[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: Richard V. Horner: Maintaining the Trajectory of Freedom

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Richard V. Horner: Maintaining the Trajectory of Freedom
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

          Richard V. Horner is a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced
    Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is currently
    working on a book entitled, Possibilities of Pragmatism, which focuses
    on pragmatic responses to the post-modern impasse into which modernity
    has led.


          The hope of American democracy does not lie in the reassertion
    of self-evident truths, nor in the reconstruction of moral
    foundations, nor in a renewed faith in human reason. It does not lie
    in a revitalized republicanism rooted in civic virtue nor in a
    communitarian consensus rooted in a shared view of human nature. The
    hope of American democracy lies just where the pre-eminent pragmatist
    of our day says it does: in continuing

      along the trajectory defined by the Bill of Rights, the
      Reconstruction Amendments, the building of the land-grant colleges,
      female suffrage, the New Deal, Brown vs. Board of Education, the
      building of the community colleges, Lyndon Johnson's civil rights
      legislation, the feminist movement, and the gay rights

          The hope of democracy, in other words, lies in continuing along
    a trajectory of freedom shaped by the conviction that one of the basic
    ends of government is still to "secure the blessings of liberty to
    ourselves and our posterity," or as Richard Rorty would put it, to
    serve the "endless, proliferating realization of Freedom"[4]^2 by
    guarding the live and let-live attitudes of bourgeois liberal

          Rorty is right again when he suggests that the only shared
    reason we need for continuing on this trajectory is that when we put
    it up against the alternatives, the pursuit of freedom beats the
    competition. In other words, our best shared defense of our political
    practices is likely to be a pragmatic one. This is not to say that
    there is a uniquely pragmatic justification of liberal democracy, but
    that we would do well to place our discussion of political theory and
    practice within a pragmatic frame. We should begin with the questions
    and problems that arise in experience, try on alternative answers and
    solutions, and weigh those alternatives against each other by tracing
    their consequences back into experience. As Rorty observes, we need
    not attach our conviction in favor of political liberalism to "a view
    about universally shared human ends, human rights, the nature of
    rationality, the Good for Man, nor anything else."[5]^3 To the
    contrary, recognizing that "a liberal society is badly served by an
    attempt to supply it with `philosophical foundations,'" we can "drop
    the idea of such foundations [and] regard the justification of liberal
    society simply as a matter of historical comparison with other
    attempts at social organization--those of the past and those envisaged
    by utopians."[6]^4

          While Rorty does us a favor by moving us toward a pragmatic
    frame and pointing us in the direction of freedom, his own liberal
    vision does not hold up well when placed within this frame. Rorty's
    utopian vision leads to just the sort of illiberal consequences that
    he and a lot of the rest of us want to avoid. When he tells us that
    "the citizens of [his] liberal utopia...would be liberal ironists,"
    and that the culture of this utopia would be one "in which no trace of
    divinity remained, either in the form of a divinized world or a
    divinized self,"[7]^5 Rorty demonstrates that his utopia is an ironist
    utopia but not a liberal utopia. His utopia would be a culture of and
    for liberal ironists that would have no room for those who do not
    share the ironic vision. When, in addition, Rorty asks all of us to
    frame our defense of political liberalism in a vocabulary that
    privileges the ironic and contingent, he again goes against his own
    good advice that we share only a pragmatic defense of freedom. In the
    end, Rorty does want to connect the practices of political liberalism
    to a particular understanding of the human condition. His
    understanding drops terms such as "comprehensive theory" or
    "foundations," but it is an understanding nonetheless, and by asking
    all of us to see it as offering the one defense of freedom to which we
    all must hold, Rorty excludes those who do not share his controversial
    and partisan vision. Ironically, the liberal ironist works against the
    endless proliferation of freedom. If we are to continue on the
    trajectory of freedom, then, we need an alternative hypothesis that
    serves the cause of freedom more effectively than Rorty's call for an
    ironist utopia.

