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Global Culture Wars

In February, the Kremlin announced that Russia is tightening its ban on same-sex couples adopting Russian children. A new law prohibits single people in countries that allow same-sex marriage from adopting children from Russia, one of the world’s largest sources of children for adoption. (Adoptions by Americans were banned early in 2013 for different reasons.) This follows a pattern. Last year, Putin signed a law prohibiting “propaganda promoting non-traditional sexual relations” that can be seen by minors. Just before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, he allowed that gays and lesbians could attend but urged them to “leave the children in peace.” At present, a bill is before the Russian parliament that would ban people in “non-traditional” relationships from contracting with surrogate mothers.

Commentators ascribe this moralism to domestic Russian politics, arguing that Putin is shoring up his conservative base of support. No doubt that’s true, but that’s not the whole story. Putin is thinking internationally as well, positioning Russia to lead an anti-Western coalition along moral as well as geopolitical lines. In a speech last December, he pledged to defend “family values” and reject moral relativism, pointedly observing that this message appeals to “more and more people across the world who support our position.”

The message resonates. When it comes to culture, America and Western NGOs are global aggressors. For a long time, we’ve been promoting contraception and abortion throughout the world. More recently, we’ve promoted gay rights as well. The U.S. Department of State’s Global Equality Fund, dedicated to advancing LGBT rights, is one among many initiatives, some government sponsored, others carried forward by international organizations. In these and in other ways, progressives in the West are carrying the war on traditional culture to the rest of the world. Reproductive rights, gay rights—they’re the new White Man’s Burden.

The Catholic Church has experienced the cultural aggression of Western progressives. A recent report from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child chides the Vatican for failing to adopt “a comprehensive child-rights based approach,” which of course means adopting the usual progressive views about gender and sexual morality. Not only does the committee’s report require excluding the “discriminatory expression ‘illegitimate children’” from canon law, it also expresses concern “about the Holy See’s past statements and declarations on homosexuality which contribute to the social stigmatization of and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adolescents and children raised by same sex couples.”

This sort of browbeating goes on throughout the world, backed up with the carrot of funds for special projects or the stick of sanctions, including withdrawal of foreign aid. For example, in 2011, David Cameron pledged to cut foreign aid to countries deemed unfriendly to homosexuals.

This new imperialism, like the old imperialism, is bound to create ill will. In response to Cameron’s threat, a Ugandan official rejected the “bullying mentality” and said he was “tired of these lectures” that treat Ugandans as “children.” Actions have followed. The Ugandan legislature passed draconian antihomosexual legislation. Recently, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan signed a law criminalizing homosexuality. Whatever one thinks of the morality or wisdom of these laws, they’re not coming forward in a vacuum. They represent calculated counter-responses to Western pressure. They win praise from those in Africa who see the West as representing unalloyed libertinism. The same is true in the Middle East and elsewhere.

And who can blame them? In early February, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power joined forces with two members of the rock band Pussy Riot to discuss “disturbing trends” in Russia. In 2008, the band participated in a staged orgy designed to mock then-presidential candidate Dmitry Medvedev’s call for Russian women to have more children. In 2012, in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the band engaged in an uninvited protest performance for which they were arrested and eventually sent to jail.

In itself, the episode at the U.N. was unexceptional. Power is the sort of person who likes to compliment herself for being a progressive among progressives. But an astute foreign observer notes the context. American foreign policy is at present trying to domesticate Iran and salvage democracy in Ukraine, neither of which is possible without Russian cooperation. Thus, the message is clear: When it comes to American foreign policy, our cultural imperialism takes precedence over our geopolitical goals. Power is so confident in the triumphant rectitude of her moral sentiments that she doesn’t think twice about the diplomatic costs of promoting the cause of Pussy Riot.

Were I a political leader in Iran, Pakistan, Kenya, or any other country worried about the ways in which rapid economic development dissolves traditional societies, I’d read this episode as yet another sign of the West’s declaration of cultural war. And I’d be on the lookout for a leader of global resistance.

Recently, Cristina Kirchner hosted Fidel Castro, which many Americans misread as indicating approval of his failed economic policies in Cuba. Castro is a hero throughout Latin America—welcome in nearly every presidential palace—not because of his communism but because for more than half a century he’s given the finger to the United States, something Argentines and Brazilians and Peruvians and others relish because they resent the ways they’ve been steamrolled by American culture and American power.

Some of that resentment is inevitable, given our national interests and our supereminence. When you’re really big, you cast a large shadow. But some of the anti-Americanism is a function of our diplomatic arrogance, our smugness, and our surpassingly ignorant belief that deep down everybody wants to be an American. To a great extent, we’ve created Castro. If he didn’t exist, somebody else would have filled the anti-American role in Latin America.

