Antinomies of Liberalism

Published on Monday July 11th, 2011

After the fall of the South African apartheid regime, Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee gained access to official records documenting the individuals who presided over the censorship of his work and was surprised that they did not fit the stereotype we have of professional censors, which he describes in the following way:

some nondescript male bureaucrat who comes to work punctually at 8:30 in the morning, locks his office door behind him, and spends the day going through piles of books, underlining dirty passages in red ink and stamping pass or fail on the cover, or else pouring over strips of film with scissors at the ready, ready to snip out images of breasts and bums, who, when the clock at last strikes 5:00, emerges into the daylight, catches the bus home to some anonymous suburb and spends the evening watching reruns of sitcoms on television before donning his pajamas and falling into a dreamless sleep.

It turns out his censors were actually people quite close to him:

But the records of the South African system don’t quite fit the stereotype. Who exactly were the half dozen people who had secretly, that is to say without revealing their identity, sat in judgment on my books? Well, Anna Bassel was a writer by profession, a considerable novelist, probably one of the half dozen best of her generation, winner of prestigious awards. She wrote under the name Anna M. Louw. She was also the mother-in-law of a colleague of mine at the University of Cape Town, an eminent microbiologist. In fact, I knew her slightly. One day, without preamble, I was invited to tea with her at her suburban home. There were just the two of us. I remember we had a long discussion about the state of letters in South Africa. I had not the faintest idea of the true relation between us, namely that she was one of my censors, until the day these documents landed on my desk, by which time she was deceased. Reginald John Lighton had been a professor at the University of Cape Town at the time when I was an undergraduate student there. H. van der Merwe Scholz, the chairman of the committee that passed In the Heart of the Country was professor of Afrikaans at the University of Cape Town at the time when I was a lecture in English at the same institution. It so happened that Scholz also owned a holiday home in a small country town named Greyton where my parents lived. He once invited all of us to a barbecue in his backyard and was very friendly, very genial… I was, so to speak, rubbing shoulders daily with people who were, in secret, at least in secret to me, making judgments about whether or not I was going to be allowed to be published and read in South Africa.

(These quotes were taken from this XML document for the video’s subtitles.)

What I found so strange about this passage is how at the level of content, it’s anti-authoritarian. But in it’s form, it reads like paranoid McCarthy-era anti-Communist propaganda that tells you that even the people you least suspect are traitors - your friends, your colleagues, your neighbors. The next step is to report their activities to the authorities.

This same contradiction is the topic of Maria Bustillos’ post for the Awl, In Defense of Prudes. The reason it is necessary to come to the defense of prudes is that modesty and an aversion to gross-out humor and public displays of explicit sexuality give rise to the suspicion that individuals with these preferences are potentially threatening to “our personal freedoms,” even though they may be politically liberal and tolerant. To defend some individuals’ rights to their personal preferences, the preferences of others must be stigmatized.

My hypothesis: this contradiction is at the heart of liberalism. It celebrates and defends individual freedoms and agency, but then it can’t help but see any threats to the system as a problem of pathological individuals, leading to a demand for authoritarian surveillance and policing by the state, which tends to fall under the euphemism “taking personal responsibility.” That’s why it is possible for the US to simultaneously think of itself as the most individualistic society while also maintaining the highest incarceration rate in the world.


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