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liberal politesse

R. R. Reno’s point in “The Civility Trap” (March) is well-taken: Nobody on the wrong side of contemporary liberalism, either to its right or left, would likely disagree that the expectation of civility masks exercises in raw power. Manners aren’t simply politic, in other words, but rather simply politics.

I would offer a point of clarification. I don’t think that manners and civility are exactly identical. Civility is often invoked against swearing and hyperbole and other kinds of verbal roughhousing. But the kinds of speech expectations Reno focuses on do not strike me as a subset of that brand of civility. Instead, they seem to constitute a companion of civility specific to liberal democracies.

Modern liberals have actually been frank about the fact that political liberalism requires a certain kind of speech to function, and that kind of speech is limited in certain ways. John Rawls argues as much in his work on public reason, and holds that “public reason . . . neither criticizes nor attacks any comprehensive doctrine, religious or nonreligious, except insofar as that doctrine is incompatible with the essentials of public reason and a democratic polity” (emphasis added). In other words, all speech is acceptable in the public, political domain except that which is construed as hostile to the very idea of a “constitutional democratic regime and its companion idea of legitimate law.”

Rawls himself acknowledges that what constitutes an attack on liberal democracy will change over time and depend on the particular polity. In ours, disparagement or dismissal of minority groups is understood to constitute either a direct or ­inchoate attack on their rights as fellow, equal members of our democratic society. Thus, most of what are characterized as demands for civility or politesse are actually demands for ­adherence to public reason. Civility simpliciter ­usually has more to do with ­demonstrating proper deference and respect via certain verbiage, at least to my mind.

One more thing. Reno seems to suggest, possibly due to his conflation of these two species of speech expectations, that illiberalism is a quality of the rabble, while the upper class adheres most faithfully to liberalism and its “elite system of manners.” Civility simpliciter may separate the well-heeled from the worker, because the rich (right and left) seem to inculcate a rococo speaking style into their ranks that avoids the blunt and stinging. But illiberalism—the desire to cut against public reason and the sociopolitical system it protects—­exists up and down the income scale, and I’ve never seen any evidence of it being more concentrated at one end than the other. Are most media sorts—the kind of people whose public speech is loudest—liberal? Probably, but they aren’t the only elites whose interests seem dangerously detached from those of hoi polloi. The suggestion that they are covers over a multitude of capital sins.

Elizabeth Bruenig
washington, d.c.

R. R. Reno Replies:

I don’t think Elizabeth Bruenig and I disagree about today’s standards of civility. When I say that marriage is only possible between a man and a woman, the latter-day Rawlsian interprets this commonplace as a direct attack on the rights of gays and lesbians, and thus an attack on our “democratic polity,” a violation of “public reason.” If I say that men and women are intrinsically different, I’m told this amounts to an attack on professional women, or more directly, the transgendered—more violations. Were I to criticize today’s immigration policies, it would be cast as an attack on nonwhites—still another violation. Pronouncing abortion immoral becomes the disparagement of women who have had abortions. All of these demerits accord with Rawls, as Bruenig suggests. He was a brilliant codifier of our postwar liberal politesse, outlining in detail what can and cannot be said.

If I must abide by the scholasticism of John Rawls, count me among the illiberal rebels. It’s a view of civility that, as I argued, serves to buttress the ascendancy of a liberal establishment that consistently reframes dissent from its preachments as moral crimes. This establishment has become decadent and dysfunctional.

economic nationalism

Daniel McCarthy neatly captures many of the reasons why fusionist conservatism long ago ran out of steam (“A New Conservative ­Agenda,” March). He also suggests, rightly in my view, that much of this reflects the gap between “post-­Reagan conservative intellectuals” and “conservative voters [who] are abandoning the cause.”

That gap, McCarthy suggests (again correctly), has much to do with economics and, more particularly, political economy. America, he argues, needs a conservative economic program that meets the needs of blue-collar people left behind by globalization and the pursuit of the Washington Consensus by people like Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It’s one thing for blue-collar Americans to benefit as consumers from globalization, and quite another for them to be rendered impotent as producers by economic liberalization and ­technological change.

