What Is Liberal?: A Response from Donald Lazere

[Correction notice: When Donald sent me this response, he asked that I change “Kenneth Burke” to “Edmund Burke.”  I forgot to do so initially,  but I have done so as of 12/20/14.  I still think that Kenneth Burke is as good an example of a conservative-minded rhetorician as is Edmund Burke, but that’s another unfolding of the contested notion of “conservative.” NPG]

Last week, I published a review of Donald Lazere’s book Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias (Leftist Bias hereafter).  Because, in the text of more than one chapter, Lazere invites readers to share with him critiques and commentary on the book, I emailed him the night before the review went live to let him know that I wanted him to be aware of the review.  He and I have exchanged a few emails since then, and he has been involved in the post’s comments section.

Lazere requested of me that I post a response to the review here rather than as a comment, and I have opted to do so.  My reply to his letter will come afterwards.

Thank you, Nathan, for your generous review.

First, I was furious at Palgrave Macmillan for the outrageous price of the hardcover and not publishing a paperback, though they say one is forthcoming this year (some nudging of them from readers would help) If your readers write me at dlazere@igc.org, I will be glad to send attachments of Word files of key chapters, e.g., Ch 4: “The Conservative Attack Machine: ‘Admit Nothing, Deny Everything, Launch Counterattack.’”

Bless your heart for centrally addressing the mind-boggling ambiguities of political labels, which is a central topic throughout my writing, most extensively in my textbook Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen’s Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric, where I review the history of, and try to revive, the work of the International Society for General Semantics.

You chide me for painting with too broad a brush in cataloguing all the divergent meanings and varieties of conservatism as though they were “a massive entity.” No, my subject is the semantic equivocations of many conservatives themselves who shift ground, deliberately or not, among these different definitions and varieties, selecting the ones most advantageous to their arguments, suppressing those most disadvantageous. Consider charges against academic leftists that we discriminate against serious conservative thinkers at the level of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and Richard Weaver. I argue that this confuses things because our primary object of criticism is not such thinkers but the vulgar, or demagogic variety of conservatives on the level of Rush Limbaugh or Michelle Bachman. For me, I insist on teaching those like Burke, Kirk and Weaver (a great champion of General Semantics)—partly because they would be disgusted at the current Republican Party’s false pretense to conservatism. Weaver was a member of the Southern Agrarians, who were fiercely opposed to capitalism, which I define as the foremost force of conservatism in today’s world. In these ways, my book appeals for intellectual conservatives and leftists to make common cause against the vulgarity of capitalism, mass politics and culture, whether purportedly conservative or liberal. (There is hardly any vulgar left in America any more, since the demise of Communist party-liners in the forties and fifties.)

Now, Nathan, you make some very stimulating arguments about the ambiguities of capitalism in regard to the political left and right. One of my main points in this and my other works is that there should be some kind of national commission on political semantics that would insist that political opponents agree on the same definitions and aspects of terms like “left” and “right” in all their multiplicity and complexities, such as differences on political economy versus social issues. As you approach it, capitalism has liberal dimensions as well as conservative ones—sure, but that’s almost exclusively on social issues. You cite “Victoria’s Secret,” but does it serve any socioeconomic interest but the conservative one of commodification of self-identity to maximize corporate profits? I would just argue that capitalism’s and corporations’ conservative aspects ultimately outweigh the liberal ones, especially by the particular definition of them in political economy as the opposite of socialism and labor.

Of course, many of us are liberals or socialists on some issues, conservative on others. All I’m calling for is clarity about the precise sense in which these terms are being used at any given time.

And of course, there are relatively liberal (even socialist or marxist) as well as conservative churches, theologians, and believers. In a list of “What Leftists and Rightists Tend to Support” in my textbook, under “Religion,” I suggest a diversity on the left from atheism to ecumenism to liberation theology, while rightists tend to support “religious orthodoxy.” You’re welcome to improve on that dichotomy. (My list is available on request.)

