It was an ugly scene in Irving, Texas, when the Boy Scout decided on Wednesday to delay a vote on whether to end the policy of prohibiting openly gay leaders. From today’s Wall Street Journal : “In a Web conference with Scouts leaders on Wednesday afternoon, Scouts Chief Executive Wayne Brock said that proposal to end the ban came as outside forces put pressure on the Scouts to address its policy on gays.” In this context “address” means “get with the progressive program.” Merck and Intel have already withdrawn financial support.
This is one episode among countless that have and will continue to take place. The Selma analogy to the civil rights movement means that gay rights activists believe they have a moral justification for bulldozing all dissent and to force all institutions, private and public, to conform. If executives of companies like Intel aren’t entirely convinced of the cause, they are very fearful of being on the “wrong side.” And so the long march through culture continues.
First, America has a very conformist culture. It’s natural for elites to want to be on the winning side of most things—-that’s necessary to remain an elite. But the degree of fear of being “outside” the magic circle of the progressive consensus bespeaks a striking sense of vulnerability and lack of independence. I find it amusing that many conservatives think America is exceptional because we’re so “free.” In a certain sense, of course, that’s true. But pyschologically? Socially? Culturally? In the building where we work at First Things a large internet company employs dozens of intelligent, interesting, and uniformly pleasant young people. I’m struck by the fact that they all dress in the same way: the urban hipster look (think Buddy Holly glasses, black jeans, and scuffed wing tip shoes with vibram soles and no socks). They’re all expressing their individuality in the same way. That’s America!
Second, postmodern progressivism has a tendency to spend social capital rather than build it. In this gay rights drama, the Boy Scouts will inevitably be weakened as an institution, because major constituencies will be mad no matter what the outcome. That’s typical, I’m afraid. The older modern progressivism was class based. It often strengthened working class institutions (trade unions, Grange societies, coops). Postmodern progressivism focuses on lifestyle liberation. It’s much closer to libertarianism than socialism. This view is gaining ground. I fear a future of hyper-individualism: everybody making claims to the right to satisfy their desires as we all scramble to get ahead in a competitive free market economy.
I plan to write more on this second point. Let me conclude, however, with this idea: postmodern progressivism is the perfect cultural match for Ayn Rand. As substantive cultural norms that define status (gender roles, marital status, parents and children, student and teacher, wise vs. foolish) diminish, we can only position ourselves with confidence in economic terms (rich vs. poor). Postmodern progressivism liquifies cultural authority. All that’s left is the authority of the market and raw political power.
To me that’s a nightmare, which is one reason I’m a cultural conservative.