Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression: The Nature and Origins of Conservaphobia, Part Two

Here are some more highlights from this work in progress by philosopher Rony Guldmann:

* Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, which initiated the author’s notoriety as a conservative commentator, made a point of upbraiding the multicultural Left’s hypocrisy in celebrating non-Western cultures as the noble victims of Western imperialism while papering over the inconvenient fact that many of these unselfconsciously racist, chauvinistic, and homophobic cultures reject the values for which the Left claims to stand.92 The Left refuses to denounce such cultures as barbaric and retrograde because it seeks to maintain victim solidarity between the Third World and women, homosexuals, and other minorities in America, who it believes suffer under the yoke of the same oppression.93 But then these Left multiculturalists are in reality using the Third World for their own purposes, turning its peoples into mouthpieces for their sophisticated left-wing critiques of American society, ethnocentrically imposing their own political categories on foreign cultures where they are not at home.94 In “subordinat[ing] the understanding of Asia, Africa, and Latin America to Western ideological prejudices” the Left had embarked on a “new cultural imperialism no less narrow and bigoted than that of colonialist researchers in safari outfits and pith helmets.”

* Given that “most European countries have democratically chosen to relinquish some of their economic liberties in the interest of economic security,” why “can’t Muslim countries choose to give up some of their civil liberties in order to promote civic morality?”

* “The right should organize an international conference on the effects of Hollywood and American popular culture on non-Western cultures. It would be fascinating to hear from Muslims and other traditional people about how their local cultures are being affected by Hollywood movies and TV shows. Besides, on what basis would self-styled American liberals object to a proposal so open-minded and multicultural?”

* Whether at home or abroad, the forcible imposition of liberalism will be perceived as “a form of aggression or paternalistic colonialism.”

* …liberals must treat American traditionalists with the same deference that they would extend to denizens of the developing world.

* Bork explains, “The inner need for pervasive meaning was satisfied through most of history in Western civilization by religions. But as religious faith began a retreat, beginning in the eighteenth century and proceeding apace in the nineteenth and twentieth century, the intellectual’s need for meaning did not decline but remained urgent. Now, however, meaning must be found in a secular belief system. It is difficult to think of anything that would fit this specification for most intellectuals other than politics. For a few, meaning might be found in devotion to a field like scientific inquiry, but for the vast majority of intellectuals, for whom no such achievements are possible, politics must be the answer. To be a civil religion, however, this politics cannot be the politics of mundane clashes of material interests and compromises; it must be a politics of ideology.
In our time that means left-wing politics, which offers a comprehensive world view and a promise of ultimate salvation in a utopia that conventional politics cannot offer. The religious impulse underlying left radicalism has been noted. Weber remarked that when certain types of German intellectualism turned against religion, there occurred “the rise of the economic eschatological faith of socialism.” Not only communism but fascism and Nazism were faith systems of the Left, offering transcendental meaning to their adherents.”

While these intellectuals believe that their values rest on solid intellectual foundations, they in fact express an “inner need for pervasive meaning.” Having lost their moorings in traditional theistic faith, intellectuals now pursue ad hoc and ersatz spiritual satisfaction elsewhere, in radical politics while disguising their motivations in a façade of sober rationalism and pragmatism. “Deprived of God, human beings will always seek another all explaining creed,” warns London.121 And this all-explaining creed is liberalism itself, the vision of the anointed. Left intellectuals are not just innocently misguided in their views but culpably mistaken in their assessments of their own motivations. For in rejecting traditional religion, they have left themselves psychologically vulnerable to a host of dangerous political seductions at whose behest they would unravel the traditional order, paving the way for both fascism and communism.
It is the allure of secular eschatology, argues Bork, that explains the upheavals of the 1960s. For “[w]ithout reference to a supernatural being, SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] was proposing, largely through politics, to bring their secular vision of the kingdom of God to fruition on earth, now.”122 Unrestrained by the humility inculcated by traditional religious teaching, this novel, New Left religiosity represented a narcissistic indulgence in feelings of personal transcendence, the impossible yearning to extricate oneself once and for all from the shackles of inherited tradition and will a new self into being. And like other features of the 1960s, this millenarianism and yearning for transcendence lives on in what has become mainstream liberalism, as in the Supreme Court’s announcement in Casey v. Planned Parenthood that “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This is not a purely secular ideal, but the secularization of what were formerly experienced as a religious longing to rise above the limitations of ordinary day-to-day existence in the world, which liberals now seek to fulfill politically.

* Whatever their preferred genealogy of liberalism, conservative claimants of cultural oppression are united in the conviction that liberal ideals are post-hoc rationalizations for other-worldly religious passions seeking this-worldly incarnation. The meaning of contemporary liberalism is to be discovered, not in the sober musings of Locke, Kant, or Mill, but in a perverse will to secularize religious impulses that should not be secularized. While liberalism would associate hostility to the separation of church and state with ignorant Bible-thumpers, it is itself ignorant of its own intellectual lineage, which was premised on precisely this hostility. In resisting the liberal agenda, it is therefore conservatives who carry the mantle of secularism. For it is they, not liberals, who are demanding what is all things considered a higher wall of separation between church and state. Whereas conservatives who would interject religion into public life ask for little more than a seasonal nativity scene or a few moments of voluntary school prayer, liberal interjectors attempt to erect an entire political order on the foundation of the do-goodery which was once considered the proper purview of churches and synagogues.

* Goldberg thus notes that an “environmentally themed hotel in California has replaced the Bible in all its rooms with [Al] Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth” and that “anyone with kids certainly understands how the invocations to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ are taught like catechisms in schoolrooms across the country.”133 Liberal environment science is itself the product of this theological perversion. Ingraham explains that the church of “Apocalyptic Manmade Global Warming” has “a holy scripture you cannot question” as well as high priests “whose interpretations are infallible” and whose sermons “warn of hellfire, rising oceans, and plagues as punishment for our sins.”134 Environmentalists are obstinate and dogmatic because they have unbeknownst to themselves confounded the secular and the profane, using secular concerns to channel religious impulses that they would reject in their original form, but which are now recapitulated in their secular “idealism.”

