Over the Rhine: All I Need Is Everything

Liberal Bigotry

Sunday Night Journal — August 22, 2010

I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for some months now, and putting it off because I really don’t want to do it. I’d rather write about something else. I’d rather think about something else. But the phenomenon keeps forcing itself on my attention.

I tend to avoid situations, either in life or online, where I will encounter angry bigots engaged in denouncing whatever they are bigoted against. But sometimes it pops up unexpectedly: on Facebook, for instance. A few months ago I read a wild flight of anti-conservative vituperation, a friend of a friend commenting on something the friend had said, and it occurred to me that what I was reading was nothing more or less than bigotry. It revealed a mental process not significantly different from that of a KuKluxer speaking of African-Americans. The vocabulary and grammar were better, the speaker being more educated, but the uncompromising hostility was the same. It was liberal bigotry.

What do I mean by “liberal”? I mean it in the currently popular and casual sense. As everyone who has the least acquaintance with the history of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” knows, the ways in which they are used now are only loosely connected with the way they were used a hundred and fifty years ago, and with their dictionary definitions. I know this drives a lot of people crazy, particularly the analytically-minded for whom precise definition of terms is of the essence. But even these know who is being referred to when Nancy Pelosi denounces conservatives, and when Sarah Palin denounces liberals. And I’m using the term “liberal” in that context. Someone who thinks Rush Limbaugh is a hateful menace to society and Keith Olbermann is a courageous truth-teller is a liberal. Etc.; I really don’t think I need to multiply the examples.

What do I mean by “bigotry”? Merriam-Webster’s definition serves perfectly well for my purpose: “A person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats a group (as,a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.”

Let me stipulate from the start that conservatives are certainly capable of bigotry, and plenty of them engage in it. It’s safe to say that few would argue with me on that point. (Many liberals would go much further, and say that conservatism is more or less identical with bigotry. And it’s just at that point that liberalism itself becomes bigoted.) But this is more than just a tu quoque (“oh yeah? Well, so are you!”) argument. Bigotry is deplorable in any context, but it is especially a problem for a liberal, because it is a crucial part of the liberal self-conception that liberalism is the negation of bigotry: liberalism is, among other things in this self-conception, openness to other people and their opinions, and a willingness to engage ideas on the basis of reason rather than prejudice and emotion. Bigotry is, among other things, the determined refusal of both those impulses.

Bigotry in a conservative is a character flaw. But bigotry in a liberal is a fundamental contradiction. It isn’t hypocrisy, exactly. Hypocrisy consists in saying one thing and doing, usually in secret, another. And it implies a consciousness that the thing is at least in principle wrong. Liberal bigotry generally does not operate that way; on the contrary, it is proud and open and gives no evidence of an uneasy conscience. It is comparable not to a televangelist secretly frequenting prostitutes, but—I will have to invent something, because I can’t think of any actual event that makes the point—to a televangelist openly running a prostitution service and advertising it at the bottom of the screen during a sermon on chastity, never noticing the distance between words and deeds.

The essence of bigotry is always to look, and to be sure you find, only the worst in the group you hate, and never to be fair, never to open the door to sympathy, never to attempt to understand. That is an accurate working description of the habitual attitude of far too many liberals toward conservatives. Two developments of the past few years have provided clear examples: the Tea Party movement, and the recently passed Arizona law attempting to stop the influx of illegal immigration into that state.

I’m not a huge admirer of, much less a participant in, the Tea Party movement; I do sympathize with some of its views and basic grievances, but it seems inconsistent and simplistic. And I don’t have a position on the Arizona law, though I believe the residents of that and other border states when they say that illegal immigration is in fact a problem for them. My concern is not to justify or defend either of these. But my basic sense of fair play is offended by the way the non-Fox media and punditry have treated them, as well as the violent denunciations of them I’ve heard in semi-private venues like Facebook.

In both cases the liberal reaction seems to arise from a sort of emotional syllogism: we hate people because they are racists; we hate these people; therefore these people are racists. The Tea Party was accused of racism from the moment it appeared, and convicted on evidence that ranged from flimsy to nonexistent. The one big allegation, involving Tea Partiers screaming racist remarks at black congressmen, has been pretty thoroughly exploded, because video of the scene did not support it. Even the New York Times finally admitted that the event seemed not to have occurred as originally reported (I thought I had bookmarked that story, but now I can’t find it).

That there are racists in the Tea Party, I have little doubt. That there have been occasional racist signs and remarks at Tea Party rallies, I am willing to believe. But there is no reason to believe that that the movement is racist in its essence—apart, of course, from one’s conscious or unconscious choice to assume so: always look for the worst; never be fair.

