[My inaugural post at What's Wrong with the World is unusually long. Leave us say that after many years away from blogging, I have a lot on my mind.]
“It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this ‘progressive’ age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most ‘progressive’ people in it.” GK Chesterton, Heretics
“We have mixed up two different things, two opposite things. Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit [a] vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision…” GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy
The advanced liberalism of our age combines a remarkable zeal for what is called Progress with a rejection of any standards superseding Man’s desires. I intend to use the words liberal and progressive in a somewhat sloppy way in this post, because for all practical purposes the liberalism of the mid-20th Century has been replaced in America by the Progressivism to which it owes its original existence, and in fact that “regress in Progress” was in my view necessary. It was necessary not only because the problems which liberals attempted to solve could never be solved by their preferred means and were therefore bound to be judged, at some point, to be insufficient half-measures; but also necessary because of what Jim Kalb identifies in his book The Tyranny of Liberalism as the absence of any internal or intrinsic limiting principle to political liberalism.
It is often said that the problem with progressives is that they don’t clearly know toward what they are progressing, and in the case of most flesh-and-blood liberals, this is certainly true. But it would be a mistake—indeed, it is a mistake often made on the right—to leave it at that and to suggest by our silence that the problem with Progressivism simply is a lack of vision. In this respect the quotes I’ve cited by Chesterton leave out something crucially important, which is that liberalism does advance according to a discernible logic and a working set of core assumptions. Thus it would be more appropriate to say that the vision is left largely unstated—and must be, because the whole rhetorical appeal of liberalism is that it promises the end of any external constraints on the human will—but that the workings of Progress move toward a definite goal or end state is observably true.
Because liberals are so often opaque and even confused about the end state toward which they supposedly would like to progress—in fact they are in my experience extremely hostile to any pressure you might place on them to articulate that state, and frequently will become agitated and put out if pressed on the topic—it has largely been left to conservative commentators like Jim Kalb to work out what precisely is the end goal of political liberalism. This frequently entails a process of working backwards from the end goals of liberalism in such a way as to explain the policy choices we see them pushing everywhere, and to explain such phenomena as political correctness, by which we mean the unspoken assent by every member of polite society to a set of unquestionable assumptions, without stating explicitly what those assumptions are but sensing, without being told, when he might be coming close to transgressing them.
Some say the problem is one of ordinary honesty. That is, liberals generally know what they really want, but are unwilling to tell us frankly what it might be. In the concrete case of particular political figures, academics, or public intellectuals, this is certainly true. But the problem reduces to one of active deception in only a limited number of cases, and in my opinion the most powerful force corralling the liberal masses into line is the mundane influence of social and political partisanship. Stated simply, liberalism advances in the practical political realm in spite of its evident radicalism because people on the political left are flatly unwilling ever to admit that the policy being pushed by Political Figure X is as radical as it appears to be, or even that it is a liberal policy per se, insisting instead that it is merely an extension of universally agreed-upon and obvious values.
Thus while it would have been impossible during the campaign season of 2008 to convince Candy that President Obama intended to force Catholic hospitals to provide free abortifacient coverage to its employees, Candy would nonetheless defend to her dying breath the notion that nothing could be more fair, sensible, and obviously in keeping with the demands of justice than the HHS mandate once it had been proposed by her man, though she was perfectly unaware of the urgent necessity of the policy only a week before the it was made public. The point is that Candy can intuit that the policy is an extension of liberal principles identified by Kalb, such as the free and equal satisfaction of desires; all that is wanting is for some liberal politician or academic, in whom she has some political or social investment, to announce his intention to impose that extension into law. What would have been denounced as the raving fantasies of the Paranoid Style only a day before, becomes an obvious requirement of justice merely by its being advanced as a real policy proposal. This dynamic is possible only because advanced liberalism has a rationale to which people feel constrained to offer general consent, even though they have no idea why.
One normally encounters this timely shift in attitude hand-in-hand with a downright gasp-inducing lack of self-awareness, as was on display in EJ Dionne’s astounding claim that it was the (solidly Democratic and generally Obama-adoring) US Catholic Bishops who were acting out of partisanship when they moved to oppose the administration’s new rule. That Dionne was carrying water for a liberal Democrat administration, and that he was doing so in direct contradiction to his supposed Catholic identity, seems rather obvious to any fair-minded observer. In Dionne’s case we may speculate without knowing for certain that as a member of the liberal opinion-shaping class, a perverse sense of professional obligation is at work here; but even for your common man on the street it is probably the case that something like party identification or the demands of one’s social circle exerts an extremely strong pressure to conform to every new liberal demand. Why their wills yield so reflexively to this pressure can be explained simply by considering the new policy as an extension of core liberal principles which, having no intrinsic limit whatsoever, are taken to be right and necessary even if they were completely unimaginable a week before.