Cultural Disestablishment

          William Galston points us toward such an alternative when he
    argues that our "best hope for maximizing opportunities for
    individuals and groups to lead lives as they see fit" lies in a
    liberalism that applies a strategy of "cultural disestablishment
    parallel to religious disestablishment."[8]^6 Galston understands that
    while the strategy of disestablishment focused initially on religious
    differences, its genius does not lie in anything unique to religion,
    but rather in the recognition that where understandings of the human
    condition, interpretations of personal experience, and questions of
    meaning are in view, it is better for people to live by conviction
    than by constraint. Because so many citizens gave religious answers to
    questions about meaning in the eighteenth century, the strategy
    focused initially on differences drawn along religious lines. From the
    outset, however, the strategy not only accommodated those who found
    life's meaning in organized religions, it also accommodated those who
    constructed answers to their most basic questions in secular terms.
    The First Amendment granted freedom to specific religions across the
    spectrum of religious pluralism, and it granted freedom across the
    line between religious and secular understandings of life as well. As
    Jefferson put it, the American experiment provided a place not only
    for a range of religious orthodoxies, but also for the belief in
    twenty gods or in no god at all.

          Having identified this strategy as central to the genius of
    political liberalism, Galston also notes that modern liberalism has
    lost its way by taking sides where it ought to have guaranteed
    freedom. Instead of applying a strategy of cultural disestablishment
    to the deep difference between autonomy and tradition that runs
    through American society, Galston argues, modern liberalism has come
    down on the side of autonomy and made the problem of deep difference
    even more troubling than it needs to be. By imposing a high valuation
    of individual autonomy on groups and individuals who do not share that
    value in the same way, liberalism has fallen into an establishment
    stance that favors autonomy over its alternatives. As a result,
    freedom has been restricted and democracy is in trouble. Galston
    argues that liberalism should be "about the protection of diversity,
    not the valorization of choice." Therefore, "to place an ideal of
    autonomous choice...at the core of liberalism is in fact to narrow the
    range of possibilities available within liberal societies." The
    autonomy principle has come to represent "a kind of uniformity that
    exerts a pressure on ways of life that do not embrace autonomy."[9]^7
    In the end, therefore, by marginalizing or excluding those who cannot
    embrace autonomy as the highest good, modern liberalism works against
    freedom rather than for it.

          Whereas some of Galston's peers want to solve this problem by
    freeing liberalism from its ties to autonomy and then linking
    liberalism to a traditionalist framework, or by establishing a
    communitarian or republican alternative in its place, Galston wants to
    address the problem by employing the strategy of cultural
    disestablishment. By utilizing this strategy Galston hopes to provide
    a place for those who value autonomy above all and for individuals and
    associations that do not value autonomy in the same way. "A liberal
    state need not and should not take sides on issues such as purity
    versus mixture or reason versus tradition," Galston writes.[10]^8
    "Rather than taking autonomy or critical reflection as our points of
    departure, what we need instead is an account of liberalism that gives
    diversity its due." We need a "`Diversity State'...that afford[s]
    maximum feasible space for the enactment of individual and group
    differences, constrained only by the requirements of liberal social
    utility."[11]^9 To his credit Galston does not want to drive devotees
    of autonomy from the field. Instead, while practicing disestablishment
    across a variety of traditions, he also wants to practice
    disestablishment between autonomy and its alternatives. Autonomy
    should be disestablished, but devotees of autonomy should be granted
    free exercise, along with all who hold competing views of the highest
    good, within a diversity state.

          By taking this approach to lines of deep difference, Galston
    captures the genius of the First Amendment's disestablishment
    strategy. First, he affirms the view that it is good for people to be
    free to live by conviction rather than constraint when answering
    life's deepest questions. Second, he demonstrates that the genius of
    the disestablishment strategy does not lie in anything unique to
    religion but in its ability to deal effectively with deep cultural
    differences that can take a number of forms. Third, he reminds us that
    a disestablishment strategy often has to work on more than one level
    of difference at a time so as not to fall unwittingly into
    establishment patterns. Galston recognizes that while granting free
    exercise to a variety of traditions, we fell unwittingly into
    establishing a comprehensive doctrine of autonomy. He refuses,
    however, to react against autonomy by attempting to drive it from the
    field. Instead, he argues that what we should have been doing all
    along, and need to do now, is practice disestablishment with regard to
    specific traditions and also practice it across the line between
    traditionalism and autonomy, just as the founders did when they
    brought the strategy to bear not only on religious differences but
    also on the difference between religious and secular ways of thinking.

