Discovering traditionalism—and defining the liberalism it opposes

Paul G. writes:

I stumbled upon VFR about four months ago (via Phi Beta Cons) and was intrigued, so I continued reading. I have to say that your website was my first major experience with traditionalist conservativism, at least in a form that was intellectually defensible. At first I found myself reacting against several of the things you said, but after thinking about your statements, especially about the nature and basic tenets of liberalism, I came to realize that if I want to be faithful to all that is good in conservativism (as well as all that is good in my faith—I’m a devout Roman Catholic) I need to step outside of liberalism entirely, not an easy task.

I am 28 and have been steeped in liberalism since I was born. I literally have no acquaintances my age from my subculture who know how to live in a non-liberal fashion. While my re-conversion to conservativism (I went on a brief but intense reactionary hiatus into political liberalism in late high school and college and a couple years afterwards) definitely took, I’ve realized since reading VFR that it has been incomplete. I still have basic liberal assumptions about the goodness or rightness of equality for all as a normative principle, and the importance of tolerance. But those assumptions lead inexorably to the madness of Britain’s tolerance police and anti-discrimination laws, and if I want to be intellectually honest then I can’t truck with liberalism even a little bit. (I have a good friend who says that you can be intelligent, you can be honest, or you can be a liberal. You can be any two of those things, but you can’t be all three at the same time. It’s sad, but true.) Hard work, but necessary.

LA replies:

Thank you, I’m glad that VFR has been helpful to you.

Yes, if we are to have any chance to resist the destructive forces of our time, we must see liberalism as a whole and reject and separate ourselves from it.

At the same time, please remember that when I say liberalism must be rejected, I am not speaking of all liberal ideas, values, and practices. Many liberal things are good: freedom of speech; the appeal to reason in public discourse; a common rule of law for all citizens; restrictions on the power of government; constitutional checks and balances; federalism; and many other things. When I say that liberalism must be rejected, I am speaking of modern liberalism which makes non-discrimination, tolerance, equality, and freedom the ruling principles of society. Again, there are liberal things that are good in themselves and indispensable to our civilization; but they must be seen as characteristics and features of our society, not as its ruling principles.

As I wrote in a VFR article in 2002 that was later published at FrontPage Magazine,

What the older America understood was that liberalism, if it is not to destroy itself, needs to operate within a cultural and moral system that is not itself liberal. For example, liberalism was born and took shape within the nation-state; but the nation-state is not in itself liberal, since it divides mankind into those who belong to it and those who don’t—a most intolerant and illiberal concept by modern standards. Similarly, the goal of equality was initially proposed and advanced in this country on a foundation that consisted in large part of Judeo-Christian morality (think of the American Founding, of the anti-slavery movement, of the progressive reforms advocated by William Jennings Bryan, and of the early Civil Rights movement); but such traditional morality is not in itself liberal, since it says that the good is objectively better than evil—once again, a most unequal and exclusivist notion according to contemporary sensibilities.

As the older Western understandings on which liberalism was originally grounded were tossed onto the ash heap by our increasingly secular society, liberalism emerged as an autonomous force, detached from any cultural or moral framework that could contain its demands.

Unless people grasp that we now live under the unconstrained rule of liberalism described above, they have no hope of freeing themselves from it and fighting it. That is why I am always insisting that people who think of themselves as conservatives are really liberals. Such conservatives have not grasped the fact that liberalism is the ruling belief system of our world and that their conservatism is merely a part of it. Therefore they cannot fight effectively against the liberalism but are helping to advance it.

Jim Kalb, whose basic approach to this question is very similar to mine, sums up the problem in a recent essay, “American liberalism and the prospects for American reconstruction”:

For liberalism to be more limited, less imperialistic, and less self-destructive, it has to be an attribute of a social order based on other things.

That is exactly right.

Here are excerpts from Kalb’s article:

In a broad sense, we’ve been a liberal society for a very long time, and in that sense liberalism is mostly a good thing.

In its good sense, liberalism is a political tendency that’s against arbitrary power and emphasizes freedom, equality, discussion, reason and law. It also promotes institutions in line with those things, like division of powers and limited and representative government.

All that seems well and good, and it’s difficult for an American to reject. We’re all liberals in some sense.

