So-called progressives are feeling pretty cocky nowadays, which is not surprising after they achieved a decisive victory on one of their key policy goals when the United States Supreme Court mandated that every state must adjust its laws to pretend that people of the same sex can marry one another. Of course, it is the case and will always be the case that a man cannot marry another man any more than he can marry his left shoe. Marriage is not an infinitely malleable concept; it has an irreducible essence, and that essence is defined by the mutually complementary design of male and female bodies. Now the Supreme Court tells us we must, insofar as our civil laws are concerned, pretend that relationships that do not partake of that essence in fact do. Far from tainting the victory, however, the in-the-teeth-of-objective-reality quality of it all serves to emphasize the vast scope of the progressives’ triumph. They have forced every state in the union to pretend to deny reality itself. That is an impressive political victory.
Understandably, many progressives must feel their power is ascendant and will remain so, and some are succumbing to the temptation of ascendancy – the temptation to speak and act as if one’s political opponents are powerless and their concerns are therefore irrelevant and need not be acknowledged, far less taken seriously. Progressives are beginning to drop all pretense that to them the ideals of Enlightenment liberalism such as the right to free speech and freedom of conscious were ever anything but useful tools for accomplishing their goals when classical liberals (who, ironically, are called “conservatives” in the United States) were ascendant. They have played according to the formula Frank Herbert described in Children of Dune:
When I am weaker than you, I ask you for freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.
The progressive call for “tolerance” for the “other” we heard for so many years was their way of asking for freedom according to the principles of classical liberals. But now that progressives are politically ascendant, they are no longer calling for tolerance for the other. Instead they are determined to quash all dissent and destroy those who refuse to conform, because progressives are fascists at bottom, and arraying the coercive force of government against their political opponents to enforce conformity is according to their fascist principles. When they were weak, “tolerance and diversity!” Now that they are strong, “Conform or be crushed under the heel of government.” See here, here and here as merely the latest examples.
What does this have to do with origins? Everything of course. Classical liberalism was based on the premises and conclusions of natural law philosophy, as perhaps most famously articulated in the United States’ Declaration of Independence:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
It should be obvious that the superstructure of natural law rested on a theistic, specifically a Christian, foundation. [Yes, a handful of the founders were Deists; the overwhelming majority of them were orthodox Christians.] Classical liberals believed in God; they believed in a transcendent morality instituted by God; they believed that rights are not given by men to other men, but each man, as an image bearer of God, is endowed with inalienable rights by God.
These ideas have logical consequences. Among these consequences are the belief that every human being has inherent dignity as an image bearer of God; that all persons have equal moral standing and thus a right to the twin freedoms of expression and conscience. On the other side of the ledger, classical liberals had a keen sense of the doctrine of original sin, the fallenness of man, and his propensity for error, all of which led them to tolerate divergent political views and place their trust in the marketplace of ideas instead of a perpetual official political orthodoxy.
Progressives, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly secular and materialist in their outlook. These ideas also have consequences, including (1) God does not exist; (2) good and evil do not exist as objective transcendent ontological categories; (3) God, who does not exist, cannot endow men with inalienable rights; and (4) men are not image bearers of a non-existent God; they are jumped up hairless apes with delusions of superiority over other animals.
If there is no good and evil and no God-endowed rights, by what standard does the progressive define the eponymous “progress” they claim to want to achieve? Certainly there is no transcendent standard. “We have to give up on the idea that there are unconditional, transcultural moral obligations, obligations rooted in an unchanging, ahistorical human nature,” says progressive hero Richard Rorty.
What then? The answer is that progressives want what that want. Theirs is a political philosophy bound by nothing and defined by their unbounded will to power. Of course, none of this is new. In Book X of The Laws Plato describes them:
In the first place, my dear friend, these people would say that the Gods exist not by nature, but by art, and by the laws of states, which are different in different places, according to the agreement of those who make them; and that the honourable is one thing by nature and another thing by law, and that the principles of justice have no existence at all in nature, but that mankind are always disputing about them and altering them; and that the alterations which are made by art and by law have no basis in nature, but are of authority for the moment and at the time at which they are made.-These, my friends, are the sayings of wise men, poets and prose writers, which find a way into the minds of youth. They are told by them that the highest right is might, and in this way the young fall into impieties, under the idea that the Gods are not such as the law bids them imagine; and hence arise factions, these philosophers inviting them to lead a true life according to nature, that is, to live in real dominion over others, and not in legal subjection to them.
Might makes right. Progressives want what they want, and they will crush those who oppose their will to power. And it is not enough to achieve their policy objectives. Dissent is not allowed. Progressive Tanya Cohen writes:
it’s just common sense that freedom of speech doesn’t give anyone the right to offend, insult, humiliate, intimidate, vilify, incite hatred or violence, be impolite or uncivil, disrespect, oppose human rights, spread lies or misinformation, argue against the common good, or promote ideas which have no place in society.
And who decides what is the “common good” and “ideas that have no place in society”? Why Tanya Cohen and her friends of course.
Countless times on these pages Progressives have argued that good and evil do not exist as objective categories. Instead, they insist that good is defined by the consensus of a society. Yet even this limit is a dodge. Every time the people have voted on the “right” to same-sex marriage they have rejected it by fairly wide margins. It is not the law because there is a societal consensus that it is right. It is the law because five members of a nine-member committee of lawyers decided they have the power to impose it on the rest of us and by God they are going to use that power. This is about as anti-democratic as it is possible to be. Yet progressives celebrate the decision. Why? Not because the outcome is “legitimate” even by their own standards of legitimacy (i.e., societal consensus), but because that is what they want, and they don’t care how they get what they want so long as they get it.
What is to be done? I am not sure. It seems to me that the clash of worldviews has reached a point where further attempts to reason with one another may be useless. The two camps no longer speak or even understand the other camp’s moral language. How can I reason with someone who thinks it is morally acceptable violently to dismember a baby and sell her body parts to the highest bidder? If that is not self-evidently monstrous and evil, what can I say that would make its monstrousness and evilness apparent? I have no idea.
When Justice Kennedy says that the conception of marriage that was accepted by everyone everywhere in the history of the world until ten minutes ago is based on nothing but bigotry and prejudice, what can be said to dissuade him from such an absurd idea? Again, I have no idea.
I do have an idea, however, that perhaps it is time to read more deeply into the Declaration:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.