Differences That Make a Difference

          Perhaps the reason we have not built on the precedent of
    cultural disestablishment as well as we might have is that the lines
    of deep cultural difference that divide us most have become more
    complex and difficult to identify than they were two hundred years
    ago. In the late eighteenth century one could visit the places of
    worship located within a few blocks of Independence Hall in
    Philadelphia and, at least with regard to religious pluralism, come
    away with a pretty good understanding of the lines that marked the
    major differences. If the name on the outside of the building and the
    furnishings inside did not tell you everything you needed to know, you
    could visit with a congregant, rector, priest, or pastor of the
    church, or with the lay president of the synagogue, and fill in the
    missing information readily enough. This is no longer the case, and
    with every passing year the task of identifying the lines of cultural
    difference that make a difference only becomes more complicated.
    Diversity gives birth to diversity, not only multiplying lines of
    division but weaving them together in multi-dimensional complexity. As
    a result the significant lines of difference are continually shifting
    and constantly challenging our intention to continue on the trajectory
    of freedom.

          Today, the lines of cultural difference that come most readily
    to mind are probably those that center on the body. Lines of
    difference defined by gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, age, and
    disabilities stand alongside differences of class and religion as
    lines that mark just the sort of deep cultural differences to which
    the only adequate response is the strategy of cultural
    disestablishment. If we are to enjoy freedom, those of us who think of
    ourselves primarily along these lines of difference need to be able to
    do so without fear that the government or public institutions are
    going to attempt to coerce us to do otherwise. Indeed, we need to know
    that public institutions will be there to assure us of our freedom to
    live according to our own understandings, convictions, and designs.
    Recognizing that these lines identify deep cultural differences that
    parallel eighteenth-century lines of religious pluralism constitutes
    an important step in the trajectory of freedom, and we would do well
    to continue to guard against the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in
    which one group, or overlapping solidarity of groups, becomes
    established at the expense of others.

          What William Simon has written about sexuality, however, one
    could also write about race, gender, ethnicity, disability, class,
    age, and religion: "For all the significance we attach to it," he
    writes, "sexual behavior does little to signify by itself....It
    becomes articulate by being transformed into sexual conduct--that is,
    behavior given meaning, evaluated." Sexual behavior is
    meaning-dependent and "in its very meaning-dependency, sexuality must
    reflect the broad changes taking place at both cultural and individual
    levels."[12]^10 Otherwise, "to know about an individual's sexual
    history--even to know it in great detail--is to know very little, to
    have little understanding of why it occurred or the meaning it will
    have for that person."[13]^11 We must be careful, therefore, not to
    assume that there is a single homosexual culture or a single
    heterosexual culture, and we must guard against thinking that by
    categorizing people with regard to sexual practice we have thereby
    understood them. The same applies to other lines of division as well.
    To identify someone as being a member of some specific category
    (woman, black, Asian, gay, retired, Jewish, or working class) is not
    necessarily to have identified the core of that person's self
    understanding, and where that identity is central to the individual,
    it still needs to be given its meaning. While we do well to continue
    to work hard to guard freedom across all of these lines of identity,
    therefore, we also need to be sensitive to the fact that there are
    other lines of difference that inform our identities and beliefs and
    give meaning to them.

          One such line of deep cultural difference lies between
    essentialist and non-essentialist understandings of human experience.
    On the essentialist side of the line, one finds a variety of
    ahistoricist understandings of the human condition that make claims to
    universality. On the non-essentialist side of the line, one finds
    understandings of human experience that are historicized and
    contingent. On the essentialist side, one finds stories about what we
    humans share with each other that are long and detailed and have lots
    to say on the subject. On the non-essentialist side one finds rather
    brief narratives whose main point is that there is not much to say
    about what human beings share and that we would do well not to put too
    much emphasis on the question. Essentialist stories are deep and
    binding, and flow from the authority of reason, science, or religion.
    Non-essentialist stories emphasize self-creation and lead to ways of
    thinking about experience because they are possible. The one sort of
    story sees the self as a work of discovery, the other holds that the
    self is a work of imagination, and both stories say of the true, the
    good, and the beautiful what they say of the self. For the one these
    are notions of depth whose essences are to be discovered, and for the
    other they are notions that will run only as deep as whatever we put
    into them.

