Yes, Virginia, there are liberal tyrants

Here are a couple of comments on another weblog that touch on something I wrote and raise a point worth discussing:

[Participant A:] There is a subtle, all pervasive form of control that perhaps has no precedent in human history. Like Orwell’s state, liberalism changes the way people view reality itself, it changes the language and as a result certain ideas become unthinkable. Not in the sense of them being banned by public fiat but in the sense of being buried and disappearing from existence.

[Participant B:] Do you think that’s really more than the normal condition of life?—I mean, one’s culture always limits the way one sees the world.

It seems to me the current situation really is special, not because it puts us in a situation in which many things have already been decided before we come on the scene, but because the manner in which the decisions are made, and the decisions themselves, are remarkably stupid. They deny the reality and value of our highest and most basic concerns, like truth and love. They don’t take into account obvious basic features of human life but try to suppress them (for example, distinctions and connections that have to do with sex and ethnicity). The result is that the principles that now govern our public life become not only stupid but relentlessly oppressive.

Here’s what has happened:

  • Everything has been socialized. There’s economic policy, education policy, family policy, gender policy, childcare policy, and community relations policy, not to mention health policy, which by itself is enough to include the whole of human life.
  • Those things are handled through technical expertise and centralized formal organization. People work for big employers, their education and most of the words and images that fill their minds are provided by huge institutions, serious discussion and what counts as relevance and truth is in the hands of professional functionaries, and so on.
  • Since life and everything about it is so vast and complicated, and there are people whose job it is to look after things and know all about them, none of us has the right to believe anything except what we’re told to believe. If you hang on to traditional beliefs there’s something wrong with you. You can’t appeal to them in a dispute, you have to appeal to “studies” and expert consensus. And how can it make sense to dispute anything, when there are people whose job it is to know what the studies say and the whole point is that they say you’re wrong? It’s obviously better to stay home, swill beer, and watch TV or look at girls on the Internet.
  • All that might make sense if formal training, organization and study were capable of handling the basic issues of life without regard to the authority of experience, tradition, ordinary habits, ties and loyalties, and recognitions that can’t be proved but must be grown into. Today people—or at least our rulers—believe that to deal with something rationally is to industrialize it. The problem is that if something is basic, subtle and complex it can’t be industrialized. Industrialism is extremely effective because it focuses on a few things and leaves out everything else. It follows that industrially-produced wallboard is OK, but industrially-produced food is not so OK and industrially-produced high culture is nonexistent.
  • But if industrialism is only good for simple things that can be made exact, why should industrially-produced prudence, morality and human relations, our official standards today, be worth bothering with? If you reject them though you’re officially considered stupid, ignorant or crazy, and there’s no defense you can make for your view. After all, the industrialists—the experts and functionaries who are responsible for putting everything to rights—disagree with you, and what they say constitutes public truth.
  • The effect of millions of college professors and hundreds of billions of dollars devoted to formal education and scholarly studies of all things is therefore to make us stupider. The people lose whatever common sense and decency they once had and become basically non-functional. Their betters work overtime convincing themselves and others that we live in the best—or at least most enlightened and knowledgeable—of all possible worlds and design theories that make it impossible for anyone meaningfully to disagree with them because nobody can really know truth and there aren’t any stable objects to know it about anyway. Besides, everyone gets food, shelter, pocket money, TV, lifestyle freedoms and a chance to win the lottery. What more could anyone reasonably want?

The nature of man is to do, know and love. The current public order, which claims all knowledge and the right and duty to reform all human relationships, says we can’t know, and love makes no sense because self-interest and power are the only realities and words like love are just rhetoric anyway, so we should do what we’re told except for the safe and harmless private amusements that it treats as our ultimate good. Why shouldn’t I call something that denies and destroys what is best in us oppressive and tyrannical? What else can one call it?

12 thoughts on “Yes, Virginia, there are liberal tyrants”

  1. Reason
    You said:

    “All that might make sense if formal training, organization and study were as good a way of handling the basic issues of life as experience, tradition, ordinary habits, ties and loyalties, and recognitions that can’t be proved but must be grown into.”

    I know you didn’t mean to exclude training and organization from the good life. Even within a tradition, study and training are important. I interpret what you’re saying to be akin to Oakeshott’s observation that Rationalism is beholden, not to knowledge, but to technique. Therefore, in our training institutes (our colleges) there really isn’t any knowledge to study or contemplate; it’s merely a matter of acquiring and mimicking the correct techniques. Therefore, what has traditionally been considered as “Reason” has been emptied of all content.

    Would you agree with this?