Like many on the right these days, McCarthy wants the state to do more to protect these Americans, albeit in relatively ­targeted ways. This is the “nationalism” part of the “economic nationalism” which he advocates. McCarthy wants to see America compete—­really compete—with its rivals “on terms favorable to our citizens in full, in their capacity as producers, not just as consumers.”

I’m in favor of more international competition. I also think we should treat China as the predatory mercantilist state that it is. But ­McCarthy is light on specifics. What, I ask, does it mean to favor the capacity of ­producers? What I think he is ­proposing—some form of industrial policy targeted at particular regions of America and specific socioeconomic groups—has been tried before. Industrial policies seldom work. They can also be positively counterproductive. Why compete when you can claim some form of help on the basis that your industry or union is somehow uniquely important for the nation’s common good?

I have heard some back-to-the-state conservatives suggest that, while they may be wrong about the details, their narrative about what presently ails America and how to restore American greatness is essentially sound. But the problem with the “economic” side of McCarthy’s economic nationalism is that the details really do matter.

Bad economics is always bad economics. That fact doesn’t make economics the final arbiter of policy. America is a country with an ­economy—not the other way around. But economic policies in which the state takes on the role that ­McCarthy envisages generally facilitate economic stagnation and can set nations once dominant on the road to ­un-greatness. Just ask the Japanese.

Samuel Gregg
grand rapids, michigan

While Daniel McCarthy is spot-on in his assessment of “ham-fisted” conservative films (whether they be PureFlix or Sherwood Pictures), the rest of his “New Conservative Agenda” leaves much to be desired. ­Donald Trump undoubtedly represents a realignment in American politics, and the current political climate is indeed desperate for innovation. ­McCarthy’s diagnosis of changing economic (therefore political, therefore cultural) headwinds is sound, but his prognosis is largely a mishmash of policies divorced from coherent ideological or ­material frameworks—neither new nor uniquely conservative.

This agenda has only a few bullet points of policy, each focused on tertiary problems. To run through them: McCarthy disapproves of “ill-conceived” trade deals, but neglects how projects like the TPP act as a political-economic hedge against China’s global machinations that hurt U.S. business. He wants deals made “on terms favorable to our citizens in full, in their capacity as producers, not just consumers,” failing to learn the lesson of the soybean wars. The specter of low-skilled immigration driving down wages haunts McCarthy. Everyone wants higher wages for American workers—this is hardly innovative. Why not call for a higher minimum wage and solve the problem directly, instead of draining money into walling off deserts?

McCarthy also believes that increased income will encourage larger families: a contentious concept—if not explicitly wrong. I suggest that the correlation of industrial revolutions and population growth stems from other factors, namely, life expectancy. Everything we know suggests that higher income equals fewer children. Europe (which apparently has solved much of its class struggle) has seen dropping birth rates as its wealth climbs. A border wall and soybean tariffs will not help the U.S. reach replacement rate.

I, too, want a new conservative agenda, but McCarthy’s is not fleshed out. It seems closer to the old right-wing stump speech that maligns liberalism, rejects socialism, and embraces an amorphous nationalism. ­McCarthy’s vision seems to be little more than policy suggestions that, frankly, are not out of the mainstream and could be seen in any Republican administration.

Brevin Anderson
boston, massachusetts

Daniel McCarthy Replies:

Samuel Gregg says I want “the state to do more,” but clearly the state has not been doing less or getting any smaller while it has pursued free trade. Most liberal-conservative alternatives to industrial policy involve various state interventions in response to job losses and economic shocks: government-sponsored job retraining, unemployment insurance, and so on. So I reject his premise: Free trade and its consequences do not necessarily lead to smaller government than industrial policy does. As for the risk of industrial policy turning into rent seeking, potential for abuse is inherent in any economic policy, whether we are talking about tax-code modifications or intellectual property protections. The remedy is an open political process in which all interests have their say.

The post-industrial economy should worry libertarians, including as it does a) ever-growing numbers of private-sector bureaucrats and administrators who multiply in response to government itself, including HR and regulatory compliance officers; and b) increasing numbers of ­low-wage retail, hotel, and food-service jobs that create a client underclass for government services. This drives demand for c) socialist or nationalist rather than libertarian political leaders. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are but the mildest foretaste of where libertarianism without enlightened political self-interest leads.

