Continuing my series of reposts of essays deleted from Intellectual Conservative by evil leftist hackers, here is an essay attempting to identify the essential features of the liberalism that is all-pervasive. Most Orthosphere readers will find this quite basic, but one should always seek to articulate the basics in clearer and more succinct ways.
This essay has been edited more heavily than my previous reposts, because the original edition was designed for the just-barely conservative reader. I didn’t want to frighten him too much. In the present edition, I speak more honestly. But this essay is still aimed at the “seeker,” the one who recognizes that something is deeply wrong with Western societies but who is still seeking the truth about the situation.
If you sense there is something wrong with the status quo, you have taken the first step toward wisdom. But what exactly is wrong?
There are many specific problems, almost too many to enumerate: Legitimization of sexual sin. The enthusiastic embrace of mass immigration by unassimilable and even hostile foreigners. Officially-mandated affirmative action, that is, the deliberate pulling down of whites in order to benefit nonwhites. The deliberate undermining of traditional authorities such as fathers and clergymen. The disruption, by feminism, of the family and its vital childrearing function. The deliberate promotion of ugliness. And so on. But is there something that unifies these diverse phenomena?
There is a unifying phenomenon, and it can be summed up in one word: “Liberalism.” Liberalism is the most common name for a way of thinking (and therefore living) that has taken near-total control of America and all the other Western nations. To understand the times, we must understand liberalism.
Of course, we must also understand the truths that correct the errors of liberalism. But first we must know the errors, and we must recognize how widespread they are.
It must be noted up front that there is a valid distinction between liberal and leftist, but the distinction is one of degree rather than of kind. Leftists are consistent liberals, and liberals temper the principles of the left with common sense and common decency, making themselves inconsistent in thought and deed. Nevertheless, and in keeping with common usage, we shall generally use the word “liberalism” to denote the basic way of thinking.
The first point to establish is that there even is such a thing as liberalism. Since leftist thinking is ubiquitous, there is a temptation to react only to its most outrageous manifestations, while failing to recognize its most basic tenets. Just as the proverbial fish is unaware of the water, the contemporary American will naturally be unaware of liberalism until it is pointed out to him.
Indeed, even conservatives, being temperamentally conservative, have a strong desire to affirm the status quo. But if liberalism has become the unofficial state religion of America, then the status quo must be challenged.
And liberalism, being the status quo, often masquerades as common sense. How many times have you heard someone say, in effect “You have an irrational bias toward conservatism, but I’m not biased. I just go where the evidence leads.” Since liberalism is taught by most of America’s highest authorities (chiefly the schools, the news media, and entertainment), it is the position that requires the least thought. In fact, many people are unaware that liberalism is a philosophical system that could possible be wrong, depending on the evidence. For them, liberalism is simply the way things obviously are. And this serves as a useful defensive strategy for liberalism: If we cannot identify it and locate it, we cannot fight it
So how do we identify liberalism? To begin, imagine the following thought experiment:
Assemble a list of 20 specific issues that are currently in dispute, each of which has two well-defined positions (basically “support it” and “oppose it”). For example, the list might begin with these issues:
1) Legalizing same-sex marriage.
2) Opposing gun control.
3) Outlawing abortion.
4) Establishing a comprehensive, federal-government-run system of socialized medicine.
Make sure that for each issue, a typical person would label the two sides “conservative” and “liberal.” Also make sure that half the statements are of liberal positions, and half are of conservative positions.
Ok, so we have 20 well-defined current issues which divide along right-left lines. Now imagine choosing someone and asking him for his views on the first 10 issues, and suppose he has taken the liberal position on each of these 10 issues.
Question: What are the chances that he will take the liberal position on most, if not all, of the remaining 10 issues? Clearly the chances are very good. But why?
Because liberalism really exists. That is, there exists a comprehensive system of thought commonly called “liberalism,” and since this worldview has a certain integrity (that is, it is not just a random collection of unrelated assertions), we can make predictions about what people who hold to it will believe. Since people, as opposed to philosophical systems, are often inconsistent, we cannot expect that John Q. Liberal will take the party line on all issues. But to be a liberal, he only has to think and act for the most part in accordance with liberalism.
Given any specific and well-defined issue with political ramifications, it is usually pretty clear which side is the liberal side. So examine as many specific liberal views as you can, and attempt to discern the basic beliefs that they have in common. In other words, determine what basic ideas provide the logical foundation that supports the views that abortion and same-sex marriage should be legal, that we should have government-run health care, that there should be no religion in government-run establishments, and so on.