    • Thanks for the comment.
      I’ve revised the phrasing. Formal techniques are often helpful but you also need other things that are more substantive and incapable of full articulation. That’s why tradition has its own authority.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  2. Dogma
    You quote from a dialogue:

    “[Participant B:] Do you think that’s really more than the normal condition of life?—I mean, one’s culture always limits the way one sees the world.”

    This isn’t rational thought, it’s dogma. It defends (and universalizes) liberalism by invoking the dogma of liberalism. It justifies as truth the liberal dogma that all knowledge, truth, experience, and transcendence is relativized by historical contingencies.

    History—whatever that is—becomes an idol, an all-powerful determinant that relativizes the simplest truth.

    Just an aside: it also relativizes science, both in its particular and most general sense.

    It therefore casts Reason into the dustbin. All disputes about knowledge and humanity become Marxist power plays, and not only can’t they be resolved, they can’t even be discussed subject to any kind of rational agreement about the ground rules.

    It also implicitly undercuts multiculturalism, because, by relativizing all understandings of reality, it subverts any authority (actually, any rational capacity) to establish any norms, including the norm of “multiculturalism.” By this standard, multiculturalism itself is a historical contingency (anomaly?) that could just as easily be superseded by genocide, and no one would be in a position to distinguish between the two.

    • Maybe it’s not so bad
      I don’t think the comment has to be understood so categorically, to say that all cultures are equally limiting.

      We see through a glass darkly after all. That doesn’t mean we can’t increase our knowledge or that reason does nothing for us. It just means our knowledge is necessarily imperfect. To show that the liberal order distorts our understanding of things we can’t compare the liberal view to some undistorted perfect view, which isn’t available to us. We have to show that it denies points that even with our imperfect knowledge should be obvious.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • As I read the comment, it
        As I read the comment, it appears categorical.

        In claiming that all “views” are culturally conditioned, it pretends to an absolute, comprehensive truth. In order to possess this truth, it would have to stand outside all cultures, at some Archimedean point, and be in possession of the unvarnished truth in order to cast its judgment upon all cultures standing below it.

        If it took itself seriously, it would say: “All views are culturally conditioned, including this one.”

        The idea that all views are culturally and historically conditioned is not an idea that is, or has been, shared by all cultures. This idea is a conceit of the “Western historical consciousness,” which has yet to validate itself as the arbiter of all truths, or even a particularly elevated state of human consciousness.

        • Through a glass
          “We see through a glass, darkly” strikes me as a claim that our views are conditioned by our limitations. I don’t know what limitations Paul had in mind, but it seems to me that one of them is that our knowledge depends on the complex of language, concept, belief and orientation we pick up from those around us and thus on particular culture. We know through and with the aid of tradition. To say that is not I think to say that all traditions are equally good, or that we can’t know anything, or that we’ve suddenly got some unconditioned standpoint from which the statement can be made. At most the statement requires the concept of an unconditioned standpoint, which I suppose you have if you have the concept of God.

          I don’t think the view that human knowledge is imperfect and conditioned in various ways is an invention of the West. In China it’s been a big deal, especially among he Taoists, and in India many people seem to have thought that ordinary human knowledge is Maya to be transcended.

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • humility
            It seems I consider the position to be one of hubris, and you consider it one of humility.

            I think some distinctions are in order. The purpose of the original post [Participant B] was to defuse and disarm criticisms of the present order, and perhaps foreclose any further thought about its limitations. It is the standard response of those in power. I didn’t read it as an exhortation to further illumination, given our limitations. Rather, it was an affirmation of the distortions brought on by Orwellian language, and a defense of ignorance. And, this is all portrayed as “the normal condition of life.”

            “One’s culture always limits the way one sees the world.”

            As Lesslie Newbigin observed, in his piece on the gospel in a pluralistic culture, this kind of statement is peculiar to the modern historical consciousness and is merely a statement of an ultimate faith commitment. It isn’t a fact; it’s more likely a lie. In any case, there’s no possible way to confirm or deny it; therefore, to assert it as fact is either reckless or the mere recitation of a learned dogma. I therefore consider statements of this kind to be hubristic, because they pretend to know a great deal more than they do.

            Statements of general spiritual limitation—like those of Paul—are of a different order; in any case, Paul recognized that men are of different spiritual capacities, and some are more suited for the struggle to see through the glass darkly, to pursue their salvation with fear and trembling. I don’t think Paul was pretending to speak either to all or for all, and understood that many simply wouldn’t be interested. And, in any case, Paul of all people didn’t view these distinctions as grounded in culture, nationality, tradition, or anything else.

