The Church of the Left; Finding Meaning in Liberalism by Stanley Kurtz
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Wed Jun 13 03:08:22 EDT 2001
The Church of the Left
By Stanley Kurtz
Finding meaning in liberalism
Sometime during the past thirty years, liberalism stopped being a mere
political perspective and turned into a religion. I mean that
literally. Liberalism now functions for substantial numbers of its
adherents as a religion: an encompassing worldview that answers the big
questions about life, lends significance to our daily exertions, and
provides a rationale for meaningful collective action.
It wasn't supposed to be that way. Liberalism arose as a solution to
the destructive religious wars of Europe's past, and succeeded because
It allowed people of differing religious perspectives to live
Peacefully and productively in the same society. Designed to make the
world safe for adherents of differing faiths, liberalism itself was
never supposed to be a faith. But that is exactly what liberalism has
become. And this transformation of liberalism into a de facto religion
explains a lot about what we call "political correctness."
Have you ever wondered why conservatives nowadays are so often
demonized, even by mainstream liberals? No matter how balanced, well-
reasoned, or rooted in long-established principle conservative
objections to, say, affirmative action or gay marriage may be,
conservatives are still likely to find themselves stigmatized as racist
homophobes. By the same token, reasonable conservative ideas are
regularly deemed unfit for reasoned debate. This preference for
ostracism over engagement amounts to a brilliant strategy on the part of the
Left, but the demonization of conservatives can't be explained
as a mere conscious tactical maneuver. The stigmatization of
conservatives only works because so many people are primed to respond
to it in the first place.
So why have conservatives been demonized? Maybe it's because the
religion that liberalism has become is so badly in need of demons.
Traditional liberalism simply laid out ground rules for reasoned debate
and the peaceful adjudication of political differences. One of the main
reasons why politics in a liberal society could be peaceful was that
people sought direction about life's ultimate purpose outside of
politics itself. But once traditional religion ceased to provide modern
liberals with either an ultimate life purpose or a pattern of virtue,
liberalism itself was the only belief system remaining that could supply
these essential elements of life.
So how does liberalism grant meaning to life? How does liberalism do
what religion used to do? So long as it serves as a mere set of ground
rules for adjudicating day-to-day political differences, liberalism
remains too "boring" to serve as a religion. But what if liberals were
engaged at every moment in a dire, almost revolutionary, struggle for
the very principles of liberalism itself? What if liberals were at war
on a daily basis with King George III? With Hitler? With Bull Connor?
Now that would supply a purpose to life - a purpose capable of endowing
even our daily exertions with a larger significance, and certainly a
purpose that would provide a rationale for meaningful collective action.
Consider two standard features of political correctness: the continual
expansion in meaning of terms like "racism," "sexism," and "homophobia"
and the tendency to invent or exaggerate instances of "oppression."
Whereas racism once meant the hatred of someone of another race, the
term is now freely applied to anyone who opposes affirmative
discrimination, or even to anyone who opposes reparations for slavery.
Again, this stigmatization of mainstream conservative positions makes a
certain amount of tactical sense (although it badly backfired in the
case of the Horowitz ad), but the tactics don't really explain the
The young students who now live in "multicultural" theme houses, or who
join (or ally themselves with) multicultural campus political
organizations are looking for a home, in the deepest sense of that word.
In an earlier time, the always difficult and isolating transition from
home to college was eased by membership in a fraternity, or by religious
fellowship. Nowadays, multicultural theme houses, political
action, and related coursework supply what religion and fraternities
once did. But if the multicultural venture is truly to take the place
of religion, it must invite a student to insert himself into a battle
of profound significance. The fight for slave reparations, and the
unceasing effort to ferret out examples of "subtle" racism in
contemporary society, are techniques for sustaining a crusading spirit
by creating the feeling that Simon Legree and Bull Conner are lurking
just around the next corner. Conservative opponents of affirmative
action or slave reparations simply have to be imagined as monsters.
Otherwise the religious flavor of the multiculturalist enterprise falls
flat, and the war of good against evil is converted into difficult
balancing of competing political principles and goods in which no one
is a saint or a devil.
And what about the tendency of political correctness to invent
oppression-as in those wildly exaggerated feminist claims about campus
rape or economic discrimination? The recent flap over the Independent
Women's Forum ad that exposed unreliable feminist claims of oppression
hit a nerve because false statistics are not incidental, but are
critical to the feminist cause. So many of the young women who
affiliate themselves with campus women's centers are looking for a
world view, a moral-social home, and a meaningful crusade in which to
take part. That is why the horrifying (if false) statistics of female
oppression purveyed by these centers conjure up-and are meant to
conjure up - images of slavery and the Holocaust. Betty Friedan's, The
Feminine Mystique, was a powerful a book because it characterized the
Suburban home as a "comfortable concentration camp" for women.
Friedan's repeated use of Holocaust metaphors for the alleged
oppression of women is of a piece with the contemporary feminist
practice of making absurdly exaggerated or downright false statistical
claims. The Holocaust imagery and the frightening statistics are meant
to endow the feminist crusade with an almost apocalyptic sense of
urgency and significance. That is why, no matter how many times
Christina Hoff Sommers and her compatriots at the Independent Women's
Forum expose the errors in feminist claims of oppression, feminists
just keep repeating them. It's not about the pursuit of truth; it's
about the creation of a cause, a fellowship, a reason for being.
Of course to say that liberalism has ceased to be a political
perspective and has become a religion is another way of saying that
liberalism has betrayed itself and become illiberal. This point is made
very nicely in an excellent article entitled, "Illiberal Liberalism," by
Brian C. Anderson in the current issue of City Journal. Anderson
shows how the persistent attempts to silence and stigmatize
conservative views by even mainstream liberal voices betray the
commitment to rational and civil debate at the core of genuine
liberalism. Once liberalism became a religion, the principles that made
liberalism what it was - principles like free speech, reasoned debate,
and judicial restraint in the face of democratic decision-making - went
by the wayside. The secular religion of the educated elite is still
recognizable as a distorted version of classic liberalism. But
underneath all the talk about "oppression" and "rights," what we're
really looking at is a modern way of reproducing good versus evil, and
us against them.
The hidden religious character of modern liberalism explains a lot
about contemporary political life. I've already alluded to it in
previous pieces on the Horowitz ad and on the president's faith-based
initiative. Once you catch on, you'll see it around.
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