As people like Samantha Power export our culture wars, I foresee us doing the same, this time in the large part of the world concerned with sustaining aspects of traditional religion and morality. For every LGBT move we make, Putin makes a countermove, positioning himself as the global leader of traditional values over and against the moral nihilism that, sadly, is becoming the American brand. The goal of true patriots should be to deprive Putin of this easy anti-Americanism by restoring the moral dimension of our vision of freedom.

George Marsden on 1950s Liberalism

After World War II, a consensus about truth gave way to a consensus about the importance of consensus. The result: a liberal politics without principle that required an arbitrary (because without principle) and sometimes ruthless suppression of dissent—which in turn encouraged a committed and sometimes fierce politics of conviction. Thus the culture wars of recent decades. That’s the thesis of George Marsden’s readable and insightful history of American liberalism, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s 1949 book, The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, was emblematic of the new consensus liberalism. Capitalism and technology, he argued, lever modern man out of traditional forms of social solidarity. The resulting homelessness makes us vulnerable to collectivist ideologies such as communism and fascism. He proposed a politics of mediation between the new freedoms of modernity and the enduring human need for solidarity. It would be liberal, because committed to constitutional freedoms, and at the same time “social,” because committed to using state power to manage capitalism and to direct its creative power toward the common good. With this combination, Schlesinger promised to “restore the balance between individual and community.”

What principles were to guide this restoration of balance? None, as it turns out. Schlesinger and others thought America had entered a new phase of politics and culture. In the past, men fought over religious convictions and moral principles. Traditional public life was riven by a politics of conviction that in the twentieth century took rigid ideological forms. Schlesinger and others thought providence had been kind to America, however. We were spared the worse excesses of ideological conflict. Moreover, they believed we were entering a new social and cultural phase, one in which pragmatism and empiricism, not principles, were coming to the fore.

The title of Daniel Bell’s collection of essays, published in 1962, captures this vision perfectly: The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. By his reckoning, sensible, responsible people of the sort who were running the country had discarded political ideologies, committing themselves to rational, nonideological adjustments of the status quo. It was an entirely plausible supposition at the time. As Marsden points out, “science” was a hallelujah word in the 1950s, used to sell cars, cigarettes, and social policies. Urban planning and economic management were scientific, and therefore transcended ideology. Although the term had yet to be invented, the liberalism of the 1950s envisioned governance by technocrats, which meant reasonable people like themselves who could see the larger picture and rise above petty partisan interests.

Science also provided a purportedly objective definition of human flourishing. Marsden catalogues the many “scientific” experts cited by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique: Eric Fromm, David Riesman, Abraham Maslow, Karen Horney, Rollo May, and others. From them she distilled a supposed truth about human nature, which is our need “to grow.” It is “man’s will to be all that is in him to be.”

Again, as was the case in Schlesinger’s restoration of balance, there are no clear principles or criteria. Just what we’re to grow toward remains vague, leading to the strange combination of urgent moralism and open-ended gestures. This is true not just for Friedan but also for the social critics and psychologists she cites. In a great deal of the influential literature of the 1950s, criticism of conformism and consumerism had hard edges, but the alternatives tended toward platitudes. We’re to grow toward greater meaning, toward autonomy and psychological freedom, toward authenticity and integral identity.

One would think that politics without principles and a vision of personal growth without limiting criteria would be open and capacious. Of course, consensus liberals complimented themselves for having those qualities (and some actually did). But on the whole, the culture of consensus liberalism punished dissent: A higher intolerance followed from its transcendence of conviction. Pragmatism in politics requires denying principled public arguments and policies. Authenticity in personal life means rejecting the final say of traditional moral norms over our personal decisions about how to “be all I can be.” In a word: The end of ideology must be policed.

Thus the postwar liberal commitment to consensus gave rise to a new kind of intolerance that in later decades took the form of political correctness. In the old politics and culture of conviction, people used to be wrong and had to be corrected. Now they are deemed ideological, dogmatic, unscientific, inauthentic, judgmental—all of which is to say, unprogressive. These sorts of people should not be permitted to run the country!

To draw out the political correctness latent in 1950s liberalism, Marsden focuses on a telling episode. In 1955, Walter Lippmann published Essays in the Public Philosophy. It was conceived during the dark days just before the outbreak of World War II, when Lippmann feared for the future of the West’s “traditions of civility.” By his reading of history, these traditions—respect for private property, free speech, and constitutional government—had been advanced and defended by an often tacit, never fully elaborated, but influential and widely endorsed public philosophy based on natural law. It’s this public philosophy that Lippmann wanted to restore.