          This deep line of difference between essentialism and
    non-essentialism informs and cuts across lines drawn by the body,
    class, and religion. It separates those for whom racial or sexual
    identities are central to their understanding of human nature from
    those for whom these identities provide alternative descriptions of
    non-essentialist solidarities. In a similar way the essentialist vs.
    non-essentialist line separates those for whom sexual orientation is a
    given that defines who they are from those for whom sexuality
    identifies a domain of self-creativity and imagination. The line also
    runs through religious discourse and belief, demonstrating that the
    deeper religious differences at work today are not among Catholic,
    Protestant, and Jew, but between those believers who view "the various
    truths and practices of a religion as socially constructed" and those
    believers "who are desperately striving to keep the old faith" as the
    ahistorical and absolute faith that they consider it to be.[14]^12 In
    short, a line of deep division between those who see their identities
    and beliefs as contingent and created, on the one side, and those who
    see their identities and beliefs as deeply enduring and discovered, on
    the other, informs and cuts across other lines of deep division drawn
    by differences of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability,
    class, age, and religion. The question is: how shall we respond to
    this line of deep difference?

          The answer is that we should employ the strategy of cultural
    disestablishment that Galston finds in the First Amendment. Rather
    than committing liberalism, on the one hand, to "curing us of our
    `deep metaphysical need,'"[15]^13 or, on the other hand, to unifying
    us around transcendence or tradition, we can grant free exercise to
    both essentialist and non-essentialist understandings of human
    experience and refuse to establish either one over the other. As the
    writers of the First Amendment guaranteed freedom among religions and
    between religious and secular understandings of life, and as Galston
    preserves a place for specific traditions without establishing either
    autonomy or traditionalism in the process, so we can grant freedom
    across a variety of beliefs and identities without falling unwittingly
    into rendering all our identities and beliefs either essentialist or
    non-essentialist in the process. The strategy of disestablishment
    often needs to function on more than one level at a time, and it can
    do so here once again. If freedom is to go all the way down to what
    matters most to us, then it must extend across differences drawn by
    lines of identity, without establishing essentialism at the expense of
    those who see their identities as contingent and created or
    establishing non-essentialism at the expense of those who see their
    identities as absolute and discovered. The line of difference between
    essentialists and non-essentialists can and must stand alongside
    differences of religion, class, age, disability, race, gender, and
    sexuality without either overshadowing those differences or being
    obscured by them. These are all lines of deep difference that make a
    difference, and we will continue on the trajectory of freedom only if
    we apply the strategy of cultural disestablishment to this line of
    difference as we have to the other lines of difference that have
    divided us most deeply.

The Free Defense of Freedom

          If freedom is to be genuine, furthermore, we will need to apply
    the strategy of cultural disestablishment particularly when our deep
    differences emerge in the defense of freedom. The stories that give us
    our best arguments in support of the principles and strategies of
    political liberalism are also the stories by which we make sense of
    our lives. If there is to be freedom regarding the stories by which we
    make sense of life, then there must also be freedom with regard to the
    ways that these stories lead us to support the ideals and strategies
    of political liberalism. Where the justification of political
    liberalism is at issue, we are still dealing with deep differences to
    which the only adequate response is a strategy of cultural
    disestablishment that allows no single line of defense to be
    established at the expense of others. When we do allow any single line
    of reasoning, whether based in tradition or autonomy, orthodoxy or
    irony, to be elevated above its alternatives, we cut into the very
    freedom we hope to secure. If the desired consequence is freedom, and
    if freedom is to be genuine, it must go all the way down to the
    differences that divide us most deeply and extend all the way out to
    the reasons we give for preserving the freedom that we cherish.

