In the preface to his 1950 book “The Liberal Imagination,” literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote that the conservative and reactionary tendencies in our society “do not express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” This astute observation was not meant to underestimate the influence of conservatives nor to give American liberals a false sense of security.
Trilling notes approvingly a prayer of the British political philosopher John Stuart Mill-- “Lord, enlighten thou our enemies.” A more intelligent debate, says Trilling, will “force liberals to examine their position for its weaknesses and complacencies.”
As a literary scholar, Trilling worked to increase the scope and quality of what he called “the liberal imagination” through a close, public examination of American literature. His criticism, however, was not meant to be confined to academic journals and university classrooms. Today journalism and the humanities seldom mingle to the detriment of both; our media has generally dumbed itself down and become a slave to popular taste and conventional opinion (what’s selling at the moment), while most professors remain locked into their specialized careers.
Which is not to say that wisdom, political or otherwise, can only be found among liberal journalists and outspoken professors, or in books, schools and centers of urban culture. Some of our best thinking and acting is taking place in rural and inner-city areas among people who must confront directly the damage being done to land and communities in the name of global progress and prosperity.
The great strength of liberalism, at least in its more “progressive” or enlightened forms, is its devotion to imagination, to literature and art, for out of imagination-- the practice of opening the self to other selves and even to other creatures-- comes compassion, the “bleeding heart” all the hard-headed realists live to disparage.
Mistakes can be made by compassionate people, God knows, and not all the downtrodden are blameless saints. But to argue that selfish ambition and the amassing of great wealth are virtues to be supported by government and society, if not by one’s religious tradition, is to reduce democracy to an adolescent free-for-all. If one’s education is limited to what’s on television and what’s online and what’s written by popular pundits, one becomes susceptible to “irritable mental gestures” that can do great harm.
Milwaukee was at one time perhaps the most politically progressive of all American cities. Today the region, led by its major newspaper, has swung, especially in the suburbs, to the conservative side of things. Liberal media voices in Wisconsin’s largest metro area have been steadily downsized and marginalized, surviving only in smaller print publications and “blogs.”
The purpose of this weekly electronic column I’ll call, in honor of Trilling, “Liberal Imagination”, will be to contribute in a small way to what remains of the liberal/progressive/populist atmosphere in the Milwaukee area, as well as the state of Wisconsin. I’ll be writing not as an expert but as an interested and critical citizen with democratic access to information by way of a computer, a telephone and books. Of the three, I prefer books, and I won’t hesitate to bring poetry and fiction -- and my own imagination-- into the fray.
Fellow opinionists and readers who wish to point out my weaknesses and improve my arguments are welcome to do so.