The power of liberal taboos

The president's mother, Barbara Bush, got into trouble recently for saying on NPR that the underprivileged African American refugees from hurricane Katrina were doing fine in Texas.

'What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary,' she said on NPR, 'is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this —— this is working very well for them.'

Then there is abortion.  Last week the old Democratic war—horses rumbled up and down their Senate paddock snorting that Chief Justice nominee John Roberts would not discuss his thinking on Roe v. Wade.  Liberal professor Erwin Chemerinsky told Hugh Hewitt that he had spoken to Democratic staffers and they reported 'enormous anger right now among Democratic Senators.'  As we come up to the twentieth anniversary of the borking of Robert Bork, what exactly do these politicians think conservative nominees to the Supreme Court are going to say to them?

In Germany, when the not—very Iron Lady Angela Merkel introduced a professor to her staff who advocates a move to a flat tax, Social Democratic Party leader Schroeder shamed her into distancing herself from the heretical tax, 'calling it a 'tax for millionaires' and 'the Merkel minus' because it will eliminate middle—class tax benefits for education, child care and housing.'  That kind of talk enabled him to demagogue the German election from a conservative victory into a dead heat.

If conservatives are so powerful, why is it that liberals still retain the power to shame them when they break sacred liberal taboos on race, on sex, and even economic policy?  Weren't all taboos supposed to have been swept away as primitive superstitions about five minutes after the publication of Freud's Totem and Taboo?

But taboo is not superstition.  It is merely human.  It expresses a sense that something is so powerful that it is dangerous even to think about it.
 
That is why Robert Bork had to be destroyed back in 1987—not just for saying, but for thinking that Roe v. Wade was a bad idea.

In the United States in 2005 who can doubt that it is still too dangerous for educated women to think about the meaning of elevating the right not to have children into a sacrament.  It is still too dangerous for liberals to think about the consequences of their bankrupt race policy: hopeless schools in minority areas and a black—on—white crime rate still six times higher than the white—on—black rate.  So just as in Victorian times gentlemen are careful not to upset the delicate sensibilities of the ladies.

If we are not allowed to discuss fundamental questions in robust Anglo—Saxon, we are allowed at least to discuss them in Latinate euphemisms: Unemployment, Poverty, Diversity, Literacy, Equality, and Welfare.Why do we talk about "Unemployment" instead of "finding a job"?  And why do we talk about "Literacy" instead of "learning to read"?

Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her study of nineteenth century Poverty and Compassion, tells us the purpose of a neologism like 'Unemployment.'  It suggests 'an impersonal condition resulting from impersonal causes.'  It allows the elite to take charge of the lives of the poor.  'Finding a job' is something that poor people do for themselves.  'Unemployment' is something that politicians, activists, and pundits can attack with bureaucratic programs.  'Literacy' is something that First Ladies work on. 

'Learning to read' is something that ordinary people do for themselves. The right of the educated elite to organize and direct the lives of ordinary people derives from an Assumption of Competence.  Scratch any scribbler or talking head: he clearly seems to know what he is talking about.  But this assumption does not extend to ordinary people.  The reverse of the medal of competence is the Presumption of Helplessness, the presumption that ordinary people need instruction and supervision in the education of their children and in the precaution against common life hazards.

The taboos of the welfare state mount a bodyguard of silence to protect this sacred totem, the Presumption of Helplessness.  When Barbara Bush incautiously observes that the helpless refugees of New Orleans are doing fine in Houston, she is suggesting they might be able to shift for themselves.  When John Roberts equivocates on Roe v. Wade he is genuflecting before the power of the sisters.  When candidate Angela Merkel proposes a flat tax, she disturbs the tangled system that guides the German people in making life choices approved by their betters.

As long as the liberal taboos on race and abortion still have the power to shame, then liberals are still ahead in the culture war.

Christopher Chantrill (mailto:chrischantrill@msn.com) blogs here  Read about his forthcoming Road to the Middle Class here.

