Saturday, September 8, 2007

Freedom is slavery; increasing secularism is increasing theocracy

John Savage at Brave New World Watch has begun an interesting discussion on how traditionalists should reclaim the virtues of Victorianism and Puritanism, which are constantly denigrated by the left as virtually the apotheosis of everything they see as wrong with the world. In the comments, Vanishing American wrote:

And who was it who said (I wish I could remember) that each age condemns the very thing they have least of: for example our age condemns restraint and self-discipline, and ironically we are in absolutely no danger of overdoing those things.

The quotation she is probably thinking of is one often cited by conservatives, from C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters:

The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere “understanding.” Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.
Notice how Lewis mentions the attack on Puritanism by name, something we continue to see in 21st century America. This quotation also brought to mind a comment I once made on VFR about how the less conservatively religious our society becomes, the more the secular left bizarrely and nonsensically attacks it for becoming increasingly conservatively religious:

...they talk as though traditional religious belief is something that’s on the increase in our society, saying things like “given the frightening direction our country is headed...” or “if this goes on...” , when it’s obvious that by any conceivable measure religiosity is decreasing in America. They make it sound as though until recently, America was the land of the free and the home of the brave atheists, with no religion in public schools, legal abortion and pornography, and other such “freedoms” until we crazy right-wing religious nutjobs just recently came out of nowhere and started trying to take over the country. Can they really possibly believe this? Do they not know that prior to the 1960’s, public schools all across America opened with a prayer and Bible reading, that prior to 1972 abortion was largely illegal, that women really used to be all but formally excluded from the professions, that it was only in the 21st century that sodomy laws were struck down, that many of the states used to have established churches, or even in colonial times made it a crime not to go to church on Sunday?...

Indeed, I would like to ask one of these liberals (and would do so if I ever got into a face-to-face discussion about it) the following question: given that all of America’s past prior to the 1960s, from the time of our very Founding, looks exactly like what you are calling a “theocracy,” do you believe that for most of America’s history we were a theocracy?

As yet more evidence of this, when I was searching for the Lewis quote, I came across a review of The Screwtape Letters by an atheist, who italicized the sentence "and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey" [1] and then had this to say:

I could not resist highlighting that last sentence, which demonstrates a nearly prophetic insight into the political character which has taken Christianity over in the United States today. In recent years, American Christianity has been subsumed into the political aims of an aggressively militant and zealous right-wing faction which, to judge by their actions, believes Jesus supported endless war and militarism, slashing social programs, and cutting taxes on the rich. The leaders of this movement constantly rail against the evils of liberalism and secularism, and support an intrusive, paternalistic state that controls all its citizens' most private decisions - when they will give birth, who they are permitted to marry, under what circumstances they are allowed to die. Most notably, the Christian right supports an omnipotent, unaccountable executive who operates in total secrecy and without checks and balances of any kind. This support verges on worship in the case of George W. Bush, who claims the power to break any law he pleases if, in his sole judgment, doing so is necessary to protect the country from terrorists. If anyone at all could be described as "hastening to be slaves or tyrants", it is the followers of this movement. Whatever Lewis' faults, it stands as a mark in his favor that he recognized, as today's religious right does not, the dangers of blind submission to authority that comes in a religious guise.

Now, this is really quite remarkable. Notwithstanding the devotion to President Bush by some conservative Christians (though this is always overestimated and overstated by secularists) and how it could represent a small step in the direction of tyranny, look at the other things listed as associated with freedom: social programs, taxes on the rich, euthanasia, homosexual "marriage." We've been seeing this kind of thought from the left for a long time, and one must admit, there is a weird kind of internal sense to it: soaking the rich makes everyone else free from economic inequality; banning trans fats makes people free from heart disease; banning tobacco frees people from lung cancer; mandating seat belt use frees people from injuries caused by automobile accidents; mandating comprehensive sex education and the HPV vaccine for schoolchildren and not even allowing parents to opt out frees people from sexually transmitted disease; instituting homosexual "marriage" frees homosexuals to have their relationships publicly recognized, to be guaranteed sharing of spousal benefits. Never mind that much of what has traditionally been considered freedom must be revoked in order to guarantee these freedoms: individual freedoms (e.g., the freedom to decide for myself whether to smoke tobacco), family freedoms (the freedom of parents to decide what's best for their children), and social freedoms (the freedom of a people collectively to decide whether they want their society to recognize sexual deviancy or not.) The only freedom that matters is the freedom to live a liberal life. I admit, many of us conservatives are in favor of various restrictions on individual liberty: abortion, pornography, obscenity, adultery, divorce, though these fall under the classic right of a society to self-regulate, have existed in America since before its Founding, and I wouldn't want them enforced at the federal level. But the left wants to enact (and in some cases already has enacted) some of the most intrusive, oppressive, and burdensome restrictions on liberty imaginable--restricting what we can eat, or requiring us to undergo certain medical treatments--and they honestly don't see this as "hastening to be slaves or tyrants." Freedom is slavery, indeed.