Finally, a resounding “You said it!” to Nathan’s critique of “progressive” identity politics, which is the main target of another forthcoming book of mine, split off from the last one for reasons of length.

Please also see my earlier response to Charles H.

To be continued?



First, I thank Dr. Lazere for interacting with us here at the Christian Humanist.  His emails have been civil and all shared in the spirit of ongoing conversation, and I appreciate that.  Rather than respond point-by-point to his email, I’m going to write a bit about some of the big ideas therein and where my own interpretations of things differ.

I do want to articulate again why the term “conservative,” as this book uses it, is so troubling to me.  My own theological and philosophical backgrounds have made me quite suspicious of Capitalism precisely because it has such a power to co-opt other ideologies and render them incapable of a radical critique of Capitalism itself.  It’s not for nothing that Karl Marx, when he does write about the post-Capitalist revolution, tends to couch it in almost apocalyptic terms, sensing that any attempt to articulate such a vision runs the risk of giving the nascent advertising industry something else to sell to eager consumers.  For that reason, my sense is that Capitalism is going to appear “liberal” to conservatives and “conservative” to liberals precisely where its power of co-optation is at its height.  (As one wit put it, misquoting Lord Acton, “Power tends to co-opt, and absolute power co-opts absolutely.”)

I don’t think that such a caution is “mere” semantics but a means to explain why the same phenomenon–I’m going to go back to the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, and I understand that some of our readers are going to start suspecting my levels of morality and taste for doing so–can strike conservatives as an outplaying of “liberal” forces, elevating consumer choice over notions of received sexual morals and common cultural standards while appearing to leftists as “conservative,” pursuing only the “commodification of self-identity to maximize corporate profits” (Lazere, email, 10 December).  One interpretive impulse here might be to regard one story of the catalog as disclosing the truth and the other as a sort of cynical disclaiming of an objective ally, but my own sense is that both the liberal and the conservative are right, that the forces of consumer Capital are in fact both anti-liberal and anti-conservative.

I’m not sure that we agree on what makes for more clarity in language either.  I’ll admit here that I’ve not read Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy (though it is on my amazon.com wish list now), but my sense, at certain points of Leftist Bias and in the email above, that Lazere would want to rule out as invalid more uses of “left” and “right” than I prefer.  I’m more inclined (and this is probably my nineties postmodern background showing) to prefer approaches that situate political language in explanatory narratives rather than saying that some are nonsense categorically.  As an example, I would want to say that, in an account of liberalism informed by Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, the advertising industry is liberal in character because, in his story, “liberal” indicates the triumph of the individual consumer’s will over against intelligible shared notions of highest goods.  On the other hand, when Donald Lazere writes about advertising, his concern is for the tendency of the industry to shift power relations away from the decision-making public and towards psychologically manipulative economic elites, making the whole project “conservative.”

Now I realize that such an approach sacrifices some degree of precision and certainly a good hunk of brevity.  But ultimately, I’m the sort of reader who likes having Eliphaz and Bildad on the page there with Job, and I wouldn’t ever want to have a Republic of Plato without Thrasymachus arguing for his Athenian version of the Will to Power against Socrates’s moral absolutism in book one.  (I write this, of course, knowing full well that later in the same dialogue, Socrates calls for educators to excise the bits of Homer that present bad ideas.  I maintain that Plato was smart enough and had enough of a sense of irony to know full well what he was doing there.)  Letting ideas play their contests out in the open empowers readers to choose among them, so although I agree with many of Lazere’s critiques of GOP propaganda techniques, I’d rather have a world with more Lazere-style criticisms than a world with fewer instances to critique.  Such an open contest is good for morals, despite the objections of the character Socrates but in full agreement with the dialogue called Republic.

With regards to orthodoxy and ecumenism, I’m not sure that “liberation theology” and “religious orthodoxy” line up neatly as antonyms.  I could cite a good number of instances in which self-appointed liberation theologians have been quite eager to tell those who disagree publicly to “check your privilege” or otherwise not to pipe up, but that’s for another conversation and another blog post.  For now I’ll just say that I’d be glad to see that list, and perhaps we can have a longer conversation about it via email.

