A crisis moment for the Anglo-American Left?

Suppose it is true that, in its enthusiasm for buggery, Anglo-American liberalism has decided to drop the pretense of neutrality between competing comprehensive moral systems.  What will this mean for Leftism in these countries?  Is this just another case of progression towards greater self-awareness and self-consistency on the Left, of the Left dropping no-longer-necessary compromises and achieving greater ideological purity?  Is it just a change in how Leftists will argue with their opponents, or how they will understand their own commitments?

Why is it, we should ask, that the Left (at least in England and its offshoots) has always made such a boast of its “neutrality”?  I have sometimes suspected that this is just an argument tactic, that liberals think that it will be easier to sell their beliefs as the neutral position, the “agreeing to disagree” position, than to establish that their beliefs are actually true.  They want the reward of having proved their beliefs true–government policy organized on their principles–without having to actually supply the proof.  If that is what some liberals are thinking, it seems pretty misguided to me.  I think one can make a much more plausible case that Leftist social policy is objectively just and good than that it is in any interesting sense neutral.  Of course, I don’t agree with that former claim either, but, to give a concrete example, it’s a lot easier to make the argument that traditional gender roles are oppressive than to argue that Leftist policy is neutral on the question of whether they should be encouraged or discouraged.

However, when I read liberals’ writings, I usually get the impression that their claim to neutrality is more than just a tactic.  It seems to be an important part of how they understand themselves.  I see two reasons for this.  First, Leftists cannot seem to accept the fact that they are the establishment and not some small band of intrepid rebels.  (A couple of years ago, I read an amusing story, related by Mark Steyn, about how one of President Obama’s ministers had gone to ball out someone, some government functionary or businessman or something like that, and said in doing so she was “speaking truth to power”.  Steyn said something to the effect of “Dude, you are the power.  Admit it.”)  Of course, their whole “plucky underdog rebels” self-understanding is getting harder and harder to take seriously as their hegemony becomes more and more overpowering.  Second, the Left’s fundamental principle is autonomy, of which they take a very expansive view, to the point of demanding that each person be free to define the meaning of life, the universe, and everything for themselves.  This makes it very difficult for them to say that some moral system (even their own one based on autonomy!) is objectively true and should be enforced by the State.  There are the makings of a contradiction here.  Perhaps a subtle liberal understanding of autonomy and government action could get around it, but the claim to be neutral (and that this “neutrality” somehow involves enforcing liberalism on all aspects of life) makes it easy.  Dropping this would presumably force the more reflective ones to grapple with the question of what it could actually mean to enforce autonomy, which–because this is their ultimate goal–could prompt a real existential crisis for the Left.  It would mean abandoning their current synthesis of liberal thought, and it’s not obvious what they would replace it with.

I suspect that most Leftists are hoping that this whole issue will blow over before it provokes any real crisis.  They are calculating on the resistance to the androgynist/homosexual agenda being weak, and that it will collapse under a small amount of coercion.  Whether or not that coercion was really consistent with liberal neutrality theory will then be a mute issue.  It will be no more danger to their ideology than, say, the issue of whether laws that one must display one’s license plate on one’s car are neutral toward people who think this is a horribly wicked thing to do.  Since such people are entirely hypothetical, nobody cares if we’re being neutral toward them.  Even dissenters who are not hypothetical, but are in the past, are not a real threat.  The fact that liberalism “broke” this dissent using illiberal means is just an irony of history, an accident of the fact that those were rougher, less liberal times (and thus, ironically, the illiberal behavior of liberals is made to seem the fault of their victims, the society they were transforming).  Someday, looking back on this incident, they may think “Of course the patriarchists were treated roughly.  Back then, everyone was made brutal by patriarchy, even the liberals who exterminated it.  How horrid patriarchy was, that it made even its enemies so cruel!  Let us be grateful that they put all of that behind us.”

If this is what liberals are hoping will happen, then it means we can provoke a crisis for them just by visibly surviving.  If, in the next couple of years, some people lose their jobs or get some intimidation from angry mobs, and then everybody falls into line, then liberalism will be secure.  If, twenty years from now, people are still getting fired and terrorized in large numbers, that’s a crisis for them.  To avert such a crisis, they may try to escalate the repression, but the harder they make it, the worse their position will be if it doesn’t work.

12 Responses

  1. “to give a concrete example, it’s a lot easier to make the argument that traditional gender roles are oppressive than to argue that Leftist policy is neutral on the question of whether they should be encouraged or discouraged.”