This trend in which the left attacks our society for the opposite of what it is actually doing is certainly perplexing. What could be the reason for it? In the VFR entry mentioned above, Lawrence Auster suggests that because our civilization is under threat from Islam, but we cannot criticize Islam because it is an exotic non-Western Other, the left is displacing what would be proper criticism of Islam onto the West's own religion, Christianity. I don't doubt that that that is a driving factor, but there is another I've been considering. Because liberals believe that man is basically good, they believe that the "default" state of life is a liberal utopia existing everywhere on earth, and the only reason this is not the present reality is that conservatives are interfering and preventing it from happening. Therefore, when they battle with conservatives, they see conservatives as the ones picking the fight, not themselves. In their minds, their role is always passive and the conservatives' is always active. So, for example, when a city has had a nativity scene on display at Christmastime in front of its city hall since time immemorial, and then the village atheist gets the ACLU involved and launches a lawsuit, and conservatives rally to the cause of keeping the nativity scene there, the left seems them as aggressively inserting displays of religion into public life. It doesn't matter if the nativity scene has been there since the town's incorporation; because in the liberal mindset it's not supposed to be, the conservatives are the aggressors and the liberals are the defenders. Indeed, in the liberal mindset, even though their hero Thomas Jefferson, the very author of the phrase "wall of separation between church and state" clearly did not see established state churches as unconstitutional, since they actually existed during his tenure as president and he did not see fit to try to abolish them, religion has no place in public life and anyone seeking to keep it there is picking a fight.

Thus, when conservatives so much as merely try to preserve the present order (e.g., keeping sacred music in the school Christmas concert, keeping strip clubs out of town), the left sees them as working to create or establish a theocracy. They don't realize that most people were happy with the way things were, that conservative activism on these issues really arose only in reaction to the left's in-our-faces attempt to secularize our society, because they view secularism as the way things were always supposed to be from the beginning. Therefore, though they have won many battles, causing a trend away from public religiosity (I won't use their word "theocracy" because America has never been a theocracy), they see the conservatives who are merely trying to preserve the existing order as aggressors, leading to the belief that there is a societal trend toward theocracy.

[1]: When I first read this quotation, I thought that by "liberalism" Lewis couldn't have meant leftism as we know it today, but I didn't know what he might have meant. Then I found a blog called called Deviant Scholar whose author suggests "it is probably closer in meaning to what we would think of as Libertarianism with a conservative streak, or maybe conservatism with a libertarian streak."


Vanishing American said...

Hermes, great post, very thought-provoking.

And thanks for recognizing the quote I was trying to remember, from the Screwtape Letters. I haven't read that book in many years, so I couldn't place the quote, but it made enough of an impression in my mind that I remembered the gist of it.
And it's odd how it seems to speak to the problems of our time even more so than in Lewis's own time.

You really hit the nail on the head about liberals and their hysteria over 'theocracy'.
It does seem as though the left gets their ideas from Wormwood and Screwtape, but of course they are blinded to that fact, and think the right is the locus of all evil in the world.

Terry Morris said...

Hermes, I agree with VA, and with Savage, this is a great post, and very thought provoking!

Good work.


Rick Darby said...

Very thoughtful posting, Hermes.

The art of good government will always be a balancing act between the state's desire to prohibit behavior that is clearly dangerous to an individual and that individual's -- no, let's not talk about rights at the moment, because there can be endless debate about whether there is a right to what a consensus agrees is self-damaging behavior.

Let's talk instead about the individual's need to learn from experience, including some real bad experiences resulting from his own actions. And about getting into the habit of taking responsibility for the outcome of one's behavior; learning to think about consequences. When the state completely assumes those decisions, the individual has a very hard time maturing into a grown-up.

This balance is by no means easy to determine. To argue that the state should not prevent a person from smoking on the grounds that permitting him to behave foolishly will develop self-reliance is somewhat disingenuous -- too much like telling the horse thief, "this will be a good lesson for you," just before they hang him.

I'm no libertarian. Sometimes, on balance, government restrictions on individual conduct are justifiable. But only in cases where the harm committed by an act is almost unarguable (and, of course, when the consequences spill over onto others).

So there's a case for the state preventing certain kinds of extremely self-destructive behavior. But the power to ban things is like all power. It's addictive. It brings on a high, one of the most delicious feelings known: self-righteousness, the glory of knowing yourself virtuous, and wiser than others who indulge in behavior you consider abominable.

That's one reason -- not the only one, but an important one -- why people love to get the government to tell others how to live. Liberals are enjoying their high. I'm Superperson! I can make people stop smoking and save their lives! I can make them stop having Christmas celebrations in schools and save them from narrow-minded sectarian bigotry! Whoo-eeee!

Rick Darby said...

Despite the length of my previous comment, I'm not sure I was expressing myself well. Or maybe I was expressing the conflict I feel over individual freedom versus the state's authority to restrict blatantly self-harmful behavior.

What I left out is that there are degrees of restriction between total permissiveness and total prohibition. In the case of smoking, we've moved in the general direction of prohibition, but stopped short of the absolute. So far.

That is, I think, as it should be. There are forms of behavior that should be restricted as to place, made expensive, made somewhat difficult to access -- but not prohibited. I don't see that as hypocrisy, or if it is, hypocrisy has its uses. Prohibition of things that lots of people want, and that affect only themselves, doesn't work. Sometimes it even adds the allure of forbidden fruit.

Possibly I've wandered way off topic. I was trying originally to come up with reasons why liberals get so worked up about things that don't appear to be a threat to anyone. I guess my point, if I have one (I'm not sure anymore), is that they feel threatened by things that many people don't, and are all too ready to use the force of law to stop practices that are far from obviously harmful to anything but their ideology.

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