[The following essay first appeared at Eternity Road on February 16, 2007. It seems approriate in the wake of the Newtown atrocity and the fevered responses to it. – FWP]
Time was, the great mass of Westerners were Christians -- believing Christians, not the let's-go-to-the-midnight-Christmas-Mass-so-I-can-show-off-my-new-mink-coat kind. As such, they accepted as a premise that there is a world beyond this one, and that some of the denizens of that world were capable of influencing men's thoughts to some extent. Back then, it was not uncommon to hear someone say that so-and-so had "yielded to his demons," or that the "better angels" had prevailed over him just in time. No one was embarrassed about saying such things; indeed, no one would have dared to doubt that he meant it.
But we're so much more sophisticated these days, we can't even say such things with a straight face. No, everything has to have a worldly explanation: secular, material, and rationalistic. Suggestions of spiritual influence are right out; far from being simply naive or credulous, they're passe. They don't even occur to the fashionable people, and as for the rest, well, what about them?
This abjuration of otherworldly considerations created a new impetus away from the "other-directed" conscience of earlier Christendom, toward the "inner-directed" conscience, or lack thereof, that predominates today. Moral constraints were once buttressed by the belief that God sees all and forgets nothing; without God, one's moral constraints had to arise from entirely secular, rationalistic sources. As I've written before, that takes a very powerful mind, one which is absolutely proof against taking opinions for facts or being misled by wishful thinking.
Needless to say, minds that powerful are not commonplace. Nor are they necessarily capable of transferring their grasp of moral fundamentals to persons of lesser abilities.
It was predictable that the removal of that constraint, in tandem with the rise of the cult of moral relativism, would bring about a significant degree of defection from the earlier, Christian norms for decency and public order. But alongside that, we suffered a parallel wound to our civility whose genesis, if less obvious than that of our mounting public disarray, was just as direct: we ceased to allow for the possibility that a man's words or deeds might have been propelled, in part or in whole, by forces beyond his control.
That might sound absurd, given how readily some will excuse a vicious mass murderer on the grounds that he was abused as a child:
As a child, my heart bleeds for him. Someone took a little boy and turned him into a monster. But as an adult... as an adult, he's irredeemable. He butchers whole families to fulfill some sick fantasy. As an adult, I think someone should blow the sick **** out of his socks. [from the movie Manhunter]
The thought path is there to be traced; exculpations are always on the grounds that some secular, temporal, material influence overpowered the miscreant, not that he was tempted beyond his strength.
Consider how that change in premises interacts with the modern tendency in political discourse to regard one's adversary not as merely wrong but as willfully wrong. A man who strays under temptation is still redeemable as long as he lives; indeed, that's a bedrock tenet of Christian belief. But if his wrongness is conscious and willful, rather than a misstep made under the influence of an unseen dark power, what then?
In combination with the absolutism advancing among persons of every known conviction, many among us have become prone to characterizing our adversaries as evil, never as weak or misinformed. We cannot excuse them for differing with us; to do so would be to open the possibility that we, not they, are the evil ones. For once the unseen world is excluded, no other alternatives would exist.
We've lost more than just the willingness to allow that our enemies are forgivable. Far too many persons, stripped of the support for moral conduct provided by the premise of an all-seeing God, have lost their grip on morals, or have failed to acquire them. They can't or won't understand the importance of moral categorical imperatives; without the threat of retribution, they can't see an affirmative reason to behave properly toward others. Their "morality" reduces to this: "If I can get away with it, then it must be quite all right."
Since each of us is locked into the solitary vault of his own skull, inherently unable to divine the thoughts or emotions of others, our tendency is to map our motivations and constraints onto those around us. They who hold to a Judeo-Christian moral standard tend to assume that others do as well; they who hold to an amoral it's-okay-if-I-get-away-with-it standard tend to assume that others hold it too. In a way, it's the ultimate demonstration of the Golden Rule, even though the moral and the amoral apply it to breathtakingly different effects.