Japan is the world’s third-largest economy and has never lost the advantage in high-end manufacturing that it acquired through industrial policy: The most advanced components of the iPhone are made there and in a handful of other high-wage countries, not in China. Japan faces difficulties, but would those difficulties be any easier if Japan had fewer well-paying manufacturing jobs? The country’s problems are not a result of its successful industrial strategy.

Mr. Anderson asks, why not raise the minimum wage rather than restrict immigration? He wants to run the faucet with one hand while bailing out the tub with the other. The argument for TPP as an anti-China coalition is respectable, except that many TPP advocates, including some of its negotiators, have also argued that China would sooner or later be included in the agreement. The public in any event saw TPP in light of all the other trade agreements that had undercut U.S. workers. ­Finally, I never say that higher incomes mean more children, but rather that a family wage is helpful for starting and expanding families, and bright economic prospects for one’s posterity are more encouraging to families than dreadful prospects.


I do not recognize my work in Charles L. Glenn’s portrayal, and would like to outline several critical points of disagreement.

Glenn conflates genocide with the Holocaust, but genocide has a ­history and meaning beyond this singular, world-historic event. Glenn should read Raphael Lemkin’s Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, where the term genocide first appears, and where Lemkin applies it to a broad array of Nazi imperial pursuits in the occupied territories—including practices of Germanization and economic manipulation. Glenn should also review the working papers for the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), in which, for self-interested reasons, U.N. delegates actively sought to narrow Lemkin’s term through removal of reference to “cultural” genocide. If Glenn does not understand this context, we ­cannot debate the applicability of the term.

Glenn also suggests that history has become anecdotal. But what makes it anecdotal? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada described residential schools as participating in cultural genocide. This is, in part, because the more than six thousand survivors who spoke of the schools used the term “genocide” frequently to describe their ­experiences. They recounted how they were severed from their cultures, families, languages, and territories, and sexually and physically violated to the point where recovering their indigenous identities took much of their lifetimes. These experiences are consistent with Lemkin’s understanding of genocide. Is their testimony merely anecdotal? My book is based both on nearly seven hundred pieces of oral testimony, as well as investigation of the colonial archive, which was largely sanitized by the government and church workers who recorded it. Does Glenn include many indigenous voices in his work? Is a historical methodology that ­relies largely on the colonial ­archive ­balanced?

Glenn’s redemptive lens does not grapple with the chief concern that underlies settler colonialism and assimilative schooling: land. It is no ­coincidence that support for schooling arose alongside the Dawes ­Severalty Act. With claims of benevolence, one finds in U.S. and Canadian archives the constant refrain that there was a need to resolve the Indian question or problem—in other words, to remove indigenous peoples as an obstacle to land acquisition and nation building. This is what underlies the desire to “kill the Indian, save the man” that is implemented through assimilative schooling. Glenn listens to the sales pitch for assimilation, but ignores its motivating force. 

Andrew Woolford
university of manitoba
winnipeg, manitoba, canada

Charles L. Glenn Replies:

I appreciate Andrew Woolford’s further illustration of my argument that the writing of history is often distorted to serve ideological ends. The purpose of my article was to stress that history programs in schools should provide a balanced account, not simply recite claims—even justified ones—of victimhood, and that such claims can have bad consequences even beyond the falsification of history in fostering unjustified “rumors of inferiority.”

I do not require a lecture on the meaning of genocide; for more than a decade I’ve been vice president of two Geneva-based international NGOs concerned with human rights. Genocide was defined by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948 as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” and is appropriately applied not only to the Holocaust, but also to the massacre of Tutsi in Rwanda and similar atrocities. If a murderous intention toward native peoples inspired the governments of Canada and the United States, however, they were remarkably ineffective in carrying it out.

Nonviolent efforts to assimilate a cultural minority into the skills and dispositions of a dominant majority may sometimes be oppressive (as I mention in my article and discuss at length in my book), but they do not constitute “genocide.” Such rhetorical overreach cheapens our discourse, as when unwanted sexual advances on college campuses are carelessly lumped in with violent ­assaults as “rape.”

