Restore pleasure of boundaries
I applaud Sam Goldman’s very sensible defense of a sensible American freedom. First, because he relies on the late Peter Lawler, the postmodern conservative, the American intellectual who has shown everyone that wit and wisdom are one. I offer this as a distillation of the principle at work in Sam’s mind: Moderation should never be separated from wisdom. Regardless of how advanced we are in running our affairs, we should also remember our limits.
Second, we all speak of a crisis because today we are forced to remember our limits in a very uncomfortable way. To counter this bad habit, Sam suggests defending the freedoms of the person, our associations, and self-government the American way. Together, these freedoms allow Americans to live their lives largely at their own discretion. It may break our hearts to admit that freedom needs to be defended, but it should also give us something worth doing with our lives.
Like Lawler, who seemed to graze when he was on the ground or preparing a shocking insight, Sam also examines so much history that I have to limit myself to human nature when discussing the defense of freedom. He works out dubious jargon for what most of us non-academics call human nature: we all have our own minds and act accordingly, we are not just string puppets or instinctively guided animals. But human nature is now impressively threatened by technopolitical threats, both at home and abroad, that will determine our lives for a generation or two.
If we grant Sam’s belief that human nature creates our freedom, we immediately see how it is threatened, most obviously from China. Sam sums up our legacy of what we think makes us civilized – religion, politics, science – but America now has an enemy that includes only science and rejects the rest. What if technotyranny, including terrible atrocities and what we call genocide, is perfectly compatible with the height of modernity – progress?
This is different from the Nazi and Soviet threats. As the names suggest, these were very limited political movements that were not even relevant to the countries they ruled. Obviously, Germany and Russia are not threatening our freedom today, while Nazi and Soviet are mere names that remind us of the possible perversions of our belief in progress. But China, a world of its own, has nothing to do with the transatlantic modernity Sam is talking about. This raises questions about human nature.
Does freedom, as Sam says, include philosophy, politics, or belief? Or just technology, trade and tyranny – convenient freedom from the worries that make us partisan and contentious? We also see this threat to our ordinary life in our own elites. They want managed democracy, that is, gentle despotism, to reduce us to Chinese obedience. If Xi Jinping doesn’t believe that human nature sets iron boundaries to our actions and that China doesn’t collapse like the Soviets, what then?
As Sam says, freedom is primarily a way of life – not a theory. We will defend it or cease to be who we are. Our convictions and competencies are put to the test to see whether we can cultivate an elite that defends and embodies them. We need an elite to lead us in this competition with a much more populous country that is apparently also richer than us and perhaps also more technologically competitive. The confusions of freedom in this unique conflict will be cleared if we survive.
Maybe freedom has to be on the defensive just for clarity – as opposed to tyranny. But now we can no longer believe that the rest of the world is waiting to believe in and practice the American way of life, and that America is moving from triumph to triumph on the progressive path to the end of history.
Lawler did not study foreign policy, but he understood very well the domestic problem of our confused freedom – our understanding that we are persons. His writing about personality was primarily directed against what he termed liberal-libertarian convergence. This makes him a prophet as most Conservatives fear the combination of Silicon Valley and academic progressives now entrenched in corporate human resources. Lawler also taught that commerce – corporate capitalism – is at the core of the personal computer
This is the deeper danger, the pressing concern for human nature. What if our elites believe robots and algorithms are better than humans or a necessary correction of human fallibility? What if elites don’t believe in people as much as they believe in AI? Our everyday lives, our desire to make ourselves more moderate by taking our own affairs into account, would face a terrible injustice, the denial of our fundamental rights.
Perhaps the dominance of business over conservatism and libertarianism is over. The economy provided a weak basis for dealing with the reality of human nature. Public discourse suffered from the many theoretical and practical attempts to grasp reality through its lens.
In 2020 everyone noticed what had been happening for a while, at least back to the amazing meeting of Steve Jobs’ iPhone and social media: America has become an internet country. The markets rely primarily on technology companies, and online retailing is also moving. young Americans may not even imagine an alternative to the internet, where they can find love and friendship, and work, education, and whatever else they want. So we have come to the situation where being American is saying yes or no to a computer algorithm and not to a human.
So freedom is now being managed technologically, starting with the experience of a preliterate kid mastering YouTube’s algorithms on a tablet. The vast majority of young people believe America is an internet first country. We could only speculate on the implications of this fact, and getting histrionic would not be enough, but we must watch out for the most shocking change in our lives.
Digital technology will present freedom with new challenges. It changes our habits, and these habits are our first understanding of our own nature – hence we have to ask disturbing questions about whether we are human or not in order to be a machine. Defending our freedoms requires mastering digital space in the face of its influence on elites and children. Even the immersion of the elite and childhood in these technologies, despite our prejudices, evidence of mastery, or even the fact that they are beneficial, is just the allure and benefits of novelty.
The politics of freedom is now defined by confronting these important phenomena, the power of which to change our beliefs is independent of our rhetoric. The education of a new generation of Americans is already tied to digital technology and a lack of belief in US global supremacy. We may ignore this fact or lie about it, but mere words cannot overwhelm action – all the social, economic and political crises of the past 20 years and the migration of life and hope to the internet. The truth is, behind our partisanship, it is now more difficult to believe in human nature and maintain confidence in personality than it was a generation ago. Freedom may seem out of date to people who believe that the future is technological supremacy over life managed by half a dozen companies. Not only the goodness of freedom, but also its possibility is questionable.
Politics and technology seem to be more important than economics, more vital and personal. Perhaps the dominance of business over conservatism and libertarianism is over. The economy provided a weak basis for dealing with the reality of human nature. Public discourse suffered from the many theoretical and practical attempts to grasp reality through its lens.
We must find the fundamentals in the confusions of freedom, and the beginning of wisdom is to understand the need above and above which freedom emerges as our noblest pursuit. Through this opposition, of which our political partisanship has become a caricature, we will be able to act and measure our achievements and the difficulty of our task. We cannot rely on zombie politicians, and rhetorical technological change is outdated – we must instead turn to the most important, most obvious changes in society in order to understand ourselves. And we can say for freedom what has been said in the past is worth the turmoil.