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November 2012

Liberalism's "Kultursmog"

by Andrew Roberts

A review of The Death of Liberalism by R. Tyrrell Jr.

Tyrrell attempts to cover himself from such criticism by pointing out in his opening pages that it is “true liberalism: classical liberalism, or, as it is sometimes called, nineteen-century liberalism,” of which he is writing—the small-L liberalism that “stood for adherence to individual liberty, to tolerance, to reason and, for many of us, to empiricism.” This places it in exquisite counterpoise to the capital-L Liberalism of the modern Democratic party, which he accuses of having, “over the decades twisted all these values into absurdities.”

In this he is right, but it will not save him from having the title of this book thrown in his face should Obama win, not least because, as he himself argues, the capital-L Liberals have created what he calls a Kultursmog, which he defines as a “pollution of our culture by politics, almost exclusively Liberal politics” in which truth takes second place to ideology. He is fortunate that Tom Wolfe, another distinguished observer on the American political and cultural scene, has also defined Kultursmog for us as “the social manipulation of ‘The Good,’ a subset of the sociology of concept construction,” a phenomenon that Wolfe dates back to the Phoenicians.

As well as his courage in his choice of title, Tyrrell is brave in his choice of the liberal sacred cows that he here leads to the abattoir. Mahatma Gandhi has been long overdue for critical examination, and Tyrrell’s unmasking of him as a “colossal fraud” is worth the price of the book alone. To read that the Beatles were merely “four singers in their twenties with a TV viewer’s education” was uplifting too, though this reviewer was unconvinced that their song Hey Jude is genuinely about masturbation, as Mr. Tyrrell assures us.

Tyrrell states that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other great early Americans were classical liberals, but the way that their creed has been hijacked by modern Liberals, such as Paul Krugman and Al Gore, means that “Liberalism has lost the trust of reasonable minds.” He copies Vladimir Lenin in calling leftists infantile, claiming that they ruined a once great political philosophy by confusing equality of rights with equality of economic outcome, true toleration with the tyranny of political correctness, and empiricism with new secular religions such as global warming (or “climate change” as we are now enjoined to call it whenever it snows).

In an otherwise lucid and logical discourse, Tyrrell does stumble in one area; indeed, he reveals a polemicist’s tic that amounts to a writer’s version of Tourette’s Syndrome. He is obsessed with Bill and Hillary Clinton to the point that it has become almost a conservative equivalent of the well-known Bush Derangement Syndrome, by which liberal commentators become overcome by the visceral need to attack George W. Bush on virtually any subject under discussion. In Tyrrell’s case we are repeatedly brought back to the tawdry circumstances of Troopergate, Whitewater, “Pardongate,” Paula Jones, and other Clinton scandals of the ’90s, even though he simultaneously argues that President Clinton was not the most important politician of his generation. This is overkill; when Monica Lewinsky receives as many mentions as Daniel Patrick Moynihan in a book on American Liberalism, something is out of kilter.

Overall, however, Tyrrell’s impish humor carries the book forward, in addition to a large number of interesting aperçus on people and issues as diverse as Warren Harding, Rousseau’s critique of private property, Irving Kristol, Bismarck’s welfare state, Ferdinand Lassalle, hate speech, and Barry Goldwater. Yet the most powerful arguments that Tyrrell displays in this lively, hard-hitting book are not the philosophical or personal ones, but surprisingly enough the economic and financial ones, and they are fully backed up by OMB graphs on pages 152 (“Percentage of Federal Spending on Entitlements 1965–2010”) and page 153 (“Spending as Percentage of GDP 1960–2011”). These illustrate with chilling exactitude how outrageously louche governments of both stripes, but particularly the Democrats, have been with the American taxpayers’ dollar in extending the welfare state. The ratio of workers to beneficiaries in America has fallen from 4.9 in 1960 to 2.8 today, for example.

Liberalism, therefore, is simply unsustainable as an economic system, quite regardless of whether it makes any moral, social, or political sense. So it all comes down to a race; will the American people spot this truth and take the necessary steps before so many of them are on welfare and benefits that they will vote Democrat simply to ensure the survival of the system? Whether they do or not, books like Mr. Tyrrell’s means that they can’t say they weren’t warned.

Andrew Roberts is the author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900 (Harper Collins).

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 November 2012, on page 75

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