* David Horowitz detects the residues of Christian theology in politically correct education. Noting that a UC Santa Cruz course requires students to perform sections from the feminist play The Vagina Monologues before the class, Horowitz observes that this “was no doubt the procedure in religious monasteries during the Middle Ages, when students were required to perform Morality Plays exemplifying church doctrine.”

* The purpose of all these comparisons is not simply to discredit the welfare state, same-sex marriage, environmentalism, or academia, but to subdue liberalism in order to “level the playing field” between the anointed and the benighted. The objective is to establish that liberals and conservatives are arguing on the same plane notwithstanding liberals’ presumption that they have moved beyond the sectarian blindness of conservatives. Contrasting their reason to the mere faith of conservatives, liberals believe that they have achieved a new level of existential and epistemic liberation. But conservative claimants of cultural oppression insist that the lines which liberals draw here are blurrier than they are prepared to acknowledge. For what liberals interpret as their liberated condition is actually their enslavement to religious impulses that they fail to recognize as such—but which conservatives, being securely anchored tradition, possess the sagacity and historical memory to recognize. What passes for enlightenment, a stance of critical reflexivity, is merely the medium for religious impulses that, having been eviscerated of substantive ethical content by the process of secularization, must now be expressed self-deceptively.

The difference between religious traditionalism and secular liberalism is not that one is sectarian while the other is cosmopolitan, but that one freely acknowledges its sectarianism while the other conceals it, projecting that sectarianism onto its political enemies.

* “most of us sadly develop the capacity to treat the suffering, oppression, or legal inequality of individuals or groups whom see we see as obstacles to our own goals or visions—or even with whom we merely feel little affinity—as abstractions or exaggerations without concrete human immediacy.” And Aleinikoff writes, “Dominant groups may have neither the inclination nor the ability to be fully aware of their domination. Dominant groups generally do not consider themselves to be oppressive, particularly in a society in which tolerance for diversity is valued, and they can provide descriptions of themselves and the disadvantaged that explain inequality as either justified or natural. To the extent that these descriptions effectively absolve dominant groups of responsibility for inequality, and therefore from bearing any of the costs of ameliorating inequality, there is little motivation for the dominant culture to question them.”

* Liberals hold themselves out as egalitarians who demand only universal autonomy and a more equitably distributed prosperity. But every dominant class in history has sought to legitimate itself through some idealistic framework or another. The feudal lord maintained his dominion for the benefit of the serfs, just as the priest exercised his own special prerogatives for the betterment of penitents. Indeed, the lords and priests need not have even viewed themselves as a dominant class, as they were no less than the peasantry subordinated to the divine order in which everyone was only playing their small role.

* Steven Smith observes that the harm-principle—the position that the state may only regulate harmful as opposed to merely immoral conduct—has served as “a trusty weapon in the arsenal of liberalism.”22 Though conservative defenders of liberty-restricting legislation have sometimes acceded to the principle’s premises and emphasized the harmful “secondary effects” of facially harmless conduct—e.g., pornography’s contribution to urban blight— these arguments have generally proven ineffectual, and are moreover suspected as disingenuous rationalizations for more moralistic motivations. For this reason, the harm-principle has nearly always yielded liberal prescriptions.

* “If people get satisfaction or happiness from living in a particular kind of community, then conduct that subverts that kind of community and thus reduces such happiness inflicts a kind of ‘harm.’”

* Amy Wax observes that rationalistic liberals are unmoved and unimpressed by social conservatives’ “[v]ague premonitions of erosion or unraveling” of the social order, which they dismiss as “an inadequate basis for resisting changes that satisfy immediate needs and urgent desires.”35 And the reason is that “vague premonitions of erosion or unraveling” are understood to be symptoms of a lingering pre-modern sensibility, whose requirements cannot be permitted to interfere with liberals’ more tangible concerns with assisting modern “fulfillment.” This is why Justice Blackmun’s dissent in Bowers v. Hardwick could argue that homosexuality in and of itself “involves no real interference with the rights of others, for the mere knowledge that other individuals do not adhere to one’s value system cannot be a legally cognizable interest.”36 For this is how any opposition to homosexuality must be conceptualized within a strategic perspective—as Hobbesian “annoyance” rather than some disequilibrium in the order of things.

* Martha Nussbaum: “What inspires disgust is typically the male thought of the male homosexual, imagined as anally penetrable. The idea of semen and feces mixing together inside the body of a male is one of the most disgusting ideas imaginable—to males, for whom the idea of nonpenetrability is a sacred boundary against stickiness, ooze, and death. The presence of a homosexual male in the neighborhood inspires the thought that one might oneself lose one’s clean safeness, become the receptacle for those animal products. Thus disgust is ultimately disgust at one’s own imagined penetrability and ooziness, and this is why the male homosexual is both regarded with disgust and viewed with fear as a predator who might make everyone else disgusting.”

* In seeking to expel the language of shame and disgust from the public sphere, Nussbaum is urging a certain kind of human self-recognition, which she understands to be the “psychological foundations of liberalism.” These foundations, she writes, which would be fully realized in “a society that acknowledges its own humanity, and neither hides us from it nor it from us; a society of citizens who admit they are needy and vulnerable, and who discard the grandiose demands for omnipotence and completeness that have been at the heart of so much human misery, both public and private.”