          Freedom, furthermore, is not the only thing at stake. Extending
    freedom all the way out to our defense of freedom would not only
    enlarge the experience of freedom, it would also lend broader support
    to the liberal regime that grants that freedom. If people are free to
    defend freedom in ways that flow from the stories that matter most to
    them, freedom will flourish and so will support for the liberal regime
    that provides that freedom. If, to the contrary, faithful supporters
    of political liberalism must share a particular justification, then
    political liberalism deprives itself of the support of all who do not
    come to its defense by means of this justification. Despite their
    desire to be seen as good political liberals and to lend their support
    to the regime, potential supporters find themselves excluded, and
    their resistance to the party line with regard to justifying
    liberalism comes to be seen as resistance to liberalism itself. As the
    misunderstandings deepen, the rhetoric sharpens, and both insiders and
    outsiders forget how much of political liberalism they genuinely
    share. As a result, individual freedom suffers, and the liberal regime
    undermines its own support.

          Once again, Galston's analysis of the marriage between
    liberalism and autonomy is helpful. Galston argues that it was when
    political liberals began to see an autonomy philosophy as offering the
    one legitimate justification of the ideals and strategies of political
    liberalism that political liberalism got into trouble. Galston
    understands that:

      Autonomy-based arguments are bound to marginalize those individuals
      and groups who cannot conscientiously embrace the Enlightenment
      Project. To the extent that many liberals identify liberalism with
      the Enlightenment Project, they limit support for their cause and
      drive many citizens of good will--indeed, many potential
      allies--into opposition.[16]^14

          By demanding that we all hold to a justification of liberalism
    that is based in giving priority to autonomy, and thereby driving
    would-be supporters into an antagonistic stance, the supposed devotees
    of liberal ism turn out to be liberalism's own worst enemies As a
    result, the friends of liberalism do a disservice not only to freedom
    and to their fellow citizens, but also to the liberal regime they hope
    to support. As Galston observes, "It would not be difficult to explain
    the disasters of recent American progressive politics along these

          To continue on the trajectory of freedom, then, parties on both
    sides of the lines of deep difference that divide us most would do
    well to allow the justification of freedom to reflect these deep
    differences. The liberal ironist need not enlist us all in the "cause
    of providing contemporary liberal culture with a vocabulary which is
    all its own, cleansing it of the residues of a vocabulary which was
    suited to the needs of former days."[18]^16 He need not supply
    liberalism with a single vocabulary "which revolves around notions of
    metaphor and self-creation rather than around notions of truth,
    rationality, and moral obligation."[19]^17 In a similar manner, the
    liberal essentialist, and her republican and communitarian allies,
    need not unite us all around a single essentialist justification,
    whether rooted in higher-level intersubjectivity or autonomy, in
    theistic faith or republican virtue. There is no more virtue in
    driving non-essentialists to the margins than there is in excluding
    essentialists, and a political liberalism that insists on doing so
    only undermines itself and opposes the cause of freedom. Whether we
    are making a case for the strategy of disestablishment, arguing for
    the ideal of individual liberty, or justifying political liberalism
    more broadly, we need not view either a non-essentialist vocabulary or
    an essentialist line of argument as providing the one justification to
    which all political liberals of good faith must subscribe. We can,
    instead, welcome the justifications of liberal freedom that both
    essentialists and non-essentialists bring and guard the freedom by
    which both parties bring those justifications.


          The good news in all of this is that so many of us, coming from
    such deeply rivalrous cultural traditions, have agreed in affirming
    liberal freedoms when allowed to do so on our own terms. Over the past
    couple of centuries presbyterians, congregationalists, anabaptists,
    and Quakers have concurred. Catholics, Protestants, Jews and other
    religious communities have agreed. The religiously inclined and the
    secular-minded have agreed. People from across the racial and ethnic
    spectrum, men and women, young and old, heterosexuals and homosexuals,
    and a whole range of social classes have agreed. Advocates for
    autonomy and adherents to tradition have lent their support, and now
    we find that essentialists and non-essentialists concur. Richard
    Rorty, on the one side, assures us that seeing "one's language, one's
    conscience, one's morality, and one's highest hopes as contingent
    products, as literalizations of what once were accidentally produced
    metaphors, is to adopt a self-identity which suits one for citizenship
    in such an ideally liberal state."[20]^18 Richard Neuhaus, on the
    other side, assures us that the Catholic church is "intellectually and
    institutionally, the world's most influential champion of human
    freedom," and even that "the principles and practices of the free
    society are made necessary by Catholic teaching."[21]^19 This
    consensus is good news, and we would do well to make the most of it
    both for the sake of freedom and for the sake of the liberal regime
    that secures that freedom.