            As for Eastern religions, I see a distinction between Taoism and HInduism/Buddhism. Taoism asserts an absolute reality, with which we can find harmony in the temporal world. Hinduism asserts the temporal world is an illusion, which we should transcend to the realm of actual Being, and in which we are intended to participate (or already participate, once our consciousness is expanded). I’m not sure either is making any kind of statement about a particular culture, or a comparison among cultures, and they certainly aren’t espousing some kind of epistemological limitation grounded in culture. If they are saying anything, I suspect they are saying that all cultures, traditions, nations, etc. are in precisely the same place—subject to the identical absolute reality in Taoism, or bound by the same illusions in Hinduism. I see nothing comparable here to the dogmatic relativism of the modern historical consciousness; both appear to me to be making universal claims, applicable to all in all circumstances.

          • I’m not sure we have a significant difference
            Certainly a statement can mean very different things depending on how it is intended. I read B’s statement charitably, because of other things B has written, to mean that saying liberal culture channels and limits our thoughts can’t be that big an objection because after all our thoughts are always channeled by unspoken assumptions we pick up and limited by what concepts are available. To my mind the objection has some validity, and means that you have to say more to show why the particular limitations liberalism imposes are so bad.

            I agree that Saint Paul and the Taoists and Hindus probably didn’t have cultural limitations in mind when they talked about the limitations of human thought and knowledge. Still, I don’t see why cultural limitations can’t serve as one example of human limitations. Our experience is limited, that’s why a child thinks as a child, and the same applies to the accumulated experience on which we draw through tradition and culture.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • culture
            In thinking about this, perhaps a useful distinction is between “cultural truths” and “existential truths.”

            For example, putting his faith in existential truth, Paul was confident he could transcend cultural differences.

            A culture is intended, if it is functional, to express for a particular group in a particular place at a particular time, the existential truths (which are universal).

            When a culture suppresses, denies, or in fact punishes, the existential truths, then that culture is dysfunctional, and an explosion is inevitable.

            We might say this is the position of late liberalism: it can no longer express symbolically the existential truths that are universal, and its legitimacy therefore becomes suspect, even if it cannot be articulated in quite this way: people just know something is wrong and pressure builds.

          • culture II
            In thinking further about this—and particularly the challenge of Paul in confronting the multicultural orthodoxy of Rome—I was reminded of Celsus, one of the more competent defenders of the pagan order in Rome.

            See generally on Celsus, and his apologetics:


            I’ll quote from Voegelin’s “New Science of Politics” (pp. 100-01) to highlight the battle that began to brew between cultural truth and existential truth when Christianity appeared:

            “The Christians, he (Celsus) complained, reject polytheism with the argument that one cannot serve two masters. This was for Celsus the “language of sedition.” The rule, he admitted, holds true among men; but nothing can be taken from God when we serve his divinity in the many manifestations of his kingdom. On the contrary, we honor and please the Most High when we honor many of those who belong to him, while singling out one God and honoring him alone introduces factiousness into the divine kingdom. That part can only be taken by men who stand aloof from human society and transfer their own isolating passions to God. The Christians, thus, are factionals in religion and metaphysics, a sedition against the divinity which harmoniously animates the whole world in all its subdivisions.”

            (Celsus is sounding here like a modern multiculturalist).

            “Who (i.e., Christians) wishes to destroy the national cult wants to destroy the national cultures. And since they all have found their place in the Empire, an attack on the cults by radical monotheists is an attack on the construction of the imperium Romanum.”

            (Then Celsus delivers his hammer of “cultural conditioning”.)

            “Not that it were not desirable, even in the opinion of Celsus, if Asiatics, Europeans, Libyans, Hellenes and barbarians, would agree in one nomos, but, he adds contemptuously, ‘anyone who thinks this possible knows nothing.’ ”

            Voegelin then adds the little kicker: “The answer of Origen in his ‘Contra Celsum’ was that it not only was possible but that it surely would come to pass.”

          • Soviet Union
            “When a culture suppresses, denies, or in fact punishes, the existential truths, then that culture is dysfunctional, and an explosion is inevitable.”

            The most striking example of this in modern times is the Soviet Union.

  3. Hey I’m participant A!

    Hey I’m participant A!

    I remember this discussion. I was really disappointed in the bloggers at C & T. Horton should know better.
    I run into this all the time, people just seem incapable of thinking outside the box so to speak. It’s terrifying similiar to Orwell and Lewis’ images in 1984 and The Abolition of Man.
    Since most people have no historical knowledge they fail to consider that things could have ever been different than they are. They are terminally distracted with the media and consumerism and demonstrate a startling lack of basic insight into their own thinking process.

    “The crowd is untruth” – Soren Kierkegaard.


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