My book Educating Immigrant Children, which examines the schooling of immigrants in twelve different nations, makes clear that there is always a cost to such cultural displacement and that some perceive the cost of integration into the majority ­society as too high. Others find that this opens up welcome new possibilities, classically expressed by immigrant Mary Antin in The Promised Land (1912). Undoubtedly, the cost for North American Indians was high, but it is not helpful, nor intellectually honest, to listen only to the voices of those who define themselves as victims. The incentives for claiming victimhood are all too evident these days.

Nor is it fair to define the often clumsy efforts of governments to prepare American Indian youths for successful life in the emerging ­society and economy as malevolent. Reality is more complex, and the task of those who teach history is to find the right balance between sun and shadow, to celebrate the successes as well as to detail the costs and the failures.


I am glad to see how much Michael ­Toscano appreciates Miyazaki’s extraordinary genius and I am grateful for his assessment that I have helped readers to “see how hard Miyazaki works to reveal the lovely things that dodge our notice and to inspire in children a desire to know and love the world as it really is” (“Miyazaki’s Reality,” March). I certainly agree that Miyazaki has both conservative and liberal tendencies—what I have always found so admirable in ­Miyazaki’s work is his refusal to see the world in black and white terms.

I was surprised, however, that ­Toscano took issue with my notion that Miyazaki is, in the best way possible, a utopian filmmaker who offers us visions of other, better worlds that act as social and political critiques of our own. Reading the rest of the article (which does not mention my book again), I could only assume that Toscano rejects my suggestion that fantasy can help viewers engage with the real world from a fresh perspective. The beautiful, immersive fantasies that Miyazaki creates allow us to explore sometimes painful real-world issues—such as the loss of a parent, environmental destruction, or simply the vicissitudes of growing up—at a helpful remove. To me, fantasy is part of “the world as it really is,” and this is what makes Miyazaki’s vision so powerful and appealing.

Susan Napier
tufts university
medford, massachusetts

Michael Toscano Replies:

Susan Napier reads me rightly. While reviewing her Miyazakiworld, I could not help but think of J. R. R. ­Tolkien’s seminal essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” in which he defends the poem from historians who valued it chiefly as a “quarry of fact.” These historians deemed it poor, says Tolkien, because it had very little history to it and had other, stranger things in mind, such as dragons. ­Beowulf, he countered, is a work of art, and should be judged, above all, as a work of art. Unlike ­Tolkien’s ­historians, Napier clearly values ­Miyazaki’s films; and yet, like them, Miyazakiworld values the films on the wrong terms. Napier praises ­Miyazaki as a political oracle and therapeutic master, but his great power is art—the power to make whole and wonderful things. This is no mean power.

In my review, I pointed out ­Miyazaki’s conservative leanings in certain areas only because Napier failed to note them, and that seemed important in light of her own emphasis, not mine. While, happily, I think Napier misdescribes Miyazaki as “utopian”—God forbid—I had to at least fix this omission.

But the book’s greater omission is that of Miyazaki the artist. What are the formal virtues of his films? Whence their beauty? What of his use of pencil, paint, color, light, perspective, time? Why his reticence with sound and song and his taste for stillness? Why, too, does he embrace ­Tarkovsky and despise Eisenstein? How do other filmmakers judge him in return? What, according to him, is film? Does that affect how he confronts compositional problems, particularly in representing motion, such as running, the most difficult of all motions to master? Isn’t it remarkable that Miyazaki does not animate to a script, but illustrates without plan to the end, discovering the course of a film as he goes? Is that why his characters feel so free, as if they were independent of him, having a life of their own? What of his films’ splendid detail? Is it the source of their weight and reality?

Napier says that Miyazaki’s fantasies help one “explore,” “critique,” and “engage,” but Miyazaki expressly sees himself as offering audiences a means of “escape.” I, for one, have escaped into his films. Napier clearly has, too. The true power of ­Miyazaki’s art is its ability to provide this escape, and that’s power enough.