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Political theory

'Twas ever thus

There’s definitely been a bump up in aggressively anti-religious agitation in the years since September 11. If you look back though there’s been no real change in the beliefs of those who consider themselves entitled to determine the order of our public life. Here, for example, is the terminally prominent and mainstream Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. in the November 22, 1995 Wall Street Journal:

“Most of the killing taking place around the world has been caused by religious conflict … Unrebuked and unchecked, fundamentalists of all faiths will continue to believe that they are serving God by mayhem and murder … more than a third of American adults claim that God speaks to them directly. Am I alone in finding this a scary statistic?”

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It's all just will against will

An article at LewRockwell.com today provides, with libertarian clarity, an example of a basic vice of liberal and libertarian thought. One of their writers complains about opposition to a local measure to extend the hours of liquor sales. For him, opposing such a measure is the same as “telling the voters … to their faces, that they were untrustworthy, that they could not make their own choices competently.” It is a display of “the arrogance of people who consider themselves a special breed apart, the only people capable of acting with prudence or decency without having the government’s gun to their head.” It is that arrogance, he says, that is the basis of statism.

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More on the Mass

The freeing of the Old Mass seems to be drawing closer.

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Another note on Rawls

Disputes are always with us, so it is not surprising that John Rawls says that a society with liberal democratic institutions always has a plurality of views on fundamental issues. According to Rawls, the consequence is that we have to accept his principles of government, because the alternative is oppression and violence, and because (apparently) everyone reasonable agrees with his views so the problem of pluralistic disagreement does not apply. In fact, of course, the consequence is that a society that claims to be liberal and democratic in any very strong sense will be neither, but will rather be based on obfuscation that passes off dissent and sullen practical acquiescence as universal agreement among the sane and well-intentioned.

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The soul of man under liberalism

In my last post I suggested that liberalism intrinsically causes crime, because the strong impulses, weak intelligence and spotty human attachments that make a man criminal are supported by basic liberal principles (making preference the standard of the good, reducing reason to the service of desire, turning autonomy into an ultimate standard). I then suggested that in practice a liberal society can choose between treating criminals with respect and consideration, as the Europeans do, and ignoring crime, or stomping on them, and ignoring the illiberality of the resulting social order.

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Invasion of the evil theocrats

The dictionary definition of theocracy is government of a state “by priests or according to religious law,” or perhaps “by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided.” As such, it applies to states like traditional Tibet, early Mormon Utah, and revolutionary Iran, but not in substance to any traditional Christian state. Even when ruled by a saint or bishop, Christian states have treated politics as different from religion, have not been subject to a general system of religious law (which doesn’t exist in Christianity), and have not viewed the political ruler in his capacity as such as the regular beneficiary of special divine guidance.

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What's it all about?

The Left (which in most important respects includes liberals and “moderates”) thinks about things technologically. Leftists may talk about the evils of logocentric thinking or whatnot, but that sort of thing answers no questions, and when something actually has to be decided scientism cuts in. As a result, all principles that matter have to be universal, wholly public, clearly defined, and designed for implementation through a definite system of command and control.

Once that point is understood, others fall into place:

  • The Left considers personal morality private and subjective. It’s improper to comment on it or suggest that one version is better than another. That would cause bad feelings, and more importantly it would distract attention from social justice, which is now understood as absolute morality. Such views do make sense if the only rational way of organizing social life is through formal public systems of control and command run on universal demonstrable principles.
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Keeping the lid on late liberal society

Michael Blowhard points to a recent instance of how PC is playing out in Britain: a young American woman is assaulted for 15 minutes on a crowded tube platform in London by a couple of black punks. “The assault and abuse was both physically violent and sexual in nature.” Nobody does much of anything and the police could hardly care less.

Commenters on the woman’s weblog with experience of present-day Britain were unanimous that ordinary self-defense, let alone intervening in a dispute involving others, is now treated as a very serious crime there, so people are afraid to respond to outrages. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson recounts how a British Airways stewardess asked him to move to a different seat on an airplane because “we have very strict rules … that a man cannot sit with children.” (Admittedly, the rule was waived when he convinced the lady the children in question were his own.) Again commenters, not to mention other commentators, vehemently supported Johnson’s account as representative.

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Blast from the past

Here are a couple of quotations from Louis de Bonald, taken from Critics of the Enlightenment, a recent compilation of writings by French counterrevolutionaries:

“When nations have been unable to retain their habits, they replace them by styles, ceaselessly changing them as they seek for what they have lost.” (52)

“The immense quantity of books makes us read more, and among the society of the dead as among that of the living, an overextended acquaintaince does not leave enough time for good friendships to form.” (79)

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Read good books!

Although I sometimes disagree with Weaver and Guardini about the weight given this factor or that, the books I’ve been discussing are outstanding works and should be read.