That’s going to be the extent of my response now.  To Dr. Lazere I offer my thanks again for rolling along with this conversation, and to our readers I invite you to chime in on this conversation.  I’m a rhetorician by training, as is Dr. Lazere, and this sort of discourse is my bread and butter.

4 thoughts on “What Is Liberal?: A Response from Donald Lazere

  1. Oops, I meant Edmund Burke, not Kenneth Burke, of course.  Sorry.
    Thanks again, Nathan, for your stimulating, admirable viewpoint. We agree that the terms liberal and conservative, right and left, are used in a confused array of their different definitions in American public discourse.  I just wish you would address yourself to my point that in economic definitions capitalism and corporations are clearly conservative opposites of socialism and economic liberalism on the left, on issues like wealth and income inequality, corporate ownership (for the purpose of profit), management versus labor.

    Don’t most of the self-identified conservatives in the US, including many Christians (as well as many Democratic “liberals” like Presidents Obama and Clinton) in the US ostentatiously embrace “the free market” and capitalism, with incessant corporate propaganda assuring us that  worshipping  both Gpd and Mammon is “no problem?    So are you and I on the same team in wishing to deconstruct the resulting confusions and hypocrisies in public discourse?  And do you and readers here see a possible new grouping of intellectuals and masses on the left and right against the plutocracy of capitalism and corporations?   You might do a real service by writing something tracing the long, often-noble history of conservative anti-capitalists.

  2. PS.  Just a little
    clarification of one of my points.  My
    labeling of capitalism and corporations as conservative left Nathan “wondering
    whether the pervasive influence of corporations, who after all tend to benefit
    from sexual libertinism as much as they do from economic libertarianism, fits
    in the same category as Catholic social teaching, which tends to promote both
    labor-union activity and traditional marriage.  As this book sets forth
    the categories, the Catholic theologian might just be the leftist and the
    Victoria’s Secret advertising agent the conservative.” A nice point, though it again somewhat mixes
    up the social/moral definition of these terms with the economic one, and it
    seems to accept the conservative mis-association of “liberal” with “libertine”
    (as does Joel’s earlier comment on Nathan’s review.)  Maybe the theologian could be either
    conservative or leftist in both moral and economic opposition to corporate
    exploitation of libertinism, while the ad exec is economically conservative in support of it.
    Victoria’s Secret, like modern capitalism in general, may be
    liberal/libertine when it comes to sexual morality, but isn’t the primary
    reason for that the conservative goal of economic commodification of sex to
    maximize corporate profits?

  3. Donald Lazere I agree with you here, Donald, and that’s why I’m interested not in shutting down connotations of “conservative” and “liberal” but in mapping and exploring them.  My point is that the use of “conservative” and “liberal” is more interesting when there’s more than one possible connotation for each.
    My own educational strategy is more Wittgensteinian than not on this point–I’d rather describe how the language is working than legislate what the language should do.

  4. Donald Lazere Confused?  Nay, sir!  I’d say that’s simply part of the nature of political discourse.

    As I said before, I think that, if opposing the corrosive power of consumer Capital makes one a leftist, then a surprising array of characters, including but not limited to Victor Davis Hanson, Richard Weaver, Rod Dreher, and several others who usually get branded “conservative” in the press and who have no love for the DNC.  (For what it’s worth, I’m in that group as well.)

    I’m all about deconstruction, to be sure, but as I’ve said before, I’m interested less in policing language use than in educating folks in how such language functions so that it loses its power to enchant.  (I believe I got that notion from Kenneth, not Edmund, Burke.)  And as far as traditionalist critiques of capitalism go, there’s already plenty of material out there, so for the moment I’m going to keep working (too slowly–like you, I teach a fair bit of composition) on the book that I’ve been churning on before I set out on constructing that history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *