Slouching towards Mao

As the election in the U.S. has reminded everyone, liberals and conservatives have always had, well, their differences. A couple of years ago, the prolific political author William Gairdner attempted to define them in his book The Great Divide, concluding that liberals and conservatives are now so far apart that they had better give up trying to talk to one another, and decamp to separate countries.

Slouching-towards-Mao

Another political commentator, P. J. O’Rourke, defined the dichotomy as follows: Conservatives, he said, believe in God. Liberals believe in Santa Claus. And it’s hard to defeat the party of Santa Claus.

Both Gairdner and O’Rourke are right, of course, but let me venture a somewhat different analysis. Conservatives, as O’Rourke suggests, will never succeed in advancing their cause until they recognize the unevenness of the contest in which they are engaged. But that’s because conservatives are from Venus, and liberals are from Mars.

Venerean conservatives think of liberals as odd sorts who hold strange, new-fangled opinions – folks they might eventually persuade; folks with whom they might peacefully co-exist; folks who, at the least, might just leave them alone. Martian liberals think of conservatives as malevolent enemies (racists, sexists, bigots, homophobes, transphobes, biphobes, xenophobes, Islamophobes) whom they are morally bound to defeat and eradicate.

Conservatives are aware that there are millions of people who disagree with them. They are reminded of this every time they pick up a newspaper, tune into the news every time they watch a movie, TV sit-com, or late-night comedy show; every time they take their family to a Broadway play and get lectured by the cast; every time little Johnnie returns home from school or college and hectors them on their carbon footprint or their endemic white privilege, or tells them that his teacher suspects that a cruel nature has mis-gendered him.

Liberals are convinced by these ubiquitous environmental phenomena that everyone agrees with them, or at least no one disagrees with them who matters. About the only time they hear a dissenting argument is when they collect their cars from the repair shop, and the mechanic, having switched the radio station to the Rush Limbaugh show, has forgotten to restore it to its CBC or NPR pre-set.

For liberals there is a “correct” opinion on every issue – climate change, abortion, transgendered bathrooms, gay marriage, Islam, wealth, poverty – and anyone who holds a dissenting view is beyond the pale. Thus, as Mark Steyn has put it, liberals don’t want to win the argument, they want to ban the argument. They want to criminalize it.

And they’ve succeeded. The proliferating arsenal of slanders (“‘isms” and “phobias”) with which liberals reflexively befoul their ideological opponents no longer merely dun them into silence (thus achieving their purpose of forestalling any debate on the subject), but are the overtures to public rituals of confession and contrition, which more often than not still end in dismissals, the blighting of careers, and miasmal banishments from polite society. Having observed the increasing frequency of such denunciations over the years (males accused, often falsely, by “Believe the Women” feminists; workers sentenced to racial or gender sensitivity training; university professors officially admonished for their refusal to use made-up “non-binary-gendered” pronouns), an acquaintance of mine, who had escaped from the Soviet Bloc during the Brezhnev era, remarked that they made him feel nostalgic.

Just last fall, in a British Columbia private school, the teacher of a Grade 12 law class was compelled to supplicate his accusers for forgiveness, before being summarily fired, because (to illustrate the point that in a democracy, the law of the land is sovereign even if individuals disagree with it!) he mentioned that he, personally, thought abortion was wrong. When one of the future supreme court justices in his classroom complained that his comments “triggered” her so that she felt “unsafe,” the teacher was peremptorily removed, taken “upstairs” to be interrogated by two administrators, warned that he would be terminated if he didn’t confess his crimes, and told that after discussing the case in his absence, they would reconvene the next day, in the company of his student accusers, where he could “hear their grievances and offer an apology.” One doubts that the school’s administration knew enough history to realize it, but they are to be congratulated nonetheless for so perfectly re-actualizing, in every authentic detail, a Maoist revolutionary tribunal and shaming a full forty years after the end of the Cultural Revolution.

It is in keeping with the Orwellian inversions of such totalitarian episodes that the word “unsafe,” as it has entered the progressive lexicon, means its precise opposite. Buzzwords like “unsafe” are cognates of “marginalized,” “oppressed,” “disaffected,” and “the other,” as they are used in the canonical historical narrative – universally evangelized today in the schools – of European imperialism, patriarchal “rape culture,” white racism, capitalist greed and exploitation, Christian suppression of women, repression of sexuality, and persecution of gays and heretics. In this context, “unsafe,” “vulnerable,” “marginalized,” and so on, are words of power (in the primitive mythological sense), and their mana is there to be appropriated by the children of the revolution in the progressive project of denouncing and shaming political enemies.

As is only too clear to anyone who has ever been in a university classroom, “trigger warnings” and “safe zones” are not intended to protect the vulnerable, but to intimidate students who do not belong to officially protected victim-groups. How many young scholars, do you imagine, in the current pedagogical environment of trigger warnings and safe zones, will possess the suicidal temerity to stand up in class and say that they think, for example, that homosexuality is unnatural, same-sex marriage is socially deleterious, “white privilege,” Christianity is the true religion, thereby exposing themselves to a torrent of abuse for having “offended” their classmates and made them feel “unsafe”? In the Soviet Union, parents habitually sent their kids off to school with the warning that, whenever they heard their teachers diabolizing the West and singing the praises of the workers’ paradise, they should “shut up and smile.” Today’s students are learning once again to internalize that advice.

As a child of progressive propaganda, one doubts that in declaring herself “unsafe” our young accuser would have appreciated the obvious fact that it was her teacher – who will likely never work again – , not she, who was just then in the gravest peril. Leaving aside that she had nothing conceivably to feel unsafe about, in truth, she had never felt less unsafe in her brief lifespan than at the moment her teacher committed his ideological faux pas. Never before could she have been more confident that she could bully another human being with impunity, in the certainty, that is, that her classmates, her school administration, and the entire progressive establishment would stand in solidarity with her against the patriarchal lackey who had caused her so to tremble. What she felt, in fact, was the moral and physical invincibility of the revolutionary mob, itself a recrudescence of the biological memory of the thrill that the pack feels as it closes in on its single prey.

The British Columbia teacher’s legal point that in a democracy private moral opinion should be able to co-exist in mutual autonomy and respect with public law was rather dramatically refuted by his own hapless fate. In the current progressive culture of denunciation, as in the revolutionary regimes of the previous century, there is no private sphere. Everything is subsumed under and disposed of in accordance with a progressive legal code that criminalizes non-conformist “bourgeois” moral attitudes and norms. As our young student knows well enough, abortion rights (along with gay rights, transgendered rights, etc.) are now enshrined in Canada’s Charter. In a normal democracy, of course, just because a right is encoded in a state’s constitution hardly abrogates a citizen’s equal (and indeed, higher natural) right to criticize it. But increasingly in the democratic West, any demurral from progressive orthodoxy makes one an enemy of the people: a threat to undo the glorious achievements of the Revolution, as our young feminist student no doubt feared (or pretended to fear) that her teacher’s comments might lead to the revocation of a woman’s “right to choose.”

Abortion, of course, is only one issue on which liberals have succeeded in banning the argument. Over the course of the past decade, hundreds of Christian business owners throughout Canada and the U.S. have been deliberately targeted by gay activists, harassed by professional protesters, beggared by legal costs, threatened with imprisonment, fined, and bankrupted, for the crime of refusing to con-celebrate same-sex marriages. The fact that same-sex “marriage” is now recognized by the state, and that same-sex couples are endowed with “civil rights” that protect them from “discrimination,” apparently means that all of those fustian, pre-revolutionary rights that used to inhere in human beings as individuals rather than members of protected classes – the right to freedom of religious conscience, private property, free association – , have now been superseded by the right of yet another miniscule victim-group to so-called “public accommodation.” Meanwhile, a Honolulu restaurant recently displayed a sign on its front door: “If you voted for Trump you cannot eat here. No Nazis.” Now, that’s some violation of public accommodation, when you deny service to fully half the American electorate (and slander them to boot)! But don’t expect the Honolulu proprietors to be hauled up before the State of Hawaii Human Rights Commission any time soon. As in any revolutionary society, it all depends on which side of the ideological divide you inhabit, as to whether you are deemed a possessor of “rights” or a criminal transgressor of them.

