Let me begin by confessing that I am one of those conservatives who take comfort in Plato’s devastating critique of Athenian democracy. I believe that civic liberty is not an end in itself, but is a tool that man finds fit for his nature as a reasoning being, a tool to be judged by the use to which we put it. Voting for voting’s sake means nothing to me. Choice for choice’s sake, I suspect, has rather a snaky logic to it. Unless there are all kinds of bars and nets in place, I admire great big democracies not a whole lot more than I admire great big bureaucracies, or businesses, or cancers. When revenuers arrive from far away — the next town — my hand reaches for my wallet. As I said, I am not a liberal. I am a conservative.
And so I have not been a cheerleader for our intervention in Iraq. That has seemed to me something that the liberals Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman would have approved, and as much as I admire Truman and give grudging respect to Wilson, I am not sure they would have been right. Yet my hesitation gives me a bad conscience. Why should the people of Iraq not be fit for civic liberty? Is it because they are Iraqis, or Muslims? Because they are poorer than we are? If we should pride ourselves in overthrowing George III, who was no tyrant, why should not the Iraqis pride themselves in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, who was? If we should be grateful for the French, and for such heroes as Pulaski and Von Steuben and Kosciuszko, who came to assist us in our fight for freedom, why should we consider it evil to provide the same assistance to Iraqis? Because it is a project bound to fail? But who could have been certain in 1945 that imperial Japan might develop a democratic republic, or even that hotbed of lunacy called Germany?
So I wonder when it was, after all, that liberals in my country ceased to be liberal. When did they lose their quasi-secular faith in civic liberty?
Was it when speech codes spread across the nation’s campuses? Or did it happen a little earlier, when the nation’s nannies decided that it was better to determine what a child might think than what an adult might say, and turned elementary school textbooks towards political advocacy?
Was it when the common people were deprived of any real authority in determining what a decent town might look like? When that just liberty was quashed for the license of pornographers? Or when the “freedom” of men and women to have sexual intercourse without worrying about babies trumped the laws of every state, and any consideration of the common weal? Or when a people’s timeless understanding of what constitutes a family was to be altered by judicial or legislative fiat — reducing marriage to something more porous than a business contract?
Was it when we forgot that government is our creation, our machine, and not our keeper? When we agreed to trade money — at first, other people’s money — for a bundle of material comforts we called “security”? Was it when we agreed that some people ought to work for “us” for more than half of the year, and then found ourselves, alas, similarly enslaved to the government appetite? Was it when we replaced the Constitution with the conveniently vague “spirit” of the Constitution, a specter that we thought would do only what we wanted it to do, but that then devoured the Constitution, so that now we effectively acknowledge no law above the laws our keepers happen to pass?
Was it when we ran a steamroller over the freedom of association, to compass certain social goals? When we sued a small college not for discrimination, but for refusing to sign a document conceding authority to the federal government to determine what should count for discrimination — and then lamely accepted a decision making every college in the nation a ward of the government? When we sued men’s groups for being men’s groups, not because they ignored the public welfare, but because they served it? When we told the people of Virginia, including a majority of women, that they could not fund a men’s military college? When we first attempted to ship the Boy Scouts to Sodom?
Was it when we taped the mouths of pastors — or, at least, the mouths of conservative pastors — by threatening to put them out of business if they spoke their political minds? Was it when we strong-armed the Catholic Church into either betraying its faith by providing contraception or performing abortions in its hospitals or giving babies to homosexual couples for adoption, or staying quiet in its little corner?
Was it when we set up as our sacramentum sacrosanctum the license to slay the baby in the womb, the baby whose very existence, except in the rare case of rape, is owing to our own voluntary action? Was it then, after all, when the word “father” came to mean nothing? Was it when one person’s sexual license was held to trump another’s very life?
When was it that liberals ceased to believe in liberty? I don’t know. I do know that they do not believe in it now. So a conservative Catholic has little choice. I can stay home, or vote for a few remaining people who believe in democracy more than I do, and who, in the case of Senator McCain, was willing to suffer and die for it. Those old liberal patriots — men like Harry Truman, or John Kennedy, or Kennedy’s apologist Bishop Sheen; liberals who could also be conservative, since the terms are not antonyms — would laugh at me for hesitating even a moment.