* The psychological foundations of liberalism are not good intentions, but a certain kind of discipline imposed on our emotional lives, a discipline that subdues symbolic or ideational elements that do not reliably track the kinds of harms that are cognized from a non-anthropocentric standpoint. The psychological foundations are therefore the self-discipline to transcend anthropocentricity, to transcend the all-too-human need to embed oneself within an order that would lift one above mere animality and infuse one with a greater fullness of being. Citizens having achieved this transcendence are prepared to expose themselves psychologically to the reality of their animal vulnerability by disavowing the culturally sustained hierarchies of the pure and impure, or the normal and the abnormal, on which the denial of vulnerability depends. Having eschewed these hierarchies, they are prepared to see society naturalistically, as an agglomeration of vulnerable organisms just making their way about in the world.
It is this stance of naturalistic disengagement that allows us to understand disgust non-anthropocentrically—for example, as an evolved mechanism that might have once served as a reliable indicator of bacteria but now functions as a highly unreliable indicator of genuine threats to our welfare.

* The regulation of social meaning was why many in the military resisted the open inclusion of gays in their ranks. That inclusion threatened to impose an orthodoxy by ambiguating the social meaning of being a military man. With that status having been defined historically in terms of certain “unambiguously male” virtues—strong, disciplined, emotionless, and, of course, heterosexual—the inclusion of gays, who are stereotyped as effeminate, weak, and irresolute, could not but alter the social meaning of membership in the military, depriving it of its traditional connotations.76 Even if no one was compelled to affirm that gays have a rightful place in the military or was kept from opining the contrary, the open inclusion of gays established an orthodoxy. For this inclusion in and of itself sufficed to alter the background social meanings in the context of which opinions are shaped, social meanings that individuals cannot but encounter and in which they must by and large acquiesce. An individual might continue to posit that the military enterprise is essentially heterosexual, but this judgment is no longer as it were “built into” the intrinsic meaning of military life, the way ideals of discipline and obedience continue to be.

* Ernest Becker calls hero-systems: “The fact is that this is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules of behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism. Each script is somewhat unique, each culture has a different hero system. What the anthropologists call “cultural relativity” is thus really the relativity of hero-systems the world over. But each cultural system cuts out roles for earthly heroics; each system cuts out roles for performances of various degrees of heroism: from the “high” heroism of a Churchill, a Mao, or a Buddha, to the “low” heroism of the coal miner, the peasant, the simple priest, the plain, everyday, earthy heroism wrought by gnarled working hands guiding a family through hunger and disease.
It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper, a family that lasts three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count. When Norman O. Brown said that Western society since Newton, no matter how scientific or secular it claims to be, is still as “religious” as any other, this is what he meant: “civilized” society is a hopeful belief and protest that science, money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic, and yet in danger of being fictitious and fallible.”

* Peter Berger observers, “[I]t may be assumed that a musician in the making in contemporary America must commit himself to music with an emotional intensity that was unnecessary in nineteenth century Vienna, precisely because in the American situation there is powerful competition from what will subjectively appear as the ‘materialistic’ and ‘mass culture’ world of the ‘rat race.’ Similarly, religious training in a pluralistic situation posits the need for ‘artificial’ techniques of reality-accentuation that are unnecessary in a situation dominated by religious monopoly. It is still ‘natural’ to become a Catholic priest in Rome in a way that it is not in America. Consequently, American theological seminaries must cope with the problem of ‘reality-slippage’ and devise techniques for ‘making stick’ the same reality.”

* If reality-accentuation is in order, this is because the meanings which sustain our self-understandings cannot serve this function while being recognized as mere fictions of the human mind, and must rather be upheld as transcendent existences immune to the vagaries of human predilection—forces “to be reckoned with.” The sense that others have a hand in upholding—or in failing to uphold—an order of things upon which we all depend may seem downright mystical. But framed in another way, it becomes commonsensical. Human beings do not merely entertain an understanding of “what individuals may reasonably expect of one another” but also of “what is to be done.” Our relations are mediated, not only by contractual or quasi-contractual understanding, but also by a shared sense of things’ significance which all have a hand in sustaining.

* Deviant voices may not actually upset the order of things—as pre-moderns and model citizens believe. But they can under some conditions upset our conviction that this order is what we have taken it to be and, correlatively, that we are as we take ourselves to be. Our identities presuppose particular social narratives. And others’ failure to satisfactorily play their parts in the story can upend our efforts to play our own. They can cause “reality-slippage” because their decision to go off-script can upset the plausibility of the narrative against which our own identities are plausible. Just like a movie, our identities can continue to engross us only to the degree that their narrative coherence is established and preserved. Whether or not we elect to designate this narrative coherence as “moral order,” we may all be threatened by those whose actions impliedly call into question the basic purposes governing our lives. What Justice Blackmun calls “mere knowledge that other individuals do not adhere to one’s value system” can present such just a threat, not as an isolated piece of information, but as a data point that resists the narrative that sustains our identities. Deviant behavior contaminates the data set, and so impacts the narrative that may be extrapolated from it.

* Ernest Becker: “[o]ne culture is always a potential menace to another because it is a living example that life can go on heroically within a value framework totally alien to one’ own.”

* In revealing the fictional nature of one culture’s answers to these questions, another culture can undermine the necessary precondition of a hero-system, and thereby to reduce its adherents to the status of animals among animals.

* The identity-preserving function of culture may go largely unnoticed in everyday life. But we become more acutely aware of this function in our responses to whatever threatens it. Berger notes that nihilation is an attempt to neutralize threats to the objectivity of certain social meanings through “conceptual liquidation,” which assigns these threats “an inferior ontological status, and thereby a not-to-be-taken-seriously cognitive status.” By “translating” a threat to a symbolic universe into concepts derived from out of that symbolic universe, “the negation of one’s universe is subtly changed into an affirmation of it.”93 Thus, critics who dispute the fairness or legitimacy of a certain institution will be conceptually liquidated through the counter-charge that their criticisms are just sour-grapes-style resentment in the face of their failure to gain entry into the institution. What had been a threat to institutional legitimacy is thereby translated into an affirmation of institutional legitimacy, because the social meaning of their critique now resides in the “chip on their shoulder” that highlights the desirability of the very thing being criticized.

