The Frame of Reverence

In the end of the Obama Era, a trend began to germinate in the bibliosphere of a certain social cohort — here to be called the Liberal-Identifying Bourgeoisie (LIBs) — wherein more conventional themes of liberal discourse — themes such as skepticism of war, protection of civil liberties, and economic justice — were superseded by what amounted to a collection of tropes, such as Decency, Empathy, and Compassion.  This tracked the erosion of traditional liberal concerns from LIB discourse, to the point where today a steady stream of polls show the LIBs, far more than any social strata, support with strong majorities both America's involvement in Ukraine and private and government-ordered censorship.

While many blamed the Trump phenomenon for this turn of events, the COVID experience of 2020 reveal this explanation to be at best incomplete.  Therein, the LIBs, far more than anyone else, clamored for drastic emergency exceptions from constitutional norms.  The same pattern arises again with the controversies around censorship.  The LIBs are consistently the most eager to suspend or attenuate constitutional guarantees, and the most vocal proponents of "emergency exceptions" to constitutional protections.

This erosion of liberal principles among the LIBs is traceable to a sociological fact — namely, that this is the cohort that has most thoroughly "transcended" the Mythos of Civic Americanism.  Civic Americanism is in essence a civil religion that valorizes the American Revolution as a Heroic Epic, one in light of which the ideals of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence are rendered sacrosanct in the Social Covenant.  The development and favorable reception of 1619 Project among the LIBs laid bare the fact that they no longer hold to the Mythology of Civic Americanism; rather, they regarded the American Ethos at best as a landmark in the march of Progress — fine for its time but now badly outdated — or at worst the connivance of a bunch of slaveholders presenting just one more oppressive barrier against the true Progressive Heaven.

This leaves the LIBs with no Mythos — no overarching meta-narrative that embeds, codifies, and embodies a culture's ethical norms and aspirations.  Having evolved beyond traditional religion generations earlier, and now having evolved beyond Civic Americanism, there remains no mythic tradition enlightened enough to be worthy of LIB allegiance.  Rather, the LIB presumes that his inner Decency and Rationality (typically attested to by his accumulation of advanced degrees) offer sufficient ethical guidance.

This rejection of mythos carries grave consequences in that one function of mythos is to give an overarching structure to what otherwise would constitute a sea of free-floating "values."  A Mythic Tradition supports and animates what would otherwise be inert "values" by placing them within a "Frame of Reverence."  Hence, the American Mythos exalts the foundational liberties upon which the American project was grounded, manifesting a hierarchy of values eloquently expressed by the dictum of Ben Franklin: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."  Meanwhile, the LIBs, under the pretense of moral self-sufficiency, renounce all such mythic structures while attempting to preserve the ethics these myths embody (at least those they like), leaving them in a sea of moralistic contingency — a mélange of "values" to snag and discard at will.

This serves to clarify what is otherwise a bizarre and incomprehensible development among the LIBs to the various upheavals of 2020 and 2021: the astonishing disregard of any kind of principled consistency.  The peculiar genius of the LIBs lies not in their rejection or upholding of a principle such as free speech, but in their ability to pose as ardent free speech advocates — when objecting to efforts to remove explicit pornography from children's libraries — while simultaneously clamoring for government censorship of "climate misinformation."  Strident appeals to bodily autonomy in one context are juxtaposed (at times flagrantly) with the insistence that the state had plenary authority over the human body.  Requests to hold religious and funeral services are denounced as "selfish" and "murderous" while large-scale street protests are cheered on.

This seems like a lurch into abject irrationality in the context of traditional ethics rooted in mythos, but if the locus of ethics lies not in fealty to an exalted tradition, but in presumed Decency of each individual LIB, then the requirement for consistency vanishes.  Emotional states in themselves can validate moral claims without reference to rules, principles, precedents, or circumstances.  The pretense of Morality is preserved merely by appealing to whatever "value" validates the LIB's current emotional state.  "Free speech for me but not for thee" ceases to be a taunt exposing flagrant inconsistency and morphs into a genuine Moral Imperative.

LIBs would doubtless object their approach merely reflects a rejection of dogmatic absolutism in favor of a pragmatic inclination to assess any controversy on its own merits.  But this claim is laughable.  To take one example, cases such as Ohio v. Brandonberg and Counterman v. Colorado arise from centuries of jurisprudence delineating the boundaries of free speech, in deference to its sanctity.  Meanwhile, LIBs push to curtail whatever speech  makes them feel uneasy, their chief justification being that free speech must be balanced with other "values" (usually safety) in some half-baked values porridge ("Safety," "Climate Justice").

And how could it be otherwise?  Why would anyone bring himself to critically examine whatever innate moralistic impulse they might sense unless he finds that it conflicts with a longstanding moral tradition that commands his reverence?  Absent the spirit of reverend devotion, commandments become suggestions, and a Bill of Rights becomes a Guideline of Best Practices.  Should either come under fire, no amount of "Empathy" or "Decency" will impel any kind of sacrifice, resistance, or resolution in their defense.

Likewise, if the locus of righteousness lies in the Decency of the Individual, and one receives a signal from the most immersive propaganda apparatus ever built that all right-thinking people believe that men can breastfeed, how could one oppose this signal?  Even if one were inclined to do so, on what grounds?  "Decency" cannot be "argued" with or against; rather, it lies in the person.  Your options are to be regarded as Decent or Indecent.  What would you choose?

It is thus the natural consequence that a social cohort that abandoned mythos — while being nonetheless inclined towards moralism — would be completely enthralled by groupthink.

So comes the ultimate irony.  The LIB's emancipation from any traditional religious or civic mythos, carried out in the hope of their achieving perfect moral and rational autonomy (more accurately on the presumption that they had already achieved it), in the end obliterates whatever autonomy one was afforded under said traditions.  Such a subject ceases to be a moral agent at all and becomes a passive instrument, completely under the sway of the dictates of prevailing opinion, whether it lies with the masses, the propagandists, or some combination of both. 

"Decency" turns out to be such a weak moral foundation that any ethic built upon it descends immediately into nihilism, whereby the most basic presumption of moral agency — that of an autonomous, deliberative moral subject — ceases to hold.

In a sense, the best answer to the question of why the LIBs abandoned any regard for liberal values is that it wasn't they who did it.  They're not the ones at the wheel.

Image: JSMed via Pixabay, Pixabay License.

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