What’s So Liberal About Liberalism?

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W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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What liberal value will liberals cast aside next?

Last week it was religious freedom. Why was the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act championed by liberals in 1993 while Indiana’s was vilified — often by the same liberals — 22 years later?

Chuck Schumer’s protestations aside, the primary difference is who might seek protection under the law: peyote smokers versus pizzeria owners who believe in a definition of marriage that was almost universally held, as longtime gay marriage supporter Jonathan Rauch put it, “until practically the day before yesterday.”

This week it is the presumption of innocence, as Baghdad Bob-like progressive dead-enders grapple with the conclusive repudiation of Rolling Stone’s notorious, factually challenged University of Virginia rape story.

First prize in this genre goes to The New Republic’s Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, who has performed the magazine’s finest acts of trolling since Stephen Glass went to hack heaven.

There’s enough wrong with the piece to crash Jukt Micronics, but the main problem is the trivialization of individual experiences in favor of the collective — especially little trivialities like individual guilt or innocence, which is presented as a fixation of the “rightwing” (sic) and “the reactionary peanut gallery.”

Thus, the right tends to pore over the specific details of high-profile cases like those of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, concluding that if those particular situations were embattled by complications or mitigating factors, then the phenomena they’re meant to represent must not be real either. And if a few highly publicized rapes turn out to be murkier than first represented, then rape itself is not a crisis, just a regrettable and rare anomaly.

Well, the “specific details” matter a lot if you are the one being accused of rape or murder.

Obviously, the UVA rape story falling apart — “murkier than first represented” is too weak — doesn’t mean sexual assault isn’t a real problem on college campuses. Darren Wilson’s “particular situation” being “embattled by complications or mitigating factors” doesn’t mean Ferguson is a model of restraint and racial justice in law enforcement.

But when people seem indifferent to getting “the specific details of high-profile cases” right, it becomes difficult to take seriously their analysis of “the phenomena they’re meant to represent.”

The broader social phenomena are themselves composites of many individual experiences.

In each of the above cases, most liberals began with a strong presumption of guilt and an unwillingness to follow the facts wherever they led. They were invested in an outcome.

Bruenig claims “rape is a contested political property, and campus rape is its pinnacle.” Todd Akin notwithstanding, this seems like a misreading. Many conservatives and libertarians, as well as some liberals, fear that the left’s preferred policies for combating campus rape — indeed, the “clearly identifiable structural biases” they would create — don’t offer adequate protections for the innocent.

Ezra Klein has more or less argued that this is okay.

Critics worry that colleges will fill with cases in which campus boards convict young men (and, occasionally, young women) of sexual assault for genuinely ambiguous situations. Sadly, that’s necessary for the law’s success. It’s those cases — particularly the ones that feel genuinely unclear and maybe even unfair, the ones that become lore in frats and cautionary tales that fathers e-mail to their sons — that will convince men that they better Be Pretty Damn Sure.

“[Klein] is arguing for false convictions as a conscious strategy in order to strike fear into the innocent,” Jonathan Chait replied. “This is a conception of justice totally removed from the liberal tradition.”

The project of separating people into victim and oppressor groups, of creating “space spaces” and “trigger warnings” to protect people from unwelcome opinions or even facts, of subjugating individual circumstances to an all-encompassing narrative that doesn’t even have to be true — none of this can be squared with old-school liberal values, properly understood.

Conservatives have long accused the left of having no respect for tradition. You can add the liberal tradition to the list of those disrespected.

W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.