* …liberals’ self-image as strategic agents having cast off the confining teleological distortions of the past is fundamentally untenable, a distortion of what human beings are actually like. Liberals may react to conservatives’ claims of psychic or communal harm with dismissive indignation…

* we have all been “cemented” or “harnessed” to a particular way of life. Becker explains why:
“You get a good feeling for what the self “looks like” in its extensions if you imagine the person to be a cylinder with a hollow inside, in which is lodged the self. Out of this cylinder the self overflows and extends into the surroundings, as a kind of huge amoeba, pushing its pseudopods to a wife, a car, a flag, a crushed flower in a secret book. The picture you get is of a huge invisible amoeba spread out over the landscape, with boundaries very far from its own center or home base. Tear and burn the flag, find and destroy the flower in the book, and the amoeba screams with soul-searing pain.
Usually we extend these pseudopods not only to things we hold dear, but also to silly things; our selves are cluttered up with things we don’t need, artificial things, debilitating ones. For example, if you extend a pseudopod to your house, as most people do, you might also extend it to the inventory of an interior decorating program. And so you get vitally upset by a piece of wallpaper that bulges, a shelf that does not join, a light fixture that “isn’t right.” Often you see the grotesque spectacle of a marvelous human organism breaking into violent arguments, or even crying, over a panel that doesn’t match. Interior decorators confide that many people have somatic symptoms or actual nervous breakdowns when they are redecorating. And I have seen a grown and silver-templed Italian crying in the street in his mother’s arms over a small dent in the bumper of his Ferrari.
We call precisely those people “strong” who can withdraw a pseudopod at will from trifling parts of their identity, or especially from important ones. Someone who can say “it is only a scratch on a Ferrari,” “the uneven wall is not me, the wood crack is not me,” and so on. They disentangle themselves easily and flexibly from the little damages and ravages to their self-extensions….”
The passage illustrates what is once again a wide discrepancy between our actual lived experience and our cultural self-understanding as disengaged strategic agents maneuvering within a neutral environment denuded of supra-individual significance. The contents of these preoccupations—bulging wallpaper, disjointed shelves—are quintessentially modern. But their structure embodies something akin to the pre-modern sense of inhabiting an order in relation to which one must position oneself if one is to live up to one’s identity. These individuals may describe themselves as pursuing modern fulfillment. But close inspection of the tissue of their lived experience reveals that they are attempting to cleave to what they feel is an order of things. For the meaning of failure here transcends mere frustration, and rather involves the vague sense that they are somehow sinking toward the status of a shadow, deprived of the conditions under which they can be who they are. And this is why they experience such difficulty withdrawing their pseudopods from what look like mere trifles from the outside.

* We are not strategic agents in actual life because all of our calculations and planning must reckon with a background sense of things’ significance which pre-exists these, delimiting the directions which they can take.

* William Barrett explains why: “man does not look out upon an external world through windows, from the isolation of his ego: he is already out-of-doors. He is in the world because, existing, he is involved in it totally. Existence itself, according to Heidegger, means to stand outside oneself, to be beyond oneself. My Being is not something that takes place inside my skin (or inside an immaterial substance inside that skin); my Being, rather, is spread over a field or region which is the world of its care and concern. Heidegger’s theory of man (and of Being) might be called the Field Theory of Man….98
To be sure, this existence is always mine; it is not an impersonal fact, as the existence of a table is merely to be an individual case of the class table. Nevertheless, the mineness of my existence does not consist in the fact that there is an I-substance at the center of my field, but rather in that this mine-ness permeates the whole field of my Being.”

* We do not, in our everyday experience, encounter the world as would a strategic agent, as an enumerable set of “things” each of whose “properties” may or may not be relevant to our ends. Quite the contrary, the significance we sense always inheres in things prior to any reflection on “our” ends.

* [Without a place in the larger order, we are unintelligible to ourselves.] If individuals cannot readily alter social meanings at will, this is because that very will originates from out of those meanings.

* Meaning is first encountered in the world, not in any disembodied interiority…

* even the ethos of disengaged self-control and self-reflexivity constitutes a form of engagement. For its actual contours are always precipitated and structured by shifts transpiring on the pre-reflective level of experience, whose reality will either slip or be accentuated in reflection of both chance and social conditions. The disengaged reflexivity of the strategic agent may produce the sensation that the self resides somewhere inside one’s skin. But that sensation presupposes as its unspoken backdrop a particular way of being outside one’s skin.

* Social meanings can constrain us because they are the grounds of our identities. To preserve identity is to contain freedom—to limit the range of life possibilities that one can seriously contemplate. For this narrowness is the sine qua non of taking oneself seriously, and what social meanings allow us to maintain. A field of social meanings not only confronts us as a force to be reckoned with, but moreover permeates us as the unspoken substratum of our very agency.

* Hero-systems are not idle “symbolic” luxuries, intangible “cultural” concerns, but rather a biological necessity.

