Friday, May 11, 2012

In Defence of Liberals (Sort of)

I think conservatives are often unfair to liberals, just as liberals are often unfair to conservatives.

Mostly (in both cases) I think this comes in with the attribution of psychological motives. Conservatives are apt to caricature liberals as people seeking to throw over the old order, or tradition, or religion, in order to install their own idols or fetishes upon the altar-- to replace fidelity with unlimited freedom, or to claim rights and throw away responsibilities. Or conservatives might complain that liberals are radical individualists who don't understand the value of social bonds and traditions and taboos. Or perhaps conservatives might revile liberals as hedonists who want to prevent any pesky obligations, like family life and faithfulness and deference to their elders, ruining their fun.

But that doesn't seem to fit reality. Many of the apostles of sexual liberation, for instance, are greying individuals in stable relationships, who are usually perfectly faithful to their "partners". What do they personally gain from the gospel of promiscuity? What selfish motive could a happily-married radical with three children have in supporting gay marriage, no-fault divorce, sex education for young children, and abortion? Don't get me wrong, I think all those things are immoral, and the last is utterly wicked. But they are often supported by people who seem to have no personal interest in the question.

Is there such a thing as "liberalism", really? It seems to me that every philosophy of life involves both liberation and repression. Our Lord told us that "my yoke is easy and my burden is light". This topic is so mysterious and so complex that I think only a paradox like that one could possibly illuminate it.

Every choice of human life involves some burden and some yoke. In fact, I doubt if a human being could really bear to be without any yoke or burden. Few of us could endure a life of unmitigated pleasure and amusement. We yearn for discipline, sacrifice, renunciation. It's really just a question of what we choose to renounce and what we choose to affirm.

Liberalism doesn't seem like an easy option to me. I couldn't do it. I couldn't spend my entire life checking and second-guessing all my intuitions. For instance, most (heterosexual) liberals probably share the social conservative's intutition that homosexuality is not the ideal, that there is something unique and complementary in the love of man and woman. Most liberal parents probably hope that their children will not grow up gay and find it harder, at least in some ways, to relate to a gay person than to a straight person.

But, instead of taking this as evidence of a transcendent order underlying human life, they put it down to their own prejudice. They rebuke themselves. They deny themselves. I do see something akin to nobility in that. It is misguided, but it is at least principled in its own way.

I think the liberal mentality involves a suspicion of the self, a kind of ascesis, that I can't help finding impressive. There is a certain humility in constantly policing your own words and thoughts for potential racism, sexism and bigotry, in carefully saying "sex worker" instead of "prostitute", or "person with a disability" instead of "disabled person". And liberals also have to be on constant guard against their own nostalgia, against the normal human affection for the past and the normal human piety towards previous generations. They must be careful not to tumble into the even more sinister pitfall of patriotism. If they have their house burgled they have to refrain, even in the privacy of their own thoughts, from raging against anti-social louts.

Or take the case of our liberal priests. I disagree emphatically with pretty much every word that comes out of their mouths (when they are not actually celebrating Mass, of course-- and sometimes even then, when they tinker with the missal). But I am rather struck by their perverse idealism. If I had taken a vow of celibacy, despite wishing to marry, I think I would tend to make a virtue of necessity and place great value upon my sacrifice. But these dissident priests-- most of whom are in their sixties and can't seriously expect the situation to change in their lifetime-- actually denigrate the vow to which they have been faithful. It's a little like a decorated war hero preaching pacifism. Or again, what selfish interest could they have in supporting contraception and women's ordination, or in attacking "clericalism"? Well, I can think of one obvious benefit-- they become media and popular heroes for sticking it to the Pope. But they also surely court hostility from their regular and daily Mass-goers, who are more likely to be orthodox than those Catholics who think boycotting Mass is a legitimate form of protest.

I don't have a progressive bone in my body myself. But I do strive to be fair-minded. It seems to me sheer silliness to pretend that most people of a liberal-left persuasion are bed-hopping, smack-snorting, video-nasty-watching decadents, forever flitting between the conceptual art exhibition, the night-club, and the latest trendy restaurant. Most of them are pretty conservative in their own behaviour. This just makes them more strange to me, and reminds me of Chesterton's Song of the Strange Ascetic, worth quoting in full in this context, since it applies so well:

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have praised the purple vine,
My slaves should dig the vineyards,
And I would drink the wine.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And his slaves grow lean and grey,
That he may drink some tepid milk
Exactly twice a day.

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have crowned Neaera's curls,
And filled my life with love affairs,
My house with dancing girls;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And to lecture rooms is forced,
Where his aunts, who are not married,
Demand to be divorced.

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have sent my armies forth,
And dragged behind my chariots
The Chieftains of the North.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And he drives the dreary quill,
To lend the poor that funny cash
That makes them poorer still.

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have piled my pyre on high,
And in a great red whirlwind
Gone roaring to the sky;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And a richer man than I:
And they put him in an oven,
Just as if he were a pie.

Now who that runs can read it,
The riddle that I write,
Of why this poor old sinner,
Should sin without delight-
But I, I cannot read it
(Although I run and run),
Of them that do not have the faith,
And will not have the fun.

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