Liberalism and Kitsch

by Daniel A. Kaufman


On a number of occasions, I have defended what I’ve been calling “procedural liberalism” on the grounds that in large pluralistic societies (a) one cannot expect one’s fellow citizens to share a common, substantive conception of the good, and (b) one cannot expect that one’s “community,” in the sense of the word that implies a shared set of values, will always maintain a hold on the levers of state power. [1] It is in everyone’s interest, then, to embrace a formal liberalism, according to which (c) we allow one another significant latitude in the pursuit of our private lives, constrained only by the harm principle, and (d) we rigorously maintain state neutrality with regard to such pursuits.  Such an arrangement permits people to engage with what they find significant and meaningful in life, among their family and friends, and in the broader civil society among the like-minded.  It also makes it possible for them to trust that they will be treated fairly within “political society,” by which I mean those sectors of society that are governed by the formal institutions and powers of the state, such as the police, courts, regulatory agencies, and the like.

If we assume (as I think we should) that our ability to pursue what is meaningful to us is a precondition for a satisfying – or even bearable – life, then this procedural liberalism presupposes that a person has access to family, friends, and to an open and free civil society, meaning one in which one’s capacity to associate with people of one’s choosing is largely unrestricted.  The diminishment of any of these elements fosters feelings of emptiness and futility, except among those rare souls whose capacity to find satisfaction in life is consistent with solitude.

It is a common refrain in the developed world today that liberalism is either in trouble or already in the process of dying, and while the reasons commonly given vary widely in terms of their plausibility, the claim – or as in my case, the worry – is a fair one. Not because the arguments for liberalism are any weaker today than they were yesterday (if anything, they are even stronger) and not because anyone has thought up a better arrangement (they haven’t), but because of certain developments in modern industrial and post-industrial societies and especially, Western ones.

For one thing, the presupposition I just discussed – that we have access to a network of family, friends, and acquaintances, with whom we can freely engage within the largely unconstrained space of civil society – can no longer be assumed.  Indeed, all the evidence, be it anecdotal or social-scientific, suggests that these critical personal and civil associations are diminished and diminishing. [2] This social atomization has been much remarked upon and is at the heart of much of the last century’s discussion of the crisis of the modern individual who, with the great urban migrations effected by the Industrial Revolution, was deprived of the psychic moorings once provided by extended family-networks, a shared culture, and near-ubiquitous religiosity.  As Carl Jung put it in Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933):

The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brother, and set up in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare, and humaneness.  But it takes more than an ordinary dose of optimism to make it appear as if those ideals are unshaken. [F]or the modern man sees that every step in material progress adds just so much force to the threat of a more stupendous catastrophe.

Jung’s reference to the modern ideals of “material security, general welfare, and humaneness” suggest a second reason for liberalism’s predicament, one that is less frequently remarked upon but equally significant: the tendency in the advanced stages of capitalism to commodify our relationships and pursuits, our identities, and even happiness itself.  The result is that they have become “kitsch,” and we have become consumers of kitsch, which means that they no longer have the power to satisfy us, and we no longer have the capacity to be satisfied.

Kitsch is that mimic of things of depth and substance that is produced so as to allow people, whether out of indolence or incapacity, to purchase spiritual depth without the need for substantial investment, struggle, or sacrifice; a cheap simulacrum taken up for the purpose of sating the unfocused yearnings of a jaded sensibility and a shallow character.  Clement Greenberg, in his landmark essay, “Avant Garde And Kitsch” (1939), restricted his analysis of this socio-cultural development to the arts, but as Roger Scruton has pointed out, under late capitalism, virtually every dimension of life can be – and is being – kitschified, for kitsch indicates a spiritual, rather than an aesthetic deficiency:

Kitsch reflects our failure not merely to value the human spirit but to perform those sacrificial acts that create it. It is a vivid reminder that the human spirit cannot be taken for granted, that it does not exist in all social conditions, but is an achievement that must be constantly renewed through the demands that we make on others and on ourselves. [3]