What then can we conclude about liberalism? I will presume that the reader has enough experience to recognize the essential truth of the following summary without having to be provided with the myriad examples and discussions that would be necessary to convince someone with no knowledge of American society. In particular, note that the following conclusions follow simply from listening to the language liberals use when speaking of their liberal convictions, and taking then these words at face value.
It is important to take liberals at their word when they speak of their convictions. It is very common for a non-liberal to make the mistake of assuming that the liberal with whom he’s speaking thinks like he [the non-liberal] does, and therefore to refuse to believe that the liberal really believes the crazy things he says. This is a huge mistake. Unless they are deliberately lying in order to confuse their enemies, liberals really believe the crazy things they say such as, for example, that same-sex “marriage” is a fundamental human right and that anybody who opposes it is not significantly different from a Nazi.
Liberalism is a worldview.
That is, liberalism is not just a randomly-chosen collection of unrelated beliefs. Liberalism is a comprehensive system that describes reality, answers the big questions of human life, and prescribes a code of conduct for individuals and nations. Liberalism has a philosophical consistency to it, which is why, in the thought experiment described above, we can have confidence that somebody who is liberal on the first 10 issues will be liberal on most of the others. People do not form opinions at random; they generally hold views that are consistent with their fundamental beliefs about how reality operates.
To begin our description of it, we observe that liberalism emphasizes freedom, equality, openness to the outsider (i.e., multiculturalism) and nonjudgmentalism. How do we know that liberalism emphasizes these things? By listening to what public figures say (especially those leaders who are explicitly identified as being liberal), and by taking their words at face value.
“Freedom” is, of course, another word for the liber in liberalism. Liberalism certainly emphasizes freedom when it can, especially as a weapon with which to destroy traditional forms of thought and life, such as that men and women have a duty to marry and have children, or that homosexuality is a sin. In these cases, liberals use the imperative of freedom as a means of destroying traditional morality.
But freedom cannot be an ultimate good, because it is only a negative condition: the absence of restraint. Much more important to the contemporary American liberal is equality, both as a moral imperative (“we need to treat all people the same”) and as a description of man’s condition (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”). From the belief in the inherent equality, at least in potential, of all people, come the imperatives to be open to the outsider and to be nonjudgmental.
For example, as is clear to anyone who has paid any attention to the debate over immigration, even most conservatives take the position that America has no right simply to declare a halt to all immigration, because that would be an egregious violation of the sacred principle of openness. Aside from appeals to utility (“Immigrants do jobs Americans won’t do”), the basic position of all liberals and most conservatives is that refusing to allow foreigners to immigrate to America is inherently wrong, and that’s just all there is to it. And please note: Here we see many conservatives thinking like liberals.
As for the moral imperative to be nonjudgmental, it follows from the belief in equality, and from the imperative to be open to the outsider. If we were to judge people, we would conclude that people are actually unequal in nature and ability: Some are smarter, some are more diligent and some are more violent and antisocial than others, for example. Furthermore, if we were to judge societies, we would notice that some societies are more compatible than others with our American values and way of life. And from all these judgments it would follow that we would have to treat people and societies unequally, which would be unacceptable according to liberalism. Therefore we must not judge.
The Foundational Principles of Liberalism
What basic beliefs are necessary to justify the liberal emphases of freedom, equality, multiculturalism and nonjudgmentalism? It would seem that the following are required:
1) Liberalism holds that the God of the Bible does not exist. This does not necessarily mean outright atheism; liberals have varying concepts of God. Most liberals believe in some sort of god, but their god is usually “mystical,” that is, a god about whom nothing can be known with certainty, and therefore “God” for them has no ultimate authority. But liberalism definitely denies the existence of the God described in the Bible, because to be compatible with liberalism, “God” must not be “judgmental,” must not require belief in any particular religion, must not sent people to Hell (unless they are spectacularly wicked), etc.
How do we know the nonexistence of the God of the Bible is one of the foundations of liberalism? Primarily in two ways: Liberalism (as described below) assumes man is the Supreme Being, which would be absurd according to the biblical worldview, and the intellectual leaders of liberalism are all either outright atheists or at the very least not biblical theists.
2) More generally, liberalism rejects Christian, Western and American tradition, and all traditional forms of authority such as fathers, clergymen and aristocrats. Since tradition is the sum total of what we receive from those who went before us, liberalism rejects the wisdom of the ages. And since authority is the right to be believed or obeyed, liberalism denies that anyone should rule. Both of these denials result from a primitive desire to rebel rather than good reasons.
But reality must eventually be acknowledged, so liberalism forces man to look outside of liberalism if he is to become wise. And society cannot exist without authorities, so when liberalism denies that anyone has real authority, it forces the authorities to rule by raw force or by deception.