Over the course of the same past decade, courts and legislatures in every Western democracy have enacted a Byzantine web of ever more fine-spun “human rights” protections (for homosexuals, transsexuals, people of self-identified gender, people of self-identified non-binary gender, people of self-identified non-binary gender who demand to be addressed by certain newly manufactured pronouns known only to them), in repudiation of thousands of years of civilized moral consensus. All of this, too, has been effected with revolutionary celerity. Just a decade or so prior, no one (except a tiny fringe of progressive zealots) could have imagined that such moral aberrations and epistemological novelties might someday be normalized. Indeed, what have just yesterday been consecrated as “human rights,” cultures as diverse as those that engendered Plato, Augustine, and Shakespeare, had all regarded as either moral wrongs or psychiatric disorders. Then, statim, within a few years of one another, governments across Europe and North America discovered, in the fine print or penumbras of their constitutions, rights that had apparently languished there undiscovered for centuries. This was either an example of what Joe Sobran has described as the “hive” mentality, or a miracle of coalescence on the order of the seventy Hebrew scholars who, dispatched to their private cells, returned with their completed Greek translations of the Old Testament at exactly the same moment, in exactly the same words.

The collective psyche of liberals “progresses” in this way by means of a series of angelic intuitions, direct and unmediated graspings of the truth. And as soon as the next new truth has illuminated the progressive mind, it is enshrined in law, whereupon the rest of us are subjected to pauperizing defence costs, judicial fines, jail, dismissal from our jobs, or Maoist shamings for being so retrograde as to still reside, morally speaking, in the antediluvian darkness of the previous decade.

Never in the moral history of humankind have we seen such precipitous and complete tergiversations as on the subjects of abortion, homosexuality, marriage, and gender, all of which were choreographed without deliberation, consultation, or any new and compelling reason or evidence. Even in science, which inevitably advances more quickly and fitfully than human morality, it took a century and a half before Copernicus’ heliocentric theory was widely adopted by astronomers.

Meanwhile, those who have been so unceremoniously left behind can’t help but be condemned to that sense of isolation that Hannah Arendt identified as the mark and weapon of a totalitarian society. It is indeed hard for those stuck in the pre-revolutionary past to recognize that the liberal media, activist judges, professoriate, Hollywood starletry, and the rest of the progressive beau monde represent a small minority of the general population. In spite of the ubiquity of their propaganda, ordinary men and women are still deeply enough rooted in human experience and natural law that they are remarkably (and salubriously) immune to it. Vast swaths of humanity remain incredulous of such neoteric confabulations as gay “marriage” or “self-identified” gender, and continue to be (if they have the courage to admit it) viscerally repelled by such newly minted norms as unrestricted abortion or gender re-assignment.

But, perversely, the very knowledge that they are not statistically alone only exacerbates that sense of isolation and disenfranchisement that social conservatives must now feel more acutely than ever. Liberals are always issuing ultimatums to politicians about the “rage” that is building in the black underclass, the “99 percent,” and whichever of their client victim-groups for which they hope thereby to extort special favours. Conservatives are by constitution too law-abiding, and too averse to collective thinking and action, to ever demonstrate rage; but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel it.

Eventually, the disjunction between the activist minority who now dictate morality from above and the other half of the population upon whom it is imposed can only end in a civilizational crack-up. The last time in human history a cadre of self-appointed rulers attempted to enforce a progressive orthodoxy upon a recalcitrant populace, the result was 150 million of their own citizens starved, worked, or shot to death for the crime of ideological non-conformity. An “odious comparison,” perhaps, but then comparisons are often dismissed as odious because people disdain to think about them.

We can hardly congratulate ourselves, in any case, that in the post-communist West we don’t have re-education camps or psychiatric prisons. Our progressive archons have hardly needed them. In the public square, the workplace, the schools, even in the privacy of our homes (when voters decline to tell pollsters of the politically incorrect presidential candidates they intend to vote for), we prudently self-censor. But the latent tension that threatens to blow apart any society built upon an artificial and coercive ideological uniformity is rapidly building, and minor (probably temporary) quietuses in progressive momentum, such as Trump’s recent election, will hardly provide safety valves sufficient to diffuse the pressure.

Harley Price has taught courses on religion, philosophy, literature, and history at the University of Toronto, U of T’s School of Continuing Studies, and Tyndale University College. He blogs at Priceton.org.

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