The president's mother, Barbara Bush, got into trouble recently for saying on NPR that the underprivileged African American refugees from hurricane Katrina were doing fine in Texas.

'What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary,' she said on NPR, 'is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this —— this is working very well for them.'

Then there is abortion.  Last week the old Democratic war—horses rumbled up and down their Senate paddock snorting that Chief Justice nominee John Roberts would not discuss his thinking on Roe v. Wade.  Liberal professor Erwin Chemerinsky told Hugh Hewitt that he had spoken to Democratic staffers and they reported 'enormous anger right now among Democratic Senators.'  As we come up to the twentieth anniversary of the borking of Robert Bork, what exactly do these politicians think conservative nominees to the Supreme Court are going to say to them?

In Germany, when the not—very Iron Lady Angela Merkel introduced a professor to her staff who advocates a move to a flat tax, Social Democratic Party leader Schroeder shamed her into distancing herself from the heretical tax, 'calling it a 'tax for millionaires' and 'the Merkel minus' because it will eliminate middle—class tax benefits for education, child care and housing.'  That kind of talk enabled him to demagogue the German election from a conservative victory into a dead heat.

If conservatives are so powerful, why is it that liberals still retain the power to shame them when they break sacred liberal taboos on race, on sex, and even economic policy?  Weren't all taboos supposed to have been swept away as primitive superstitions about five minutes after the publication of Freud's Totem and Taboo?

But taboo is not superstition.  It is merely human.  It expresses a sense that something is so powerful that it is dangerous even to think about it.
 
That is why Robert Bork had to be destroyed back in 1987—not just for saying, but for thinking that Roe v. Wade was a bad idea.

In the United States in 2005 who can doubt that it is still too dangerous for educated women to think about the meaning of elevating the right not to have children into a sacrament.  It is still too dangerous for liberals to think about the consequences of their bankrupt race policy: hopeless schools in minority areas and a black—on—white crime rate still six times higher than the white—on—black rate.  So just as in Victorian times gentlemen are careful not to upset the delicate sensibilities of the ladies.

If we are not allowed to discuss fundamental questions in robust Anglo—Saxon, we are allowed at least to discuss them in Latinate euphemisms: Unemployment, Poverty, Diversity, Literacy, Equality, and Welfare.Why do we talk about "Unemployment" instead of "finding a job"?  And why do we talk about "Literacy" instead of "learning to read"?

Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her study of nineteenth century Poverty and Compassion, tells us the purpose of a neologism like 'Unemployment.'  It suggests 'an impersonal condition resulting from impersonal causes.'  It allows the elite to take charge of the lives of the poor.  'Finding a job' is something that poor people do for themselves.  'Unemployment' is something that politicians, activists, and pundits can attack with bureaucratic programs.  'Literacy' is something that First Ladies work on. 

'Learning to read' is something that ordinary people do for themselves. The right of the educated elite to organize and direct the lives of ordinary people derives from an Assumption of Competence.  Scratch any scribbler or talking head: he clearly seems to know what he is talking about.  But this assumption does not extend to ordinary people.  The reverse of the medal of competence is the Presumption of Helplessness, the presumption that ordinary people need instruction and supervision in the education of their children and in the precaution against common life hazards.

The taboos of the welfare state mount a bodyguard of silence to protect this sacred totem, the Presumption of Helplessness.  When Barbara Bush incautiously observes that the helpless refugees of New Orleans are doing fine in Houston, she is suggesting they might be able to shift for themselves.  When John Roberts equivocates on Roe v. Wade he is genuflecting before the power of the sisters.  When candidate Angela Merkel proposes a flat tax, she disturbs the tangled system that guides the German people in making life choices approved by their betters.

As long as the liberal taboos on race and abortion still have the power to shame, then liberals are still ahead in the culture war.

Christopher Chantrill (mailto:chrischantrill@msn.com) blogs here  Read about his forthcoming Road to the Middle Class here.