The Fragility of Political Sanity

The classical liberal tradition that inspired America's founding is rooted in a deeper Enlightenment tradition that rose in principled opposition to religious conflict in Reformation Europe. This earlier Enlightenment fostered a secular political culture that disavowed the enforcement of religious uniformity as an object of political endeavor. Under the guidance of the Enlighteners, the fanatics were disempowered and the West abandoned theocracy as a governing ideal. Western societies grew to accommodate religious variety without sacrificing social harmony. We are heirs to this tradition, and we would do well to reflect upon it, especially since human nature itself would seem to make the ascendancy of political fanaticism a permanent threat.

One might like to assume that people are basically reasonable and that episodes of brutal domination are historical aberrations, but such practices as the burning of heretics and the slaughter en masse of errant co-religionists did not simply end on their own -- people didn't just come to their senses one day. Political sanity is not as self-recommending as one might like to assume; arguments for toleration had to be made, and they had to gain general acceptance, supplying new norms. These norms had to be codified into laws and these laws safeguarded by institutions designed to uphold them. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza was among the earliest authors of these new norms, norms that would eventually inform the American founding. These norms have held for centuries. Not so long ago the consensus supporting them was so solid there was little need to consciously invoke them; they are now buckling under the relentless attacks of a morally bigoted, hateful, authoritarian Left.  

It is perhaps a fundamental truth of the human experience that the mere prospect of exercising political power motivates the very worst kinds of people to seek it. These vulgar climbers often masquerade as paragons of virtue. Indeed, the empowerment of "virtue" (however defined) is perhaps the most common founding myth of tyranny. In Spinoza's time, the confessional conflicts sparked by the Reformation effectively incentivized ambitious graspers to outbid one another in championing competing visions of theocratic rule. The politically ambitious posed as protectors of "true religion" and sought to commandeer the machinery of state with all its instruments of coercion, prompting bloody rivalries.

Spinoza recognized that the best way to ensure civil peace is to banish sectarian hatreds from political life. He envisioned a political climate unafflicted with the kind of political fanaticism which (in his day) had taken the form of violent religious zealotry. Spinoza sought to hobble the zealots by calling into question the authority of the Bible -- by interpreting it as a product of fallible human authorship. Spinoza's deflationary reading of the Bible made it harder to justify tyranny in Biblical terms. The theocrats could no longer justify their tyranny as service to God.

But Spinoza's fight against political fanaticism went further: he advocated political liberty in principle. Spinoza saw tyranny as an effort to mandate uniformity of thought, and he held that -- since people naturally tend to differ in a variety of ways -- political and religious differences are essentially ineradicable, so a truly humane political system would accommodate these differences by confining its authority to public safety and economic prosperity rather than seeking to ensure religious uniformity. He distinguished between the criminalization of thoughts and the criminalization of actions. The state, he held, could rightly exercise its authority over violent actions, but not over controversial thoughts. No political authority, in Spinoza's view, has a right to dictate to its subjects how they should think.

As Americans, we bristle at the suggestion that a mere politician would seek to control our private thoughts, but we should recognize that such bristling is not a dictate of common sense; it is a gain of the Enlightenment. The demand for liberty of conscience seems obvious to us only because it represents a deep assumption of our shared culture - a culture gradually wrested from the grip of fanatics by the teachings of the Enlightenment.

This is the political culture we inherited -- the political culture embodied in our founding documents --the political culture now under attack by a contemporary form of political fanaticism that portrays classical liberalism itself as a racist con so as to justify its repudiation and nullification from a putatively higher moral ground. Today's moral fanatics appear not as Biblical guardians, but as self-appointed racial vigilantes. The ugly rhetoric of this vigilantism has been eagerly embraced by the Democratic Party as a source of political advantage, but the promotion of contrived ancestral grievances for cheap political gains comes at the cost of lasting social damage, and one cannot help but wonder when and how the final bill will come due.

And we must recognize: for some of the most dedicated activists on the Left, the social damage is the aim. The contemporary enemies of the Enlightenment seek to inflame tribal hatreds to mobilize their partisans just as the theocrats of old sought to inflame confessional hatreds to mobilize theirs. The classical liberal tradition, with its insistence on moderation, tolerance, and compromise, stands in the way of their ascendancy, so it must be discredited. The social justice fascist impugns the classical liberal heritage as a fraud and proclaims it no more worthy of respect than some crumbling statue in a public park -- just another moldering monument to "white supremacy" to be contemptuously thrust aside in the name of "social justice."

Such sentiments dominate the wasteland that presently passes for political debate. Anyone mildly attentive to the current state of public discussion is in for an ugly spectacle as mediocre demagogues (both in office and out) gleefully hurl accusatory absurdities with wild abandon, as was recently shown in the truly revolting moral posturing over the nonexistent Border Patrol "whips." The fabrication of racial insult would seem to have become politically obligatory as the nation's political leadership leaps past one other in their eagerness to reach a microphone through which they can denounce the nation they lead as systemically racist. Meanwhile, the old norms -- the norms Spinoza and others worked to advance -- are driven to the margins and left there to die of neglect. But one might ask, are these norms then wholly without defenders? Of course not! But the defenders themselves need defenders.

Those defaming the classical liberal tradition pose as sophisticates. Dismissing all traditionalist loyalties as embarrassing subintellectual anachronisms bolsters their own insatiable need for comparative self-aggrandizement. The American conservative is caricatured as a boorish nativist whose political attitudes amount to little more than a fetish for powdered wigs and yellowed parchment. But what these bile-spewing mediocrities fail to consider is that the American Experiment is worth defending not because it evokes some gauzy nostalgia, but because the gains of the Enlightenment informing it are worth preserving. It is these gains that are in jeopardy. The Enlightenment's insistence on the essential limits of political power has kept all manner of hellish brutality at bay by denying political fanatics an opportunity to instigate it. These limits -- to the extent they are respected -- invariably disappoint and frustrate tyrants.

Spinoza was fated to inhabit an age in which individuals were burned at the stake for expressing intolerable thoughts; it seems our generation is fated to live in an age in which the Enlightenment Spinoza spearheaded is being heatedly rejected as an impediment to "social justice." If the liberal democratic state does not serve to protect individual rights and guarantee civil peace -- if it does not zealously withhold its power from hyperventilating fanatics on behalf of their intended victims -- then how does it differ from that which it rose to replace?

We need not stand by as our shared culture is mischaracterized by a band of malignant fabulists who,  having reduced all past history to a bland and dismal tale of brute domination, proclaim their turn to dominate has arrived. Spinoza fought the fanatics of his day by deflating the Bible; we can fight the fanatics of our day by reclaiming Western history and literature from the vile woke slanderers that would deny them to us by tarring them as morally toxic. In rejecting the divisive, malignant slanders of the activist Left we reaffirm our dedication to a political culture that -- at its best -- devoted itself to the principled defense of political sanity. Our immediate reward for this is predictable: in the current environment, the defender of classical liberalism can expect to be dismissed as an accessory to racism. It is high time we recover the true value of limited government and stand against the vigilantes who shamelessly behave as though their superior virtue entitles them to wield the state as a weapon of group revenge. 

Image: Hogarth

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