Political Seance 101
Most recently, a reader politely commented that my "political musings seem out of character with a search for self. How and when did that particular journey become politicized?... I respect your spirit-driven posts, but I'm having trouble with the political ones. I don't find it useful to tar myself with either brush. I swing both ways, depending on the issue, and work hard to stay limber."
My short answer was that regardless of whether I am posting about politics or spirituality, my opinions are "of a piece, and follow directly from my understanding of the whole of things. First, spirituality can only proceed on the basis of Truth, and leftism in all its forms is rooted in a primordial Lie. Secondly, spiritual evolution on a mass scale depends upon the proper cultural conditions. The deep structure of Leftism is anathema to these conditions."
I guess it's time for a more detailed review of how my politics and spirituality are inseparable. Some of this is reworked from a few very early posts that newer readers may not have read.
Let us begin with some definitions. Spirituality is nothing less than a quest to understand the Truth of our existence. Politics has to do with one's philosophy of government, and more generally, of the relations between men and society.
There have obviously been countless political philosophies down through the ages, mostly bad ones. For that matter, there have been countless false or partial religions. Some false religions, such as Islam, swallow up politics, while some bad political philosophies, such as leftism, attempt to do away with religion and drain the world of its transcendent dimension, either in subtle ways, such as various "liberal theologies," or in more ham-handed ways, as in the case of the metaphysical yahoos at the New York Times or in the ACLU. Once you have drained reality of its transcendent dimension, there is only a horizontal struggle below for mere animal existence. The only ideal is that there are no ideals except that people with religious ideals are dangerous.
However, one cannot actually do away with religion, one can only displace it and insert false religion in its place. For example, if you are a secular leftist who sees reality as nothing more than a class struggle between exploiter and exploited, victim and oppressor, you are in fact a worshipper of an idol named Mars. This is nowhere more obvious than in the unrelieved rage of a ghost-dancing spiritual community such as dailykos or huffingtonpost.
The envious collective has always demanded the sacrifice of what is individual, distinctive, exceptional and "higher." In it's modern form, this is embodied in the left's war against objective standards of any kind: standards of morality, standards of truth, standards of college admission, aesthetic standards, etc. If you are in favor of leftist collectivist schemes which deny the spiritual primacy of the individual self and swallow up excellence, you are a worshipper of a fellow named Moloch.
There is no getting around the fact that the "culture war" is at bottom a theological dispute between secular and traditionally religious forces. But it would be a great error to conclude that the war therefore involves atheistic vs. theistic camps, much less logic vs. faith. Rather, it is a war of competing theisms, each rooted in faith and steeped in metaphysics. Radical secularists are rarely neutral about God--in fact, they are quite often burning with a passion about spiritual matters.
At the foundation of the secular leftist revolt against God is the attendant idea that there is no such thing as absolute truth, for God, among other things, is the ground and possibility of Truth. One of the benefits of religion--properly understood--is that it prevents the mind from regressing into the magical worldview, the circular maze of pagan thought that preceded the major revelations. Sophisticated secularists believe they are making progress by leaving the “superstitions” of religion behind, but this is rarely the case. Instead of believing “nothing,” they tend to believe in “anything,” which is where the pseudo-religion of contemporary liberalism--that is, leftism--comes in. Secular leftists simply elevate relativism to the status of an absolute.
A fundamental distinction that must be maintained is this difference between liberalism and leftism. The modern conservative movement of which I consider myself a member is classically liberal, whereas contemporary liberalism is in reality a deeply illiberal philosophy that is ultimately rooted in leftism. This is a key point, because in liberalism the emphasis is on liberty, whereas in leftism the emphasis is on equality. The secular world is a prison where the human spirit is confined as a result of having foreclosed the wider world of vertical liberty. It is an elaborate cognitive system that has been constructed for the purposes of living in the Dark. It's language is a sort of braille, it's ideology a cane for moving around in an endarkened world. Only the recovery of spiritual vision confers true freedom, because it allows one to move vertically.
The American founders were steeped in Judeo-Christian metaphysics. As such, they did not believe in mere license, which comes down to meaningless freedom on the horizontal plane. Rather, they believed that horizontal history had a beginning and was guided by a purpose, and that only through the unfolding of human liberty could that "vertical" purpose be achieved. Our founders were progressive to the core, but unlike our contemporary leftist "progressives," they measured progress in relation to permanent standards that lay outside time--metaphorically speaking, an eschatological "Kingdom of God," or "city on a hill," drawing us toward it. Without this nonlocal telos, the cosmos can really have no frontiers, only edges. Perhaps this is why the left confuses truth with "edginess."
Liberty--understood in its spiritual sense--was the key idea of the founders. This cannot be overemphasized. According to Michael Novak, liberty was understood as the "axis of the universe," and history as "the drama of human liberty." Thomas Jefferson wrote that "the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time." It was for this reason that Jefferson chose for the design of the seal of the United States Moses leading the children of Israel out of the death-cult of Egypt, out of the horizontal wasteland of spiritual bondage and into the open circle of a higher life. America was quite consciously conceived as an opportunity to "relaunch" mankind after so many centuries of disappointment, underachievement, and spiritual stagnation.
