Culture Wars: Conservative Freedom vs. Liberal Liberation
The recent skirmish over compelling Catholic organizations to offer contraception and abortifacient services to their employees reminds us of the big issue between conservatives and liberals in the culture wars. It bears repeating: conservatives believe in freedom; our liberal friends believe in liberation.
Both traditions start with the same impulse: breaking the chains of slavery, and that is why both conservative and liberal celebrate the redemption of America's Original Sin. Actually, our great victory over slavery was unique, for it was only in America that the slavery issue was resolved in a bloody civil war. Chalk that up to the American can-do spirit. Americans had made plantation slavery so efficient and so profitable that many of us were unable to see beyond the profits to the monstrosity of slave-holding in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
But once the slaves were freed, then the two traditions began to part company. In the America of freedom, the free man, once he has cast off his chains, turns around and offers freely the service that was once compelled. When labor is compelled, the laborer judges service an abomination; when labor is freely given, the worker is inspired to serve, and this was revealed at the end of the 18th century, when the anti-slavery movement arose exactly at the same time as the Scottish Enlightenment chaps thought of the idea of the Invisible Hand, that men best serve themselves by serving others.
Everywhere the freedom tradition got a handhold, prosperity and generosity flourished. New industries sprouted out of nothing into behemoths and lowered prices to unimaginable levels: oil down 90 percent, steel down 66 percent, railroads, electricity, automobiles, air travel, computers. And the titans of industry were generous. No sooner had they made their fortunes than they began to give them away. Why wouldn't they? They made their money by giving the consumer what she wanted; to give to education, research, and medicine is but to extend the principle of consumer service into social service. Just a month ago India celebrated its first polio-free year, brought to you in part by the Gates Foundation.
In the liberation tradition, the dream is a liberation from all effort, a paradise on earth. The sweated laborer dreams of turning the tables on his employer and making him sweat. The housewife dreams of making her husband a drudge. The underprivileged minority dreams of privilege. The artist dreams of creative paradise. The businessman seeks liberation from the terror of failure. And the politician's eyes gleam.
The most glaring difference in the two traditions is over sex. Conservatives at our best want sexual freedom, the right to freely give your love and fidelity to one other in the central human drama of sexual reproduction. Liberals want sexual liberation, the right to opt out of the drama of sexual reproduction and separate sex from its curious connection with children. Liberals insist that we talk about contraception, abortion, gays, lesbians, and trans-gender, and trundle out The Way We Never Were author Stephanie Coontz whenever conservatives start to talk about the collapse of marriage among the lower classes.
The trouble with liberation is that its dreams can be realized only with force, and so wherever it has been tried, the liberation movement has trod a trail of tears, a road back to serfdom. That is why liberal reformers want to force the Catholic Church to bend to their will. You can't have wall-to-wall sexual liberation if serious Christians are left with an opt-out.
The free man is joyful in taking responsibility; the liberated man is terrified of it. The free man is a risk-taker; the liberated man is a risk-avoider. The free man's word is his bond; the liberated man's word is a whine. The free man takes the blame; the liberated man lives to blame. The free man asks only to serve; the liberated man demands to be served. The free man lives to give back; the liberated man scorns the "give-back."
Conservatives have our own little yearning for liberation. We would like to be liberated from the tyranny of liberal cultural hegemony. But this is a weakness, for freedom has never promised liberation.
It is almost a divine witness that the two popular movements of the Obama era so exactly impersonate the ideas of the two traditions. The Tea Party takes its name from a protest against government-sponsored monopoly and privilege. The Occupy movement takes its name from the plan of every dawn raider: invade, occupy, and plunder.
We should thank President Obama for forcing us to choose between freedom and liberation. Usually liberal politicians try to muddy the waters, and they cloak their liberation in the language of freedom just like FDR and his Four Freedoms. They want us to think that America is still free when they pile on the compulsory and mandatory government programs. The dreadful fear that Obama stirs up in conservatives is this: what if Americans this November openly choose liberation instead of freedom? What happens to America then?
It's a fearful thought. But free men and free women have never believed in giving in to fear.
Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his usgovernmentspending.com and also usgovernmentdebt.us. At americanmanifesto.org he is blogging and writing An American Manifesto: Life After Liberalism.