Sunday, August 12, 2012

Democracy, truth and the death of liberalism

©1980 David Horsey, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.
—Winston S. Churchill

In First Things, Matthew Schmitz writes an interesting breakdown of some recent social-survey data which indicate that youth support of gay marriage is somewhat soggy and undependable as a sign of the future.  His basic premiss, of course, is that liberals in the media misrepresent the numbers; a couple of years ago I would have argued that the misrepresentation wasn’t all intentional … in fact, on another subject, I did.  (Now, after the blanket party they threw for Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A, not so much.)

As good as it was, I wouldn’t even bring the article up except for a disturbing “drive-by” comment by a person identifying himself as “Dan”:

I realize that this article pertains to generational opinions on marriage equality for gays and lesbians, however a larger issue is being ignored. The USA is the only nation on earth that has allowed the public to decide this important civil rights issue via ballot measures. This is a grossly immoral act which violates every principle of our Republic. Ultimately, the majority has no right to determine the civil rights of minorities. Have we learned nothing from the struggles of women for the right to vote or blacks to attend the same schools? Therefore, whatever young people think regarding this issue is irrelevant [bold font mine].

So much for “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.  Perhaps Dan merely wanted to throw a cold bucket of disillusionment over our grand national fantasy of representative democracy.  Perhaps in reality we were always just token participants in our government; perhaps even the modern cumbersome and expensive primary process is just an elaborate scheme for putting the élite’s Chosen Ones in office and judicial chambers.

Considering Mitt Romney, I half believe it myself.

Okay, Dan doesn’t know what the heck he’s talking about; that’s a given.  If there’s anything this country’s about, it’s the right of the people to participate in the making of their laws … a little something we call democracy.  (How does he think women got the franchise, anyway?)  But more disturbing than his ill-acquaintance with historical facts is the smug, hypocritical elitism with which he dismisses the opinion of the young.  Oh yeah, when they’re seemingly all for gay rights and gay marriage, they’re our future; suggest that they might be more conservative than their parents, and it’s “Oh well, their opinion doesn’t really count anyway.”  Apparently children should be seen only at NARAL rallies and PRIDE parades, and heard only when they insult right-wing Christofascists.

In, Dr. Jeff Mirus discusses a recent symposium First Things published on the future of our culture, called “After Liberalism”.  The main focus is Patrick J. Deneen’s paper “UnsustainableLiberalism”, in which the author claims that the historic tendency of liberals to discard tradition and religion results ultimately in eating liberalism’s seed corn:

[Deneen] points out … that this liberalism is unsustainable precisely because it depends for its existence on the capital it inherited from earlier systems of thought and culture, particularly long-held traditions and the morals and attitudes of religion (in particular, Christianity). Deneen suggests persuasively that the positive insights of liberalism can lead to social gains only insofar as the traditions, virtues and even faith of the people are still intact, and that by its very nature liberalism tends to tear down these traditions, virtues and faith in favor of human experimentation in the service of secular utopia.

Consider the very basic act of truth-telling: this isn’t just a good idea; this is foundational to a stable community, an issue of trustworthiness. So many aspects of a healthy society depend on telling the truth, on avoiding misrepresentation and misdirection, on transparency in everyday transactions … from buying a loaf of bread to teaching children history.  Intrinsic to the value of truth-telling is the principle that the citizen has obligations to the community, that he has not only rights but responsibilities, that he owes just as much as he is owed.

By contrast, the ideal which tells the individual that he’s “free” and “independent” also leads to the conclusion that he has no further obligation to the community, that the community is owed only what he wishes to give.  Caveat emptor then becomes not a warning but a motto: if he’s free, then he’s free to screw people over for as much as he can get from them; he’s free to mislead or actively deceive if either gets him ahead in business, in politics, in any sort of human affairs.  If other people get hurt, it’s “not my problem”.

As a result, our culture is marked by a profound distrust of others.  Our commerce and industry are laden with onerous government regulation and interference precisely because we have a history of greedy industrialists and sociopathic merchants who felt free to lie to their customers, their employees and their investors.  The concatenation of events that led not only to the two world wars but also to the Cold War and various proxy wars of the twentieth century created a cult of secrecy within the federal government that feeds popular distrust of Washington: what are They not telling us?   “Everybody lies” was the subtext and major theme of House; whether or not it’s true, our culture often takes it for granted.  A society where no one can trust anyone else has lost social cohesion, and can survive only so long as inertia carries it forward.

Science, that chief jewel in the crown of the Enlightenment, is particularly vulnerable to dishonesty, especially in the social science branches.  As I’ve been at some pains to explain, it’s not a machine that inevitably produces truth, but rather a methodology that requires honesty in application, from the initial work of the primary researchers to the final peer review.  For science to do its job, it’s essential that scientists be able to trust each other’s work and motivations, and that the consuming public be able to trust the institutions that produce the results. 

The subversion of science by activists in lab coats may not be as prevalent as is charged by former sociology professor Steven Goldberg (who claims that “fallacious arguments dominate American universities and infuse our textbooks”, and that “arguments of both the right and left invariably attempt to smuggle in values hidden under empirical facts”).  Nevertheless, the misuse of science to score political and philosophical points is widespread enough that the trust essential to the scientific method is eroding, slowly yet visibly crippling its ability to contribute to human knowledge.

Nowhere is this phenomenon of liberalism eating its seed corn more apparent than in the fictitious, factitious insistence on the opposition of religion to science, faith to reason.  Far from acknowledging science’s debt to the Scholastic philosophers and the Church leaders who subsidized and patronized the earliest modern scientists, many people have spent considerable intellectual capital on creating a Whig history of science — actually, more of a mythology — that has it scratching and clawing itself from under the dead, authoritarian rule of cassocked Luddites.  This secular revisionism is occurring even as others question science’s capacity to be objective, and doubt whether the moon really is there when no one’s looking at it.  History is the softest of the social sciences; for what is history if not the story we choose to tell about our past?

My point here is that Dan’s statement is not just evidence that his education failed him; it’s also testimony to the ending of classical liberalism.  But what’s needed is more than a secular ressourcement: in a sense, we must rewind the tape not to 1776 but to 1516 … the year before Martin Luther issued his Ninety-Five Theses, when Europe was still mostly one religious culture.

The proposition is far more difficult than just “putting the toothpaste back in the tube”.  The question is, can we create a culture that retains the positive changes created by classical liberalism while yet maintaining the respect due authority and tradition as authentic sources of social cohesiveness and intellectual capital?  Can we build a society with a single dominant religious culture that doesn’t abandon respect for people of different religious traditions … and can we do so in the face of increasing, irrational hostility to all religion? 

Above all, can representative democracy survive the transition?

For it seems clear to me, from the path that’s being beaten, that the last dissolute heirs of the liberal tradition would prefer rule by an oligarchy of secular lawyers, bankers and academics rather than suffer the will of the ignorant, superstitious masses to taint the theoretical perfection of the law with their religious values and traditional beliefs.  We’re almost there now.

Next stop: Dystopia.