Of course, we also know that liberalism can take forms that aren’t so good. In its less acceptable and unfortunately more advanced forms its meaning changes.

Specifically, in the name of opposing arbitrary power it comes to favor it. In order to restrain particular decisionmakers, and prevent local oppression, it says we have to have a super decisionmaker somewhere who controls everything so no one can oppress anybody, with oppression defined more and more broadly.

So as liberalism advances, clarifies its principles, and makes them absolute it redefines freedom, equality, discussion, reason, law and so on to mean something very different from what they have usually been thought to mean.

As supreme principle

At bottom, the problem is that the principles of freedom and equality don’t have the substance to be the basis of social life by themselves. Free to do what? Equal in what respect? Abstract principles don’t tell us anything definite, so liberalism ends up with no goal but itself. Instead of freedom we get the cause of freedom as a supreme social goal. The result is that freedom becomes freedom to be liberal and equality means liberal principles must apply to everything equally.

It follows that

  • Freedom and equality come to mean that there has to be a superpower that controls everything and is answerable to nobody. Otherwise there’ll be local oppression.

  • All social arrangements that can’t be strictly rationalized on liberal lines, like traditional religion and the family, have to be abolished. Otherwise you have centers of social power that violate freedom and equality. That’s social injustice….

  • Free speech comes to mean that nobody can say anything that makes anyone else less able to say something, which means that the only speech allowable is speech that supports liberalism, for example speech that confronts and undermines nonliberal things like traditional moral understandings.

  • Private property and free enterprise change into a demand that government provide security, prosperity and opportunity. That’s called “Hamiltonian means for Jeffersonian ends,” individual autonomy through all-powerful government. Eminent domain law shows the situation. Government can take your property and give it to whoever seems likely to use it most efficiently. There’s really no basic principle of private property, just one of overall administration in the interests of efficiency.

As principle of reason and moderation

So substantive liberalism, liberalism which tries to be an ultimate principle, is not a good thing. It turns freedom and equality into principles that are overreaching and in fact tyrannical.

Free government means government that doesn’t run everything. That means that grand principles have to be applied in a limited way. Liberalism simply as the demand for equal freedom can’t do that except as a temporary practical concession. It’s too simple, abstract, and universally applicable to limit itself.

For liberalism to be more limited, less imperialistic, and less self-destructive, it has to be an attribute of a social order based on other things.

As such an attribute, liberalism may prefer freedom and equality, but it accepts basic attachments and loyalties that are needed by any society, especially a free one. For example, it accepts

  • Stable functional family life. That’s obviously not free or equal. It means some are born rich and some poor. Children get treated differently from parents, and husbands differently from wives. A reliable and functional system requires division of responsibilities, so people don’t get treated the same.

  • Historical loyalties, which by nature aren’t shared with everyone. Different peoples have different connections and different histories.

  • Attachments to particular cultural standards. What can you expect of people? What do you owe them? Universal principles aren’t enough to make the answers definite.

  • The distinction between “us” and “them,” which is needed for loyalties and standards to be definite and authoritative.

  • Finally, liberalism as an attribute accepts the ultimate religious orientation that’s needed for free public life. Politics can’t be limited without a common sense that there are things that are more important than politics. That sense of things is inevitably religious.

- end of initial entry -

James S. writes:

Jim Kalb writes that “Universal principles aren’t enough to make the answers definite” and so liberalism must make room for “attachments to particular cultural standards” in order that you can know how to treat other people.

Isn’t what he’s describing moral relativism? Liberalism and moral relativism are opposed?

LA replies:

If that were true, then anything other than a single society with a single set of rules for the whole world would be relativistic. Which by the way is the neocon view. They attack anything other than a belief in a single universal system as “multicultural.” They attacked Samuel Huntington as a multiculturalist. Which is wrong. Huntington believes in our culture. And the neocons don’t. Five years ago Peggy Noonan wrote that to believe in your own country as a physical and cultural entity distinct from other countries was to believe in “mud.” Now she’s slowly and painfully realizing that without that distint entity we lose everything.

There are universal truths, but we can only know them and live them through particular traditions and cultures. We’re not disembodied spirits. We’re embodied as individuals, and we have to be embodied in a particular society in order to exist at all. The things Americans regard as proper social behavior would be very different in Japan.