The human psyche is structured in a fashion that impels us to caution if our intentions toward our neighbors are dark ones. That's an aspect of our survival engineering, nothing more. After all, how likely is it that we would have survived our earliest, most predatory stages if we didn't trouble to conceal our less praiseworthy inclinations from those who were to be their next targets? Therefore, Smith, to whom morality is a stranger, since it would be obvious that he regards everyone as a potential target, will do his best to conceal his amorality if he's smart. "Smart" and "amoral" are not mutually exclusive.
Smith will also assume that you're doing exactly the same.
Let that sink in for a moment. Smith will never accept that your motives are what you say they are. Nor could anything you might do or refrain from doing, great or small, fleeting or protracted, persuade him that you can be trusted. He will map his own moral structure onto you, regardless of all your efforts to persuade him otherwise.
Psychologists call it projection. In its most extreme form, they call it paranoia.
It follows from the foregoing that the loss of civility in politics is a resultant, not a primary. The most uncivil are the least trustworthy and the least capable of disguising it. It's they whose pieties are likeliest to conceal darker agendas. And indeed, the political family most given to the vilification of its adversaries, the American left, has also provided by far the greater number of saboteurs, defrauders, and exploiters of their official positions for personal gain.
The violent, fraudulent, and grasping ones are their ideology's more consistent adherents. Their self-righteous brethren, who are often equally venomous toward conservatives, are tragically unwilling to see the connection between the moral altitude they award themselves and the behavior of their naughtier confreres. But this, too, is consistent with the syndrome. To entertain even for a moment that their self-sanctifying ideology of statism and redistributionism might be causally connected to the indulgences of those others is to indict their entire moral framework, putting them, not on a par with us their conservative opponents, but below us. That cannot be, by the most fundamental tenets of left-liberalism:
Despite Hamlet's warning against self-flattery, the vision of the anointed [i.e., American left-liberals] is not simply a vision of the world and its functioning in a causal sense, but is also a vision of themselves and of their moral role in that world. It is a vision of differential rectitude. It is not a vision of the tragedy of the human condition. Problems exist because others are not as wise or as virtuous as the anointed. [From Thomas Sowell's The Vision Of The Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy.]
They who are proudest, and quickest to condemn us their adversaries, are the lowest of us fallen ones.
Conservatives will frequently dismiss liberals as wrong, misinformed, or even stupid for not seeing the obvious, but it's rare for a conservative to classify liberals as evil. The converse is most emphatically not true. We have innumerable examples before us, both on the Web and in the non-digital reaches of the world.
Who could forget Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean's cry that "I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for" -- ? The Democratic Party did not repudiate Dean's brazenness by one iota. His candor might have made some prominent Democrats uncomfortable, but they shared enough of his premises, and his emotions, not to dissent from them in substance. The venomous statements of the various Air America personages, some of which included unsubtle exhortations to violence against conservatives, were paler echoes of Dean's manifesto. Vilenesses of similar character can be heard in any gathering of left-liberals, sometimes even when a few avowed conservatives are present to hear them.
We might be moved to dismiss this as "rhetorical excess," "campaign propaganda," "rallying the troops," or some such. That's our tendency to project in operation: our desire to see our adversaries' premises and motives as congruent with our own, despite all the evidence to the contrary. One of the less worthy developments on the Right has been a sort of rhetorical Stockholm Syndrome: a burgeoning tendency to try to placate those who abuse us in direct proportion to the violence and frequency of their abuses. In pondering it, one might easily draw parallels between the innumerable outrages of Muslims in Europe and the ever more obsequious behavior of European governments and non-Muslim private citizens toward them. It's not a response to be proud of.
He who has anointed himself as indisputably good has awarded himself a license to destroy that which is evil. He'll interpret conciliation as a sign of weakness and intensify his efforts. As with Islam, so also with the anointed of left-liberalism. It's only mildly ironic that left-liberals are so eager to placate aggressive Islamic regimes, whose scimitars would fall on their necks in a heartbeat if the opportunity presented itself. But perhaps to him who has convinced himself that he knows the face of evil, wishfulness renders other faces less distinct.