One example of this “kitschification” of life and its effects is contemporary, mainline religion, where the rigorous, meticulous demands once made upon our lifestyles and beliefs have been abandoned, so that the religious and spiritual life might be easier and more congruent with popular mores and tastes.  As a result, mainline religion has become generic to the point that one church is largely indistinguishable from the next. (I used to serve on my synagogue’s Beit Din (Jewish court) and would ask prospective converts why they wanted to be Jewish. The answers I got inevitably involved a benign mishmash of progressive platitudes, so I would always ask the same follow-up question “That’s a great reason to become an Episcopalian. What I asked was why you want to be Jewish,” to which I never received anything better than a baffled look.) The predictable result has been the collapse of the mainline churches and an upsurge in fundamentalist religion, itself soaked heavily in kitsch, but the crude harshness of which at least makes it possible for people to feel something in the conduct of their religious lives.

Another example is our society’s treatment of old-age and retirement – one’s “golden years” in kitsch-speak – whose commodification and its effects was described by Nathanael West in The Day of the Locust (1933), as a prelude to what remains one of the most terrifying depictions of mob violence in American literature:

All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough.  Finally that day came… Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?

Once there they discover that sunshine isn’t enough.  They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit… They don’t know what to do with their time.  They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure… They watch the waves come in at Venice, [but] after you’ve seen one wave, you’ve seen them all.

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment.  Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies.  Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars…  Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates.  Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies.  They have been cheated and betrayed.  They have slaved and saved for nothing.

Today, in the age of social media and advanced communications, it is our relationships and identities that have been the principle objects of commodification and which are being sold to us by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like as empty simulacra of the things they once were: “friends” for the friendless; “followers” for those with no real influence; “Likes” for those whose statements fail to carry any genuine weight or whose posted images are bereft of any actual interest or appeal. This virtual world of ersatz interactions and relationships is inhabited by equally unreal people, encouraging us, as it does, to misrepresent ourselves, so as always to appear in the most positive and interesting light. It is small wonder then that those who are most dependent upon these platforms – those for whom social media have essentially replaced civil society – are also the most obsessed with their identities and with the validation of those identities by others, demonstrating a level of insecurity that is simultaneously pitiable and pathetic.

It is this combination of social atomization and kitschification that I am suggesting poses the greatest threat to the liberal consensus, for they undercut the capacity to enjoy a satisfying life in the private and civil spheres, which, as I said earlier, is a fundamental precondition for liberal society.  With that precondition no longer met, our need to feel that our lives are significant in some meaningful sense remains unsatisfied, so we seek fulfillment publicly, politically and by way of the law.  The person who has no real friends enlists the power of the state to compel others to act as if they were his friends. The person who finds himself unfulfilled by the identities he has embraced appeals to the law to force everyone to genuflect before them.  The person who is frustrated by the impotency and ineffectualness that follows from a lack of investment in real people or causes will bolster himself by joining in professional ruination, public ostracizing, and all the other mobbish behaviors that currently fall under the banner of “canceling.”

A successful liberal society consists of people whose lives and relationships and pursuits are substantial and for the most part satisfying, for this is what sustains the live-and-let-live ethos on which liberalism is predicated and which ultimately protects us all. But in a society of shallow, anxious, disconnected, inchoately yearning recluses, the kind of generosity of spirit necessary to create and sustain the liberal consensus is not only absent, it can never be born, and the rational self-interest presupposed by liberal political philosophy can no longer be credibly ascribed.

Special thanks to the students in my Aesthetics course (Spring 2019), a class discussion with whom served as the inspiration for this essay.



[2] See, for example, Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

[3]  Roger Scruton, “Kitsch and the Modern Predicament,” City Journal (Winter, 1999).