Neocons on one side and most paleocons on the other take diametrically opposed and equally false positions on this. The neocons say there is only one truth, universal democracy, which is the only valid belief for all mankind. They say that America never had a particular culture but was always based on universal democracy. In the same way, the neocons imagine that the particular culture and religion of Iraq are unimportant, that universal democracy can become the basis of a Iraq society.

On the other side, many paleocons see only the particular and deny any universal or common truth. They truly are tribalists. Their outlook all too often comes down to: it’s my tribe versus your tribe.

Both the neocon position and the paleocon position are simplistic, false, and destructive. Our nation and civilization have always been multi-layered. Above us is higher truth. But that truth can only be expressed and known and lived through a particular culture, set of institutions, and so on. We are not equipped to live as “universal men.” The world is not designed that way.

What Jim Kalb says, “Universal principles aren’t enough to make the answers definite,” is correct. Look at our “universal democratic principles” playing out in Iraq. They weren’t enough to provide answers, were they? Look at our “universal democratic principles” playing out in U.S. immigration. They don’t provide answers, either, do they? The belief that “everyone believes in freedom” is not enough to make us all get along, because people mean different things by freedom. For Mexicans, freedom means the freedom to spread the Mexican culture and the Mexican pueblo through the U.S. and colonize the U.S. For Muslims, freedom means the freedom to impose worldwide sharia. Only the particularity of an actual teaching or culture can provide the substance of what freedom is for. And different freedoms may be incompatible with each other.

If I prefer our own culture and oppose the imposition of Mexican culture in the U.S., does that mean I’m relativistic? No, not any more than a family is relativistic if it has a set of rules and insists on those rules for its children, which are different from the rules in other families. The very condition of human social existence—and it’s a universal condition—is that each social grouping requires its own order. Particularity is a universal truth.

Relativism means, “You have your ways, and I have mine, and there’s no choosing between them.” A nation or family that has its own ways is not being relativistic; it is not saying that there’s no choosing between its ways and other ways. To the contrary, it insists on own ways, in its own sphere, and sees them as based in truth. The fact that people on the other side of the world may have very different ways is no concern of ours. As humans, we are not designed to live on all continents and as all races and cultures simultaneously. We live in one place, in one society, as one people.

This doesn’t mean that we accept the ways of others. As Westerners we are repelled by the Muslim treatment of women. We think that Allah is a false god, a reflection of Muhammad’s own hate-filled personality more than a reflection of truth. We think it would be better if Muslims had different beliefs. But we have no say over their beliefs. They live in their part of the world, under their religion, which forms a completely different world from ours. The problem of relativism only appears when Muslims enter our society in significant numbers. That’s when you get relativism. Because now that the Muslims are among us instead of on the other side of the world, we have to get along with them. And getting along with them means accepting and thus validating their ways. Unassimilable diversity within one society produces relativism. The only way to avoid the relativism is to avoid the diversity, and keep unassimilable people living in their own countries, and get them to return to their own countries if they are already here. The operative principle needs to be:

All I really want to do
Is be far away from you.

Neocons cannot imagine such separateness because that would mean we are not all one democratic humanity. They insist they we all be together, living under the same belief system and inside the same global, American-led, society. But, as I said, because we are not one humanity and have incompatible beliefs and cultures, such togetherness produces the very relativism and multiculturalism that the neocons say they oppose.

The missing key is nationhood. A nation is an area within which there is one dominant culture and moral ethos. A nation is large, encompassing more than one tribe, so it must appeal to general principles of law and common citizenship transcending tribalism. But a nation is less than the whole human race, so it is particular and distinct.

Human beings require nations to live in, just as they need bodies to live in. In effect, the neocons say that we are just spirits (the universal) without bodies (the particular), and the paleocons say that we are just bodies (the particular), without spirits (the universal).

Christianity resolved this problem with the revelation of Jesus Christ as perfect man and perfect God. The various Christian heresies couldn’t accept this dual truth about Christ, they would either deny his full divinity (the Arian heresy) or deny his humanity (the various eastern heresies which saw Christ as pure spirit). For centuries the Church had to fend off these heresies, insisting on the multi-layered nature of Christ, and thus of all truth. And this understanding became the basis of Western culture, which both the simplistic universalist neocons and the simplistic tribalist paleocons deny.