* As emphatic as some conservatives may be in their warnings that same-sex marriage threatens the basic institution of marriage, they have always been at a loss to explain how precisely this should be. How could the presence of the same-sex couple next door possibly impinge on the stability of one’s own marriage? So the liberal reflex has always been to dismiss the conservative view as just thinly disguised mean-spiritedness, or else as the symptom of some unacknowledged fear or anxiety that is being “taken out” on those who have nothing to do with the conservative’s real problems, which are being disguised in ostensible worries about the preservation of the traditional family. This, after all, is one of the reasons why the benighted must “grow” and become “aware.” But many on the Left have in more sophisticated terms acknowledged that the destruction of the family is precisely their aim, and that same sex-marriage will, beyond extending legal rights to gay and lesbian couples, be tactically useful to this end. Lesbian activist Masha Gessen told a sympathetic audience: “Gay marriage is a lie. Fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we’re going to do with marriage when we get there. It’s a no-brainer that the institution of marriage should not exist. … ‘Marriage equality’ becomes ‘marriage elasticity,’ with the ultimate goal of ‘marriage extinction.’”
She explained that “I have three kids who have five parents, more or less, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t have five parents legally… I met my new partner, and she had just had a baby, and that baby’s biological father is my brother, and my daughter’s biological father is a man who lives in Russia, and my adopted son also considers him his father. So the five parents break down into two groups of three… And really, I would like to live in a legal system that is capable of reflecting that reality, and I don’t think that’s compatible with the institution of marriage.”
If “marriage elasticity” has “marriage extinction” as its ultimate aim, the reason is not that the traditional 1950s-style nuclear family would become somehow criminalized, but that such elasticity would erode the hero-system that has historically underpinned that family, depriving that institution of its traditional social meaning. The “family” being targeted by the “homosexual agenda” is not the bare practices of cohabitation, financial interdependence, and child rearing by legally bound adults, but the hero-system of social conservatives, that thick structure of aspirational roles invoked by talk of traditional family values. And this is exactly what conservatives are referring to in warning that the family is under attack.
The institution of same-sex marriage can carry implications for heterosexual couples insofar as “traditional marriage” thereby becomes but one possible interpretation of a civil institution, rather than its intrinsic and uncontested meaning. It constitutes, not merely an expansion of rights, but also the regulation of social meaning, because it can upset the social plausibility, and therefore the personal resonance, of the traditional interpretation notwithstanding that no one is being physically disabled in their marital activities. To the extent marriage becomes socially understood as just another agreement rather than a sacrament, its value will have to be viewed as residing in individual sentiments rather than in a transcendent dispensation that ratifies these sentiments. Traditionalists are thereby threatened with a different interpretation of themselves, confronted with the possibility that the sacredness which they had imputed to their practices is but the reification of their own idiosyncratic emotions. Nothing prevents them from asserting that whatever the legal status of same-sex marriage may be, it is only marriages like their own that truly count in the eyes of God. But given 1) that this interpretation is now contested and 2) that social meanings are “forces to be reckoned with,” the meaning with which traditionalists would like to imbue their marriages will not necessarily be the meaning that their marriages actually end up carrying for them. Conservatives worries about liberals’ “attack on the family” are therefore more sophisticated than liberals are prepared to acknowledge.

* In “relativizing” the epistemically objective into the ontologically subjective, they hope to dissolve the power of heretofore taken-for-granted social meanings by highlighting their contingent origins in the coordinated meaning-generating activities of human beings—the recognition of which will compel people to then take these meanings less “seriously.”

* That outraged incredulity expresses, not mere moral disagreement, but the ethos of disengaged self-control and self-reflexivity and the condemnation of those who have failed to realize it. It is intended to signal, not simply a different vision of the good, but the naturalistic lucidity of the disengaged subject, who is not “taken in” by the visceral, pre-reflective social meanings that beguile conservatives.

* The subtext of liberals’ outrage is that we can subtract the pre-modern layer of human experience and that conservatives are guilty of having failed to do so. But this subtraction is impossible, as we saw, merely a cultural fiction. And this is why conservatives’ “vague premonitions of erosion or unraveling” refer to the erosion and unraveling of something real, something on which human beings are genuinely dependent, which they do really encounter as an independent object—forces “to be reckoned with.” Yet this is exactly what liberals’ outraged incredulity is intended to deny. The purpose of this denial is not simply to condemn conservatives morally, but to impugn their basic competence as human agents, to highlight their failure to realize their human essence as strategic agents liberated from the confining horizons of a benighted past.

* Where the benighted traditionalist speaks of some ethereal “social fiber,” the post-modern sophisticate speaks of “social constructions.” But the underlying referent is the same, a hero-system, the socially sustained meanings that fortify individuals in their identities. This is what conservatives defend and what liberals attack.

* Following Martha Nussbaum, liberals will dismiss opposition to same-sex marriage as a symptom “narcissistic fear and aggression” awoken by “anxiety about change that eludes control, and the loss of control over cherished values.”113 But they can, upon adopting a suitably sophisticated sociological stance, recognize that this kind of narcissistic fear and aggression is not a weakness unique to social conservatives. On the contrary, it is a human constant that can work itself out in a great many ways, either crudely or subtly, and with or without any overtly religious or moralistic trappings. And yet what liberals can recognize in theoretical contexts is quickly forgotten in more heated political ones, where conservatives are judged according ideals of strategic agency that no one would be prepared to apply consistently. Conservatives’ visceral conviction that the liberal culture is holding them down through oppressive dualisms and double-standards originates in just this disingenuousness. This is why they urge us to recognize the human constants that would undermine the dualisms that this disingenuousness has facilitated, to recognize the symmetries that go unacknowledged by the liberal culture.

* Voters’ “apparent willingness to subordinate substantive interests to symbolic ones” has been the decisive factor since the Nixon years, when Republicans first began invoking symbolic concerns in an appeal to Southern and working-class voters.115 But this diagnosis springs from the very cultural distortions we have been examining. Liberals’ exasperation over conservatives’ preoccupation with “intangible” or “merely symbolic” goods like national honor, the moral fiber of society, and so forth is merely the latest iteration of the social ideals by which the modern age has from its inception sought to distinguish itself from all earlier times. The sharp dichotomization between the “symbolic” and the “substantive” is simply one way of articulating the subtraction account-inspired contraposition between superstitious pre-moderns self-indulgently succumbing to the allure of inherited teleological regimes and self-critical moderns with the discipline to resist these temptations and direct their attention toward natural causality and its bearing on “fulfillment.” Whereas conservatives are governed by the passions, liberals are governed by the interests.

