The eclipse of tolerance
On it's main page today, PJ Media is running the second installment of its symposium on the most under-reported stories of 2013. Last week, the focus was on under-reported stories in the world of foreign affairs. My PJM colleagues Andrew McCarthy, Claudia Rosett, Michael Ledeen, and David Goldman ("Spengler") weigh in on the pogram against Christians in the Middle East, the decline of American power, the rise of China's technological prowess, and other matters. This week, the focus is on under-reported stories on the domestic front. This is my contribution:
One of the most underreported domestic stories of 2013 was the eclipse of tolerance as a prime liberal virtue and its enrollment in the index of unpermissible reactionary vices.
Now, it might seem odd to say this story was “underreported.” After all, these last couple of weeks have been full of headlines about a conspicuous example of this process: I mean the controversy over Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson. Let me begin with an aside. As I write, that particular controversy is just about to be swallowed up by the oblivion marked “yesterday’s news.” Already, it may be difficult to bring details of the story into focus. So remember what happened: Robertson gave an interview to GQ magazine. The interview was mostly a color piece in which the city-slicker GQ editor goes shooting with the camouflaged-accoutered, pogonophilic sexagenarian in the Louisiana wilds. So far, so good.
But the piece was not only about Phil Robertson’s exotic world — exotic, anyway, to GQ metropolitan audience. It was also about the world according to Phil Robertson. And that world — it is at once integral to Duck Dynasty’s oddity and the engine of its wild popularity — is the world as understood by a self-described “Bible-thumping,” “white trash” Christian. That is, Phil Robertson and his family not only dress in a way that is foreign to 99.976 percent of GQ’s audience, not only are their avocations and diet and taste in facial hair foreign, but their beliefs about the world, about good and evil, about how we should — and very much how we shouldn’t — live our lives seem deeply odd to GQ’s audience as well. For the most part, the oddity produces an agreeable frisson of difference. For the most part. But, as all the world knows now, among the many things Phil Robertson offered his opinions about in that GQ interview was sexuality, including homosexuality. Robertson does not approve of homosexuality. Nor does he approve of bestiality or promiscuity.
It may still be possible to disapprove publicly of bestiality and promiscuity. I stress the subjunctive: it may be. I would not be at all surprised to discover that there are enlightened humanities departments at expensive colleges where bestiality and promiscuity are this week’s transgressive specialité de la maison. But homosexuality is one of those subjects — race is another, differences among the sexes is a third — that has been enveloped in a cocoon of politically correct Newspeak. If you violate the cocoon, prepare for ostracism or worse.
What happened to Phil Robertson was typical. GLAAD, the homosexual and “transgender” activist group, attacked him andcalled on the A&E network, which airs Duck Dynasty, to cancel the show. A&E promptly responded, suspending Robertson.
So far, this was just business as usual in the precincts of our society dominated by so-called “liberal” (really, it’s deeply illiberal) intolerance. GLAAD repudiated Phil Robertson because he said things GLAAD described as “vile” and “extremist.” But what had he said? That in his view homosexuality — like promiscuity, like bestiality — was a sin. Robertson was quick to acknowledge that that he, too, was a sinner: at one time his life had been ruled by sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Now he was a changed man. But while he might disapprove, he did not judge: “We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus.”
Such admissions cut no mustard with GLAAD. Robertson had expressed impermissible opinions. Therefore he must be punished. Never mind that his opinions were merely restatements of what has been mainstream moral teaching in the West for millennia. Robertson violated the current politically correct dispensation. He must be silenced.
There has been a lot written about this latest chapter in the saga of politically correct intolerance. Among the very best are two pieces by Mark Steyn, both in National Review Online. In the first, “The Age of Intolerance,” Steyn underscores the “totalitarian” aspect of this allotrope of progressive political correctness: “thug groups like GLAAD increasingly oppose the right of Christians even to argue their corner,” he points out. “It’s quicker and more effective to silence them.”
In the second piece, “Re-education Camp,” Steyn offers a blistering response to a craven and obtuse objection from one of his editors at NR. “I’m not inclined to euphemize intimidation and bullying as a lively exchange of ideas,” Steyn writes with characteristic forthrightness.
But despite the abundant commentary the Robertson-GLAAD-A&E controversy has attracted, there is more to be said.
Two points. First, the episode got a surprise twist this weekend when, bowing to pressure from Robertson’s multitudinous fans and supporters, A&E announced that it was reinstating Robertson and pushing forward with the show. GLAAD, of course, blasted the decision. And A&E’s announcement was itself a masterpiece of inadvertent comedy in its rhetorical pretzel of emetic bloviation: “A&E Networks’ core values are centered around creativity, inclusion and mutual respect. . . . We will also use this moment to launch a national public service campaign (PSA) promoting unity, tolerance and acceptance among all people, a message that supports our core values as a company, and the values found in Duck Dynasty.”