Charles G. writes:

You wrote: “When I say that liberalism must be rejected, I am speaking of modern liberalism which makes non-discrimination, tolerance, equality, and freedom the ruling principles of society.”

When liberals speak of “equality,” what they really mean is radical egalitarianism. And there is quite a difference in the two concepts. But of course you know this. I am merely picking at details.

LA replies:

But a major point of my critique is that without a non-liberal framework that places limits on the scope of liberal concepts, it doesn’t matter whether we define liberal equality in the “nice” way (all men have equal rights—Thomas Jefferson) or the “bad” way (equality as a fact and as a result—Lyndon Johnson), because the equality however defined will become the ruling concept and wipe out all particularities. If you take “all men have equal rights” and do not surround it and balance it by commonsense and particularist understandings, then the community of all people with equal rights becomes simply the whole human race whose equal rights must be made fully and equally manifest at this moment, which in practical terms means they all have an equal right to enter America.

I underscore the point that many people who either support or have no argument against the open immigration that is transforming and destroying America do not believe in radical egalitarianism. They just think discrimination is wrong, because all people have equal rights and equal worth.

Another way of putting this is, if the “old, good, moderate” liberalism is not constrained by non-liberal principles, the moderate liberalism will inevitably morph into the fully consistent and principled liberalism which is radical egalitarianism. It doesn’t matter that people don’t consciously subscribe to radical egalitarianism, because, in the absence of explicit non-liberal principles, the older idea of equality to which they do subscribe becomes practically indistinguishable in its workings from the workings of radical egalitarianism.

Mark P. writes:

Great article. I’ve saved it as a reference for future discussion.

There is something about which I am concerned. How exactly does liberalism convert itself from a feature of our civilization to its ruling principle? I tend to think that there is something about the very nature of liberalism that does this. If so, then how is it possible to simply oppose modern liberalism and not the other (classical???) liberalism that leads to it? In opposing modern liberalism, aren’t we just creating a back-to-the-future situation where today’s problem liberalism is left for future generations?

LA replies:

The answer to your last question is No. A central point of the traditionalist analysis is that classical liberalism is deeply flawed in that the liberal principles were explicit and formal while the non-liberal principles, while they were assumed and frequently referenced, were not explicit and formal. Since liberal principles had the highest authority, more and more of the society gradually conformed itself with them. And this is how liberalism was converted from a feature of the civilization into its ruling principle.

Also, just as there was nothing stopping the conversion of liberalism into the ruling principle, there was nothing stopping the radicalization of the liberalism itself, from equality of rights to equality of results; from negative rights (the state must be restrained so as not to violate people’s rights) to positive rights (the state must actively interfere in all areas of society to assure that no one’s rights are violated ever). The end result is seen in Europe today. Majority rule (an expression of the idea that sovereignty ultimately comes from the people) must be suppressed, because majority rule will not assure the equality of minorities. Only unaccountable state agencies can assure equal rights for everyone. And we are not that far behind Europe.

The basic idea is that liberalism, even the “good” liberalism, if not held back by non-liberal principles, inevitably turns into tyranny.

Fred R. writes:

LA writes, “What Jim Kalb says…”

Who is this James Kalb to whom you constantly genuflect? Is he your eminent quotable authority? Rank him right there next to Plato, Shakespeare, and Einstein, do you? Thus saith the Lord Jim…

LA replies:

What a dumb complaint. It was evident who Jim Kalb is because I quoted a long excerpt by him at his website, Turnabout, and linked it, so you can find out all you want about him.

Jim Kalb is a leading traditionalist conservative thinker. His 2000 essay, “The Tyranny of Liberalism,” which you can find at his website, is one of the most important conservative writings of our time. He created View from the Right five years ago, I then joined it and in 2003 he passed it on to me and created Turnabout.

Do you have something against quoting people? What’s the point of people writing true and valuable things if others cannot comment on them and build on them? It’s true that some people never quote other writers. That’s not my style. I quote and comment on others a lot, both those I disagree with and those I agree with (and I also quote myself), because then there is a continuity in one’s thought, building on things that have already been said.

Thucydides writes:

My compliments to you—and to Jim Kalb whom you quote—on this very effective presentation of conservative principle to a newcomer, Paul G.

