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A puzzle, indeed

The Tyranny of Liberalism: A Symposium

I think I'll let this be my last post on this book for now. It deserves a lengthy and well-considered review, but for various reasons I don't feel up to that. So I'll just point you to a series of essays at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute which comprise a pretty good discussion of the book. 

Part One, by Paul Gottfried, makes an important point:

In my opinion, Jim underestimates the power of transformed Christian narratives and replacement theologies in trying to explain contemporary social and political behavior. Multiculturalism, together with its disparagement of a specifically white Western civilization, is not so much about pleasure-seeking and material gratification as it is about recognizing and expiating sin. Although my own examination of modern political life started out by looking at the ideologies of public administration and changing power-relations, I was led eventually into noticing the religious dimension of my area of study. Secularized Christianity does not remove the presence of Christian concepts of guilt, sin, and atonement but has the result of turning them into ludicrous PC caricatures. Without necessarily rejecting Jim’s picture of the degeneration of liberalism, I am more struck by the kind of degenerate Christianity that has accompanied this process.

Part Two, a fairly critical appraisal by William English, raising some reasonable objections. I think most people reading The Tyranny of Liberalism will share some of his reservations, and in particular the fundamental one raised by the title: is it really reasonable to accuse liberalism of tyranny? Isn't that a bit, or more than a bit, over the top? Even if we set aside that particular word, are those of us who see a coercive element in liberalism (an element which is clearly growing with respect to religious freedom,) over-reacting, being a little hysterical or paranoid? 

...despite the long exegesis Kalb develops of liberalism’s vices, which includes numerous comparisons to Soviet tyranny, the limited examples he draws on lead one to think that if a handful of still debated policies were reversed, he wouldn’t have much to complain about. Absent affirmative action, abortion, gay marriage, and bureaucratic overregulation liberalism might not look so bad. Their inevitability in a liberal regime needs to be better established, although Kalb is certainly right that these issues won’t be resolved to his satisfaction anytime soon. Nonetheless, before lobbing the polemic accusations of liberal tyranny, Kalb might consider the old moral of the “Boy who Cried Wolf.” Hyperbole has long been a strategy of many of the leftists Kalb despises, who equate any inequality with racial apartheid and every military action with genocide. Likewise, it is perhaps a stretch to see in every gauche display of political correctness a systematic march towards tyranny.

That last sentence is true, certainly. But English doesn't really do justice to Kalb's argument. His point is not that government gets obnoxious and in the way in a few specific situations, but that it has become a sort of net which gently but comprehensively and powerfully restricts numerous normal and healthy social impulses, and that this is because it dishonestly insists that its own notion of ultimate values prevail while claiming to be neutral. (He does not dwell on "bureaucratic overregulation" in the sense that one would hear those words in the usual right-wing context, which is usually about business specifically.) 

If one considers, for instance, the very tight restriction on religion in public schools, there are ample grounds for calling the situation tyrannical even if one does not want to label the entire system as a tyranny, in total. Religion, especially Christianity, is considered by secular elites to be a sort of toxin of which even trace amounts are too many in any government-supported institution (except where it is isolated for study in a laboratory). Yet where locally-supported public schools are concerned, it is a pretty long stretch from "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" to the prohibition of any religious exercise in the schools. Yes, I know most public schools were once effectively Protestant, and this was bad for Catholics. But is it really such an abuse if a mainly Protestant community wants its religion reinforced by the schools it provides? The fact that only religion is treated this way, and that any number of values-laden projects such as "diversity" and ecological awareness are acceptable (at least in principle) for propagation in the schools, is an indication of the dishonest coercion to which Kalb refers.

These are not just matters of subjective preference and trivial impact. Our culture has now reached a point where if you want to raise children without having them exposed to hard-core pornography, you are all but powerless. It can be done only through an unfeasible and generally unhealthy degree of isolation. The law will not help you at all. 

Part Three is strong praise from James Matthew Wilson, who writes for Front Porch Republic. It might actually be the best place to start for a good overview of the book, especially its diagnostic sections.

Part Four is Kalb's reply to English. In the course of responding, he gives a good brief summary of his prescription, his "what is to be done?" segment of the book, which I haven't mentioned so far:

[English] is shocked by the minimalism of my practical political suggestions. He should not be. There is no technocratic cure for technocracy. If “social policy” is the problem the solution cannot be point-by-point realization of a preferred design for society through intelligent application of available resources.

What is needed is a better—less liberal, less technocratic, more natural, more traditional, more transcendentally-oriented—outlook and way of life. In the book I sketch out how something better could come about, what we could do to promote it, and why Christianity (and more specifically Christendom) is the way to go.

Such discussions relate mainly to pre-political aspects of life. The specifically political contribution to the process is necessarily limited. On that front what is needed are changes that make it possible for non-liberal ways and standards to survive, develop, and take hold. If we are stuck going the wrong direction and heading toward a cliff, the immediate practical necessity is to unlock the steering so we can start turning around.

Once that is done we need, of course, to decide where specifically we should head. So we must discuss how a tradition becomes adequate to human life and sufficiently authoritative to order society.

I expect most people reading this will be immediately wary of the suggestion that "Christianity (and more specifically Christendom) is the way to go"--not necessarily because it raises the fear of "theocracy" (much-abused word these days) but because of the oft-expressed warning against using Christianity as a means toward an earthly end. If I'm not mistaken, Screwtape has some recommendations on that score. But this is a book about earthly things, and the necessity of referring to ultimate principles in their pursuit, and Kalb would be falling into the same fault as liberalism if he didn't point toward where those principles might reside.

 There's one particular item in Kalb's indictment of the post-1960s liberal society that I find very challenging, and continue to wrestle with. He blames "comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation" for its effect as a solvent of family and community, requiring that everyone be treated, in a memorable phrase I encountered thirty years ago, only and always as "neuter personnel and consumers."

Yes, but: that legislation was mainly intended to dismantle racial segregation and in general make the oppression of black people by white people more difficult. Was it worth it, if the principles brought into law at that point are now being used to suppress religious freedom? Could we have achieved something comparable in any other way? I don't know. It's a question that will continue to trouble me. 

Comments

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More later, but just a quick note to say that Kalb's new book is on that exact issue -- nondiscrimination, multiculturalism, etc. Perhaps there will be some insight on this question there.

Maybe so. I've seen some ads for it, but haven't looked for excerpts or reviews.

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