Ah, yes, “tolerance.” That brings me to point two: notwithstanding the vociferous public support for Robertson and criticism of A&E and GLAAD, this twist in the story should not blind us to the fate of tolerance in the metabolism of our social life. “Tolerance” was once a, perhaps the prime, liberal virtue. But it has long since been enrolled in the index prohibitorum of reactionary vices. The great thing about tolerance was the moral breathing space it provided. A liberal might tolerate what he disapproved of because he advocated pluralism, or because he valued freedom, or because he believed in free speech. The problem for illiberal “liberals” — that is, for politically correct totalitarians who mouth progressive sentiments to camouflage their fundamental intolerance with liberal plumage — is that tolerance implies criticism. One tolerates something despite one’s aesthetic or moral or intellectual or political disapproval. Gaining tolerance was only the first, ultimately dispensable, step in a process that eventually jettisoned tolerance for the goal of uncritical celebration and affirmation. That is what “thug groups” like GLAAD want: not tolerance but celebration and moral parity. Tolerance is a conspicuous obstacle to those desiderata; therefore, tolerance must be met with intolerance.
That, I believe, is more or less where we are today, no matter the local victory of Phil Robertson and Sarah Palin against the politically correct commissars who would police our speech and the moral weather of our society. This is a story that is underreported because we are a long way from facing up to its implications. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, our society oscillates between a breathtaking latitudinarianism about certain things when expressed in an approved manner by approved groups and an almost puritanical astringency and intolerance about other things. Your local newsstand, to say nothing of your local internet connection, offers a smorgasbord of lubricious fare that would have been considered beyond the pale, and often outside the law, a few short decades ago. But set foot on almost any college campus and you will soon find that the proclaimed “commitment to diversity” really means subscribing to speech codes and adhering to an agenda of intellectual conformity about any contentious issue.
This is where political correctness comes in. Liberals sacrifice their commitment to liberalism when they subscribe to political correctness. The question is: why do they do it? A large part of the answer lies in the fact that they do not believe that their political opinions are only their political opinions. They believe instead that their view of the world is the view that any right-thinking (which also means, any left-leaning) person would believe. Hence, any serious dissent from that view is regarded not as a challenge but as a heresy. One replies to a challenge. One endeavors to stamp out a heresy.
To some extent, what I am talking about is part of a larger antinomy of liberalism. At the center of liberalism is the doctrine of tolerance. But tolerance absolutized spells the end, first, of tolerance, and, then, of liberalism itself. The problem for liberals in the era of political correctness has been holding fast to positive values that can survive the corrosive bath of absolutized tolerance. Their failure exposes them, on one side, to moral impotence and, on the other, to a species of moral totalitarianism.
Two final observations. Back in the 1920s, John Fletcher Moulton, a British jurist, articulated a principle he called “obedience to the unenforceable.” All social life, he observed, took place on a spectrum between absolute freedom at one end and positive law at the other. In some areas of life we are completely free to do whatever we like. In others, we are constrained by the coercive power of the state about what we must and must not do. In between, was a vast realm, more or less free, more or less restrained, governed not by law or by whim but by custom, manners, taste, convention — the domain, said Moulton, of “obedience to the unenforceable.” “The real greatness of a nation,” he wrote, “its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of obedience to the unenforceable. It measures the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and its area testifies to the way they behave in response to that trust.” Already in the 1920s, Moulton worried about the incursion on this intermediate realm of ordered liberty from increasing statism, on one side, and increasing anarchy on the other. Now, nearly 100 years on, we have traveled far down that road. The intermediate realm that Moulton praises has been further and further compressed. This has tended to erase the critical difference between the idea that one can do something — i.e., that no law prohibits it — and that one may do it. “There can,” Moulton observes, “be no more fatal error than this.”
Between “can do” and “may do” ought to exist the whole realm which recognizes the sway of duty, fairness, sympathy, taste, and all the other things that make life beautiful and society possible. It is this confusion between “can do” and “may do” which makes me fear at times lest in the future the worst tyranny will be found in democracies. Interests which are not strongly represented in parliament may be treated as though they had no rights by Governments who think that the power and the will to legislate amount to a justification of that legislation. Such a principle would be death to liberty. No part of our life would be secure from interference from without. If I were asked to define tyranny, I would say it was yielding to the lust of governing. It is only when Governments feel it an honorable duty not to step beyond that which was in reality, and not only in form, put into their hands that the world will know what true Freedom is.
Moulton’s celebration of the civilizing climate of the land of obedience to the unenforceable, and his anatomy of those imperatives that were diminishing the extent and commodiousness of that realm, have great pertinence to the prospect before us. There is a lot more to be said about Moulton’s observations, especially about how his ideas might provide a sort of prophylactic against the corrosive, freedom-blighting intrusions of political correctness. But for now I’d like to conclude by placing this latest episode of politically correct madness in a broader cultural context. In 1994, Irving Kristol, in an essay called “Countercultures,” observed that
“Sexual liberation” is always near the top of a countercultural agenda — though just what form the liberation takes can and does vary, sometimes quite widely. Women’s liberation, likewise, is another consistent feature of all countercultural movements —liberation from husbands, liberation from children, liberation from family. Indeed, the real object of these various sexual heterodoxies is to disestablish the family as the central institution of human society, the citadel of orthodoxy.
This brings us pretty close, I believe, to what is at stake in the controversy over Phil Robertson and those who would silence him. Advocates of liberal intolerance believe that we — all we progressive, pajama-boy, politically correct elites — are finished with that “citadel of orthodoxy” and the traditional moral dispensation it relies upon. Perhaps the real question, however, is whether that moral dispensation is done with us.
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