* But the ethos of disengaged self-control and self-reflexivity is not invoked when it comes to liberals’ own “merely cultural” preoccupations. Liberals have no difficulty recognizing the seriousness of the symbolic in the context of multiculturalism, for example. Here, it is conservatives who will reduce the symbolic to some form of socio-economic frustration, to free-floating, self-indulgent identitarian preoccupations uprooted from the harsh truths of everyday life in the real world. Sowell observes:
The world of the anointed is a very tidy place—or, put differently, every deviation of the real world from the tidiness of their vision is considered to be someone’s fault….Unfulfilled yearnings or chafing inhibitions have no place in this tidy world of the anointed, where even an inadequate supply of group heroes and historic group achievements is someone else’s fault, presumably the historians’. It is a world where reality is ‘socially constructed’ and can therefore be ‘deconstructed’ and then reassembled to one’s heart’s desires.116
If the number of black scientists and inventors acknowledged in high school history textbooks is of sufficient importance to the self-esteem, and therefore the long-term life-prospects, of black students as to qualify as substantive rather than symbolic, then why should the question of whether America was at its inception a “Christian nation” be dismissed as a “distraction” from the bona fide “substantive” interests of religious conservatives? Is there not a double-standard here? The line between the symbolic and the substantive thus appears to have been drawn in the service of liberal ideology. D’Souza asks “Why are many liberals obsessed with whether there is prayer at a school graduation or whether the local town hall has a Christmas crèche? What possible harm is being done by such things?”117 If the desire to place a crèche in a town hall qualifies as a purely symbolic aspiration, then so, it seems, should be the desire to remove it.

* What is dismissed as “merely symbolic” is really the particular range of cultural preoccupations associated with conservative claims of cultural oppression.

* As Goldberg observes, only when “conservatives have the upper hand on a cultural issue” do liberals insist that only bread and butter issues are serious issues. But when liberals are “on offense,” then “it’s all about racial quotas, mainstreaming gay culture, scrubbing the public square of Christianity, and a host of explicitly cultural ambitions.”118 Symbolic cultural grievances are denied reality and tangibility only when voiced in the less eloquent and theoretically refined terms of the ordinary American but celebrated as “idealism” and “insight” whenever conveyed in the professionalized lingo of credentialed academic elites. In this context, the suggestion that cultural preoccupations lack the seriousness of bona fide economic productivity will be dismissed as just old-fashioned anti-intellectualism.

* If liberals have been projecting their own vices onto conservatives, foremost among these vices is surely their own status as symbolic animals seeking cosmic specialness through a socially-sustained hero-system.

* the perennial fabric of our experience, which remains structured by a socially sustained sense of transcendence.

* the modern liberal identity is a hero-system in disguise… a social practice that celebrates certain identities while discrediting others.

* Conservatives are inclined to deny the right of transgendered individual—say, a biological male who self-identifies as a female—to access public restrooms designated for the opposite biological sex. And liberals typically dismiss this opposition as just another narrow bigotry. But conservatives’ opposition need not rest on bigotry, as they could make the following argument: A biological male is within his rights to self-identify as a female and assign this self-conception ontological preeminence over his biological status. But it is unreasonable for the transgendered individual to expect that others—for whom any such disjunction between biology and identity is entirely foreign—do the same and recognize him as a female. His sexual self-identification is an individual matter, but his biological sexuality is a public one, and others have a right to respond to what they can see and hear. His perspective is legitimate, but theirs is no less so. Both express equal but ultimately incommensurable frameworks of identity. He is on the losing end of this conflict, not because of prejudice, but because of a utilitarian calculus resting on 1) a social consensus that the sexes should be provided with separate restrooms, 2) the fact that he is in the minority and 3) the fact that the resources that can be expended on public restrooms are finite. Someone is going to be made to feel uncomfortable, and it is the greatest good of the greatest number that determines who this will be.

* Rick Perlstein writes that “Liberalism is rooted in this notion of the Enlightenment, the idea that we can use our reason, and we can use empiricism, and we can sort out facts, and using something like the scientific method—although history is not like nuclear physics—to arrive at consensus views of the truth that have a much more solid standing, epistemologically, than what the right wing view of the truth is: which is much more mythic, which is much more based on tribal identification, which is much more based on intuition and tradition. And there’s always been history writing in that mode too. But within the academy, and within the canons of expertise, and within the canons of professionalism, that kind of history has been superseded by a much more empirical, Enlightenment-based history.”

* Sowell relates that “An internal memorandum of the Smithsonian Institution warned that an exhibit being put together on a leading American fighter plane of World War II should “avoid an overly heroic/cheer-leading/patriotic tone (the same goes for the music).” Those who objected to various other examples of the trashing of American achievements were dismissed by another Smithsonian official as people who don’t like exhibits which “undermine their fantasies” and who don’t want to be “educated,” but prefer instead a museum where they can be “distracted for a moment from the dailiness, the tedium, the fear of their lives.””
The memorandum’s defenders may have seen themselves as acting in the name of a liberal, Enlightenment-based conception of history, and in opposition to the mythical, tribal one favored by the Right.

* As with the Smithsonian memorandum, scientific objectivity serves as a posture. What presents itself as mere realism, as sober reconciliation to the facts disguises the “inextinguishable drunkenness” of a hero-system predicated on hostility to a certain range of human virtues—like military virtues—that are incongruous with a religiously bequeathed, historically inherited asceticism. A more “critical” view of American history is being advanced, not to rectify ignorance, but to delegitimize a certain range of all-too-human enthusiasms. As judged by the elites’ secularized asceticism, these emotions must be discounted as mere escapism, a failure to achieve a “higher consciousness” that is the transcendence of those enthusiasms. Liberals may position themselves as Galilean truth-seekers whose conscience compels them to reveal truths from which others shirk. But the guise of opposing all mythology is merely the deceptive and self-deceptive mimicry of that opposition, the mechanism through which a spiritual ideal is being promoted.

