The Tyranny of Critique

I enjoy these fluffy attempts of those on the right to justify the state of the world and what it needs by mindless critiques of “liberalism.” What Mr Kalb is grasping for is actually a basic flaw in human nature. It’s a flaw, by the way, found equally often on the right as it is on the left. Everything Mr Kalb decries as a product of so-called liberalism: tyranny, the impersonal, the pursuit of satisfaction, eradication of standards (deregulation, in other words), an expert elite (such as a Nixon or Bush presidency above the law), corruption and suppression of family life (sweatshops, the imprisonments of the so-called War on Drugs), getting fit into a managed system, the bedmates of tv and internet–it’s all found on the Right, too. In other words, pretty much everything Mr Kalb describes as the excesses of liberalism, are in fact also excesses of the conservative ideology. How on earth can it be so?

Mr Kalb is correct on one thing, though he glosses over it. Moderation is one key: the avoidance of extremism. The worst of the conservative extremists exhibit nearly all of the problems described in the interview. The problem isn’t a tyranny of liberalism. It’s a tyranny of extremism. And let’s think back to our own experiences of life: we’ve all known people who have made others miserable by their single-minded bullheadedness on certain issues.

One perfect example: take my mom. She was a fear fanatic, and passed on fear of many things to me and my siblings. Now sure, there are things a child should be afraid of: candy from strangers, playing in the street, juggling sharp objects, stuff like that. Other things carry a certain risk, like playing football or kissing a girl, but you live through the risk. You live with the risk because of the potential good: chumming with friends, playing sports, or having a romance. My mother wasn’t a liberal; she was just tilted toward having irrational fears.

So sure, liberals setting up a truth commission is a problem. But so is an enemies’ list. Joe McCarthy, for example, took a perfectly reasonable thing: suspicion of a communist dictatorship, and turned it into a job deprivation program (one of the Republicans’ favorite tools then and now) fueled by irrationality. Was Joe a liberal because he was a tyrant? Heck no. He was a tyrant because he was an extremist.

The other caution I have about these self-congratulatory conservatives is that the passion for their cause (some might say extremism) they lose the ability to self-examine. Has the conservative ethos been so perfect that it can’t abide correction? Could that inability to reform have contributed in some way to the mass of fencesitters to leaping on someone else’s bandwagon?

The Right is laboring under a massive tyranny of its own making right now. Many people have been given an opportunity to turn political defeat into a time for being forged in the wilderness. Instead, they see it as a time of martyrdom. It’s no surprise that the rhetoric from the Right is getting louder. And that they’re calling for others to be cast into the wilderness (denial of Communion). It’s not a smarter ideology. When you see yourself stranded in the wilderness, you have to yell to make yourself heard and you’re pretty lonely for company besides.

Here’s what I think is going to have to happen if the liberals are to be saved from following down the road of conservative tyranny of the past decade. The Right needs a searching and fearless self-examination: what went wrong and how much of it was their own fault. A concession that demonizing the opposite (or complementary) ideology is the height of hubris, not insight.

The Church has a more difficult time of this. Self-proclaimed experts reinforce the tyranny we suffer. They don’t reveal that it might be that Pope Benedict and others are looking for and labelling tyranny because they themselves have acted in tyrannical ways. It’s also tough for some people to untangle the Church’s profession of truth in Christ from what is truly of human manufacture.

That’s why dialogue is important: not for the opportunity of convincing the opposite ideology, but as a part of the exercise of self-correction. Without the perspective of the whole community, the catholic community, the danger is a certain congregationalism. Isn’t that a kick? The advocation of a small church, getting smaller, is itself a sign of self-deception. Trim away the difficult and challenging voices that force uncomfortable realities to be confronted.

So next time you read one of those critiques, take it with a serious grain of salt. If it feels comfortable, consider how a recliner chair and a cool drink jive with the wilderness of the pilgrim way.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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13 Responses to The Tyranny of Critique

  1. JC says:

    Well, duh, American “conservatism”, particularly “neo-conservatism” is just a form of liberalism in original sense.
    Burkean/Kirkean conservatism is now dismissed as a fossil even by most Republicans.

  2. Fran says:

    You have articulated something really important here. And the image of the recliner and a cool drink in the wilderness will be with me on my prayer journey today.

  3. Todd says:

    JC, the Republican technique is to point fingers and say, “aha!” You may have missed the point of the essay here.

    Germane to the point is whether or not James Kalb views ideological liberalism as the root of Ronald Reagan, Deal Hudson, et. al..

    Even if he does, it’s not clear in this brief essay. But giving him the benefit of the doubt on this, I don’t mind saying he’s on to the right diagnosis; it’s just that self-congratulatory conservative Catholics won’t see themselves in his critique. They will align themselves on the side of tyranny nonetheless.

  4. brian says:

    The last remarks of Mr. Kalb sum up the misguided desires of the restorationists and reactionaries. He says what’s needed is the “Pope and natural law” or in other words, religious authority and religious (basically) legalism. It’s obvious why he doesn’t mention the message of Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus opposed both things.