Lippmann was a journalist, not a philosopher, and Essays in the Public Philosophy is more exhortation than analysis. But anyone who has read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue will recognize the gist of Lippmann’s argument. The “public interest”—a term much favored by postwar consensus liberals—is a moral concept. We can’t know what’s best for the common good unless we have a measure, which requires principles of justice and a concept of human flourishing. Pragmatism can take us only so far. We can’t sustain a genuinely liberal society with a consensus about the importance of consensus. We need convictions about moral truth.

Consensus liberals attacked Lippmann. The New Republic described the book as that of a “badly frightened man.” Archibald MacLeish accused him of tacitly supporting McCarthyism. Although none of the reviewers said so, the root of their objections concerned moral truth. Lippmann thought it essential. They implicitly regarded it as a threat: a threat to governance by consensus, a threat to the calm application of scientific principles to social problems, and most of all a threat to human freedom and authenticity. We’re to be true to ourselves, not true to truth.

By Marsden’s reading, the 1960s should be understood as a reaction against the combination of unprincipled mushiness and clubby exclusivity that characterized consensus liberalism. The supposed end of ideology brought its opposite: a passionate decade of politics characterized by various and sometimes contradictory convictions. First came a rebellion on the right that ranged from William F. Buckley to the John Birch Society and culminated in the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Then came the SDS, the New Left, the antiwar movement, the Black Panthers, and street demonstrations outside the Democratic convention in 1968.

And not just the 1960s, but more recent decades as well. Marsden interprets the rise of the religious right in the 1970s and 1980s as a reaction against the moral relativism implicit in consensus liberalism. In his 1970 book, Dare to Discipline, James Dobson put forward a view of principled parenting, as it were, and he did so in self-conscious opposition to the open-ended, flexible, pragmatic liberal style. Francis Schaeffer made the political dimension explicit. In A Christian Manifesto, published in 1981, he issued a rallying call for Christians to fight against relativistic secular humanism and restore America as a Christian nation.

Little has changed. I remember futile arguments I had as an undergraduate about racial diversity and affirmative action. For the sake of equality, we were to give preferences on the basis of race. Okay, I’d ask, how much preference? How long? How would we know when we had a truly “diverse” student body? No answers were forthcoming, or rather lots of answers were, some contradictory. Beneath, behind, and above these discussions was the conviction that, justifiable or not, diversity and affirmative action were necessities. Progressive policies had to move forward one way or another, and we could and should trust the well-meaning liberals in positions of responsibility to make good, fair judgments—even though nobody could define what “fair” meant in these circumstances. Moreover, dissent was severely punished. Just as Lippmann had been accused of McCarthyism, to oppose affirmative action on any grounds in those days was to risk being labeled a racist.

Today some of the issues are different, but the same liberalism endures as a mushy but ruthlessly enforced consensus. Why same-sex marriage but not polygamy? Why a capacious commitment to free speech that permits pornography and at the same time endorses punitive speech codes that treat the N-word as cause for firing someone? How can we say that women aren’t different from men but at the same time need empowerment? Why heap shame on smokers but remain scrupulously nonjudgmental about sex? Most liberals can’t answer these questions, but that doesn’t alter their infuriating confidence that their sensibilities are meet and right.

Pluralism and Conviction

Marsden ends The Twilight of the American Enlightenment with reflections on the dead end to which we have come. Consensus liberalism suffers from a fatal dishonesty. Because it claims to serve the common good and at the same time to sustain authenticity with exemplary nonjudgmentalism, liberalism cannot recognize itself as merely one view among others. It must see itself as transcending the worldviews competing for control over American society (and, increasingly, over world culture). It is this conceit that supports the tyrannies of liberalism, which range from full-blown political correctness and the politics of denunciation (“opposition to same-sex marriage is bigotry”) to various forms of social exclusion of the kind so blatantly expressed by Richard Rorty (“that’s not the way we talk about things”). Thus, higher education doesn’t discriminate against conservatives; the hiring committees are merely trying to avoid hiring the bad and stupid people. Thus, NGOs aren’t imposing ideological views of gender, family, and sex; they’re defending “human rights.”

Yet the counter-politics of conviction hasn’t worked either. Francis Schaeffer’s followers haven’t succeeded in “taking back” their country. The politics of conviction runs up against the fact that so many people resist conversion. Intensity punches holes in consensus liberalism: Truth matters! But it hasn’t been able to govern our growing pluralism, because when insufficiently reflective (I almost wrote “jesuitical”), the politics of conviction tends to view pluralism itself as illicit. And so here we seem to be: stuck with a self-deceived secular liberalism, which insists that it transcends the pluralism it claims to manage, and with a religious right often tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, hostile to pluralism.

