Mark Lilla’s new book begins with a statement that is brutal and bracing, all the more so because it happens to be true: “Donald J. Trump is president of the United States.” In the pages that follow, Lilla plumbs truths that are less obvious, but not less comforting. Most of those have to do with American liberalism, which today seems “Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,” to borrow from Matthew Arnold’s great poem “Dover Beach.” Perhaps that sounds a tad dramatic. If so, perhaps you haven’t been watching the news.
“The Once and Future Liberal” is an expansion on an op-ed piece that Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, wrote for the New York Times 10 days after Trump’s unlikely victory in the November election. Titled “The End of Identity Liberalism,” the piece argued that “the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined group.”
Centrists seeking explanation for the inexplicable furiously emailed the article as if it were a lost book of the Bible, and not one of the apocryphal ones. At the same time, Lilla’s thesis was widely derided by the left, in particular by the over-eager hall monitors of political virtue who have turned Twitter into their own Solomonic court. In all but painting Lilla as a right-wing shill, they neatly proved his point about a left that has become, in temperament, reactionary.
This book expands on Lilla’s op-ed piece, though not by much: “The Once and Future Liberal” is only 160 pages long, buttressing the original…
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