, etc., and generally assumes that if only people were free from harassment by their liberal masters and overlords, Liberalism would go away. That oversimplifies his view, I am sure, but it is my lasting impression from reading his work. Yet in my experience most people are deeply complicit in the reign of Liberalism. Most people – even most so-called conservatives – are ideologically committed liberals whether they know it or not. It has become the default religion of the masses as well as the elites. The masses do retain some conservative and traditional habits of mind, but it usually doesn’t take much to talk such people out of “imposing” their “personal beliefs” (i.e., living out their beliefs in public life) on others. These habits of mind are typically habits without depth of conviction.