The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Friday, January 15, 2021

The Left Abandons Liberalism

A criticism that I have frequently made of mainstream conservatives is that they no longer stand for anything with which Modern liberals would not wholeheartedly agree and which in many if not most cases was originally a liberal idea.   I most recently made this criticism in my annual essay for New Year’s Day explaining my own views, which I prefer to call Tory, because they stress affirmation of institutions such as royal monarchy and the Church as well as beliefs such as the orthodox Christianity of the Apostles’ Creed and ideas which go back to ancient times and predate Modern liberalism.   I have never meant by this criticism that the things for which conservatives still stand are bad in themselves, merely that there are other, older things, which are more important and ought to be recognized as such by those who wish to distinguish themselves from liberals.     This distinction is a very important one because without it, criticism of contemporary conservatism for making its focus primarily or entirely the defence of ideas that have their origins in liberalism could be construed as suggesting that every idea that liberals have ever had is wrong or bad.   Liberalism, I would say, has been wrong a lot more often than it has been willing to admit, has been very wrong in generally regarding itself as immune to the sort of analytic criticism it levels against its rivals, and most wrong in its assumption that there was little to no worth in anything that was around prior to itself.   To say that it was always wrong about everything, however, is to commit the equal and opposite error to that greatest of liberalism’s errors, and the events that have unfolded south of the border since Epiphany illustrate just how erroneous it is.   That which is called “the Left” sprang historically from the same sources as liberalism – the Puritan revolt against the orthodox Church of England and the Stuart monarchy, Modern philosophical rationalism, Kantianism, to name but three – and through much of their history the Left and liberalism have walked similar paths, so much so that in many periods, including that of my youth, their names have been used interchangeably as if they were completely identical.   Last week, however, the Left revealed just how much it has parted ways from historical liberalism.   It would appear that there is now not the slightest vestige of liberalism lingering within it, merely the totalitarianism that had previously reared its head in the Cromwellian Protectorate, the French Reign of Terror, and in every state unfortunate enough to be taken over by the Bolsheviks.   Utterly illiberal, it tolerates no divergence from its thought and mercilessly persecutes all who dissent.


The word liberal is derived from the Latin adjective liberalis.   My pocket Collins  Latin Dictionary defines this word as meaning “of freedom, of free citizens, gentlemanly, honourable, generous, liberal; handsome”.   Turning to Charlton Lewis and Charles Short for a more extensive definition I find that they begin by relating the word to the shorter root adjective liber (long i, with a short i it becomes the noun meaning book) and thus gives as its first meaning “of or belonging to freedom, relating to the freeborn condition of a man”.  The second definition is “befitting a freeman, gentlemanly, noble, noble-minded, honourable, ingenuous, gracious, kind.”   I will not cite all the sub definitions given for the second, just B. 1., which is “Bountiful, generous, munificent, liberal”.


The short version of all of that is that for the ancient Romans, the adjective liberalis first designated the condition of being free rather than a slave, and in its secondary connotations denoted the kind of character and behaviour that the Romans saw as being appropriate to someone with free status, e.g., graciousness, kindness and generosity.   Before it came to be used as a political label the English word liberal was pretty much an approximation of its Latin ancestor.   This gives us something of an idea of what those who originally applied this term to themselves as a political designation must have thought of themselves.    Frankly, I am of the opinion that they thought far too highly of themselves and this term is singularly inappropriate for the heirs of the religious fanatics who murdered King Charles I, outlawed Christmas, stripped the Churches of artwork and music, shut down the theatres, and imposed Sabbatarian restrictions so severe that they would have made the Pharisees of old blush and of the Manchester plutocrats who enclosed the commons, legalized usury, and drove the peasants from the countryside into the cities to subsist on servile labour in ugly, smelly, factories.   To be fair, a similar analysis of the Latin root of conservative would suggest that in its political usage it refers to everything those so designated have failed to accomplish.


That having been said, there is much to appreciate in the ideas put forward in the book which more-or-less defined liberalism when it was at its best in the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.   No, I am not referring to John Locke’s Two Treatises, which in its response to Sir Robert Filmer provides us with what is perhaps the earliest example of mere contradiction being taken for refutation or debunking, the phenomenon that has become the working principle of news and social media “fact checkers”.   Locke’s book contains only one worthy idea and no, it is not his bastardization of Thomas Hobbes’ concepts of the “state of nature” and “social contract” but his idea of the basic rights of life, liberty, and property.  This, however, as Sir William Blackstone later demonstrated, was present in Common Law long before Locke.   The book that I am talking about is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859).   It is an argument for the need for restrictions and limitations on government to protect the freedom of the governed.   While it contains much historical nonsense and Mill makes the repugnant false ethic of utilitarianism the entire foundation of his argument, a great deal of what he says about freedom and limited government has merit.   Freedom of thought or opinion, Mill argued, was the most fundamental freedom of all, and attempts to suppress opinions, even ones that are entirely false, by limiting freedom of speech, are always bad.