26 responses to “Liberalism and Kitsch”

  1. 1970scholar

    I think this is a bold essay. I am not sure if I agree though since I am of two mind about it. My one mind concerns the invocation of that word kitsch, a word that has a very complex history but seems to me to be inextricable from certain high modernist and anti-authoritarian stances towards popular culture in general. (Those stances that read the popular as doing the work of authoritarianism but making it go down easy?) Though many may use the word in a more specific a way I can’t see that you do so here. Perha[s this is because your definition rests on a clear demarcation between satisfaction and the lack of satisfaction on an authentic level. This seems to me hard to measure. I think the work kitsch might be too broad a term for your purposes. In my own study of the word’s uses and history it has been used equally for works that are clearly not worth very much and yet extremely popular, as well as for works of actual excellence which are deflated by those who hurl word at such culture.

    My other mind concerns the question of civil society. You seem to be saying that liberalism is some kind of additional institution that is enlisted only when other things are in place that are strong, presumably things already found in something like a civil society. This is very close to a traditionally conservative critique of liberalism as being simply a form to describe a society’s insufficiency, as a kind of bereft world. This is of course distinct from conservatism which is simply “against” liberalism which is not what I have in mind. Also I am not so sure as you are of the motivation and causes of behavior you decry. It is not clear to me, that the excesses of the Left, if that is one example, whether the censoriousness of certain activists, or anything else is simply the result of some problem in civil society at all. I, for one consider it a product of a certain kind of technological age we are currently in. It could be the expression of a genuine social movement though that movement might also have many problems. i am not sure the problem is in fact psychological and I am not even sure that friendship and family and rituals of work and the conditions therein are as much a cause to make liberalism ‘in trouble.” But these are all questions I have admittedly from my own biases, and I want to be clear that what you have written is certainly profound and thought provoking to say the least.

  2. It is Scruton who uses the word in an expanded way, and in the endnotes, I linked to the essay in which he does it. I don’t see a problem, so long as it is explained, which I think I do.

  3. You seem to be saying that liberalism is some kind of additional institution that is enlisted only when other things are in place that are strong, presumably things already found in something like a civil society.

    = = = =

    I don’t really understand this objection. All that I am saying is that a precondition for a successful liberal society is that people have generally fulfilling private lives. Otherwise, they seek that fulfillment in the political sphere, which means they are no longer going to accept the state-neutrality that liberalism requires.

  4. 1970scholar

    So you are saying that our current predicament is to force the political realm to do things it was not meant to do, to overburden it as a consequence of other areas of life being compromised. t think that is most interesting but I remain skeptical; objection would be too strong a word, And part of my skepticism is my hunch that fulfillment is hard to measure in such a way that we can talk about it in a conclusive way. I do not know that people are less fulfilled now than ever before. I think that some things are very fulfilled while others are not fulfilled at all. As a consequence you seem to make lack of fulfillment, or the question of the health of private life more generally, do as much work as you claim (if I understand your thesis correctly) the political sphere or social media sphere is made to do. Where we can agree is that something is awry with the balance of politics civil society and private life. The questions is the details of that imbalance and the cause.

  5. Liberalism is predicated upon relatively minimalist government. It is maximally predicated on the idea that it is up to the individual to pursue his or her own good, within the circle of family, friends, and civil society, and that this is not an appropriate role for the state. This is because the state must not take sides among citizens who hold conflicting conceptions of the good.

  6. Aaron Gross

    Nice essay! I agree with a lot of what you said about kitsch and modern religion, but I think you’re overstating the relationship between mushiness and kitsch. Mushy denominations like Reform Judaism are kitschy, but so are some hard, demanding denominations, in fundamentalist Christianity, for instance.

    So I’m a little skeptical that it’s “this combination of social atomization and kitschification” which really poses the threat. I don’t see why people couldn’t have rich, meaningful, connected lives while soaking in a kitsch culture of, say, fundamentalist Christianity, commercial country music, and Marvel comics movies. Not that such a culture is good or desirable! But it wouldn’t be a threat to liberalism, at least not by virtue of its kitsch.

  7. Certainly my argument assumes the conception of kitsch as defined by Greenberg and Scruton, which by its very nature cannot facilitate genuine spiritual depth.