Now the lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty. Co 3:17
The philosopher Michael Polanyi pointed out that what distinguishes leftism in all its forms is the dangerous combination of a ruthless contempt for traditional moral values with an unbounded moral passion for utopian perfection. The first step in this process is a complete skepticism that rejects traditional ideals of moral authority and transcendent moral obligation--a complete materialistic skepticism combined with a boundless, utopian moral fervor to transform mankind. However, being that the moral impulse remains in place, there is no longer any boundary or channel for it. One sees this, for example, in college students (and those permanent college students known as professors) who, in attempting to individuate from parental authority and define their own identities, turn their intense skepticism against existing society, denouncing it as morally shoddy, artificial, hypocritical, and a mere mask for oppression and exploitation.
What results is a moral hatred of existing society and the resultant alienation of the postmodern leftist intellectual. Having condemned the distinction between good and evil as dishonest, such an individual can at least take great pride in their "honesty" and "courage." To a leftist, the worst thing you can call someone is a hypocrite, whereas authentic depravity is celebrated in art, music, film, and literature.
Few people seem to clearly understand the type of destruction that follows when the moral impulse is detached from its traditional outlets. We can see the deadly combination of these two--“skepticism and moral passion,” or “burning moral fervor with hatred of existing society”--in every radical secular revolution since the French Revolution--from the Bolsheviks to nazi Germany to campus unrest in the 1960s.
For a while, America escaped this destruction because it had a very different intellectual genealogy, having been much more influenced by the skeptical enlightenment of Britain and Scotland than the radical enlightenment of France. In addition, America never lost touch with its Judeo-Christian ideals, which inspired individuals to work to improve and humanize society without violent disruption of traditional ways or heavy-handed government intervention.
As the contradictory ideals of liberty vs. equality began to ramify through history, it resulted in the very different nations and societies we see today, for the more liberty a nation has, the less her people will be equal, while the more equality is pursued by state policy, the more freedom will necessarily be attenuated and diminished.
The nations of the European Union are, of course, the embodiment of the perennial leftist dream of a cradle-to-grave welfare system. But in order to achieve the goal of radical equality, the Europeans must maintain a confiscatory tax system that radically undermines liberty, since they begin with the assumption that your money does not belong to you, but to the state.
This flawed understanding of equality is an atavistic and deeply pernicious holdover from our most primitive social arrangements. While it might have made sense in the "archaic environment" of psychobiological evolution in small face-to-face groups, in order for human beings to evolve psychohistorically, it was necessary for them to overcome their "envy barrier," and to tolerate the painful idea that some might possess more than others.
In his classic work, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, Helmut Schoeck notes that our most economically misguided ideas stem from the futile attempt to eliminate envy. In order to placate the envious individual, government must intervene with policies that do achieve the desired end of of creating more equality, but at the cost of inefficiency, lack of economic growth, and ultimately far less wealth for everyone. Only by tolerating envy is economic development possible: "the more both private individuals and the custodians of political power in a given society are able to act as though there were no such thing as envy, the greater will be the rate of economic growth and the number of innovations in general." A society is best able to achieve its creative potential if it functions "as if the envious person could be ignored." Likewise, well-meaning leftists who seek the completely "just society" are doomed to failure because they are based on the idea that it is possible to eliminate envy, when human beings inevitably find something new to envy.
Ironically, the pursuit of equality achieves its goal in a perverse sort of way, by dragging everyone down to a lower level of prosperity. The Fall 2005 Claremont Review of Books contains a revelatory article by Gerard Alexander, spelling out some of the dire results of the pursuit of equality. For example, on average, U.S. per capita income is 55% higher than the average of the 15 core countries of the European Union. In fact, the largest E.U. countries "have per capita incomes comparable to America's poorest states." Alexander points out that if France, Italy or the U.K. were somehow admitted to the American union, "any one of them would rank as the 5th poorest of the 50 states, ahead only of West Virginia, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Montana." Ireland, which is currently the richest E.U. country, "would be the 13th poorest state, Sweden the 6th poorest.... 40% of all Swedish households would classify as low-income by American standards."
In addition to impeding a nation's wealth-producing capacity, the mindless pursuit of equality results in chronically high unemployment. France has lived with unemployment between 8-12% for some 25 years, and if anything, this underestimates the true figure because of forced early retirement and extensive but futile job-training programs. And there is a disproportionately negative impact on the poorest sectors of society, since a high unemployment rate pushes aside the least skilled workers first.
