A Turning Point in the Culture War?

Is the social revolution approaching its Thermidor, the point at which its progress stops or reverses? It’s difficult to be optimistic, but recent developments raise the possibility.

Until very recently, effective opposition to globalism, open borders, and lifestyle liberalism—that is, for traditional local ties over global markets, regulatory bureaucracies, and recent understandings of human rights—had all but disappeared. Those trends still have powerful backing, but electoral reverses in Europe and the United States make them seem less invincible.

Brexit and Donald Trump’s campaign emphasized opposition to globalization and open borders rather than lifestyle liberalism, and the connection between the two sets of issues is indirect. Even so, unity is the strength of orthodoxy, including that of the Left, and progressives—who have reason to pay attention—believe that recent movements in support of national and local identity threaten their gains on issues such as abortion, “gay marriage,” and transgenderism.

They’re likely right. The issue regarding all these issues is the value of traditional and informal local connections. If we can live happily as autonomous individuals in a universal order defined wholly by markets and bureaucracies, progressives are right. If they’re wrong, and a good life requires other more local and concrete ties that bind—marriage, family, religion, local and national community—together with the distinctions and arrangements that support them, then the opponents of current public orthodoxy, including serious Catholics, raise issues that need to be addressed.

The result of recent events, which demonstrate resistance to progressivist universalism, is to allow those now considered political heretics to bring a variety of issues that seemed all but lost back into public discussion. Their situation is still very difficult. Progressives dominate public discussion, and they have absolute faith in their cause, so reverses lead them to redouble their efforts. For that reason we’re sure to see more vigorous attempts to enforce liberal orthodoxy. That’s what happened in the past: AIDs sacralized homosexuality, abortion put radical feminism beyond discussion, and 9/11 turned Islamophobia into a hate crime. If a tendency is considered politically necessary, the more problems it causes the more uncompromising the attempts to impose it.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that respected progressives claim that Brexit, Trump’s victory, and other recent developments result from bigotry and are therefore illegitimate. The evidence is said to be an outburst of hate crimes, although in America verifiable crimes motivated by group or political hatred seem mostly the work of people opposed to Trump.

In any case, hate and bigotry are partly in the eye of the beholder: some say it’s hate to deny Bruce Jenner is a woman, others that it’s hate to write off a quarter of the population as an irredeemable basket of deplorables. At bottom, “hate” now seems to refer mostly to the belief that traditional ways of organizing life have something to be said for them, so traditional connections and distinctions, such as those between the sexes, are not wholly evil.

As an alternative, liberal commentators say recent reverses are illegitimate because they result from ignorance, conspiracy theories, and manipulations or deceptions perpetrated by Fox News, the Russians, obscure web sites, or whoever. Genuine news, apparently, is made up of the stories the New York Times and other established news organizations choose to present. Even if stories such organizations play up turn out to have factual problems, they’re still considered beneficial overall because they draw attention to larger truths.

It’s evident such claims are based less on facts than the conviction progressive views are patently correct and opposition purely a matter of ignorance and ill will. It’s hard though to discount their long-term effect when the major news media insist on them and they are backed by other centers of power, such as academia. Repetition transforms accepted understandings, especially when backed by social position and the ability to guide discussion through editorial decisions and manipulation of search results and social media feeds.

For now, though, established authorities have lost credit among many people, and the future is unforeseeable. There is a new readiness to defy orthodoxy, new vehicles for dissenters to make their voices heard, and a new willingness among many people to listen and consider. We should use the situation while we have it.

But how?

Populism is right as far as it goes. Western elites really do have interests at odds with those of their people. To make matters worse, their understanding of the world leaves out basic aspects of human reality, such as the need for tradition and durable local connections, and for a usable conception of man’s natural tendencies and a spiritual and moral order that transcends him. The result is that they view the social world as endlessly plastic, so experts and administrators can make of it what they will. Since they have complete faith in their own knowledge and good intentions, they believe their rule would bring an era of peace, prosperity, and justice, and at bottom view their opponents as enemies of the human race.

All this is normally disguised as idealism, or clothed in qualified and moderate-sounding language, but it’s lunacy however you put it. Appeals to common sense and democratic legitimacy are the obvious arguments against it, so populism seems a sensible way to go.

Even so, populism has serious weaknesses. It’s a movement of protest that finds it hard to develop a grand vision, and its rejection of settled leadership and established institutions makes it shortsighted and easily distracted. The result is that it misconstrues situations, misses important points, and rarely succeeds in reorienting government toward the common good of the community. Those—including Catholics—who think they have important insights to add need to speak up.

The fundamental problem with public life today is that at bottom it understands man purely as an individual, and society as a machine that should be reconfigured to maximize satisfactions as much and equally as possible. That view seems straightforward and logical to many people, but it leaves out man’s nature as social, rational, and spiritual, as a being with a given nature who lives largely by reference to his connections with others, his understanding of himself, his fellows and the world, and his orientation toward ultimate reality.

Populism reflects an inchoate awareness of the problem. “Make America Great Again” is vague, and may or may not be the right slogan, but it has some virtues. It connects to American political discourse, and unmistakably expresses an understanding of man as social, as finding an essential part of what he is in his connection to particular concrete traditions and social structures, and of the need for those structures to be oriented to something higher than the everyday.

All those points are undeveloped. Even so, what’s there is an improvement over the dominant view of man as a sort of industrial product, and we can only work with what chance, Providence, and the actions of our fellows give us. With that in mind, Catholics need to talk about what it would mean to make America great in a way that respects the full truth about human nature. In short, we need to put forward the full Catholic understanding of man and society, with special reference to populist concerns—for example, with reference to natural law and subsidiarity, which tell us how to respond to the current tendency to destroy particularities of nation, culture, and sex so we can all become interchangeable components in a universal economic machine.

(Photo credit: Associated Press)

James Kalb

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James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

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