    This is an important point that I wish you’d develop. Women everywhere used to be treated in ways that Christian women have criticized as unjust in teleological terms. Is Jane Austen traditional?

    Do women have St. Thomas-style natural rights? If so, have they often or usually been denied them because men are stronger and can oppress them? “Justice being taken away, then, when are kingdoms but great robberies?” St. Augustine asked, and a man’s home is his castle.

    Furthermore, doesn’t Christian traditionalism require a metanarrative where Pagans were somewhat good, but the Church represents a world-historical advance in ethics? As opposed to one where things have been great since Egypt’s Old Kingdom and only went to hell with the French Revolution, as in Rene Guenon type Traditionalism. So, I think, there’s a wide opening in the Catholic tradition to distinguish between just and unjust gender roles, which involves a discourse where the ways other civilizations treat women get criticized. If you see this as wrong, how do you plug the wide opening?

  2. Obviously, it’s possible for a woman–or even women as a group–to be treated unjustly. I think a natural law argument could be put forward against foot binding, for example. What we deny is the liberal assumption that different roles for men and women are automatically unjust to women. We have to do more work than the liberals do. If we here that, in culture X, men are allowed to do Y but women are not, we don’t think that automatically means that women are being unfairly treated. It might be the case that they’re being unfairly treated, but that would have to be a separate argument.

  3. If this is what liberals are hoping will happen, then it means we can provoke a crisis for them just by visibly surviving. If, in the next couple of years, some people lose their jobs or get some intimidation from angry mobs, and then everybody falls into line, then liberalism will be secure. If, twenty years from now, people are still getting fired and terrorized in large numbers, that’s a crisis for them.

    Funny how it works – I was thinking just this very thing recently. Clearly, a current homosexualist tactic is morally equating opposition to homosexuality with racism. They seem to be hoping that “homophobia” will be silenced and go out of fashion just as “racism” did. But how will it affect the homosexualists’ self-perception when traditionalists simply refuse, year after year, to give in to this? Sooner or later everyone, on every side, will be forced to admit that this issue really is different.

  4. An astonishing consideration regarding homosexuality and historical civilizational norms is, on the one hand, the near universal heteronormativity of human societies and, on the other, how rapidly this heteronormativity has been eroded in the last half century in the largely post-Christian West. Boland has already noted the traditional Christian position regarding sodomy, a position shared with, if anything, even greater insistence by Judaism and Islam. Further, among Asian civilizations, homosexuality has typically been considered a taboo subject when not outright condemned in concert with broader sexual prohibitions. Presumably, homosexuality has been marginally present in most societies, a “natural” marginalization deliberately reinforced and enhanced by the heteronormative cultural strictures of those societies.

    What changed? Specifically, what changed in the post-Christian West in the last half century to fundamentally invert the terms in which sodomy had, for all intents and purposes, always and everywhere been understood? And this is the very odd thing regarding sodomy: its contemporary acceptance, even lionizing, is such an obvious moral inversion that it suggests nothing so much as a “test case” for how far a society might be manipulated into accepting as correct the prima facie ridiculous, as if the Ministry of Truth had solemnly pronounced that “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” “Ignorance is Strength” and “Sodomy is Holy”.

    The path to insight into this riddle is, I suspect, that at root, it’s not really about sodomy at all, and that homosexuals, far from being dominant cultural drivers, have been essentially “free riders” on larger civilizational changes that they have only modestly leveraged to forward their own program. What changes? The changes in question are, fundamentally, metaphysical in character: the rejection of essence and telos in favor of mechanical instrumentalism; the rejection of hierarchy and role distinction in favor of a reductive equality; the rejection of societal membership in favor of an atomized individuality; the rejection of objective moral norms in favor of relativistic toleration, the rejection of a sacred order in favor of a profane dissoluteness. The list can be refined and expanded. None of these metaphysical alterations inherent in modernity address the normalization of homosexuality per se, but in combination, they serve as a fertile seed bed for the promotion of that most sterile of natural and moral aberrations.

  5. Well yes, I agree. The leftist assumption is absurd on its face, especially post-Darwin. The telos of a female animal is maternity, the telos of a male animal is paternity, and it is trivial to demonstrate that these are distinct.

    The more interesting question is distinguishing just gender roles from those that prevent people from flourishing. When children are socialized by leftist schools and media, they can grow up into adults who sincerely don’t get the difference between chivalry and footbinding. So traditional Christians need a theory of gender roles that clarify to outsiders how we distinguish the good from the bad, right?