Clearly, the present day Left is light years removed from Mill on this matter.


That this is the case has been evident for quite some time.   For decades the Left has favoured legislation prohibiting what it calls “hate speech”.   “Hate speech”, as the Left uses it, has never meant speech that actually expresses hatred, such as, most obviously, “I hate you”.   Indeed, there has never been a “hate speech” law passed to the best of my knowledge under which someone could be charged for saying “I hate you”.   What the Left means by “hate speech” is speech that they consider to be “racist” or “anti-Semitic” or “anti-immigrant” or “xenophobic” or “sexist” or “homophobic” or “transphobic” or characterized by any other such weaponized word that they have coined to refer to ideas and opinions with which they disagree.   The Left considers “hate speech” to be a form of violence and supports this contention by comparing it to incitement.   There is no substance to this argument, however, because “hate speech” laws do not merely commit the redundancy of prohibiting people from explicitly suggesting, encouraging, or calling for violent action towards the groups they wish to protect which sort of thing was already covered by existing incitement laws that were are far superior to “hate speech” laws because they protect everybody and not just select groups.   Rather, they prohibit the communication of information and opinions, whether true or false, that reflect negatively on protected groups in a way that might, possibly, inspire someone to commit a criminal act against them.   For all their denials – “hate speech is not free speech” – their support for this kind of legislation is clearly a rejection of Mill’s case against the suppression of thought and opinion and an embrace of a form of thought control, one which has only gotten more totalitarianism since the Left first proposed it.


Although this is directly related to another way in which the Left has left liberalism behind, that is, in its abandonment of the arguments against racism, especially of the de jure discrimination type, which became prevalent about sixty years ago and which were grounded in liberalism in favour of an aggressive “anti-racism” that is actually itself racism against white people, I wish to devote an entire essay to this point and shall defer further discussion of it until that time.  What I would like to point out now is how the Left has expanded the flawed reasoning by which it equates speech it considers to be “racist”, “sexist”, etc. with violence into all-purpose argument for suppressing any information and opinions which contradict its own narratives.


In the aftermath of what transpired in Washington DC on Epiphany, the Democrat-dominated House of Representatives in the United States has for a second time voted for Articles of Impeachment against the current president of the American republic, a man whom the Left hates like it has hated no other political leader before him.    Last time, they accused him of colluding with the Russians to steal the 2016 election.   This time, they are accusing him of inciting an insurrection by claiming that the 2020 election was stolen from him.    Tempting as it is to focus on the glaring hypocrisy, especially since insurrection more accurately describes the BLM riots that the Democrats and the Left in general have turned a blind eye to or endorsed out of their refusal to accept Trump’s election of four years prior, the point is to be found in the fact that in nothing Donald the Orange said, either on social media or in the address he gave to the throngs who showed up to the massive rally before the Washington Monument to show their support, was there anything that could legitimately be considered incitement.   Not when incitement is understood, as it traditionally has been, to take the form of “I want you to do X” with X being some form of violent or criminal behaviour.   The Left here is applying the same kind of bad reasoning that underlies its support for prohibiting “hate speech” – “saying Y about Z could make someone angry against Z and if someone is angry against Z he might turn violent against Z, therefore saying Y about Z should be considered the equivalent of indictment and banned” to justify suppression of a completely different kind of opinion.  


The Big Tech companies that control the largest social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, marching in step with the Democrats – or rather it was more like the other way around – threw the President of the United States of America off their platforms, using the same faulty justification, and then proceeded to purge their platforms of thousands of his supporters as well.   Then, having basically told thousands of people “if you don’t like our rules, go to our competitors”, they immediately proceeded to attempt to drive those competitors, such as Twitter competitor Parler, out of business.  When the internet first went online, many had seen it as a way of escaping the near monopoly on the sharing of information that the Left, which already dominated the major news and entertainment media corporations, possessed.   Now, however, with Big Tech controlling most of the platforms that people have come to regard as a kind of public forum, aligning itself with the Left, purging its platforms of those who dissent from the Left and ruthlessly eliminating competitors that allow for more freedom of thought, the Left is seeking to make its control on the sharing of information and opinion absolute and total.


Clearly, the Left has completely abandoned the liberalism of men like J. S. Mill in substance and spirit, and if it continues to maintain any sort of outward pretense of liberalism, it will be out of either sheer hypocrisy or an utter lack of self-awareness.


As many problems as there are with a conservatism that offers nothing but (classical) liberalism, it is to be preferred a billion times over a Left in which nothing of liberalism, neither its freedom nor the generosity and munificence to which it seems to have aspired in naming itself liberal, remains.

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