There have been any number of nasty people involved in liberal and left-wing movements in recent decades. (See this page for some recent examples in the anti-war movement.) There were communists in and around the civil rights movement, to say nothing of the anti-war movement(s). But no reasonable person—that is, no person who actually wants to understand what these movements are about, why they exist, what they want, and whether we should want them to succeed or not—treats that as the last word, and writes them off as, simply, communist operations, or otherwise defines them by the most extreme or repellent people found in their midst. That is what bigots do.

At some point over the past thirty or forty years liberalism ceased to be defined as a way of approaching politics in a spirit of openness, generosity, and reason, and instead began to identify specific opinions as the necessary products of that spirit, and to treat anyone who came to different conclusions as an enemy to be destroyed. Liberalism tells us to be open to the Other, to accept the challenge of seeing the world through another’s eyes; it has largely closed itself to the Other who votes Republican.

Of course this does not apply to all liberals any more than it applies to all conservatives. But a liberal can be forgiven for concluding, on the basis of listening to Limbaugh, Hannity, et.al., that hostility and bluster are the marks of conservatism. And likewise, a conservative can be forgiven, on the basis of listening to Olbermann, Stewart, et.al., that hostility and snark are the marks of liberalism. It’s time for liberals to stop congratulating themselves on a virtue which they no longer, as a group, possess. Better yet, start practicing it. And that goes for all of us.


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In the 60s Herbert Marcuse said that tolerance need not be extended to those on the Right. Knowingly or unknowingly modern liberals follow this dictum. Since their mantra is 'diversity and tolerance' anything they see as intolerant is intolerable to them: "The only thing we cannot tolerate is intolerance!"

The problem is, as James Kalb points out in his book 'The Tyranny of Liberalism,' is that this crusade against intolerance/illiberalism is always being expanded or extended. There's always someone more liberal than you, and to him you are "conservative." Thus liberalism is in that sense self-devouring, as it has no internal governor to tell it when to stop.

According to Kalb, this is what causes liberalism to be inherently tyrannical. It's a juggernaut, although often a slow-moving one, that can tolerate no opposition, because any opposition is viewed as ipso facto illiberal. Hence liberal bigotry -- you're either on board with them, or you're in the way.

In my opinion Kalb's book is a must read. Despite its somewhat hamfisted title, it's actually a very measured, intelligent, unhysterical, and well-documented analysis of modern liberalism.

The French Revolution was the perfect example of this.


I'll comment more on this later today if possible--extremely busy--but: I often think of Eliot's observation that the energy of liberalism is fundamentally negative--its orientation is toward breaking down structures deemed oppressive. There are some powerful implications in that, including the fact that the structures we typically see liberalism building in our time are oriented more toward suppressing elements deemed actually or potentially oppressive.


Let me see the comment!

I'm reading a book about Belgian politics in the 19th+20th centuries. From 1830 to 1884 the country was dominated by an increasingly frustrated anti-clerical Liberal elite (frustrated because all their attempts to destroy religion backfired in one way or another).

The book is by a present-day heir to this "Freethinking" tradition, and at one point she says:

"From 1859 onwards, new municipal burial grounds were no longer allowed to be consecrated; there was an ongoing battle for government control over the administration of Church assets; in 1865, Leuven University lost its effective monopoly on grants and scholarships. Slowly but surely, the liberal governments were eating away at the traditional burden that the Church had placed on the state."

That it should somehow burden the state for a priest to bless a burial plot, or for the Church to administer its own assets, is curious enough. I did wonder what sort of monopoly on scholarships Leuven University might have, and how it was lost. What happened was that provincial boards were established, and empowered to select recipients of scholarships, who could then themselves choose which university they wanted to use the scholarship to enroll in. Before that, the only scholarships available had been established by private bequests. The Liberal state was effectively confiscating monies so bequeathed, on the grounds that it limited the freedom of students to have to spend a scholarship in accordance with the funder's intention. The jaw just drops at how this can be squared with the avowed principles of liberalism, and how anybody writing today can see it as removing a burden that the Church had placed on the state.

The only way I can make sense of that is to conjecture that the Church was thought to have taken those things from the state. Or perhaps that stuff in general was intrinsically the property of the state? I think a lot of 19th c liberals were consciously aggressive toward religion in a way that modern liberals, esp. in this country, were not until fairly recently, due to our reasonably amiable church-state accomodation. I'm just thinking out loud...I agree it does seem outrageously unreasonable.

I think the essential position of liberalism in our time involves a contradiction that is felt but not examined or understood. In fact, not to examine it is psychologically necessary for a lot of liberals. On the one hand, there are the relativist doctrines that forbid moral judgment etc. On the other, an intense urge to force conformity to related doctrines like the ideal of perfect equality and perfectly equal treatment of all people in all matters. ("related" because part of the rationale for perfectly equal treatment is relativistic, e.g. you can't treat two men wanting to get married differently from a man and a woman wanting to get married.)