* But conservatives are persuaded that what liberals mistake for their rationalistic transcendence of all hero-systems is in fact the expression of a particular hero-system, and that this disingenuousness has permitted liberalism to accrue an undeserved social prestige. In seeking to expose the truth underneath all the lies, they are ultimately seeking to expose liberals’ ideals of disengagement as surreptitious forms of engagement, to expose how the shapes which these ideals assume in concrete practice are surreptitiously informed by a hero-system.

* If liberal conservaphobia bears a legitimate analogy to the more widely recognized bigotries of racism, sexism, and homophobia, this is because the stakes of political disagreement are something more primordial than mere ideas. And these are the level of agency which political interlocutors are willing to recognize in one another.

* Claiming cultural oppression is first and foremost something that one does. While these claims will be articulated through whatever facts and arguments may be available, their ultimate objective is not to describe external reality but to transform it, to compel liberals to relinquish their claims to a superior, more self-transparent and self-regulating form agency. This is why Codevilla can conclude that the “Country Class” of ordinary Americans now has no choice but “to attack the Ruling Class’ fundamental claims to its superior intellect and morality in ways that dispirit the target and hearten one’s own.” If conservative claimants of cultural oppression must “dispirit” their targets, this is in an effort to regulate social meaning in their own favor, to erode the social plausibility of a hero-system that threatens their own. The culture wars are not a clash of ideas but a Nietzschean struggle between different forms of life who employ a clash of ideas to perpetuate the social meanings and practices that sustain their own self-understandings, their Beckerean amoebas, while seeking to disconfirm those that sustain antithetical identities.

Goldberg can accuse liberals of seeking to have their “metaphysics confirmed in every human interaction and encounter” because the metaphysics in question consists in the secularized asceticism out of which the modern liberal identity developed. Conservatives’ often conspiratorial-sounding allegations about the cunning machinations of an omnipresent, nearly omnipotent elite always working “behind the scenes” to strip them of their very agency are ultimately the anthropomorphization of the intuition that the ideal of the modern free subject is embedded in a hero-system that is not acknowledged in its official self-conception, and that to accept liberalism is therefore to accept much more than just a set of discrete policy prescriptions. If some African-Americans anthropomorphized structural racism as a government conspiracy in infest inner city neighborhoods with narcotics, so conservative claims of cultural oppression anthropomorphize the spiritual dimension of modern subjectivity as the sundry depredations of privileged elites.

* Progressive and conservative modes of thought are general synaptic structures that compete to be concretely instantiated in particular spheres of concern and achieve that end to the extent they succeed in neurally binding a sphere to the general conceptual scaffolding they provide.

* Bourdieu’s analysis of academic respectability…likens to the medieval ordinances regulating guilds:
“There is no acknowledged master who does not recognize a master and, through him, the intellectual magistrature of the sacred college of masters who acknowledge him. In short, there is no master who does not recognize the value of the institution and institutional values which are all rooted in the institutionalized refusal of any non-institutional thought, in the exaltation of academic ‘reliability’, that instrument of normalization which has all appearances on its side, those of learning and those of morality, although it is often only the instrument of the transformation of individual and collective limits into the choice of scientific virtuousness.”

* “Reliability” is to the scholar what “moral order” is to the conservative model citizen, an ideological rather than empirical concept. Also like moral order writ large, this ideology marks out a “sanctioned path” departure from which is understood to be the beginnings of a slippery slope into a kind of moral dissoluteness. Bourdieu explains: “In fact, since the positions of power are hierarchized and separated in time, reproduction of the hierarchy presupposes a respect for distances, that is respect for the order of succession. It is this very order which threatens the celeritas of those who want to ‘cut corners’ (for example, by importing into the university field properties or powers acquired on other terrains), as against gravitas, the healthy slowness which people like to feel is in itself a guarantee of reliability (in writing a thesis, for instance) and which is really the most authentic proof of obsequium, unconditional respect for the fundamental principles of the established order.”

* Gravitas will be defended as a desideratum of academic professionalism, and there is indeed something commonsensically plausible about that “healthy slowness which people like to feel is in itself a guarantee of reliability.” But Bourdieu’s suggestion here is that the gravitas through which this conviction gets signaled is a culturally parochial ethos whose dictates cannot be accepted at face value. For gravitas is in fact an affirmation of the academic model citizen’s assumptions about differential superiority and inferiority—proof that he will not veer off of sanctioned paths and call the basic purposes that govern other academics’ lives into question. Put another way, “the fundamental principles of the established order” are ultimately the expression of a hero-system. It is not considered reflections on the timeless essence of intellectual rigor that yield scholarly gravitas but, on the contrary, the role played by gravitas in upholding the identities of scholars that yields its rationalizing principles. If gravitas is “really the most authentic proof of obsequium,” this is because it is by virtue of, and in exchange for, that obsequium—both individual and collective—that the scholar earns his or her “feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning.”

* Remarking on Duke’s success in establishing itself as the leader of literary deconstruction, one English professor there proclaimed that “[w]e are hot and everyone knows that.” No one else in the country “can boast of the line-up of home run hitters that we’ve now got here.” Another professor observed “We are the mainstream—what we are doing here is what most of the best colleges do, or aspire to do.”144 And Stanley Fish, the movement’s standard-bearer, noted that, with the literary critic no longer being subordinated to his text as its humble servant, “[p]erhaps the greatest gain that falls to us…is a greatly enhanced sense of the importance of our activities.”145 But this greatly enhanced sense of self-importance is precisely what the liberal elites attack in conservatives. Secure in their professional enclaves, the liberal elites are free to dictate what constitutes “the mainstream” and thereby define the model citizens who uphold it. But conservatives whose Strict Father morality must be expressed in the usual public channels will find themselves accused of intolerance or discrimination when they attempt the very same in the only way their particular neural bindings permit.