But "ironically," the sense of entitlement that is nurtured in the entitlement society means that its victims will feel entitled to more entitlements, thus resulting in even worse conditions. This is just part of the underlying dynamic of what we saw with the Muslim riots in France. "Buying them off' with yet more social programs will only result in a greater sense of entitlement and more unrest, since, once the spigot of a person's sense of entitlement is opened, it is very hard to shut off. This is partly because our sense of entitlement is rooted in the earliest infantile experience, when we are, for the only time in our lives, actually "entitled" to mother's magical ministering of our every need and whim. The universe revolves around the moment-to-moment needs of the baby, which is as it should be. For a baby.
If there is a "human-animal" spiritual realm, then it is actually the purely immanent-horizontal space occupied by Western Europe. Although they think of us as "selfish" because of our low taxes and smaller government, it is actually the other way around. Although superficially socialism may appear to be more humane, Mark Steyn points out that "nothing makes a citizen more selfish than socially equitable communitarianism: Once a fellow's enjoying the fruits of government health care and all the rest, he couldn't give a hoot about the broader social interest; he's got his, and if it's going to bankrupt the state a generation hence, well, as long as they can keep the checks coming till he's dead, it's fine by him." In this sense, Social democracy is eventually "explicitly antisocial" (National Review, 11-7-05).
There is a further corrosion of the soul that takes place with European style socialism, in that, because it elevates material desires to the highest, it cynically cuts the heart out of any transcendent view of the world, anything beyond the immediate animal senses. As Steyn explains, it perversely elevates secondary priorities such as mandated six week vacations over primary ones such as family and national defense. And change is almost impossible, because the great majority have become dependent on government, which causes a sort of "adherence" to horizontal. You cannot rouse the ideals of a nation that has lost its ideals. Any politician who threatens the entitlement system cannot get elected in Western Europe. The situation is analogous to an addict who has given over his power to the pusher.
By attempting to create the perfect society on earth through government coercion, it actually diminishes our humanity, since it relieves human beings of having to exert the continual moral effort to make the world a better place, as this is only possible by maintaining contact with the realm of transcendent moral ideals. In other words, European socialism is actually a flight from morality, thereby making people less humane, not more. It is a bogus kind of freedom, because it merely frees one from the vertical while condemning one to the horizontal. As the new Pope has written, "I am convinced that the destruction of transcendence is the actual amputation of human beings from which all other sicknesses flow. Robbed of their real greatness they can only find escape in illusory hopes.... The loss of transcendence evokes the flight to utopia."
Part Two tomorrow.
What a timely and provacative take. By Tony Snow:
"... Charles Murray, whose book Losing Ground made manifest the profound failures of the welfare state, has published a new book, In Our Hands, that suggests an alternative to the present mess.
Murray wants to abolish every major federal program concerned with health care, food, housing, education, jobs, job training, energy assistance, social services, retirement, unemployment insurance and income security. In their stead, he would give every American citizen over the age of 21 $10,000 per year from Uncle Sam, to be deposited directly into the person's bank account, with the stipulation that $3,000 of that sum must go directly into a retirement account.
Murray crunches the numbers to ensure his idea wouldn't break the bank. More importantly, he poses questions nobody asks anymore. In the words of the Baltimore Catechism, 'What is the end of man?' What ought we to do with this gift of life? How can we best build a society congenial to virtue and conducive to happiness? How can government be a help -- or at least, not a hindrance?
In recent years, Americans have embraced the belief that government can make us happier and more comfortable. Thus, whenever somebody suggests so much as tinkering with the ever-expanding lattice of federal programs and initiatives, critics howl about 'cruelty' and 'insensitivity.'
Murray turns this on its head, noting that our Bureaucracy of Compassion has become a Ministry of Misery. He defines happiness not as comfortable lucre, but as 'lasting and justified satisfaction with one's life as a whole.' You can't experience happiness, he argues, if you don't have deep and affectionate relations with others, activities that give your life meaning and enough power over your fate to enable you to say at the end of your days, 'I did well.'
The welfare system actively prevents our pursuit of happiness. It discourages enterprise, innovation, risk, work, marriage, and personal responsibility for procuring medical care, caring for loved ones and saving for the future. It outsources compassion and criminalizes common sense.
Murray's idea would demolish this system. Gone would be the perverse incentives built into the present system. Gone would be the rules and regulations that stand in the way of everything from marriage to charity. Gone would be excuses not to do the things necessary to produce the kind of great and vibrant society that caused de Toqueville and other observers of early America to gape with awe.
Liberated from the dominion of federal help, we could take a more active role in helping ourselves, cooperating with others and feeling good not only about our earnings statements, but the society in which we live.
Bureaucracy is a lumbering, unsubtle thing -- more suited to issuing orders than considering the special concerns of hundreds of millions of individuals. Bureaucracy does not beget compassion. It demands conformity.
Murray is right. The welfare state is both a snare and a delusion -- and an active obstacle to the American dream. A compassionate conservative would suggest what Murray urges: Don't fix the system. Tear it down -- and set free the ember of greatness that smolders in every free heart. Or, as our grandparents used to say, 'If you want something done right, do it yourself.'"