  8. Aaron Gross

    Right, and I never suggested that it could. I suggested that kitsch can co-exist with—not necessarily facilitate—rich, meaningful, connected lives. Not necessarily spiritually deep lives, but non-atomized lives that provide the support that liberalism purportedly needs.

  9. Dan

    Thanks for raising these important issues. Your analysis is multifaceted and I am zeroing in on your use of Scruton whose essay I read primarily to see where you were getting this generalized sense of kitsch from.

    For me the challenge is to reconcile my convictions concerning the real insights associated with religious and idealist traditions of thought (there was a powerful strand of thinking within linguistics, for example, which was strongly associated with idealism) with a more scientifically-oriented view. Can this be done without the latter essentially gutting or neutering the former? I am not sure.

    The Scruton essay sets out clearly the traditional conservative point of view. There are even echoes of early-to-mid-20th century radical European conservatism, I think. For me his analysis is very familiar, and appealing in certain ways, but intellectually I resist certain aspects of it. In general terms, I accept the diagnosis but question the implicitly suggested cure.

    You quoted part of this:

    Kitsch is omnipresent, part of the language, and a seemingly inevitable aspect of cultural democracy. It is the debased coinage of the emotions. Kitsch is advertising, just as most advertising is kitsch. It is an attempt to turn value into price, the problem being that its subject matter has a value only when it is not pretended and a price only when it is. Hence the market in emotion must deal in simulated goods.

    This is why the loss of religious certainty facilitated the birth of kitsch. Faith exalts the human heart, removing it from the marketplace, making it sacred and unexchangeable. Under the jurisdiction of religion, our deeper feelings are sacralized, so as to become raw material for the ethical life, the life lived in judgment. When faith declines, however, the sacred loses one of its most important forms of protection from marauders; the heart can now more easily be captured and put on sale. Some things—the human heart is one of them—can be bought and sold only if they are first denatured. The Christmas-card sentiments advertise what cannot be advertised without ceasing to be: hence the emotion that they offer is fake.

    Kitsch reflects our failure not merely to value the human spirit but to perform those sacrificial acts that create it. It is a vivid reminder that the human spirit cannot be taken for granted, that it does not exist in all social conditions, but is an achievement that must be constantly renewed through the demands that we make on others and on ourselves. Nor is kitsch a purely aesthetic disease. Every ceremony, every ritual, every public display of emotion can be kitsched—and inevitably will be kitsched, unless controlled by some severe critical discipline. (Think of the Disneyland versions of monarchical and state occasions that are rapidly replacing the old stately forms.) It is impossible to flee from kitsch by taking refuge in religion, when religion itself is kitsch. The “modernization” of the Roman Catholic Mass and the Anglican prayer book were really a “kitschification”: and attempts at liturgical art are now poxed all over with the same disease. The day-to-day services of the Christian churches are embarrassing reminders of the fact that religion is losing its sublime godwardness and turning instead toward the world of fake sentiment.

  10. Hey Dan, Great stuff!

    I think you are spot on in everything you say, but the one exception I might point to is that even in the midst of this fracturing and atomization there is something in many people that is simply buried and just needs the right provocation to manifest. I admit that when my health started going south I was in a state of withdrawing from the world, my social interactions getting fewer and small all the time. When I was diagnosed with cancer and word got out, my life suddenly changed. It seems that when we are swept up in our ordinary doings it is so easy to forget the important things that bind us together, that we matter to each other, and that our being able to offer help is an important part of the meaning we give our lives. For many people, at least. So when I was diagnosed I suddenly found myself surrounded by friends I loved, who loved me, and who were all pitching in as best they could to help me get through this.

    This is just an anecdote, but it has defined my life for the last year and more. The sense I get is not that we have lost our purpose, but that it gets hidden more easily in the busyness of all that commodification of our lives we are subjected to. We simply need better reminders that we are NOT alone, and that our caring about others makes both a real difference in the world and is worth pursuing. I could not have made it through chemo and now liver surgery if I didn’t have people looking out for me, and I sincerely hope that it is not simply my good fortune to be surrounded by such wonderful people, but that everyone to some extent has these resources. They just need to be encouraged and nurtured…..

