I do not wish to thrust myself into this ongoing debate over the interactions of liberalism and democracy, for I am neither a deep nor educated thinker in such matters. But as a fellow Yalie, I find it important to note some serious problems in Jason Perlman’s recent column, “Liberated by liberalism” (10/28).
The column makes the extraordinary claim that armed struggle is “only justified to establish or preserve popular sovereignty against external or internal threat, never to force an already sovereign people to adopt a particular course of action.” Humanitarian intervention has no place in Perlman’s world. Taking the argument further, this definition implies that the vast majority of armed struggle in the history of mankind has been without any justification. Indeed, all armed struggle undertaken by non-democratic nations must be considered unjust. It is baffling that such a definition could be posited seriously.
I find it hard to believe that anyone would stand by such a definition. In fact, Perlman notes that democracy is no guarantor of a liberal government, and he cites Hamas as his primary example. Yet, by his definition, no matter how extremist, repressive and illiberal a democratically elected regime may be, the people are without recourse to action. Now, I am not one to promote armed struggle against a duly elected government. Yet I wonder: Is Perlman truly incapable of picturing not a single instance in which armed struggle may be necessary to protect those liberal values through which he finds liberation?
A second major fallacy in the column is the notion that liberalism does not seek to assert itself against the will of the people. Whether one finds liberalism’s aggressive self-promotion to be good or bad, it is very difficult to deny its existence. The history of liberalism in America, especially in recent times, is a history of the expansion of rights against the will of the people. Liberalism is, at its core, a desire to impose a world view on others.
It is true that liberalism has had success in America at the ballot box. But I would think the liberals’ strategy of court-ordered social change would shake Perlman’s belief in the passivity of liberalism. If not for the Supreme Court, a whole host of civil rights would have gone unprotected for decades. The column ignores this history, favoring to describe liberalism as motionless.
If liberalism is truly so inept and utterly lethargic, incapable of defending itself in the face of extremism, how can Perlman cling to it so strongly? Is not liberalism a conviction to defend the “rights of man” against any and all who would wish to limit them? When virtually all mechanisms of protecting the “rights of man” are tossed by the wayside, as the column has done, what good are those rights?
Third and finally, I find Perlman’s treatment of the columnist to whom he responded to be deeply troubling. The comparison of Peter Johnston to “the Ku Klux Klan, the vicious defenders of segregation and the bombers of abortion clinics,” goes beyond the realm of decency. I dislike and disapprove of the notion that anybody who dares to point out the problematic relationship between liberalism and democracy is a “man of bigotry.” This logic is eerily similar to Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s eager and enthusiastic recent urging of the media to investigate members of Congress to determine whether they are “pro-American” or “anti-American.” When belief in a viewpoint that differs from one’s own is sufficient to be labeled a bigot — or a traitor — we have truly created a dangerous world for ourselves.
The greatest problem with the column is that Perlman at once sings the virtues of liberalism and strips them of any power. While he displays deep faith in the liberating prowess of liberalism, he simultaneously guts liberalism of any ability to do anything. The merits of true liberalism aside, Perlman’s version is not a liberalism in which one can believe. His is an example of the dangerous nihilism of those unwilling to take action in the face of violence, or to lift a sword in the face of attack. It is the nihilism of one who allows a popular sovereign unfettered power on a doctrine of popular will. When we care so little for our own values that we are unwilling to fight for them, what have we left?
Gillon Crichton is a junior in Berkeley College.