You know what you never hear anyone say anymore?
“It’s a free country.”
Some of us may still oppose specific Progressive policies such as abortion on demand or gender-free marriage, but we all seem to accept the Progressive premise that the “correct” way to live is not something for each human person to work out (within broad limits) for himself over a lifetime –the “pursuit of happiness”– but rather something “experts” can conclude in a study and impose on the rest of us for our good.
In 2011 I watched a short video that radically altered my view of what our contemporary political battles are about. It takes just three minutes, watch it yourself.
The clip, via law blogger Ann Althouse, shows a young woman rising to confront an opponent of affirmative action.
Now hold your fire: this is not a post about affirmative action. What I want you to notice is the woman’s assumption – apparently shared by most of the others in the room—that there will never be racial harmony. There is only going to be a time of payback when whites become the minority.
Prior to seeing this, I’d taken it for granted that all of us Americans, liberal or conservative, white or “of color,” were working for a colorblind society. The debate over affirmative action had been to my mind a difference of opinion over whether at this stage in our history affirmative action might be harming the people it is intended to serve and prolonging rather than curtailing racial tensions.
Watching the video, I realized that the students in it do not share that premise. Listen to them. They laugh outright at the idea of being judged by their character rather than their race. They’re not only not attached to the Declaration’s ideal that all men and women are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, they’re not remotely aware of the possibility of a politics founded on the equal dignity of the human person.
I don’t judge the kids. You can’t spend 60 years failing to teach basic civics and “deconstructing” our founding and expect to churn out adults who cherish genuine liberty.
My heart does ache for them, though, above all for the minority students, for they have been robbed of their patrimony. They don’t know self-government; they know only rule or be ruled.
Since watching that video I’ve been listening to our public discourse with new ears, increasingly disheartened by how widespread has become the assumption that most people are neither entitled to nor capable of self-government and people with whom we disagree have no rights we are obliged to respect.
We are no longer a people united around the premise that all persons are created equal.
That’s why we have a Justice Department uninterested in defending voting rights for people who might vote wrong and so cavalier about the rights of all citizens that an ideologically divided Supreme Court has ruled unanimously against it thirteen times since 2012. It’s why we have government regulators effectively imposing jizya on those not practicing the secular religion, an IRS that threatens the loyal opposition of the ruling party with auditing and arrest, and an FDA that routinely brings armed men to point guns in the faces of Amish farmers and their children (google “FDA raid.”).
That’s why we’ve recently heard a sitting Governor say people who oppose his abortion-on-demand legislation have no business living in his state, and why Hillary Clinton recently said of 2nd amendment supporters, “We cannot let a minority of people… hold a viewpoint that terrorizes the majority of people.”
That’s how you treat people when you no longer view them as fellow citizens with the same dignity as you, but as obstacles to your plans.
Perhaps more upsetting to me is the degree to which contempt for others has become our everyday intellectual currency. Note what this man on the street says as blithe as can be in this interview (at about :48): “I don’t want to say some people have reached the point where maybe they shouldn’t make their own decisions, but…I think that’s what it’s becoming.”
He’s not talking about weighty matters, mind you. He’s talking about snacks.
That – the casual assumption that I may impose on you in even the most trivial matters whatever I “know” to be good for you– is the intellectual impact of Progressivism.
Progressivism is an ideological revolution against the principles of the Declaration of Independence, for it denies that there are any self-evident truths. There is only a progression of history led by “Science.” All the old ideas, myths and customs disappear, and the business of politics becomes less and less a dialogue of Reason and exercise of Prudence and more and more simply Administration according to “scientific” experts –bureaucrats– to whom we all must yield.
There is no longer room for debate about the meaning of government and how the human person flourishes, only rules to follow. And if you don’t follow them, you’re not enlightened and shouldn’t maybe make your own decisions.
Lincoln taught us in his “House Divided” speech that only one great idea animates the laws and customs of a people at any time. In his time the great threat to the idea of human equality was the expansion of slavery. In ours it is Progressivism, which is just our contemporary word for “might makes right.”
I believe that’s what Pope Francis has in mind when he says inequality is our biggest social problem. He’s concerned about the loss of a sense of the brotherhood of man and the resultant corruption of society.
In Lumen Fidei, for example, he tells us that the notion of equal dignity collapses without reference to a Creator:
“Modernity sought to build a universal brotherhood based on equality, yet we gradually came to realize that this brotherhood, lacking a reference to a common Father as its ultimate foundation, cannot endure. We need to return to the true basis of brotherhood.”
He criticizes unbridled capitalism, yes, but only in tandem with criticism of the cultural imperialism of the elites who have corrupted the free market beyond recognition and increasingly make all the West’s decisions without concern for genuine human flourishing and without respect for the claims of conscience.
When, in Evangelii Gaudium, he says “no to a culture of exclusion” and denounces the debt culture and “the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation,” what is he describing but the crony capitalism that has given us not a manufacturing economy and not a service economy, but a service-on-the-debt economy resulting in a massive and callous redistribution of wealth from the working poor to the massively rich?
When he repeatedly calls for a work culture rather than a welfare culture, what does he have in view but our tendency to treat people not as human persons entitled to be the protagonists of their own lives, but as problems for the state to manage, such that we think we’ve done right by the poor if we expand welfare programs, but don’t actually see them, and don’t care to create the conditions in which they can rise and be responsible for their own lives? Welfare programs are a stop-gap for a crisis, not a fit way of life for a human being.
I think the Pope recognizes that Western civilization has become a “house divided” about the innate value of the human person, and the corruption of all our institutions flows from this intellectual turn away from commitment to the principle of equality of all. It’s a refusal to recognize the sort of limits exemplified by Lincoln’s definition of democracy: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”
The patrimony of Progressivism is a people who are all too willing to be masters, which is why I think we never any longer hear anyone say in the face of disagreement, “It’s a free country.”