Some recent reading on the U.S. in the 19th century has done much to dispel for me the myth that the goals and ideology of 21st-century activists represent a rupture with a “good liberalism” of the past.
In the abolitionists, in the feminists of the 1840s, almost everything we would recognize as modern is already to be found — not in embryo merely, or as a perhaps unintended potentiality, but as a clear and explicitly avowed doctrine. All of the the interrogation of privilege, the construction of a liberal subject unconditioned by its flesh or its nation or its social ties, the disdain or incuriosity they showed towards reasoned defenses of the status quo, which we would recognize on a college campus today, could be found as well in the lyceums and liberal churches of that time.
And yet it strikes us as somehow different. Even when we perceived the basic similarity of the argument, it strikes us as different in affect. Superficially, at least, this is clear: they denounced kings and gods while wearing cravats and corsets; Frederick Douglass’s condemnations of slavery were framed in the rhetoric of classical and much-revered slaveholding societies; the most promethean feminisms paid more than lip-service to the sacred office of maternity.
But it isn’t just that — it isn’t that they strike us as more elegant and cultured than the activists of today. It’s that they were in fact elegant and cultured, and knew it, and were proud of it. They were not opponents of civilization, but confident advocates of the better civilization whose midwives they believed themselves to be.
It is no coincidence that this kind of activism was born in the churches. In its confidence, in its indifference to worldly powers, in the strictness of its purity, it has rightly been compared to a kind of secularized religion. This is often said as a kind of critique, but it’s a species of praise: we who have religion may not understand fervor to be a sin. These people embraced mockery, privation, sometimes violence, often poverty, in the interest of their cause.
And today? One sees a few heroic gadflies on the margins, and a horde of activist personalities, or activists who seem to understand no mode of social influence than that of the celebrity: celebrity activists seeking a kind of communication of idioms with activist celebrities. Some of the energy, some of the fervor of 19th-century reformers can still be discerned, but it is put into the service of a personal brand.
Thus is our polity humiliated even in the persons of those who would condemn it.