Like other people, right-wingers put too much effort into trying to find particular causes for general conditions like multiculturalism or PC. It’s all a plot by Marxist college professors, or an outgrowth of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement, or whatever, Such explanations do add something—during the McCarthy period there really were commies under every bed—but they don’t explain why things keep going the same direction everywhere, and above all they don’t explain what we should do that will turn the situation around.

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Religion and politics, then and now

A really striking feature of the Guardini book discussed in my last entry is how extremist it is by current standards. It’s not a call for dialog and a place at the table. Instead, he calls for the “absolute experiencing of dogma,” for “a pure obedience. Christianity will arm itself for an illiberal stand directed unconditionally toward Him Who is Unconditioned.” He says that in

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More on a world's end

Romano Guardini’s book The End of the Modern World provides an interesting comparison with Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences. Both were written in the immediate post-war period, and first presented to the public in 1947-1948. Both considered, in the setting of recent horrors, the tendency of technological mass society to reduce all things to function and utility.

The two are nonetheless quite different. The key difference, I think, is that Guardini was religious where Richard Weaver was only reverent. The difference made Guardini much more independent of his social and cultural setting, and enabled his book to be far more radical than anything Weaver could have written, In particular, it enabled him to emphasize the compulsive power of historical transformations much more than Weaver could, since it gave him a point of reference altogether outside the historical process.

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Realities have consequences

Weaver’s views in Ideas Have Consequences suffer from a standard problem with conservative views: they attempt to secure the benefits of recognizing transcendent authority without actually recognizing it, at least not in any form definite enough to be useable. They thus attempt to substitute “piety”—generalized respect toward man, nature and history—for religion.

He insists that metaphysics is fundamental:

The first positive step must be a driving afresh of the wedge between the material and the transcendental. This is fundamental: without a dualism we should never find purchase for the pull upward, and all idealistic designs might as well be scuttled. I feel that this conclusion is the upshot of all that has here been rehearsed.

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Weaver had ideas

I’ve been rereading Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, a basic text in traditionalist conservatism.

Weaver’s basic thought is that the world is intelligible, man is free, we must understand the world intelligently to choose correctly, and we’ve been growing progressively less intelligent on basic issues for the past few hundred years. Most of the book is an explanation of what’s unintelligent about modern understandings, why they lead to trouble, and what to do about it all.

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Stalking the Therapeutic State

The following review appeared in the 2006 issue of The Political Science Reviewer:

The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millenium, by Paul Edward Gottfried (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005). (SDM)

Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Toward a Secular Theocracy, by Paul Edward Gottfried (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002). (MPG)

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The Search for a Moderate Liberalism

The following review of Christopher J. Insole, The Politics of Human Frailty: A Theological Defense of Political Liberalism (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005) appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Telos.

What is liberalism and is it good or bad? Its pervasiveness makes it difficult to gain the perspective needed to decide such issues. Many current writers treat it as relativistic, individualistic and hubristic, and the man who is now Benedict XVI has gone so far as to describe the situation in the liberal West as a “dictatorship of relativism.”1 The author, a lecturer in theology at Cambridge University, disagrees. His academic position has made him quite familiar with the complaints, and he begins his book by observing that recent theological critics have described liberalism as

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Liberalism as simply a tradition?

A friend wrote to ask what I thought of various academic attempts to try to avoid objections to liberalism that are based on the liberal tendency, now out of fashion, to claim that liberalism should rule because it’s based on universally valid rational principles of some sort. My response:

The attempts you mention basically claim that liberalism is simply a tradition like any other, so it has a perfect right to rule where it’s the dominant tradition (as in the West). It’s hard for me to take that view seriously, for reasons that include the following:

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    Equality, and man made God

    A correspondent asks what metaphysical liberalism, as “the denial of the Good as a self-sufficient entity which exists independent of any individual’s personal preferences,” has to do with “the modern Left’s hysterical denial of differences between (and in some cases among) different racial sexual and myriad other groups.”

    My response:

    To my mind, the craziness and uniformity of liberal views on this issue suggest they result not from particular psychological needs or nebulous this or arbitrary that but from some point that’s basic to the logic of the whole way of thinking.

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    Skepticism and dogmatism (snippet from book-to-be)

    The fundamental question of political legitimacy is the nature and purpose of authority, and thus the nature of man, the world, moral obligation, and the human good—in other words, which religion is correct. Liberalism cannot get by without answering that question, but it answers it indirectly, by claiming moral ignorance. We do not know what the good is, it tells us, so we should treat all desires the same. The satisfaction of all desires thus becomes the unquestionable good.

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    Defining Dubya

    An old friend, who considers herself a liberal, asked why I classified W as one. It really seemed batty to her although she could see that the “big spender” label would apply. My reply (somewhat edited):

    He’s a liberal because he thinks he’s called on to reconstruct things to bring about a universal order in which the basic public standards are satisfaction of people’s preferences and equality of some sort, and the public ideals are therefore freedom, democracy, security, nondiscrimination, general prosperity, and economic opportunity, to be attained through some combination of world markets and regulatory bureaucracies.

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