In 2004, shortly after President Reagan’s passing, James Piereson wrote an important essay for The Weekly Standard (which we’ve referenced here a few times) defining “Punitive Liberalism“:
From the time of John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 to Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, the Democratic party was gradually taken over by a bizarre doctrine that might be called Punitive Liberalism. According to this doctrine, America had been responsible for numerous crimes and misdeeds through its history for which it deserved punishment and chastisement. White Americans had enslaved blacks and committed genocide against Native Americans. They had oppressed women and tyrannized minority groups, such as the Japanese who had been interned in camps during World War II. They had been harsh and unfeeling toward the poor. By our greed, we had despoiled the environment and were consuming a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth and resources. We had coddled dictators abroad and violated human rights out of our irrational fear of communism.
Given this bill of indictment, the Punitive Liberals held that Americans had no right at all to feel pride in their country’s history or optimism about its future. Those who expressed such pride were written off as ignorant patriots who could not face up to the sins of the past; and those who looked ahead to a brighter future were dismissed as naive “Pollyannas” who did not understand that the brief American century was now over. The Punitive Liberals felt that the purpose of national policy was to punish the nation for its crimes rather than to build a stronger America and a brighter future for all.
Here the Punitive Liberals parted company from earlier liberal reformers such as FDR, Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, who viewed reform as a means of bringing the promise of American life within reach of more of our people. The earlier reformers believed deeply that the American experiment in self-government was inherently good, and that the task of policy was to improve it. But in the troubled years following Kennedy’s death, the reform tradition took on a furrowed brow and a punitive visage.
In many ways, Jimmy Carter, and his leading appointees, were the perfect exemplars of Punitive Liberalism. Given their sour outlook, it is no wonder that their leadership generated a sense of “malaise” among the American people.
What happens when it expands from viewing America as the source of all of the world’s ills to believing it’s man himself? In Spiked, Frank Furedi confronts “The New Misanthropy“:
All of today’s various doomsday scenarios – whether it’s the millennium bug, oil depletion, global warming, avian flu or the destruction of biodiversity – emphasise human culpability. Their premise is that the human species is essentially destructive and morally bankrupt. ‘With breathtaking insolence’, warns Lovelock in his book The Revenge of Gaia, ‘humans have taken the stores of carbon that Gaia buried to keep oxygen at its proper level and burnt them’.
Human activity is continually blamed for threatening the Earth’s existence. Scare stories about the scale of human destruction appear in the media and are promoted by advocacy groups and politicians. For example, it was recently claimed that human activity has reduced the number of birds and fish species by 35 per cent over the past 30 years. That story was circulated by the environmentalist news service Planet Ark and picked up by the mainstream media, and widely cited as evidence that human action causes ecological destruction. Our engagement with nature is frequently described as ‘ecocide’, the heedless and deliberate destruction of the environment. In short, humanity’s attempt to domesticate nature is discussed as something akin to genocide or the Holocaust. The title of Franz Broswimmer’s polemic Ecocide: A Short History of the Mass Extinction of Species captures this sense of loathing towards humanity. According to Jared Diamond, ‘ecocide has now come to overshadow nuclear war and emerging diseases as the threat to global civilisations’ (4).
Increasingly, the term ‘human impact’ is associated with pollution, wanton destruction and the stripping bare of the Earth’s assets. Former US vice president Al Gore is concerned that the ‘power of technologies now at our disposal vastly magnifies the impact each individual can have on the natural world’, causing a ‘violent destructive collision between our civilisation and the Earth’ (5). Over the past 400 years, the human impact on the world, which led to the humanisation of nature, was celebrated by Western culture – these days, human ingenuity is regarded ambiguously or even suspiciously.
Indeed, the very idea of civilisation is presented as a force for ecological destruction. ‘Civilisations have been destroying the living systems of the Earth for at least 5,000 years’, says one misanthrophic account (6). According to some environmentalists, humans are a ‘foreign negative element’, even a ‘cancer on the environment’ (7). For radical environmentalists, the degradation of nature stems from our species’ belief in its unique qualities. Such a belief – dubbed ‘anthropocentrism’ – is openly denounced for endangering the planet. Human-centred ideology, which views nature from the perspective of its utility for people, is said to be destroying the environment. And this tendency to depict humans as parasites on the planet is not confined to any small circle of cultural pessimists. Michael Meacher, Britain’s former minister for the environment, has referred to humans as ‘the virus’ infecting the Earth’s body.
Read the whole thing, as this decidedly non-misanthropic fellow would say.