But one must not neglect the "fringes of anointment," where the holy oil is thinnest or the impulse to connect is least affected. Consider the following blockbuster post from Wizbang's Jay Tea:
The other day, while discussing the hike in the minimum wage, one critic posed a fairly heavy question to me....Jay, you are a very smart man. That is obvious. What I don't understand is WHY people like you are so willing to advocate for a political system that works against your best interests. What's so attractive about conservative ideology? Why do people in your position cheer when Rush says "Roosevelt is dead. His policies live on, but we are doing something about that." Why is that attractive?
You've got health issues. A smart guy like you should be making more than mid 20K's. Are you stuck because you don't want to risk a move and lose insurance? So, why fight democratic healthcare reform? If you had a severe problem and were unable to work, wouldn't you go bankrupt? Most people go bankrupt because of health reasons, not wild credit spending, like the meme. Why do conservatives cheer when bankruptcy laws are changed so if anything medical happened to them, they'd have no protection?
If you're making in the mid 20Ks, and you have an apartment, you've got to be spending perhaps half of your net income on housing. Add to that insurance, food, utilities... Can't be much left. Are you socking away what you need for retirement? If you have investments, it's been a great couple of years, but you don't have dividend income. Or probably much in the way of stocks that you've purchased. Don't you want to be able to depend on Social Security for your retirement? Why don't "conservatives" complain about the constant borrowing from the Social Security fund to make the budget numbers look more positive? There would not be a "Social Security crisis" in your lifetime if we were not removing surplus from the fund.
I don't get it... I just don't get it. Why does a smart guy like you, in your position, argue for a political ideology that works against your best interests in almost every way?
Could you please explain that to me?
John, it's quite simple. Although I have repeatedly espoused my agnosticism, but that doesn't mean I don't have my own ethos that I try to adhere to. And I don't have an overarching name or theme for it; it's just something I can live with.
One part of it is that I abide by what I judge to be "right" or "wrong," regardless of how it will affect me personally. You're quite right, John, a lot of the things I oppose would benefit me greatly....
It's because I decided, very coldly and logically, that the best way I could leave my "mark" on the world would to find certain issues where I could make a strong moral and ethical stand, and fight those causes. And in each and every case, I would weigh both sides of the issue, see which one would be the more honest, the more fair, the one more likely to promote individual rights, and freedoms, and responsibilities, and take that stand. Even if it meant screwing myself over, in some way....
When I was in college, I took a course in ethics. One thing that has stuck with me is how the professor said that for any ethical system to be legitimate, it had to be universal. The rules had to apply evenly to everyone, or it was not a truly ethical system. In that spirit, I've tried to discount my own personal self-interest when deciding where I stand on an issue.
So yeah, John, sometimes my own philosophical beliefs directly conflict with my own self-interest. That's OK with me. Hell, in some ways, it's reassuring. It tells me that I am not simply taking the most expedient, selfish, easiest way out of a situation.
So sometimes it gets a bit uncomfortable. But it helps me sleep a bit better at night.
- Commenter John simply assumed that Jay had overlooked or irrationally dismissed how left-liberal public policies would benefit him personally.
- The odds are six-five and pick 'em that John, if he read Jay's response excerpted above, would dismiss it as "for public consumption."
- Yet had Jay replied to John, "Is that why you vote Democrat? Because it's in your self-interest? Or is that just the sort of pitch you think will work on a grubby, heartless conservative?" John would have been mortally offended.
Jay, an avowed agnostic, exhibits an admirable conformity to a fundamental tenet of Christian moral thought: what's wrong is wrong for everyone, regardless of any personal justifications one might proffer. John, whose religious affiliation is unknown, hews to the opposite pole: it's not wrong if it's right "for me." But John's ideological compatriots readily call Jay and his ideological compatriots "evil."
The well-known book What's The Matter With Kansas? by Thomas Frank is replete with John's sort of reasoning. It's practically a tour guide to liberals' attitudes toward conservatives and conservative thought. Can you imagine the ocean of outrage and hurricanes of denunciation liberals would indulge over a book that explores why they perennially supported policies specifically in their self-interest?