    One last anecdote from a few years previous. When my dad passed away I was visiting and so was in a position both to undergo my own grief but also witness the grief of my other siblings and mom. My sister took it tremendously hard and became very inward focused, as if sharing her feelings with others was somehow wrong or counterproductive. Her journey was long and lonely, and I was desperately sad for her for locking the rest of us out. My brother and I became the best friends we could ever be over the next few months, and that relationship has been a rock in our lives ever since. We had never been as close as we were in the aftermath, and it was because we were willing to share our feelings and get to know each other more intimately. My mom had been expecting something for a while, so she was prepared for my dad’s passing and took it as well as could be expected if not better. She needed to move on with her life, and I was so glad I could be there to help make that happen. We spent the next week organizing her life and making inside jokes that took any gloom off the table. We had a good time, honestly, and I was happy to participate because that was what she needed.

    My point, if all that came out garbled, is that there are so many opportunities for people, family and friends and more, to establish meaningful connections, but it is often a matter of will and of not ignoring the chance. This is part of what keeps us human, even if it continually gets buried under all the crap that society expects us to live up to. Liberalism is under threat for precisely the reasons you have spelled out, but those are circumstantial and largely cultural/environmental. The human being somehow survives under all those pressures, and it is up to us, especially in promoting a liberal society, to make as much space for, nurture, and truly welcome that part of us that makes us more than cogs in a machine. The spiritual loss of kitsching our world is not decisive but a surface manifestation of how much we need to overcome. But the resources are there. Or so I sincerely hope.

    Hope you are well! I had some complications with my surgery and am only now starting to feel human again. I am very glad you are still sharing your thoughts and are so generous with what you do.

    All the best,


  11. As you know, I don’t really accept the cure, either.

  12. 1970scholar

    Well I do reject not only Scruton but Clement Greenberg. I think his whole view of art and cultural production is, while brilliant, also seriously flawed. About the only thing i can agree with Greenberg is when he recognizes the virtue of, say, Jackson Pollack When he beats up on everything else I can’t agree with him. Actually reading the comments on here i ma surprised that Greenberg (and Scruton) are as well received as they are. And my objection is not identical to Tom Wolfe. He was right about certain problems with doctrinaire modernism while being almost philistine in how he read Greenberg.

  13. Ok. Their general account of kitsch is presupposed in the argument, so it is unlikely I will be able to persuade you.

  14. I’m not so sure about cause and consequence.
    You suggest that victims of social atomization and kitschification seek fulfillment publicly, politically and by way of the law.
    That’s not what I observe. In general, it’s people who don’t value liberalism – who seek fulfillment by way of the law, who love the intrusion of the state in our private lives – who fall in the trap of atomization and commodification.

  15. I don’t agree. What I detect the most in those complaining the loudest about their identities and trying to force everyone to validate them is a profound unhappiness, insecurity, and desperation. The weaponization of the levers of political and legal power is simply the means to cope .

  16. Perhaps you’re right.
    It’s a difficult question.

    I personally think that people who try to force everyone to validate them “by law”, are characterized by a profound security in their convictions, that excludes the desperation you refer to; and by a profound illiberalism.
    The weaponization of political and legal power is not the means to cope. It’s the logical consequence of their illiberal views.

    But I don’t know.
    Perhaps it’s a chicken or egg problem.

  17. Certainly, I am speculating. To really untangle motives, one would have to do a broad and sustained social scientific investigation.

  18. Bunsen Burner

    So how do the many shades of conservatives who try to legally constrain so many things such as abortion, gay marriage, video games, and so on, fit into this analysis?

  19. I would give it the same analysis honestly. People who have satisfying, meaningful relationships and lives don’t need to meddle in others’ affairs.

  20. s. wallerstein

    If we can only have a functioning liberal society, if people have satisfying meaningful lives, we’re in for a long long wait.

    A goodly percentage of the population works such alienating, meaningless jobs for such pitiful wages, often with long commutes that leaves them no time for real leisure activities, that unless they’re natural saints or natural sages, they’re inevitably going to be resentful, envious and meddlesome.