Marsden proposes an alternative: a confessional or principled pluralism. The idea comes from Abraham Kuyper, the influential nineteenth-century Dutch theologian and politician who brought peace to a culture war in Holland among Protestants, Catholics, and social democrats. What Kuyper calls “common grace” (something analogous to natural law) provides the basis for a general but relatively thin consensus. Meanwhile, the particular confessional commitments of different communities within the nation are given latitude and resources to shape their own churches, educational institutions, social-service agencies, media, and so forth. He put this vision of two-tiered public life—a proper demand for conformity with respect to a few things, and spheres of influence of confessional authority over the rest—into effect through something called “pillarization,” which meant a limited national government that allowed for significant communal control of public life within the discrete social groups.

To some degree, “pillarization” might work to mitigate our culture wars. As Ashley Berner has pointed out (“The Case for Educational Pluralism,” December 2012), many European countries and Canada encourage principled pluralism in education, providing state funds to schools run by Jews as Jewish schools, by Catholics as Catholic schools, and so forth. Our constitutional regime works against such arrangements. Nevertheless, legislation allowing tax credits for scholarship donations specifically targeted to religious (and other) private schools has been approved by the courts. If widely implemented, it could stimulate the development of a more robust confessional “pillar” in education.

I’m not sanguine about much beyond educational pluralism, however. As Marsden points out, our national myth is one of individualism, not collective identities. This leads to the paradox of modern democratic society: The more individualistic our culture, the more powerful and all-pervasive government becomes. We want a very strong and robust state to guarantee our freedoms, which is why our political system grudgingly tolerates integral communities such as Hasidic Jews and the Amish rather than empowering them, as Kuyper’s approach would.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, present-day liberals are very unlikely to convert to principled pluralism. Doing so would require them to admit that theirs is a worldview on a par with those of devout Catholics, ardent Protestants, and observant Jews. That’s a galling proposition for consensus liberals, and it’s not something someone like Penn president Amy Gutmann is likely to affirm. The consensus of consensus liberalism is the consensus of the powerful, and so it’s essential that liberalism should rule. That’s why it so loudly announces itself as the arbiter and manager of pluralism without ever allowing itself to be a constituent. Unlike Christianity or Judaism (or, for that matter, Platonism or Epicureanism), consensus liberalism can’t exist as a self-conscious minority, which is what Marsden’s idea of principled pluralism requires.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, as for consensus liberals, the secular state (along with the university) is their church. They bitterly resent the inexplicable refusal of American voters to give them full control over elected office. This frustration reinforces their determined refusal to allow their sacred sanctuaries (the public schools, the courts, government bureaucracies) to be defiled. Put in Kuyper’s terms, they cannot distinguish between common grace and special grace. As liberal theorists from Locke through Rousseau and Rawls make explicit, liberals see themselves as achieving, for the first time in human history, the natural, universal outlook that all would ­acknowledge if they had but eyes to see. For this reason, liberal commitments are mandatory and universal. Which is why we’re not going to get principled pluralism until we get rid of consensus liberalism. Which isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Whither Catholicism?

Patrick Deneen thinks the media have it all wrong. They imagine the Church divided between liberals and conservatives. However, “liberal Catholicism, while well-represented in elite circles of the Democratic Party, qua Catholicism is finished.” The “real battle” is taking place among orthodox Catholics.

On the one side are neoconservative Catholics like George Weigel, “who has inherited the mantle from Richard John Neuhaus,” as well as Michael Novak, Robert George, Hadley Arkes, Robert Royal, and others. They hold the view that “there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism.” As a result, the neoconservative Catholics tend to be affirmative of both capitalism and American power.

Against them are ranged the “radical” Catholics such as David L. Schindler, William Cavanaugh, and Deneen himself. They hold that the founding philosophy of our nation is antithetical to Catholic social teaching, because it assumes “that human beings are essentially separate, sovereign selves.” This view “is deeply critical of contemporary arrangements of market capitalism, is deeply suspicious of America’s imperial ambitions, and wary of the basic premises of liberal democracy.”

I agree that liberal Catholicism is a spent force, with little to contribute to the future of American Catholicism. But Deneen does not persuade me that neoconservative Catholics need be at odds with “radical” Catholics. Yes, John Locke’s theory of government, one very influential in the American founding, is at odds with Catholic teaching about man, society, and the common good. But we do not live theoretical lives. Our political vocations are lived out in the great confusions of historical reality, which is resistant to categorization by theory. That’s what John Courtney Murray meant when he said that the founders “built better than they knew.” So it’s entirely consistent for me to criticize the theoretical foundations of liberal democratic culture, as does Deneen, while at the same time endorsing its actual achievements. Ideas matter, yes, but a man’s character is more than his ideas; the same goes for a nation.