          The bad news is that the lines of deep difference that make a
    difference are drawn most clearly by our fears. Whether they focus on
    the body, class, and religion, or on the lines of thought that inform
    these differences, the lines of deep difference that matter most are
    also lines of fear. They are marked, for instance, by homophobia and
    the fear of fundamentalism, by the fear of feminism and the fear of
    populist masculinities. They are marked by racial and ethnic fears and
    by fears across classes and generations. They are marked by the fear
    that open-minded, autonomous individualists have of narrow-minded
    traditionalists and by the fear that community-minded traditionalists
    have of self-centered individualists. Now, increasingly, they are
    marked by the fear that makes good-hearted, freedom-loving
    essentialists question whether democracy can survive the dissolvents
    of smirking ironists, and good-hearted, freedom-loving ironists
    question whether democracy can survive the dogmatisms of blinkered

          These fears, however, need not lead us to despair. As John Gray
    observes, it was in the context of fear that the liberal strategy of
    granting freedom across lines of deep difference first proved to be
    such a good idea.[22]^20

          Yes, the founders were sadly inconsistent in applying this
    strategy, but they did at least teach us that the strength of
    political liberalism lies in its ability to see our fears not as
    marking the limits of freedom, but as marking the points at which
    freedom matters most. Unfortunately, over the past two centuries too
    many of us have come to think that the strength of liberalism lies in
    its ability to overcome our fears by unifying all of us around a
    single understanding of life, or a single vocabulary, or a single line
    of justification of liberalism itself. We have forgotten that
    liberalism's strength does not lie in its ability to impose a common
    way of thinking about life or even about liberalism, but in its
    willingness to respond to lines of deep difference and fear by
    refusing to establish one party to difference over another. As
    unnerving as our fears may be, therefore, we do well to take note of
    them, for if we will allow them to, they will identify the lines of
    difference that make a difference. They will identify the deep
    differences we cherish most and out of which liberalism's best
    justifications flow. Our fears, in short, will identify the places
    where freedom matters most, and if we will face our fears both
    honestly and liberally, they will plot the course of the trajectory of

    [23]^1 Richard Rorty, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids," Common Knowledge
    1 (Winter, 1992): 150. ] [24]^2 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and
    Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989) xvi. ] [25]^3
    Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 84. ] [26]^4 Rorty,
    Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 52, 53. ] [27]^5 Rorty,
    Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 61, 45. ] [28]^6 William Galston,
    "Two Concepts of Liberalism," Ethics 105 (April, 1995): 527, 528. ]
    [29]^7 Galston, "Two Concepts of Liberalism," 523. ] [30]^8 Galston,
    "Two Concepts of Liberalism," 523. ] [31]^9 Galston, "Two Concepts of
    Liberalism," 524. ] [32]^10 William Simon, "The Postmodernization of
    Sex and Gender," The Truth About the Truth: De-confusing and
    Re-constructing the Postmodern World, ed. Walter Truett Anderson (New
    York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1995) 158. ] [33]^11 Simon, "The
    Postmodernization of Sex and Gender," 159. ] [34]^12 Walter Truett
    Anderson, "Introduction: What's Going On Here?" The Truth About the
    Truth, 9,10. ] [35]^13 Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 46.
    ] [36]^14 Galston, "Two Concepts of Liberalism," 526. ] [37]^15
    Galston, "Two Concepts of Liberalism," 526. ] [38]^16 Rorty,
    Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 55. ] [39]^17 Rorty, Contingency,
    Irony, and Solidarity, 44. ] [40]^18 Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and
    Solidarity, 61. ] [41]^19 Richard John Neuhaus, "Forward,"
    Catholicism, Liberalism, and Communitarianism: The Catholic
    Intellectual Tradition and the Moral Foundations of Democracy, eds.
    Kenneth L. Grasso, Gerard V. Bradley, and Robert P. Hunt (Lanham, MD:
    Rowman & Littlefield, 1995) ix, xi. ] [42]^20 See John Gray's "Two
    Liberalisms of Fear" in this issue of The Hedgehog Review. ]

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