The Trump phenomenon has highlighted the bigotry of many progressives, including mainstream liberals. Hillary Clinton’s cold settled contempt for the tens of millions of her fellow citizens who disagree with her on social issues, openly and forcefully expressed even while running for president, is one example. Readers can supply others.
When questioned, Mrs. Clinton and prominent supporters doubled down on the point, a response suggesting narrowness of vision and lack of self-awareness. It’s said that some are now bailing out, but many still identify their opponents with genuine evil, and believe that whatever you say or do in opposition to “fascists”—an endlessly expansive category—is justified.
Why so much bigotry among everyday liberals? In theory their views emphasize fairness, tolerance, dialogue, and mutual understanding. In practice, those things are becoming scarcer.
One problem is that public life today is a largely a matter of journalistic discussion. But journalists can’t report the news unless they can peg events and their meaning instantly from a standpoint their colleagues immediately accept. The necessary result, especially in a global society in which journalists can understand very little about most of the situations they report on, is superficiality, conformity, and dogmatism. A tendency to adopt extreme positions, treat them as mainstream, and shut down discussion outside the narrow bounds they set is a further consequence.
Another problem is that liberalism is part of the left, and the left tends toward intolerance. After all, it bases itself on the belief that views and habits to which most people are attached are intolerable. That’s why it has so often favored violent revolution, and it’s why on some computations most of the manmade deaths in the last very bloody century resulted from the progressive tendency to devalue the lives of those who stand in their way.
More basically, though, the current situation arises—paradoxically—because man is a rational animal whose actions are guided by principles. That means that systematic bad conduct by people who otherwise seem as intelligent and well-intentioned as anyone else is likely to result from an error of principle. That’s one reason correct doctrine is so important: what starts as intellectual error leads to ever-greater errors in belief and conduct. The Aztecs didn’t engage in human sacrifice because they started off worse than we are, but because errors regarding divine things led them astray.
Something of the sort is true with regard to progressives. To be liberal or progressive is to favor continuation of modernizing trends that have been sweeping all before them for centuries. These trends radicalized in the 1960s, and accelerated further with the collapse of conservatism after the end of the Cold War. To favor them, it is thought, is to be on the obvious right side of history. And today it is to be on the side of established public authority.
The result of these trends is domination of public thought by a radically simplified understanding of reason that basically identifies it with technology. That understanding aids control, but it has no place for contemplative truth and so blinds us to basic issues. In particular, it reduces what is good to what is desired, what is knowable to what can be observed, measured, and predicted, and what is rational to the orderly application of knowledge and all available resources to the satisfaction of desire.
Other considerations count as irrational matters of private taste. There is no public role for the sacred. Whatever is traditional, customary, or commonsensical is debunked as groundless and presumptively oppressive. Organized religion, inherited culture (otherwise known as “deeply rooted social attitudes”), and even basic aspects of human life such as the family and the distinction between the sexes have to go, except to the extent they can be reconstituted as voluntary commitments freely terminable at will.
Normal sources of guidance, and the ultimate realities that give us a true perspective on life, are thus replaced by “liberation” as a social and moral ideal. The point of social and moral order therefore becomes freedom to do and get whatever we want, consistent with the equal freedom of others and the system’s efficiency, stability, and transparency.
Such views are more than ideas hanging in the air. They align with bureaucratic administration, global markets, and academic expertise. These methods of organizing thought and action have no use for anything personal, local, or informal, but insist on neutral observation, impersonal measurement, and explicit publicly accessible reasoning. Knowledge that comes from common sense, personal involvement, intuitive grasp, or tradition—and especially knowledge that comes from revelation—thus loses all credit.
From such a perspective, the ideal society becomes a comprehensive rationally managed system, a sort of EU gone global and made absolute, that treats the world and everything in it as a neutral resource for maximum equal preference satisfaction. Our ruling class can conceive of no acceptable alternative. They view rejecting utilitarianism as cruel, rejecting universality as hateful, and rejecting technocracy as irrational. Multiculturalism, radical secularism, abolition of borders, rejection of natural law, and celebration of alternative lifestyles thus become compulsory. It is thought that only stupid, ignorant, evil, or crazy people could oppose the project.
To make matters worse, a system based on getting what we want has no positive goal. Instead of a highest good there is only a highest evil—interference with getting what we want, otherwise known as oppression. And for all the talk about social construction, there is no sense of goods as social. All that matters is what particular individuals want. Hence the hermeneutic of suspicion, and the constant talk about hate and bigotry. Other people, to the extent they do not sign on wholly to the views now expected of them, are simply a threat.
Naturally, not all progressives explicitly believe all these things. They are human beings immersed in the complexities of life, and few are so clear-minded, cold-blooded, and ready to suppress inherited habits and everyday perceptions. But their fundamental conceptions of man and the world lead to these conclusions, and progressivism is defined by its perpetual advance toward its logical implications.
An outlook that is so simple and closely aligned with dominant institutions and understandings, and whose implications—after centuries of discussion and development—are so clear, leaves no room for disagreement. Resistance, it is thought, can only be expression of stupid obstinacy or an illegitimate will to power. Why tolerate it, and why show any consideration for the irredeemable, deplorable, bitter clingers who favor it?
Hence the current state of our public life. Intelligent, educated, and well-placed people who buy into the views and institutions to which they have given their lives are likely genuinely to believe, in accordance with their basic understanding of man and the world, that people who disagree with them on social issues are deficient in essential human qualities.
So what to do? The dominant outlook is wrong but ingrained. Most things of importance can’t be known through modern natural science, and life can’t be reduced to satisfaction of preferences or turned into a rationalized industrial process. Official thought denies these obvious points, and official thought is what counts in an age of careerism, bureaucracy, global institutions, mass media, and mass higher and even graduate education. That situation will be very difficult to change until it falls apart of itself. And until it does the attitude toward dissenters is going to be sharply negative.
The necessary response for Catholics is to hold all the more firmly to the far more adequate understanding of man and the world embodied in the traditions of the Faith. The times may be unpropitious, and most people aren’t going to thank us for it, but when the world loses touch with reality sanity becomes all the more important. Madness destroys itself and sanity picks up the pieces. Readiness to do so will be the essential social function of the Church in the very difficult years to come.