May 22, 2008
Why are liberals so desperately attached to egalitarianism, of an extreme and entirely this-worldly variety? Why has it become an article of faith to which they cling against all evidence—to the point where they resist the use of epidemiological data that breaks down heart disease rates, for instance, by race? In his recent response to me, Richard takes this attachment as a given. What I tried to do was to explain it.
Secular moderns, who have no actual reason to regard human life is sacred, still wish that it were. This is because they regard their own as sacred, expect that others should do so, and rightly feel that they should return the favor. (This distinguishes them from, for instance, sociopaths.) They base their rationale for respecting the lives and dignity of others on this principle of reciprocity. “I owe my neighbor respect and fair treatment because he’s a person, just like me.”
The problem with such a transaction is that it’s based not on some higher philosophical truth, or a tenet of divine Revelation, but a simple deduction based on an intuition—that others really are like me. And the closer they are to me, the more respect they deserve. The history of colonialism, for instance, suggests how much easier it is to act in a bloody and brutal way toward people who look radically Other, whose customs can be classed as “barbaric” or even “bestial.” When conquistadors and the like acted on this intuition and butchered or enslaved the natives they encountered, it was typically members of the clergy who served as the only (not always effective) restraint on their rapaciousness. Why did the Church in Spain intercede with the Crown to protect the lands and rights of Latin America’s Indians? Because the bishops and theologians of Salamanca based their ethics not on empathy but on an abstraction—the assertion that every member of the human species stands in some sense equal before the God Who made them.
Modern liberals don’t like to study history—except for the bits where white males clapped chains on darker peoples and took away their stuff. Those are the “good parts” (like the once-treasured sexy scenes in James Joyce) on which they linger. I was tempted to call such reading a frenzy of onanistic guilt, but in fact modern multiculturalists aren’t really identifying with the Other. The “Other” in this case is the patriarchal Caucasian oppressor, while the liberal reader identifies with the hapless natives—or best of all, with the rare white person protesting their mistreatment, such as Bartolomeo de las Casas. “That’s what I would have done if I were there,” these well-meaning moral narcissists tell themselves, as they read Schindler’s List on the commuter rail into Grand Central from Old Saybrook. “I would have lived in peace with the Indians. I would have pissed on the fire for Joan of Arc. I would have saved Anne Frank.”
However, the introspective among the liberals understand just how fragile is a moral empathy based on identification. They know, for instance, that they don’t really regard gun-toting, Confederate flag-waving Nascar fans as human in QUITE the same way as the Vassarites waiting beside them on line at Zabar’s. The unborn have to be dehumanized right up front, to polish one’s feminist credentials. (This is particularly important for straight male academics who hope to have sex occasionally. One sees a lot of “nookie feminists” across the barricades at abortion mills.) The handicapped? Well, they’re a mixed bag. On the one hand they’re “disadvantaged,” and thus a group to be championed against evil corporations (or even mom-and-pop businesses that can’t afford to install a wheelchair lift). They have a “right” to demand that every bus in the city be equipped to give them “equal access,” and to open-ended special education programs at taxpayer’s expense. On the other hand, all that TLC is kind of expensive… so if parents don’t “feel comfortable” with (for instance) Down’s Syndrome kids, why should the government interfere? Every child who gets out of the womb alive with some handicap is going to cost us millions…. As will all those inner city kids who’d get born if we closed the clinics. And come to think of it, isn’t it a sinful waste of money to keep those terminal patients alive, when the money could be better spent in Darfur? Or refurbishing Lincoln Center? So why not use technology to make damned sure that “every child is above average”?
Such dark and ruthless sentiments are only natural. I feel them too. A quick confession here: When I heard the news about 9/11 (I lived in Queens but had friends working downtown), my first thought was: “O my God! Please don’t let them hit the Chrysler Building! Or the Woolworth! Or the Empire State…” My mind ran through all the actually beautiful buildings I hoped would be spared… before I remembered that the Twin Towers were surely full of people. And then I thought, “There will always be more people, but they’ll never let you build towers like those again.” It was my very own Margaret Sanger moment.
But unlike secular liberal Pelagians, I know that my nature is fallen. I know that life is sacred, because an irascible stuttering Jew brought down two stone tablets from a mountain,
2500 3500 years ago. I know that whatever bad news I hear about someone, I won’t regard him as any less human. But barring the philosophically minded, your average secularist has no such solid ground beneath him. He might condemn sex-selective abortion in India, but not because it’s murder. He’s against the practice because it is sexist. This helps explain why Stalin’s and Mao’s mass murders don’t rouse the same reaction as Hitler’s Holocaust: They might have been genocides, but at least they weren’t anti-Semitic. Or homophobic, as far as I can tell.
The grab bag of irrational and unconnected taboos that make up the moral code of a modern liberal leaves him vulnerable to every sort of anxiety, and prone to irrational guilt that can be summoned at the push of a hot-button. My favorite illustration came in one of Ali G‘s British episodes (which I was collecting back in 2002), when the “Wigger” comedian whose real name is Sacha Baron-Cohen, rigged up like a Jamaican gang-banger, provokes London bobbies into busting him. As they drag him off, he demands, “Is it because I is black?” They look startled, and deeply afraid, then mutter, “Uh, no….”
I think that liberals realize that they have no good argument against the notion that life is cheap. In the Hollywood 10, they defended partisans of Stalin, chuckling that “Communists are liberals in a hurry.” They aren’t troubled that some 80% or more of Down’s Syndrome children are now aborted. They’re happy to see embryos cannibalized for parts, so rock stars can get new livers, and Boomers can live an extra 20 years—to pull out the last few bricks from the Social Security pyramid scheme. If you convinced them that high percentages of people of other races really didn’t have the potential to turn into Swarthmore-educated New Urbanists driving Priuses, they’re really not sure how they’d react. Luckily, the taboo against thinking racial thoughts helps steer their scorn towards safer targets—like “bitter” rednecks, fundamentalists, Archie Bunkers, Serbs, (often) Israelis, and other scapegoats who seem to deserve their fate.
P.S. My title is a quote from Walker Percy, via Flannery O’Connor, which comes up in his acid satire The Thanatos Syndrome. Not his best novel, but a powerful tract about the culture of death, and well worth reading.