    In other words, what Mr Kalb desires is a monarchy that enforces Aristotelian science. Both institutions have been eclipsed by better systems more than once. What I find troubling is the current Pope’s emphasis on faith and reason being complimentary, not that that’s not true, but that it’s always interpreted to mean that our morality is Aristotle’s aristocratic ethics and Jesus was the sacrifice whose death did something magical that makes us go to heaven.

  5. JC says:

    “JC, the Republican technique is to point fingers and say, “aha!” You may have missed the point of the essay here.”
    ??
    Since I’m not a Republican, I’m not sure what you’re saying here.

    “self-congratulatory conservative Catholics won’t see themselves in his critique. They will align themselves on the side of tyranny nonetheless.”
    Technically, I’m on the side of Natural Law. Tyranny is the government of passion, be it the passions of the majority or the passions of the oligarchy or the dictator. Plato, Aristotle and John Adams saw this as the the perennial danger and self destruction of democracy.

    Both the modern day Republican party and the Democratic party are, in the absolute sense, “liberal.” Apparently, this Kalb guy is pointing out flaws in “liberals”, and this blog post is pointing out the same flaws in Republicans.

    I am merely pointing out that Republicans and Democrats are both, in the strict sense, “liberals,” so I’m basically agreeing with you.

    I’m just sick of traditional and pro-life Catholics being bonded with the Republican Party, and I’ll stand up to anyone who either a) requires such a bond or b) insists on painting all “right wing” Catholics as “Republicans.”

    I’m about the Catholic faith. Not about socialism disguised as Catholicism. Not about freemasonry disguised as Catholiciism. Not about New Age Gnosicism disguised as Catholicism. Not about social pleasantry and good manners disguised as Catholicism. Not a 1960s marijuana party disguised as Catholicism. Not an elitist prep school fraternity disguised as Catholicism.

    But *Catholicism*. The religion of the Saints . The religion that calls for renunciatino of the world as one of the three great enemies of our soul. The religion of St. Jerome, of St. Ignatius of Antioch, of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.

  6. JC says:

    OK, I’ve read the article. You’re the one who isn’t getting it.
    First, Kalb isn’t really saying anything about politics at all. He’s talking about the infection of the Church by what Pius XII called “the smell of sulfur” and Paul VI called “the smoke of Satan”: the adoption of modernism by Catholics.

    He’s talking about the Church, not politics. He’s not “justifying” anything but condemning the whole state of affairs.

  7. Todd says:

    JC, in that case, I reject the whole line of reasoning you have working for you. The so-called “smoke of S—-” is only smoke and mirrors: it has no substance to it.

    Interpersonal relations on the level of ideologies are certainly politics–the Church is full of politics.

    Not that politics is a bad thing; it’s a natural consequence of human sociology. What I think is wrong is political extremism, be it in the Church or outside of it.

  8. Jimmy Mac says:

    “The smoke of satan has entered the sanctuary”:

    http://www.greenspun.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg.tcl?msg_id=00Azmn

    http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2008/05/cardinal-noe-on-smoke-of-satan-and_15.html

    Pius Xii’s “the smell of sulfur” is alleged by this man to do with Freemasonry in the church:

    http://www.pepe-rodriguez.com/Masoneria/Vatican_and_Masons.htm

    Here’s a catchy little quote from his article:

    “For Luigi Villa, director of the magazine Chiesa Viva, there was no doubt that the Popes John XXIII and Paul VI were freemasons, but the arguments given to justify such an opinion do not support even a sneeze, that’s how flimsy they were… although many current conservative prelates are still repeating those in private, making freemasons out of Paul VI, the Cardinals Casaroli, Cardinal Pio Laghi, Agostino Bea or Benelli, and Lanza Montezemolo -designer of the new papal coat-, and any other who would smell like progressivism.”

    And there is this quote (http://romancatholicblog.typepad.com/roman_catholic_blog/2009/01/smoking-bishop.html)

    “The type of smoke (sulfurous smoke, that comes from the pit of Hell and burning brimstone)Pope Pius XII reportedly mentioned when his Jesuit advisers, in the late 1940s, were trying to convince him that Opus Dei was heretical and that it’s now sainted founder Josemarie Escriva should be silenced. Pius XII reportedly shouted to the Jesuits “I smell sulfur” as he rejected their specious arguments and ordered them out of his office.”

  9. Michael says:

    If there were Freemasons in the Vatican, they wouldn’t have protected pedophiles.

  10. JC says:

    “JC, in that case, I reject the whole line of reasoning you have working for you.”
    Of course you do.
    I just want to be clear that there is a difference between those of us who advocate a purely Catholic vision and those whom we may hold our nose and adopt as allies under certain circumstances.
    As much as you claim to dislike “Republican Catholics,” you have far more in common with them than you are willing to admit. You are both species of the progressive genus.

