Welcome to Symposium
Welcome to Symposium, a new publication dedicated to strengthening the intellectual foundations of a free society.
Symposium is a journal of liberalism, but we don't mean "liberalism" in a narrow or partisan sense, where it stands (particularly in American politics) as shorthand for a left-wing agenda or for voting for a particular party. We mean liberalism in a sense that is both more precise and more profound: liberalism as the political philosophers use it, meaning advocacy of a free society.
This deeper and more ecumenical meaning of liberalism is particularly needed today because advocates of a free society find ourselves surrounded by resurgent movements on both the left and the right that are increasingly open about their illiberalism. We can no longer afford to remain fragmented by the old barriers that divide the various compartments of a liberal outlook.
I have spent the past few years advocating for a new ideological coalition in which the main political alternatives are no longer left versus right but liberal versus illiberal—that is, advocacy of a free society versus advocacy of some form of left-wing or right-wing authoritarianism. The idea is to gather together traditional 20th-Century center-left "liberals," more market-friendly "neoliberals," "classical liberals" on the right, and libertarians, and work together to defend a free society against the pro-censorship left and the nationalist right.
Symposium is an effort to explore this idea and see how far we can take it.
Our goal is to bring these various strains of liberals together to debate what a free society means, what is required for it, and how that applies to a whole range of specific issues.
The way I originally conceived of Symposium, when I was pressed to state it in one sentence, is that I wanted to create the sort of forum where you could get together thinkers from George Will to Steven Pinker to talk about what "liberalism" means. So naturally, we're launching with precisely that conversation, thanks to the generous cooperation of those two gentlemen.
The goal is not that we will always arrive at a consensus nor that the various members of this coalition will all come to agree with one another. The goal is simply that we will be talking with one another and viewing each other as kindred spirits working toward a similar goal.
(You may notice that the logo for Symposium, worked up by my wife, Sherri Tracinski, is a version of Rubin’s vase, which can be seen either as two faces or a chalice—or as two people having a conversation over a glass of wine, which is what a symposium was in the first place.)
I named this publication Symposium because it will be organized around a series of broad topics, and I will ask the most interesting writers I can find to address those topics from a variety of different perspectives. In particular, I will encourage writers to address these issues with in-depth articles that penetrate to fundamental issues, trying our best to ignore the latest partisan skirmishes or the social media outrage of the day.
The first of these substantive, in-depth articles will be published tomorrow, and in between, they will be supplemented by podcasts where I bring people from different perspectives together for a conversation. I will also post regular updates about responses to our articles, draw your attention to other contributions to this growing debate about the value and nature of liberalism, and review new books arguing in defense of a free society.
But Symposium is about more than just encouraging this kind of cultural conversation. It's about encouraging people to rethink the basic terms of the conversation, particularly the assumptions embodied in the old political "spectrum" of left versus right.
What I want us to do is to throw out the old "horseshoe theory." This is the idea that if you go too far to the left or right, they bend back to meet each other. If you go all the way out to the "extreme left," where do you end up? Communism. If you go all the way out to the "extreme right"? Fascism. And what's the difference between them? Not that much, really. But if these two supposedly opposite extremes are so indistinguishable from one another, maybe the problem is with how we have defined the spectrum in the first place.
I'm going to ask my liberal friends to consider a piece of wisdom from a conservative icon, Ronald Reagan—though I think we could also claim him on behalf of the classical liberals. In the speech that launched him onto the national political scene in 1964, Reagan said: "You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well, I'd like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There's only an up or down—up to man's age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism."
What would happen if we started thinking about politics and culture in terms closer to this? What if we adopt a political spectrum in which one end is "liberal" and the other is "illiberal"—and we care a lot less about the exact style of illiberalism?
Part the goal in building this new liberal ideological coalition is to help us notice and escape the corrupting effects of the old ideological coalitions.
First, there is the epistemic tribalism of partisan politics, the temptation to excuse or appease the illiberal movements within our own coalition because we see them as allies, as people who mean well because they are on "our side"—even as we put up walls dividing us from people who may actually be closer to us in their views, but who we see as the bad guys on the "other side."
More insidious, because it is more subtle, is the tendency of ideological coalitions to drive us toward the most superficial and least interesting forms of political discussion. We tend to stop debating or thinking seriously about fundamental ideas when talking with our allies, because they all (supposedly) agree with us—but we also don't really engage those issue with our enemies, because they are all presumed to be malicious in their intent, unreachable by rational argument or appeals to decency. So our political discussions focus instead on short-term partisan conflicts and an eternal game of gotcha in which we probe for ways, not to engage the other person's argument, but to embarrass him and remove him from the discussion. This approach has built up a whole infrastructure of clickbait websites and cable TV shows that exist only to farm our partisan outrage.
I have long argued that the reason we have such a terrible political debate is because we're not willing to pay for a better one. Symposium is an attempt to pay for a better one.
"Paying" is a key word here. Symposium is going to ask more of its authors, requiring thoughtful contributions and civil discussion to address new ideas and get down to the fundamental issues. And we’re going to put a lot of those big article out on the Internet for free, because we want them to have an impact on the debate.
But we also need to reward our authors for taking that extra effort, for offering us something better than the usual clickbait. That's why I'm asking you to become a regular subscriber to Symposium.
You will get extra subscriber-only posts, including podcasts, and the ability to comment on articles and join in on our conversation—and in the process, you'll also be helping us pay for a better quality of political discussion.
If you really like the concept behind Symposium, I would ask you to become a Founding Member. The suggested amount is $1000, but you can pay less—or more!—to contribute to our efforts. Help make sure we have the funding we need to sustain this discussion into the future.
But please sign up on the mailing list in any case, because the whole spirit of Symposium is to get as many people as possible talking to each other and debating the intellectual foundations of a free society.
I look forward to having you join the conversation.
—Rob Tracinski, Editor