3) Therefore liberalism holds that contemporary man is the Supreme Being. This supreme being could be either man the current group (according to postmodern liberalism), or man the individual (according to classical liberalism). More specifically, since there is no authoritative god or tradition, contemporary man determines what is true and false, what is (morally) right and wrong, and what is beautiful and ugly. Therefore truth, goodness and beauty are subjective, not objective, and this naturally leads to relativism, the doctrine (or perhaps just the attitude) that truth, morality and even existence itself vary from person to person.
4) Liberalism must believe that man is naturally good, for otherwise, without a God to set things right, we have no hope. And if man is born good, it must be society that makes people bad, in which case we must remake society. Liberalism thus holds that all human societies up to those that currently exist have been deeply flawed, at the level of their basic premises, and accordingly liberalism pushes for a fundamental rethinking of every aspect of society and its ordering: laws, rules, customs, traditions, schools of thought, etc. All must be changed in order to remove from society every trace of the false ways of thought that have allegedly produced so much misery.
5) Liberalism leads to nominalism. Since there is no transcendent realm (at least no transcendent realm about which we can know anything), things mean whatever we say they do. And since man constantly changes his mind, there are no objective (that is, the same for all) and absolute (that is, the same at all times and all places) truths. There are consequently no objective limits, standards, rules, categories, etc. Therefore, according to liberalism, we have permission to make the changes discussed in point three above. Thus, for example, we have the “living Constitution,” which means only what today’s Supreme Court says it does, and which accordingly embodies the latest leftist fads.
6) Since there is no transcendent realm, we must all be radically free and radically nonjudgmental. Since there is no transcendent authority, man is naturally free, and must therefore be free from authority, custom, and often even reality itself. Since there are no objective or absolute standards or categories, we must not judge people.
7) The imperative to change society leads to totalitarianism. Since the imperative to promote equality all across the board is non-negotiable, liberal authorities will not tolerate any significant expression of anti-liberalism, even if it originates from a legitimate part of the process of government. If an executive order, or a bill passed by the legislature or the voters, violates liberalism, it must be nullified by the courts or the bureaucracies, which would be the two branches of government that are almost entirely controlled by liberalism. This nullification of the normal process of democracy is not seen as undemocratic (and therefore invalid) by liberals, because it is carried out on behalf of liberalism’s most sacred duty.
This imperative also leads to totalitarianism “in the small,” in the sense that every aspect of society must now be ruled by a vast army of bureaucratic “experts” who decide how human life is to be conducted, and create rules to back up their decisions. The basic principle of this bureaucratic rule is that we must have equal freedom, and so nobody must infringe on the rights of anyone else to feel, think or live in any way he likes, as long as other people are not hurt (whatever “hurt” means.) Think of the diversity consultants and seminars, the civil rights organizations, and the harassment lawsuits. In order for all to be “free to be who they are,” every aspect of our life must be ruled by experts.
Liberalism is a religion
Since liberalism is a comprehensive system of thought that describes the nature of reality, answers the big questions of life, and provides a code of conduct for both individuals and societies, it qualifies as a religion. Calling liberalism a religion sounds a little less odd now that Ann Coulter has published Godless: the Church of Liberalism, and this way of thinking emphasizes the comprehensive and fundamental nature of liberalism: It isn’t just a collection of ideas, it’s a way of life.
An example showing the religious nature of liberalism is a blog post by the Norwegian blogger Bjorn Staerk (who at the time of the writing was known as a conservative) that includes the following:
Brave is sitting down calmly on a plane behind a row of suspicious-looking Arabs, ignoring your own fears, because you know those fears are irrational, and because even if there’s a chance that they are terrorists, it is more important to you to preserve an open and tolerant society than to survive this trip. Brave is insisting that Arabs not be searched more carefully in airport security than anyone else, because you believe that it is more important not to discriminate against people based on their race than to keep the occasional terrorist from getting on a plane. [Emphasis added.]
[Update: This post is no longer available at its original site, but it has been widely quoted.]
Staerk later defended these sentiments against criticism, thereby showing his words to be more than a passing fancy. [This text is also no longer available online.]
Although Staerk was known as a conservative, these comments clearly mark him as a liberal: Only a liberal would regard the ideals of tolerance and non-discrimination as more important than his own life. More specifically, only a liberal would say that taking prudent action to defend his life and the lives of others from the credible possibility of a terrorist attack, by asking the authorities to investigate suspicious behavior, is so immoral that it would be better to die in a terrorist attack than to take the chance of humiliating and inconveniencing an innocent Arab.