Here are some additional thoughts: Enlightenment liberalism inherited Christian universalism, and its efforts to push it to extremes and never make reasonable tradeoffs are what are behind many of liberalism’s errors. We owe much to this universalism; the idea that each and every person has an immortal soul that is precious to God is probably responsible for the eventual development of the idea that the practice of human slavery since time immemorial was wrong. So too with emancipation of women. Even a confirmed leftist like Jurgen Habermas has recognized this Christian inheritance of liberal practice. Pushed to extremes however, it leads to trouble—witness President George Bush’s actions in Iraq or on immigration, based obviously on the deeply ingrained assumption that all peoples everywhere at all times are essentially the same, never mind their historic and cultural inheritances.

While there is a certain minimum universal basis of values (slavery, torture, etc. are wrong in any human culture) what is forgotten is that there is also a primordial human tendency to form specific communal identities, and these identities are massively underdetermined by the universal. Put another way, human flourishing can take many forms, and not all of them, probably not most of them, will be recognizably liberal in the modern sense. For example, a regime which may not allow a full range of liberal political freedoms, may nevertheless better protect the essential conditions for human flourishing in terms of security, a level of prosperity, etc. Conversely, a regime which allows such freedoms may in fact operate in such a way as to render them essentially meaningless, and there may be such social disorder as to prevent human flourishing.

To take another case, who is to say that certain modern Asian countries, say Singapore or Japan, are not, for their people, a suitable form of human flourishing, even though many forms of traditional consensual self restraint in behavior would make them objectionable from the parochial American liberal standpoint. Their practices are not ours, but it is not ours to say that they are in some way bad, provided the minimum content of universality is met. This is not relativism; it doesn’t say there is no real difference between our practices, it says their practices are not ours, they are different, but they are not necessarily bad, and indeed, there may be much to admire about them (without our wanting to adopt them).

Modern liberalism has a fanatical universalism that seeks to strip humans of all their identifying characteristics, and reduce them to mere rights-bearing ciphers. It then wishes to proceed to a liberal legalistic or constitutionalistic definition of a specific enumeration of established rights as part of a complete regulation of society for all men everywhere that would end politics, i.e., end the essential process of negotiating and making repeated temporary settlements and adjustments necessary to allow us all to sort of just get along together, both internally and external to the nation. As such, it is a formula for social strife. Every moral issue is to be settled as a matter of definitive right—winner take all. Liberals hope through such hubristic and fantastical Rawlsian schemes to enter upon the universal rational civilization of the Enlightenment dream. Obviously it won’t work, any more than any utopian scheme ever works. It is, however, the eschatological vision that sustains their particular faith community—a faith community most of whose participants do not realize it is one, even though the late Richard Rorty knew and accepted that it was.

Dan M. writes:

For some time I’ve been trying to figure out where you’ve picked up your strange ideas about paleo-conservatives.

Your claims re tribalism are perhaps the most puzzling, such as this:

“…many paleocons see only the particular and deny any universal or common truth. They truly are tribalists. Their outlook all too often comes down to: it’s my tribe versus your tribe.”

Do you really want to stand by the claim that the old right holds to no universal truths? Given that we are Christians, that claim is self-evidently preposterous. Christians of any stripe are moral objectivists and therefore hold to universal moral truths. This is all one needs say to falsify your claim.

Now to this matter of tribalism. What tribes are you talking about? Do you really imagine that you could corner any person intellectually committed to a paleo political position and ask him what “tribe” he is a member of, and get anything in response but a puzzled stare? Apart from the Amerind communities, there are no “tribes” in the US. Are you referring to our cul-de-sacs in suburbia?

If we really understand what is meant by “a tribe” in the racial, cultural and historical senses, most of us in the US must admit that we haven’t one. Any educated person on the right will likewise recognize this fact. For this reason, people intellectually committed to an old right political position also know it. Hence, there is no “tribe” any of us would claim for our own, or for the sake of which we would be unfair to any other “tribe.” Even if there were such a tribe, our Christianity and the universal morality it teaches would forbid us to be unfair to any other tribe for the sake of our own. But this whole idea is just silly.

