Over the years readers have mentioned to me that too much of the discussion here takes place in the comment-threads, which are often far longer than the posts themselves. The days go by, the posts roll away down the screen, and exchanges that happen days after the original post are, effectively, hidden. I’ve been trying to remind myself to make substantial responses to comments in new posts, but I often forget.
In a recent item I mentioned that most conservatives regard liberals as decent, well-intentioned people. Responding to our consistently leftmost commenter, I wrote:
I think that both conservatives and well-intentioned liberals such as yourself want the same thing, which is to create and sustain a prosperous and well-functioning American society that maximizes opportunity and happiness, in harmony with our nature. What we disagree about is how best to achieve it (and I think this is due in large part to disagreements about the realities of human nature).
This prompted another commenter to inquire:
What I don’t understand is: why do conservatives insist on seeing liberals as good people with bad ideas?
I feel that way only because I know so many of them. Looking at history with aloof, post-Enlightenment skepticism, modern liberals have come to believe that the source of humanity’s endless conflict and suffering is the self-confidence of traditional societies — above all, the discriminations that such cultures, in order to survive and flourish, necessarily make between friend and foe, higher and lower, self and other, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, wisdom and folly, sacred and profane, and right and wrong.
The key to harmony and happiness, then, is to reject and abandon all such confident discrimination in favor of radical doubt, which leads in turn to radical relativism. The equally radical — and poisonous — consequence of this is that if nothing and nobody can rightly be judged to be better or worse, or right or wrong, then the world’s obvious inequalities must mean that somehow, somebody cheated.
For example, look at the phenomenal success of Western, Judeo-Christian civilization, which effectively conquered and transformed the entire world, while creating sublime works of art, immeasurable wealth, and lifting billions out of poverty.
There are two possibilities. One is that for such a stupendous conquest to have happened, there must simply have been something inherently superior about such a civilization — and, because cultures do not fall from the sky, something special also about the people who created it.
But if you must rule that out, because it is offensive even to imagine such a thing, then what’s left? Only that somehow it was a dirty trick, a great injustice — and that in the name of justice the villains must be brought down, their perfidy exposed, their altars shattered, their ill-gotten wealth confiscated, and their ambitions confounded.
This necessary insight — that the essence and primum movens of modern liberalism is the pursuit of a radical equality that ultimately eliminates all basis for conflict, and that this pursuit makes necessary a corrosive and ultimately suicidal relativism — is obviously not my own. I had my first serious encounter with it in Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind. Reading that book was what started me on my own road to Damascus.
Bloom wrote this about the students entering his university (my emphasis):
They are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality. And the two are related in a moral intention. The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable natural rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society…
The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness – and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings – is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.
President Obama recently called the quest for equality “the defining challenge of our time”, and said “it drives everything I do in this office”. It is the Holy Grail.
In my response to our commenter, I ended with a polemical flourish:
And so liberals, with the best of intentions, have made themselves the enemies of everything good, everything true, everything superior, and everything sacred: in short, everything that once made our civilization great.
This is, perhaps, a trifle excessive, though not by much. I certainly do not mean to say that in modern liberalism’s relentless jihad against all forms of inequality, nothing good has been accomplished. Although the capacity to make essential discriminations is necessary for the survival of any living organism — from a paramecium to a civilization — not all discrimination is good or just, and the liberal juggernaut of the late 20th century achieved some genuine moral victories, particularly in its struggle to ensure that all Americans, regardless of race, stood as equals before the law. The problem is that the radically egalitarian anti-discrimination at the heart of modern liberalism knows no limiting principle: it is a “universal acid” that gnaws relentlessly at any vessel that tries to contain it. Having leached away the pernicious discriminations in our society’s laws, it began next to attack the civil, social, and educational framework of society itself — and now dissolves the very foundations upon which our nation, and our civilization, were erected. In particular, it is antagonistic to both truth and liberty: to truth, because it must deny the permanent, natural inequalities of the world, and to liberty, because, as Will Durant reminds us:
[F]reedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically, as in England and America in the nineteenth century under laissez-faire. To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way.