Weekend Reading

As long as they’re being hunted down by the PC police, cultural conservatives can pretend that they’re the victims of modern culture. Think about it: An entire society wants to marginalize them for talking about black-on-black crime or genetic definitions of gender. Of course, no one is going to arrest them under PC law, try them in PC court or lock them in PC jail. But they feel excluded and socially coerced to behave in particular ways, so they fight back wherever they can against compulsory thoughtfulness.

What “South Park” libertarians don’t seem to realize is that they’ve crafted a whole politics around their bruised feelings, which is exactly what they accuse the PC police of doing wrong. More than police brutality or wealth inequality or state surveillance, they don’t like being told that they’re wrong or should behave differently.

We have read about torture, and Guantánamo, and torture again, glowing with outrage at every turn. Even if it did not secure accountability for these outrages, the defense of civil liberties at least strengthened the norms prohibiting inhumane conduct in war—especially unacceptable forms of detention and interrogation. The value of civil libertarianism was at its greatest when those norms seemed momentarily fragile, and the country appeared to be slipping over to the “dark side,” as revelations from Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and elsewhere began to mount.

But we should not pretend that you can never have too much of a good thing. Oppositional to the state in the short term, civil libertarianism can function to grant the state legitimacy in the long term by helping scrub wars of their outrageous excesses—as if those excesses were the main problem.

Under civil libertarianism (now augmented by a much newer human rights internationalism), how the state fights its enemies is made to matter much more than why it does so and with what consequences. The question of whether a war is right or wrong to begin with is often left to the side so long as the way the war is fought is arguably in conformity with national law and international standards.

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