I suspect that what you are incorrectly identifying as tribalism, is a deeper commitment to the importance of culture than your own. This is another instance of the old, “no friends to the right of me” syndrome. True rightists and cultural traditionalists (two groups not quite co-extensive, but nearly so) are rightly identified as people intellectually or academically interested in the study of traditional cultural folk-ways—especially our own, in an age when it is all being lost so rapidly. In your own exposition of what culture is to your reader who had wondered, you make much of the universal, and leave out the very thing Noonan had called “mud;” the actual material expressions of the folkways of a people, which gives us their humanity. Noonan would not have disagreed, I think, with any of the universals of liberalism that you described, but she would recoil even now from the notion that the folk-ways of a people matter, and are in fact the most important part of “culture” as such. This is where paleos go beyond you in their understanding of culture, and this is the reason for their intellectual interest in and fascination with real culture; our fullest expression of our humanity and our greatest freedom (yes, a universal) lies right here in the ways we actually live. In a certain sense, it is nothing but a return to the commonsense of an earlier lost time.

What you have done, by rejecting and attempting to marginalize those with a deeper commitment to authentic culture than your own, is stake out a unique cultural and political position that straddles the line between the neo-conservative and the true rightist, cultural traditionalist position, that can only be called “Austerism.” You cannot appropriate cultural traditionalism for yourself while at the same time attempting to delimit the legitimate use of the term to a sense in which the core of cultural expression is left out. Those committed to the importance of the whole of cultural expression naturally admire the tribal form of government as the form that naturally protects it to the greatest degree, but this understanding does not rule out things like federalism—indeed, most would consider it vital to the defense of the larger amalgamation of tribes. But this is purely theoretical—as I said before, we have no tribes.

But again, the idea that tribalism (where it is actually found) somehow entails immorality to one’s neighbor, or a lack of patriotism to the larger polity is patently absurd and highly offensive, not to mention historically ignorant of the ways in which tribes have come together to fight the Other who is truly alien.

LA replies:

This e-mail is off-base and overwrought. You’ve fantasized a position I don’t have and you are attacking that position. Evidently, whenever I make a reference to the subject of paleocon tribalism, I will have to provide quotes so that you will know exactly what it is I’m referring to and won’t start fantasizing that it’s something else I’m talking about. I’ll take responsibility for the fact that I may have contributed to your misunderstanding by not presenting quotes so that readers would know what I am referring to, although in the earlier days of VFR there were several exchanges where this was brought out.

In some instances that I recall, whether at VFR or in e-mail exchanges, paleos would attack Israel for its supposed oppressions and dispossession of the Palestinians, and I would say, “How would you feel if American Indians demanded that the U.S. hand back all the land taken from the Indians?” In one conversation, the fellow replied that he would oppose that. I said, “So how can you condemn Israel?” He said, “I don’t believe in a universal morality.” So, Israel was the most objectionable country on earth for having pushed aside an enemy people, but America which had done the same on a far vaster scale, was not objectionable. His dislike of Israel gave him the license to condemn Israel, period.

At around the time of 9/11 I began running into this kind of thing a lot, a kind of amoral positioning on Israel that was justified not by any general morality but by tribal morality.

You attack me for something I’ve never said when you accuse me of “rejecting and attempting to marginalize those with a deeper commitment to authentic culture than your own.” This really sounds like a smear. I was not condemning any particular party’s commitment to any particular culture (though before I discontinued my subscription to Chronicles ten years ago I certainly grew bemused and weary with its focus on Serbian culture, to which it obviously felt more patriotism than to America). I was certainly not attacking Christian paleos as such; in fact most, but not all, of the paleos who exhibit the ideas I’m talking about are not Christians. Rather, I have specifically criticized people who reject any universal and general morality in the name of pure tribalism or culturalism. Now maybe in your mind and other paleocons’ minds the two things—commitment to a culture, and rejection of a general morality—are the same, in which case paleoconservatism is in worse shape than I thought.

As for the charge that I am somewhere between the neos and the paleos, which you present as though it were some bad thing about me you were uncovering, that in fact has been my explicit position since 1990—that the neos are too universalist, and the paleos are too particularist.

By the way, whom do you see as an exponent of the “true cultural traditionalist” position?