    What’s more, lots of people born into privileged atmospheres are fueled by the same or worse envy and resentment and are just as meddlesome. Maybe they need extensive psychoanalysis or Zen meditation or maybe there is no changing them, since once people build their life around envy, resentment and meddlesomeness, they enjoy it so much that they keep at it.

    We’re all pretty perverse.

  21. I agree that this is a problem for modern, industrial societies, generally, but it is especially a problem for liberal society, because of the substantial generosity it requires of all of us, in order to work.

  22. Dan,
    I thought I might let this go, since I actually have too much to say about these topics. But if you’re willing to allow a mini-essay in response – or feel free to chop it down as you see fit.

    Kitsch-like phenomena have appeared in all developed civilizations across the centuries. It is a function of class structures and the differing educations, economies, and aspirations found in the differing classes. All societies operate under the presumption that some general set of values are shared among all participants; however, clearly not everyone has access to the resources to participate fully in the enjoyment of expressions and artifacts of the culture’s highest values. The kitsch-like object becomes at once parody of such expressions and artifacts and yet supports the maintenance of the values they manifest. One thinks here of the sale of manufactured “relics” that Chaucer ridicules in the 14th century, for instance. Kitsch originates in the reproducibility and dissemination of ‘culture for the masses.’ We all participate in it. The Mona Lisa is (I am told, never having seen it) a great work of art. A photograph of the Mona Lisa is kitsch. Enjoyment of the Mona Lisa requires some education in art appreciation, and expenses of a trip to Paris. A photograph of the Mona Lisa can be cut from a magazine hand tacked to a wall (‘how pretty!). Because we have lived with ‘culture for the masses’ for so long, we don’t see that..

    One reason we don’t see this is because those with some education in art appreciation read the photograph of the Mona Lisa as a kind of visual report of what it that painting may look like. If we tack it to our walls, it may be as reminder of the values we share that hold such a work in high esteem. However, and this is what we must bear in mind, there will be many others who tack the photo to their wall simply because ‘it’s pretty;’ or perhaps as reminder that this is the art that they have been told to value.

    If this be admitted, it follows that Kitsch, while always problematic,is not inherently a danger. It is not only inevitable to a civilized organization of society, but can be beneficial in unifying members of the different classes around a set of values, So, where Kitschification becomes recognized as a danger, we need to read back from that recognition into the ground that seems to have become dangerous for some reason.

    I think Scruton is right to read the art of High Modernism as a reaction against kitschification, an attempt to produce art that still manifested and yet questioned what the artists perceived as the higher values o their cultures; and I think he is also right that Post Modernism is not only a surrender to, but a celebration of, kitsch. But this not merely tells us about the artists; it tells us about their consumers.

    The post-modern condition has been and will continue to be, a revaluation of all values, across all classes. If this were the end of the 19th century, and I were asked what the wealthy valued, and what the working class aspired to, answering that question would be easy; the tale of it is particularized in the story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, and the complex politics that finally got it opened to the public.

    But now – who can say? Born with a silver spoon in his mouth with a family-provided allowance in the millions of dollars, our current president – a reality TV character and occasional mobster, eats fast food while mocking every value and institution we once taught our children to respect. And the polls indicate that a third of the population is entirely comfortable with that, as long as they can vicariously enjoy the chaos it creates (and maybe get Roe V. Wade overturned in the process). That’s it, that and the desperate struggle for power the Republicans have engaged in. No higher value, no greater interest.

    If kitschification is a danger today, it is because, except in the margins, there are no expressions of value that are not kitsch. Kitsch is therefore simply synonymous with ‘the post-modern condition.’ Since it is everywhere, the term loses it’s bite. Yet this tells us that part of the post-modern condition is exactly a loss of higher values. The modern era set into motion certain trends that are now achieving their apotheosis in the post-modern: For instance, individualism and the commodification of the self; the cant of ‘spirituality’ as empty signifier, to be filled by whatever ideology or religion, or sought ‘inwardly,’ as if great revelations were available to everyone (and drugs certainly help); the cult of celebrity for its own sake, rather than as social measure of achievement.

