The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Illiberality of Liberalism

In Taran Wanderer, the fourth of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, a series of fantasy novels for young readers that draws inspiration from Welsh mythology, the hero of the series, Taran, a foundling raised by the wizard Dallben, goes on a quest in search of his parentage. During this quest, he encounters Lord Goryon and Lord Gast, liegemen of King Smoit, his old acquaintance from The Black Cauldron . Lord Goryon, who describes himself as “Goryon the Valorous”, is an arrogant bully whose men pick fights with those weaker than themselves and liberate them of their belongings. Lord Gast, who refers to himself as “Gast the Generous”, invites Taran and his friends to a feast, at which he offers them meager scraps off of his own overloaded plate, all the time praising his own munificence. These lords, each of which identified himself the most with the virtue that was least like his actual character, bring to mind the words of Robert Burns:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us

The political ideology of liberalism also identifies itself with a virtue. Liberality is one of the classical virtues. It means to be generous towards others in thought and deed, both in the sense of giving and sharing out of one’s material wealth and in the sense of being slow to think ill and quick to think well. Broadmindedness or tolerance, the willingness to let others be, is the very sine qua non of liberality.

Is it, however, a distinguishing trait of liberalism?

Some have suggested that liberalism errs by being generous to a fault, by taking its broadmindedness too far. Towards the end of his life, for example, American poet Robert Frost famously defined a liberal as “a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel”. There is a great deal of truth in this, of course, and example after example could be pointed to of how liberals have insisted upon taking the side of various “others” against their own communities and countries even to the point where it adversely affects the interests of the latter.

There are also, however, countless examples of how liberalism can be anything but tolerant, broadminded and, well, liberal. As William F. Buckley Jr. quipped decades ago “Liberals do a great deal of talking about hearing other points of view, but it sometimes shocks them to learn that there are other points of view.”

If we look at the roots of political liberalism this should not come as a great surprise to us. The political party that renamed itself Liberal in the nineteenth century was the Whig Party, organized in the seventeenth century by people that were anything but liberal in the sense of being tolerant and broadminded. The Puritans were Protestant extremists who were unsatisfied with the English Reformation and the Elizabethan Settlement and who wished to cleanse the Church of England of anything that smacked of popery to them. They wanted the laws against recusancy to be strictly and severely enforced against Roman Catholics. They went to war against King Charles I out of a paranoid belief that his High Anglican views meant that he was a closet Roman Catholic, deposed him, and had him beheaded. In the interregnum, during which they governed England, they cancelled Christmas and Easter, closed the theatres and banned public amusements on Sundays, stripped the churches of the ornaments and organ music that brought the beauty of high art into the lives of common people, and waged war against Roman Catholics. After the Restoration, these men became the founders and organizers of the Whigs, who drove James II from his throne. The track record, of the party that renamed itself Liberal, was a rather illiberal one.

The liberals of today, both small and big l, are, of course, worlds’ removed from the Puritans in some respects, the most obvious being that they are highly secular. Nevertheless, the spirit of social and moral reform that drove the Puritans still lives on in liberalism today although its targets and objectives have changed. Today’s liberals no longer crusade against surplices, pictures of the saints, and the sign of the cross as corrupting influences that will lead young Protestants astray into the arms of the Scarlet Woman of Babylon although they might object to these things as being offensive to religious minorities. They have found new reforms to champion, such as attempts to eliminate child poverty by reducing the size of sugared soda containers or to save us all from second-degree smoke inhalation by preventing the owners of restaurants and other businesses from allowing tobacco smoking on their own property. They may no longer base their sense of superiority on the belief that they have a better understanding of the Scriptures than the fathers and doctors of the church but they now base it upon the idea that they have been enlightened by reason and science.

The biggest moral crusade of today’s liberals is their campaign against bigotry. In this one might expect liberalism to actually live up to its name. After all, bigotry, which is a negative opinion of those who differ from you that one persists in holding in the face of the evidence, is pretty much the exact opposite of being broadminded, generous, and tolerant. It is ironic, therefore, that it is in liberalism’s crusade against bigotry that its own illiberalism, its own bigotry, is most prominently on display. In its criticism of the history and traditions of Western societies and civilization, liberalism is quick to think the worst of those who have gone before us and the institutions they have bequeathed us, which in itself is a most illiberal attitude. Any metacritical response to this is usually also condemned as being motivated by nothing more than bigotry.

Last week, Brendan Eich, the inventor of JavaScript, stepped down as CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, a position to which he had been newly appointed in March. Eich was one of the founders of the corporation, and of its parent the Mozilla Foundation, which was founded to continue a project that Eich had helped start while working for Netscape before the company was bought out and its software discontinued. In other words, he was clearly qualified for the job and his appointment as CEO made perfect sense.

His resignation, so soon after taking the job, occurred in the wake of a negative publicity campaign against him and his company after it was revealed that in 2008 Eich had made a donation to California’s Proposition 8, an effort to amend California’s state constitution to define marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman.

This is just one of several examples, in recent months, of heavy handed attempts to punish dissent from the liberal position regarding same-sex marriage. It was only last December, for example, that Phil Robertson, was suspended by the television company A&E from the apparently popular show Duck Dynasty over his views on homosexuality as expressed in an interview with GQ magazine. The station lifted the suspension after it received a backlash of negative comments but it too had clearly been placed under a similar kind of pressure to that which has been placed on Mozilla.

These incidents are clearly intended to convey a message – that liberalism has won the war for what it calls “marriage equality” and that far from being magnanimous in victory it intends to impose a Carthaginian peace upon its foes. Dissent from the idea that a man has just as much of a right to marry a man as he does to marry a woman and that a woman has just as much of a right to marry a woman as she does to marry a man, or even be shown to have dissented from this idea at some point in the past, and an intimidation campaign may be waged against your employer with the purpose of denying you your livelihood.

Liberals try to get around the obvious illiberality of this sort of behaviour by saying that Eich and Robertson are bigots and that bigotry must not be tolerated. If the views of Eich and Robertson are bigoted, however, that means that the orthodox teachings of the Abrahamic faiths constitute bigotry.

Liberalism would seem to be defining a bigot as anyone who disagrees with a liberal view even if that view is one that liberalism only adopted itself yesterday. If, however, bigotry is not to be tolerated, and everyone who disagrees with liberalism is a bigot, then it follows that disagreement with liberalism is not to be tolerated. Yet liberalism calls itself by the name of the virtue of generosity and tolerance. It is an odd kind of tolerance indeed, which declares the only exception to the rule of tolerance, to be everything except itself.

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