Actually, you don't have to imagine. Go to Amazon and look up any of Ann Coulter's books. You'll know which reviews are by liberals without having to read more than two lines of any of them.
Politics is a substitute for bloodshed. It's the way a society settles matters over which agreement is elusive. But it only works if all the parties to a controversy concede that the ultimate goal of social amity is more important than the outcome of a contest over any specific issue. When one side decides that its condition of moral superiority has freed it from all constraints, politics rapidly ceases to work, and violence, fraud, and subterfuge creep in. We had a number of examples of this during the 2004 and 2006 campaign seasons.
At this time, liberals and conservatives cannot talk to one another about anything, even to set the terms under which an issue might be settled. What else does the prevalence of the filibuster tactic signify? The minority is unwilling to allow the majority to have its way, so it uses a procedural tactic to prevent the resolution of the issue. All we hear from the Left are denunciations of us on the Right. All we hear from the Right are equivocations intended to avert escalation. Workable middle ground on an issue, if it exists, is seldom reachable.
Conservatives are not entirely free from odium, but at this time we must be judged to have much cleaner hands and better manners than our liberal assailants. In the main, it's liberals who stand indicted for the attempted destruction of the American political discourse. The correlations to their assumptions:
- That human nature is sufficiently flexible to be bent to a state-socialist Utopia by the force of law;
- That "the common good" is a higher standard than any antiquated notion of absolute right and wrong;
- That men can be trusted with absolute power over others if their hearts are in the right place;
...are too strong to be ignored.
It's even possible that some of America's liberal figures might be consciously trying to destroy our political system. A liberal sufficiently convinced of his moral elevation and the correctness of his policy prescriptions might reach the conclusion that there's no need for any further dialogue; let's eliminate the other guys, erect a one-party state, outlaw all opposition, and get to work. I've heard statements like that from liberals on specific issues; usually they include the telltale word "inevitable," as in "socialized medicine is inevitable, so let's get on with it."
Yes, you may well shudder.
The situation cannot be reversed quickly; in the near term, matters will remain more or less as they stand. Political correctness is a major obstacle, as is liberals' use of "shield icons" -- mascot groups, sigil issues, and historical events such as slavery -- that are good for foreclosing discussion when it turns against them. Worse, conservatives are excessively prone to self-criticism, and suffer willy-nilly from the assaults of both liberal mouthpieces and their Old Media annex. In William Simon's phrase, when the newspapers and the liberal mouthpieces start to blast us, it's been our pattern to experience "an acute failure of nerve."
Worse yet, conservatives are not sufficiently well united on core principles to stand together properly when the going gets tough, which is why political correctness has had such an effect on us. One never compromises a principle except at a loss...yet in their desire to conciliate the Left, and to curry the elusive favor of the heavily leftist Old Media, conservative statesmen and spokesmen have repeatedly made self-destructive compromises and agreed to many foolish things. President Bush's prescription drug benefit for Medicare clients is only one recent example.
But these matters, as large as they are, are small before what follows. Any significant improvement in the nation's political discourse will require the Left to concede things it's been unwilling to admit for some time:
- The moral equality of all men, regardless of their intentions;
- The superiority of facts to opinions, theories, hopes, and expectations;
- The sacredness of objective evidence and the public meanings of words.
To accept that those who disagree with them either on principles or on specifics are nevertheless presumed innocent of malice; to admit that many, if not all, of their pet initiatives have been wrongly conceived and have done harm rather than good; to agree to respect both evidence and rhetoric as tools to be used only in the service of truth -- in other words, to climb down off the pedestals they've built for themselves -- will be a humiliation most persons could hardly bear. The present generation of liberals might have to die off before the process can begin.
The fatal syllogism runs thus:
- We are good and they are evil.
- Therefore, we must win at any cost.
- Therefore, there are no rules; all that matters is "getting away with it."
What the Left has forgotten is that there's one more step yet to take.
- He who sets himself above all rules is evil.