The New York Times unveiled a massive new editorial campaign in Sunday’s paper. “The America We Need,” the front page of the Sunday Review section announces. The entire front page of the section is an illustration of folks appearing to work in a medical lab; there’s a bicyclist also in view. All wear masks.
The editorial board was looking for a project, the page’s editor, James Bennett, announces in a sidebar. Then the coronavirus struck, providing the perfect springboard. Times of crisis reveal fissures in our society. Let’s seize the opportunity the pandemic presents to build a better America.
It’s hard to argue with that. This pandemic, and our response to it, will be the defining moment for the next generation of writers, philosophers, social critics, politicians and lawyers. Editorial pages, and editorial board members, have a unique privilege. They receive a salary to opine about the matters large and small. Whereas most of us work producing things and services, editorial boards produce opinions. (It’s a great gig; I spent five years as an editorial writer at The Waterbury Republican and then at The Hartford Courant in the 1980s.)
The first editorial in the series is almost unprecedented in length for an opinion piece, consuming about a complete page of newsprint in type. In the pages that follow, there are essays and pieces about all manner of manifestations of inequality. I recommend that you read it, every word, although I confess to still working my way through it.
What’s the takeaway? The board gives a significant tell about its endorsement for president in 2020, and it’s not going to be Joe Biden. Comparing this moment in the nation’s history to the sectional conflict that led to the Civil War and the nation’s response to the Great Depression, the paper concludes that Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt did what James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover could not do – provide inspired leadership. No mention of Biden’s picking up the torch dropped by Donald Trump.
What’s needed is bold moral, even spiritual, leadership of the sort Biden can’t offer. He’s a nice enough guy, but let’s face it, he has the charisma of concierge at a senior center. It’s only a matter of time until the Times comes out with a draft Andrew Cuomo campaign. (More about that on another day.) But that is a matter of mere personality. What about principles sufficient to guide a struggling people?
The lead editorial stumbles across the threshold of the door it opens. We need a new conception of liberty, apparently. We’ve been consumed by a conception of “negative liberty,” the board notes. Freedom from government has left us untethered to one another in meaningful ways. The result is a growing divide between rich and poor. Yes, the rich have the capacity to live lives of abundance and fulfillment, but the poor, well, the poor are left without adequate life chances, and often fail to thrive.
The coronavirus shows us this graphically. The virus strikes where it can, and the poor are more vulnerable, having fewer opportunities to avoid the risks associated with appearing in public, living in crowded conditions and otherwise suffering from the health consequences of poverty.
Uncannily, the piece reads almost as though significant portions of it were plagiarized version of Eduardo Porter’s “American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise.” Porter: White folks destroyed the American dream for by refusing to share. We can cure this through building more diverse communities. In an understated sort of way, the Times argues the same point.
Negative liberty for a few is insufficient. We need, the Times conclude, a more robust sense of government and its possibilities. To create that, we need a new view of liberty. Liberty isn’t freedom from others; liberty is freedom from the constraint imposed by privation. We need a positive conception of liberty.
The lead editorial tiptoes to the precipice of saying this three times, without really coming to the point. For all the personnel assigned to the page, the essay lacks a certain heft. How do you write about positive and negative liberty without even a nod to Isaiah Berlin, who made the distinction famous in his “Two Concepts of Liberty” in 1958?
Positive liberty carries with it the dangerous notion that a person can be forced to be free, to realize their “best” self, if necessary by compulsion. Being forced to eat your broccoli may well make you healthier, but some might not call that freedom.
Equality is good, up to a point. But untethered to a vision of human excellence, positive liberty just doesn’t work as a philosophic engine. That’s because a society that cherishes difference for difference’s sake can’t take a stand on visions of the good, lest it offend someone. Pluralism without bounds, diversity for diversity’s sake, isn’t a social philosophy, it’s a road to nowhere, the road we’ve been walking now for decades.
Keep an eye on the Times’s series. It means to make history, to mark a divide between a dysfunctional past and a better future. But so long as the Times ducks the questions of human excellence, its fulminations about positive liberty and equality will simply be empty chatter.
What, exactly, makes life worth living, folks? Surely it has to be more than making sure that statisticians are satisfied that we all die at more less the same age of the same causes and in the same way.