    “The so-called “smoke of S—-” is only smoke and mirrors: it has no substance to it.”
    In the context of the homily, Paul VI was referring to the infestation of modernist ideologies and moral relativism among the hierarchy.

    “Interpersonal relations on the level of ideologies are certainly politics–the Church is full of politics.”
    True enough, but then we’re getting into two separate issues under the same name. “Politics” in the sense of temporal affairs, the _res publica_ in the original sense of the term, and “politics” in the sense of internal dynamics of any organization.

    So, let’s take your favorite target du jour. Is Raymond Burke playing politics? I dunno. In the *schema* of politics, his approach has always been that of a traditional bishop. Burke has always given me the impression of someone whose primary goal is to serve the role of a true bishop.

    However, I have a *certain* agreement with you regarding Chaput. He seems to turn wherever the wind blows in the Church (not in society).

    What I take offense at is the incorrect notion that certain bishops are trying to influence the government sphere by their actions. They know very well they’re not going to change the politicians’ minds. They’re trying to influence the internal “politics” of the Church, whether that’s for better or worse.

    Now, to this point:
    “What I think is wrong is political extremism, be it in the Church or outside of it.”
    OK. But you also seem to confuse *religious* “extremism”, that is, the quest for personal perfection, with *political* extremism (either in or out).
    Because that quest necessarily involves rankling somebody’s feathers. It necessarily involves not “fitting in” with the polite, politic society.

    It necessarily involves taking, by extension, political views that appear “extremist”, or, I would contend an “extremist” approach to politics-as-such.

  11. Todd says:

    “But you also seem to confuse *religious* “extremism”, that is, the quest for personal perfection, with *political* extremism”

    No. I don’t see religious extremism in the pro-life movement, by and large. I see politics, and not very effective politics, at that. There also may be a certain extreme scrupulosity: the negative side of a religious extremism.

    As I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with politics per se. But one can make a god of it.

    In the realm of faith, I think it is possible–desirable–to be fully committed without being an extremist. There is a quality about certain saints that inspired leadership or today inspires imitation–in spite of their flaws. The monastic tradition reinforces the values of moderation, stability, and the like.

  12. JC says:

    ” I don’t see religious extremism in the pro-life movement, by and large. I see politics, and not very effective politics, at that.”
    Certainly not effective. This is an argument I’ve been making lately, that we need to seriously look at what “the other side” does. The world is now convinced of the absolute morality of principles that, even decades ago, were anathema.
    Just 20 years ago, PETA were a bunch of wackos who threw paint on people’s clothes. Now, more Americans think it’s immoral to wear fur than think it’s immoral to have an abortion or get a divorce. Now, PETA has the power to shut down the farming operation of a fairly liberal monastery.

    The political side of the pro-life movement needs to be totally re-evaluated.

    NRLC has been saying for 35 years that it has a 30 year strategy to overturn _Roe_.

    But here’s what I see when I visit sites like Huffington Post and Reproductive Health Reality Check.

    They always accuse NRLC, or the US Bishops, the Republicans, etc., of hypocrisy in regard to being pro-life. Until recently, I haven’t seen anyone accusing Judie Brown/ALL, HLI or Alan Keyes of being hypocrites. I’ve heard them called “crazies” and “extremists” and whatever.

    But they’re actually *consistent* in their pro-life/pro-family viewpoint, speaking out equally against abortion, contraception, IVF, ESCR, vaccinations, divorce and homosexuality. When pressed, they don’t find ways to compromise out of situations. You may call HLI and ALL political, you may call them extremists, but both groups are far more interested in spiritual warfare and pro-life education than politics.

    What ticks me off so much lately is that, starting with their open letter to Bill Donohue last year, followed up by Kmiec, etc., Obama’s Catholic supporters have given him the ammunition to totally reframe the debate.
    They’ve bought into Obama’s “abortion prevention” thing, and they go are openly advocating “preventing” abortion by contraception.

    Now, that has been coupled with the whole AIDS thing to say that being aganinst contraception makes pro-lifers “hypocrites.”

    And I blame that on the philosophy of compromise established by politically active Catholics on both sides.

    Politics is about building consensus. Religion is about sticking to a hard and fast set of beliefs.

  13. “The Church has a more difficult time of this. Self-proclaimed experts reinforce the tyranny we suffer. They don’t reveal that it might be that Pope Benedict and others are looking for and labelling tyranny because they themselves have acted in tyrannical ways. It’s also tough for some people to untangle the Church’s profession of truth in Christ from what is truly of human manufacture.”

    Does that mean that the libertarians get to ignore all the encyclicals on economic and labor because they prefer to make virtues of selfishness and greed?

    Does that mean that the war mongers can go to war with impunity as is their wont?

    Does that mean that women are free to contracept themselves because they want the selfishness of sex but not the openness?

    Does that mean that early abortions are OK because they sure don’t look like you so how could they be human?

    When you walk the slippery slope of claiming some Church teaching is of human origin, i.e. is not grounded in a higher truth, then any part of Church teaching comes into doubt with those that most appear to be of “human origin” being the first to go.

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