* If conservatives refuse to accept liberal race discourse at face value, this is because they sense that the specter of “unconscious racism” is just a way to rationalize this race-puritanism as sophisticated sociological insight. Hence Kimball’s characterization of liberal race discourse as offering opportunities to “indulge in…ecstasies of intellectualized liberal shame.”152 Far from being the product of cautious, dispassionate argument, this discourse is an invitation to bask in emotions that would be decried as unsophisticated and retrograde if expressed in less intellectualized contexts.

* Whereas the subtraction account begins with a past mired in widespread ignorance and superstition, the starting-point of the mutation counter-narrative is a past beset by rampant personal and social disorder. Elias writes that a contemporary westerner who found himself transported back in time to the medieval-feudal period would “depending on his inclinations, be either attracted by the wilder, more unrestrained and adventurous life of the upper classes in this society, or repulsed by the ‘barbaric’ customs, the squalor and coarseness that he encountered there.”

* “[R]eligion, the belief in the punishing or rewarding omnipotence of God, never has itself a ‘civilizing’ or affect-subduing effect. On the contrary, religion is always exactly as ‘civilized’ as the society or class which upholds it.”

* In “expelling the sacred from worship and social life,” Protestant spirituality “tends to drive out the enchantment of the world,” which becomes “progressively voided of its spirits and meaningful forces.”81 The buffered identity, and so our sense of ourselves as self-possessed strategic agents, is not just the logical byproduct of casting off certain mistaken beliefs but rather presupposes a transformation of human beings’ sense of themselves.

* Secularization on the mutation counter-narrative is always the secularization of something that is not itself secular. And it was this religious renunciation that would eventually become secularized into modern skepticism. It would generate what Taylor calls a new “ethics of belief,” a new “view of our ethical predicament” according to which “we are strongly tempted, the more so, the less mature we are, to deviate from this austere principle, and give assent to comforting untruths.”85 This assent became understood as a “sin against the austere principles of belief-formation” that defined this ethic, a kind of secular religion offering its own secularized conception of sin and apostasy. This was the soil on which what we now recognize as “liberal” sensibilities first grew. The characteristic features of strategic agency—careful planning, representing, and calculating—are not timeless human nature, but dispositions that developed historically as a form of religious discipline.

* Occupying his social position with relative security, the individual knight of old was not obligated to banish coarseness and vulgarity from his life.101 But with the court having become a kind of “stock exchange” in which the individual’s value was continuously assessed, he could no longer afford this freedom.102 Gone were the days in which joking could lead to mockery and from there to violent disagreement and violence itself in the span of a few minutes. Gone too were the days in which one could leap from the most exuberant pleasure to the deepest despondency on the basis of slight impressions. For what now mattered were others’ impressions rather than one’s own, and the foremost task became impression-management, which also meant self-management.

* Whereas social and political standing were formerly determined by the sword and the skill with which one wielded it, it is now “[c]ontinuous reflection, foresight, and calculation, self-control, precise and articulate regulation of one’s own affects, knowledge of the whole terrain, human and non-human, in which one acts, [that] become more and more indispensable preconditions of social success.”103 People now “mold themselves more deliberately than in the Middle Ages,”104 becoming increasingly disposed to “observe themselves and others.”105 Directly or indirectly, the “intertwining of all activities with which everyone at court is inevitably confronted, compels…[the courtier] to observe constant vigilance, and to subject everything he says and does to minute scrutiny.”106 It is in this context that Western man first becomes “psychological,” because it is here that “a more precise observation of others and oneself in terms of longer series of motives and causal connections” and a “vigilant self-control and perpetual observation of others” become the elementary prerequisites of social self-preservation.107 With social status now depending on words rather than swords, “[s]tylistic conventions, the forms of social intercourse, affect-molding, esteem for courtesy, the importance of good speech and conversation, articulateness of language” assume a newfound importance.108 “Good taste” achieves a new prestige value, as members of courtly society listen “with growing sensitivity to nuances of rhythm, tone and significance, to the spoken and written word.”109 Every plebian expression was to be eliminated, replaced by language that was, like courtly etiquette generally, “clear, transparent, precisely regulated.”

* With the increasing division of labor and extension of trade networks, individuals now live in closer proximity and become bound to one another in ever more complex relations of social and functional interdependence. The lengthier and more elaborate became the chains of social interdependency, the more strenuous became the demands on drive control, until this control is “instilled in the individual from his earliest years as an automatism, a self-compulsion that he cannot resist even if he consciously wishes to.”127 The moderation of spontaneous emotion, the extension of mental space beyond the moment into the past and future, and the habit of connecting events in terms of cause and effect are not timeless human faculties, but specific transformations in the human make-up made possible by the monopolization of physical violence in the state and the social interdependencies this created.128 Only on this basis did ever-widening segments of the population develop the “strict, continuous, and uniform” modes of drive-control that were earlier to be found only among monks and courtiers.

* These interventions were implemented, not by the unwashed, uneducated masses, whom we today associate with the homogenizing impulse but, on the contrary, by various elites, who assumed responsibility for inculcating stricter control of impulses and emotions in their social inferiors well before this function was democratized through the bourgeois family.134 The older feudal nobility basked in its open displays of contempt for the wretchedness of the lower orders. It therefore made no effort to eliminate that wretchedness, since it was by way of this contrast that it valorized itself.135 But it has always been the quintessential ambition of modern elites, Taylor writes, to “make over the whole society, to change the lives of the mass of people, and make them conform better to certain models which carried strong conviction among these elites.”136 Modern elites are more egalitarian and less openly arrogant, but for this reason also more meddlesome, more paternalistic, and less tolerant. Believing that they embody what are universal ideals, they see themselves not so much as superior as more “advanced.” And this lays on them a special responsibility to reform those who have not yet achieved their exalted state.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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