So here we have a liberal saying he’d literally rather die than transgress the liberal imperative of non-discrimination by taking what would have been regarded in the not-so-distant past as simply commonsense precautions. What could possibly explain his position? We observe that an individual’s religion contains those principles (if any) for which he would be willing to die, so there is only one possible conclusion: liberalism is a religion, and is accordingly regarded by serious liberals as something they would be willing to die for.
Liberalism is the Unofficial State Religion of America
There is nothing improper in making this claim. Every society must have some sort of (at least unofficial) state religion because a religion is primarily a system of thought that describes reality, and leaders must always have a philosophical system to guide their decisions. Furthermore, the majority of the population needs to approve of the reasons the leaders give for their decisions, or at least to find those reasons tolerable. Therefore it is no insult to liberalism to call it a religion. On the contrary, to do so is to take it seriously as a system of thought and governance. It is not its status as a religion that makes liberalism illegitimate; it is the specific doctrines of liberalism that make it a menace.
What is the evidence that liberalism is our state religion? Just ask yourself, What system do most teachers and professors (and even, God help us, many clergy) teach? What way of thinking is taught as (or assumed to be) true by most journalists? What ideas are portrayed as true, good and beautiful by most artists?” What ideas are assumed true by most politicians? If you answered anything other than “liberalism,” you have not been paying attention.
And what system of thought do most of our leaders use to make their important decisions? When the Supreme Court says that anti-sodomy laws are unconstitutional even thought the Constitution says nothing about homosexuality, when the President signs legislation outlawing incandescent light bulbs, and when a state governor signs legislation legalizing same-sex marriage, they are following the dictates of liberalism. And in a sense they have no choice in the matter, at least most of the time: If America’s intellectual leaders mostly say that liberalism is true, and if America’s populace mostly agrees (or at least doesn’t openly disagree), then America’s political leaders must generally go along with liberalism, or risk the wrath of the people.
The Unprincipled Exception
One big question, though: If liberalism is as false as we have said it is, and as dominant, how is it that America continues to function as well as it does? After all, if a largely false way of thinking is the basis for most of our important decisions, we ought to have committed the collective equivalent of suicide long ago. Yet America is still relatively healthy, albeit headed in a bad direction
The answer is provided by what blogger Lawrence Auster has dubbed the “unprincipled exception.” When faced with the necessity of making important decisions, Americans frequently violate liberalism, whether by supporting the death penalty for a particularly heinous crime, taking steps to make life harder for illegal aliens, or withholding approval of homosexuality. Conservatism may be in trouble, but at least in America, it still has the ability to win some fights.
But exceptions to liberalism are generally unprincipled. That is, they are not accompanied by any understanding, let alone repudiation, of the fundamentals of the liberal creed. In order for our life to be tolerable, common sense and common decency demand that we make plenty of these exceptions to liberalism. But in many cases, probably most, this opposition to liberalism is purely ad hoc, and does not proceed from a comprehensive rejection of our religion of liberalism. A particular application of liberalism just feels like it’s too much, but the feeling is all there is; it does not lead to a fundamental reappraisal of one’s system of thought.
And this leads to an even more alarming point: Many conservatives are basically liberals who just happen to oppose a few of the important specific initiatives of liberalism. They have the courage and the understanding to oppose, for example, mass immigration, socialism, or the legitimization of homosexuality, but they do not oppose liberalism in toto, or per se.
This is, unfortunately, only to be expected. Thinking about one’s fundamental beliefs is difficult and frightening, even for those (i.e., conservatives) with enough wisdom and courage to doubt the state religion in which we have all been indoctrinated for our whole lives. As David Horowitz describes so vividly in his autobiography Radical Son, rethinking one’s attachment to the left involves a reorientation of one’s whole being, and therefore it triggers a dark night of the soul. Those not so attached to the left may not find the path to enlightenment quite so earth-shaking, but one can never change one’s fundamental way of thinking, and go against most of the powers that be, without considerable fear and trembling.
But conservatives should take heart. If you have the insight and wisdom to doubt at least some of the liberalism that people all around you believe, and the courage to maintain your beliefs in the face of the unremitting scorn and ridicule that the left directs against even the most mild apostasy, then you certainly have what it takes to go all the way, and uncover liberalism in its essence. If you are a conservative, I encourage you carefully to examine the liberalism you oppose. If you oppose the effect (mass immigration, same-sex marriage, socialism, etc), you should oppose even more the fundamental cause that makes the effect what it is.
And that fundamental cause is the rejection of our traditional ways of thinking, founded on the Bible and Christian, Western and American tradition. To recover a properly-ordered (or at least, an adequately-ordered) society, we must reject liberalism and return to ways of thinking grounded in biblical truths and the wisdom of the ages.