Liberals often object with great heat and umbrage that there are of course rational limits which adhere naturally to liberalism’s predations. We just haven’t reached them yet, we are assured, and any rank injustice to which we might point is the work of overzealous enlisted men in the field, so to speak. But other evidence, besides the incremental acquiescence of its adherents, for the lack of any internal controlling mechanism abounds. An all-embracing, atmospheric inexactitude with respect to goals is often presented as a virtue in itself (as in the Johnson campaign’s 1964 statement that, “I just want to tell you this—we’re in favor of a lot of things and we’re against mighty few”). At other times, the goals are stated in facially ludicrous terms, betraying a basic intolerance of any rational or externally-imposed constraints (as in the call by FDR’s National Public Resources Board in 1943 for the official recognition of “rest, recreation, and adventure” as an individual right to be supplied, somehow, by the federal bureaucracy). A quick perusal of the daily news shows that after running short on formal political inequalities to remedy, liberalism prowls ever-more avariciously for ever-tinier and ever-more trivial dragons to slay, until practically anything, from a child’s drawing to the convenience of male posture in the bathroom, becomes a political concern requiring the liberal state to swing heroically in on the chandelier. It is my contention that were liberalism based on true principles, this would not be the problem that it is; at a minimum, it would not lead to amoral absurdities and irrational inquisitions that leave the shame-faced liberal with no basis for objection except to plead that, of course, one mustn’t go too far.
But how, we may ask, can one go too far in the direction of “progress?” Of course he can’t, leaving us with the reasonable suspicion that it is the liberal program itself, and not merely its overzealous application, that is the problem. It is liberalism, not “political correctness gone too far” that is implicated. And because, as a matter of common experience, whatever is thought “too far” one week might be considered “not nearly far enough” in the next, we also have the lived reality that such unprincipled protestations cannot possibly last, and will soon be abandoned, at first with a regretful sigh that “That’s the way the world is now,” but soon with indignation and bafflement that any other state of affairs ever could have obtained in civilized society.
One of the worst affects all this has is on the intellectual probity of the common person, who constantly must either assent to things he does not believe, or adjust his belief to the requirements of the current state of Progress. This must have a wearying and entropic affect on the spirit, not least on the person attempting to live and think otherwise to the current state of liberal orthodoxy. Caught in a discussion with a basically agreeable and seemingly rational liberal on some newly-harvested fruit of liberal insanity, trying to remind him of all the indignant protestations that “Of course, the right is always fear-mongering—nobody seriously would contemplate forcing Americans to recognize a homosexual union as a marriage, much less punish him for refusing to do so,” the traditionalist can feel real sympathy with Winston Smith, as he lay in the dungeon of the Ministry of Love, attempting to convince O’Brien that what they both knew to be true only a moment ago still was true:
'It exists!' he cried.
'No,' said O'Brien.
He stepped across the room. There was a memory hole in the opposite wall. O'Brien lifted the grating. Unseen, the frail slip of paper was whirling away on the current of warm air; it was vanishing in a flash of flame. O'Brien turned away from the wall.
'Ashes,' he said. 'Not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed.'
'But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it.'
'I do not remember it,' said O'Brien.
Winston's heart sank. That was doublethink. He had a feeling of deadly helplessness. If he could have been certain that O'Brien was lying, it would not have seemed to matter. But it was perfectly possible that O'Brien had really forgotten the photograph.
And so it goes. The devoted liberal really does not remember the time when he believed Ted Kennedy’s protestations that the 1965 Immigration Act would never upset America’s ethnic composition (more fear-mongering by the practitioner of the Paranoid Style, naturally), and he most certainly does not remember his own warm relief at hearing that America would go on just as it had been. It is possible for me to imagine that my young liberal friend from the office really does not remember his angry insistence that I was being "paranoid," only a year before his open embrace of the very thing I was warning him against. It is also possible to imagine that a combination of partisanship and an unconscious knowledge of the social costs of deviation from the liberal program induces him to pretend that he does believe some new and absurd thing, while knowing that he does so because he is a craven.
Whatever the case, it is evident that a principal casualty of this constant, bewildering shifting of goal posts is not just the demoralization of principled conservatives. More importantly we may observe a diminishment in the capacity or even the desire for intellectual honesty, and an active preference for obvious lies, which results (for example) in the constant, maddening insistence by liberals that they do not wish to make American into a European Social Democracy, while assiduously advocating exactly that (particularly in the academy, where such advocacy is often perfectly explicit). When a whole people is trained either to the passive acceptance of or the eager participation in lies, it is the human soul that suffers first, and suffers worst. It is this that makes the constant seeking out and explication of the animating principles of contemporary liberalism absolutely vital.