  6. Peter S – I think you are right.

    There is always something arbitrary about the positive values of modernity, because they are essentially inversions – they are the anti-Good (anti- truth/ beauty/ virtue); and being ‘anti’ there is an almost infinite scope in what they are avtually ‘pro’.

    The profound alientation of modernity is amplified by this sense of arbitraryness. Modernity knows what it does *not* want to be, but the choce of things it does want to be is (in principle) limitless, and it does not deeply want to be any of them.

    In a word, all is *fashion*.

    And, like all fashion, which *specific* fashion is (because arbitrary and unguided either by common sense, instinct or revelation)in practice a matter of whatever the mass media complex decides will be the fashion (for any reason or for no reason.).

  7. bgc:
    “Modernity knows what it does *not* want to be, but the choce of things it does want to be is (in principle) limitless, and it does not deeply want to be any of them.”

    Martin Buber on good and evil:
    “{He] argues that good and evil are not two poles of the same continuum, but rather direction (Richtung) and absence of direction, or vortex (Wirbel). Evil is a formless, chaotic swirling of potentiality; in the life of man it is experienced as endless possibility pulling in all directions. Good is that which forms and determines this possibility, limiting it into a particular direction. We manifest the good to the extent we become a singular being with a singular direction.
    [...]
    The first stage of evil is “sin,” occasional directionlessness. Endless possibility can be overwhelming, leading man to grasp at anything, distracting and busying himself, in order to not have to make a real, committed choice. The second stage of evil is “wickedness,” when caprice is embraced as a deformed substitute for genuine will and becomes characteristic.
    [...]
    Buber interprets the claim that in the end the good are rewarded and the bad punished as the experience the bad have of their own fragmentation, insubstantiality and “non-existence.” Arguing that evil can never be done with the whole being, but only out of inner contradiction, Buber states that the lie or divided spirit is the specific evil that man has introduced into nature. Here “lie” denotes a self that evades itself, as manifested not just in a gap between will and action, but more fundamentally, between will and will. Similarly, “truth” is not possessed but is rather lived in the person who affirms his or her particular self by choosing direction.”

    Source: http://www.iep.utm.edu/buber/#SH2e

  8. “The Biblical Greek term for sin is αμαρτία (amartia) which means missing the mark, it means that our aim is out and we have not reached our goal, our fullest potential. In Orthodoxy, our goal is union with God.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Orthodox_view_of_sin#Overview

    “Some people do not want to face their true self. They follow the route of escapism: They use drugs, alcohol, or even illicit sex to cover up their true inner need, to fill their emptiness. Unfortunately, they do not see the great harm they do to themselves and to the people around them until it is too late. Thus, they may miss the purpose of their life, their true goal. They commit sin, amartia, which literally means “missing the mark,” and they wander aimlessly through life.

    Metanoia, the change of our mind, the return to our true self, brings us back to our senses, to our true self.”
    http://www.sanfran.goarch.org/meditations/dont-run-away-from-your-real-self/

  9. This passage from Buber reminds me of nothing so much as the Koranic passage,“Have you seen him who has taken his own caprice to be his god?” (25:43) As good a one sentence summary of modernity as one is likely to come across.

  10. There is an example in today’s edition of the National Post, Canada’s national center-right newspaper:

    This brings us to the issue of gay-straight alliances in Ontario high schools. They are amazing symbols of progress, and offer great hope for more, but they are verboten in publicly funded Catholic schools because the Pope says so. The guidelines in use at these publicly funded schools, in 2011, stress that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to the natural law,” and “do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.” In 2011, not 1988, the Ontario Catholic Bishops’ official advice is that gay students be instructed never to act upon their sexual orientation in any way. Don’t hold hands, don’t go to a movie. Sodomy lies that way.

    Look how the author affects such surprise and indignation: in our modern age, in 2011, the Catholic School Board still refuses to affirm homosexuality! Sooner or later, it’s going to become ridiculous to keep feigning such surprise, and it’ll become clear that actually, this is a moral position for all time. That will mark a significant shift in the public discourse about the issue.

  11. Doesn’t liberal theoretical neutrality on these issues become more understandable if we look at them as a manifestation of gender neutrality?

  12. To go off at a slight tangent, I think libertarianism is the result of liberals really thinking about and taking seriously (rather than just assuming) the claim to “neutrality”.

    I’m not sure whether that helps us any; I just pay attention to libertarians because I used to be one. I suppose we can observe that (a) it is possible to take neutrality seriously, and (b) doing so is a fringe position.

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