The pope was precise in noting a "dictatorship of relativism." But the contradiction induces a guilty conscience, which induces anger.

I was just reflecting on this yesterday.

I do not typically write things on the web under my own full name, but over the past few years I have written submissions to parliamentary enquiries and made comments on blogs under my own full name. Nick has (geology)colleagues all over the world and many of them know my name, though they have not met me.

Some of them had done a google search of my name. (Why???) And they had found some (gasp!) comments of mine against such positive and clearly good things like abortion and gaymarriage. When he was in the US earlier this year, Nick was taken to task by some of his colleagues about my opinions. (Why???) And though they never asked him, he felt they were wanting to know if these were his opinions too.

Nick felt awkward. In such a setting (I suppose dinner with colleagues) Nick would not normally bring up such topics, which are far from any relevance to their profession. Why indeed would anyone introduce such topics in such circumstances (even allowing for the greater enjoyment of controversy which Americans seem to have than Australians)?

Anyone? Bueller?

Suffice it to say that I am doubly angry:

1. Why would or should I care what they think of my opinions?

2. Why would they put Nick in this position? And these are the same people who think the Inquisitions were bad!

There is an astonishing arrogance in all this.

But I do feel bad that my comments had placed Nick in an awkward situation, for which I have apologised.

To make that clear: I apologise to Nick, not his colleagues!

The world has become so small - I wonder who these people were and whether any of them may have been your acquaintances...

But really, I think the final chapter of Belloc's "The Great Heresies" describes the whole thing perfectly - including the inherent cognitive dissonance.

I know why you didn't want to write this, Maclin. I'm getting angrier the more I think about it. It reminds me very much of the FB updates around our federal election recently.

Sheer bigotry...

That's a pretty disturbing story, Louise. Shocking but not surprising, if that makes sense. It seems that human beings will always have *something* that constitutes blasphemy. I may post something more along those lines this weekend, if I can find time to elaborate a bit. I need to re-read that Belloc chapter.

It is important not to let the anger eat you up. I find I need to limit my exposure to liberal bigotry, even in the role of more or less accidentally overhearing it, e.g. on Fb.

"dictatorship of relativism" is (sadly) beautifully apt.

"stuff in general was intrinsically the property of the state"

That might be it. There are other odd turns of phrase in the book that would chime with that.

As Cardinal Newman said: it must be borne in mind, that there is much in the liberalistic theory which is good and true [...]. It is not till we find that this array of principles is intended to supersede, to block out, religion, that we pronounce it to be evil. There never was a device of the Enemy so cleverly framed and with such promise of success.

But then, he also lists the virtues of liberalism as "justice, truthfulness, sobriety, self-command, benevolence". I'm not sure how many of those still hold.

Paul, I really like the Newman quote, although as you note, the liberalism of his day might not resemble much the liberalism of ours.

I think Newman gets to the heart of the matter, actually - that the good things of liberalism are intended to replace religion and that's what makes it such a bad thing.

Maclin, I definitely try to limit my exposure to liberal ideas, but they seep in under one's door (like finding them accidentally on FB...) that's one of the reasons I get so cranky.

Fortunately I have a new bublet to keep me busy!

Shocking but not surprising, if that makes sense.


It seems that human beings will always have *something* that constitutes blasphemy.

An atheist friend of mine once said that the thing which rankled him as much as blasphemy would rankle me was - wait for it - "homophobia"! I mean... of all things!

(I never talked with him about my views of homosex or gaymarriage. :/ )

"homophobia" as blasphemy doesn't surprise me one bit.

What Newman work is that quote from, Paul? It is indeed true that those are not necessarily virtues much valued by today's liberalism. The libertinism of the '60s has a lot to do with what's gone wrong with liberalism.

The Newman is from the short address he gave when receiving his letter of appointment as a cardinal. I can't find the version I originally downloaded, but there's a copy here.

People seem to think in very black-and-white and "whole hog" terms when it comes to homosexuality. If I described polygamy as less than ideal, nobody would think I approved of nail-bombing places where it happened; homosexuality is classified differently.

That's quite true, but only because the people who have adopted that tactic with regard to homosexuality aren't interested in polygamy.

The 'liberalism' of today is actually the heir of the 'progressivism' of the early 1900's. At some point in the early-to-mid 20th century the term 'progressive' fell out of favor and they co-opted the word 'liberal.' Until that time, at least from the late 1800's, 'liberal' usually meant what we call today the 'classical liberal.'

Of course recently, since the word 'liberal' has now fallen out of favor, we see this crowd going back to 'progressive.'

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