    Lizzie Borden took an axe
    and gave her mother forty wacks;
    when she saw what she had done,
    she gave her father forty-one.

    What most people don’t know is that Lizzie Borden became a star of the suffragette movement, as well of certain fundamentalists (the same unholy alliance that would bring about Prohibition); various organizations hired the best lawyer in the state (he had once been governor), and Lizzie was acquitted. After a cooling off period, she spent the rest of her life feted by the well-to-do. The reasons most people don’t know this is because, first, it doesn’t make sense; the prosecutor was an idiot, but the circumstantial evidence should have been enough to convict. Secondly, this was only towards the beginning of celebrity culture. But even then, celebrity culture was developing a very short memory.

    As now fully realized in the post-modern era, celebrities come and go within a couple weeks’ time. Or they may linger as a, ‘oh, I didn’t know she was still singing!’ or “I didn’t know he was still a mass murderer.’ The tragedy of the Trump administration is, that as a celebrity president, we will probably forget about it all within a few months of his exit from office, and fail to learn any lessons from it.

    For the post-modern loss of values follows from and conditions a loss of memory. Only the present decade matters. Significations once rich in historical information now fly by unburdened with hardly any information – perhaps a sound-byte’s worth.

    It’s not that we don’t have any values at all – indeed, new values are invented everyday, like those abhorrent neologisms for various genders and sexes that don’t actually exit. And that’s the point – the post-modern condition demands the valuation of the non-existent, since such values can be discarded at a whim – or after some ‘inner’ spiritual revelation or drug experience.

    Now, the question is, does the post-modern condition necessarily mean the end of the liberal state – particularly the representative democratic republic? In the short term probably not. In the long term – well, that depends on whether it is at all possible to reform and reconstruct our educational systems.

    The fake relics Chaucer’s Pardoner had to sell only had meaning because it was generally believed that actual relics existed, and that these had some spiritual and cultural significance. If there are no real relics – nothing of real value – everything becomes mere bauble, playthings to pass the time with. Which is what I really sense is going on here. Having re-interpreted ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as mere pursuit of pleasure and self-aggrandizement, the post-modern can rightly be said to be a condition of profound unhappiness.

  23. Very interesting observations that are most welcome, as always.

  24. s. wallerstein

    It seems that for liberalism to work most of the population need to be virtuous, in the Aristotelian sense (rational, wise, generous), not in the Christian sense, yet the moment you try to inculcate a specific conception of virtue in the general population, you are violating the rules of a liberal society, which say that you must tolerate and respect all concepts of a good life. So there’s a problem there.

    I can see how classical liberalism might work in the Great Britain of John Stuart Mill where only property-owning males, a small homogeneous sector of the population, voted and expressed their opinions in the media of those days, that is, newspapers, men who had in many cases attended the same public schools and universities (Oxford and Cambridge)
    and who in spite of differences between liberals and conservatives, Anglicans and non-believers, had many of the same core values.

    However, in contemporary society full of people from very different backgrounds and cultures, all of them with access to social media, classical liberalism seems more problematic.

  25. Interesting. I think the opposite. The only hope for a decent, pluralistic society is if it is procedurally liberal. Otherwise, one winds up in neverending culture war. That’s why we are seeing what we are seeing now.

  26. s. wallerstein

    I agree with you that liberalism will make a pluralistic society more decent, but when a society gets very plural, liberalism stops working because people in general don’t tolerate much pluralism. Liberalism works fine, as I point out above, in a fairly homogeneous well-educated society such as Great Britain in the 19th century when only property-owned males had the vote.

    However, what does a radical feminist have in common with the men in Alabama who just banned abortions? if they are specially tolerant and wise people, they may realize that their differing conceptions of the good life should be discussed rationally, but there aren’t so many specially tolerant and wise people around. They are probably just going to scream at each other.