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.