On another point, it is not correct to conflate “old right” with paleocons. Paleoconservatism came into existence in the 1980s and articulated a cultural sense of American identity in a way that was different from any previous intelletual conservatism in this country that I am aware of. I liked that position and called myself a paleoconservative, until what I have described as the amorality of that movement drove me away from it. As an example of what I’m talking about, see my discussion of Thomas Fleming’s hate-filled article about America written in the wake of the 9/11 attack.

LA adds:

My exchange with Dan M. makes me realize that if I do criticize paleocons again I will need to make a fuller argument and lay out the whole case with evidence and quotes and everything, rather than just talking in a general way about “tribalism” without making it sufficiently clear what I mean. I think I’ve written something like that in the past, but it may need to be done again.

Not that this is any high priority at the moment.

Conservatives Swede writes:

Jim Kalb wrote: “For example, I consider Islam better than contemporary advanced liberalism”

What the ?

For the record: I have NOTHING in common with this guy. This quote alone tells me we are on two different planets.

LA replies:

Well, here’s the entire quote:

Naturally, like other people I have views about which understandings are best. For example, I consider Islam better than contemporary advanced liberalism, the individualistic, nondoctrinal and moralistic Protestantism traditional in America better than Islam, and Catholicism better than Protestantism.

On one hand, I can see this statement as coming from a consciousness that modern liberalism is so evil that anything, including Islam, would be better than it. Islam is not evil exactly; Islam is like a predator that you know will kill you and you have to protect yourself from it, but you don’t hate it because it’s simply its nature to be a predator, whereas modern liberalism is truly evil.

On the other hand, I think it’s a mistake for a Westerner ever to compare Islam favorably to any aspect of the West, though various Western thinkers and writers have done since the 16th century, usually based on some disenchantment with the West. Patrick Buchanan made a similar mistake when he sided against the European newspapers that published the Muhammad cartoons. Buchanan hates the secular left so much he sides with Islam against it. The secular left may be bad, but it is still our bad; Islam is simply our enemy, which, wherever it gains power and to the extent it gains power, will ruin us.

Bruce B. writes:

Conservative Swede quotes Jim Kalb but I think he somewhat misunderstands what Jim is saying. Please read this post by Mr. Kalb further down in the comments section for clarification (with my emphasis):

On Islam and advanced liberalism, it seems to me you can look at both as heresies that strip down Christianity in the interests of making it simple, easily comprehensible, and directly applicable by force to all the affairs of this world. It seems to me though that Islam retains more truths, and more complex truths, than liberalism does. That’s why it’s been able to sustain the life of millions and millions of people for more than a thousand years. Liberalism, I think, is too much opposed to life to match that.

In both settings Christians are able to practice their faith although they’re subject to disabilities. Right now I’d rather be a Christian in Sweden than in Iran. I’m not sure how much that can be relied on. Islam has at least a theoretical place for Christian communities, but you can’t say the same for liberalism.

I don’t think that he is romanticizing Islam and I’m not sure he’s calling modern liberalism evil here. He’s just saying that liberalism is such a minimalist version of reality that it can’t possibly exist very long.

LA replies:

Yes, Islam has been able to sustain the life of millions of people—the life of millions of Muslims. What is that to us? To us, the life of Muslims is as anti-matter is to matter. So, on one hand, from a pure bird-eye perspective, it is true that Islam can sustain a society long-term, and liberalism cannot. On the other hand, I cannot look at these things from a pure bird’s-eye perspective. I look at these things as an American and Westerner, and I see that Islam means our utter subjection and destruction.

Now Kalb makes an interesting point when he says that a Muslim society may find a place for Christians, as dhimmis, while an advanced liberal society must ultimately ban Christianity altogether. My initial reaction is that this is an odd way of considering whether liberalism or Islam is the better. I am not interested in contemplating scenarios in which we have lost either to advanced liberalism or to Islam. I’m interested in scenarios in which we have won and survived, not scenarios in which we are subject people to an alien ideology. Further, it remains the case that a Western society under the sway of advanced liberalism is still culturally, ethnically, and politically a Western society and can change course and restore itself, which is not the case once it has come under the power of Islam. These prospects are strengthened by the fact that liberal rule, as Kalb himself says, cannot be sustained long term, while Islamic rule can be sustained forever. Therefore, by Kalb’s own reasoning, it is obviously better to come under the power of liberalism than under the power of Islam.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 16, 2007 11:58 PM | Send

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