A liberal who has been mugged is still—a liberal
writes from England:
“A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged.”
I did not know until today that this quip was thought up by leading neoconservative Irving Kristol. It’s interesting, is it not, that the basic premise is that a conservative is just a liberal. There is no indication that the person’s ideology has been changed by being mugged, he still holds the same assumptions, but just wants better protection for himself.
My gosh, you’re right, that famous line fits exactly into my analysis of conservatives, that they are liberals who are annoyed at this or that aspect of liberalism, while remaining liberals.
However, on second thought, the correct quotation is, “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” It’s not just about being personally victimized by crime. It has a broader meaning, it suggests a new way of thinking about reality, even a repentance of one’s earlier view of things. So I’m not sure that the line fits with my analysis of conservatism as consisting of only a couple of exceptions to liberalism and not having its own philosophical basis.
Philip M. replies:
So shouldn’t it be, a conservative is an EX-liberal who has been mugged by reality? Isn’t he still a liberal?
Good point. The idea remains that conservatism is a variant on liberalism, a chastened liberalism, a “liberalism with sanity,” as Ed Koch used to describe it. There is no notion of conservatism as having a basis that is distinct from and independent of liberalism. So my initial reaction would seem to be correct. Indeed, Kristol’s statement is a quintessential expression of neoconservatism, since the neocons, even years after their conversion, continued to let on that they were really liberals at heart, and that they had not deserted liberalism, but liberalism had deserted them by becoming radicalized.
So maybe we should put it this way:
A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality, i.e., “shocked” by reality that doesn’t fit his liberal assumptions, and who, under the pressure of that experience, has re-thought some of his liberal assumptions while remaining essentially a liberal.
A true conservative is a person who understands reality, and so is not mugged or “shocked” by it.
We can perhaps understand these categories better by breaking them down further into four types: the ironclad, true-believing liberal; the less ironclad but still true-believing liberal; the neoconservative, and the true conservative.
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1. The ironclad, true-believing liberal believes things about reality that are simply false, e.g., that all races have the same intrinsic civilizational abilities, or that Islam is a religion of peace. He will close out and rationalize away any facts that contradict his false beliefs.
2. The less ironclad but still true-believing liberal will periodically be “shocked” by events that contradict his liberal beliefs, but the shock, no matter how much it may disturb him momentarily, does not change his liberal beliefs. It’s as though his liberal beliefs were stored in one room of his mind, and the “shocks” occurred in another, and never are they allowed to meet, so the liberal beliefs never get challenged.
3. The neoconservative is a liberal who is so shocked by events that contradict his liberal beliefs that the shock adds up to a mugging. The mugging makes him modify his liberal beliefs, but only somewhat. He realizes that consistent liberal beliefs are problematic. He is skeptical of and even scornful toward liberals who are too consistent in their liberal beliefs or expect them to be realized overnight, Yet he himself has not adopted a non-liberal view of reality. For example, having been mugged by racial reality, he will not demand or expect complete equality of racial outcomes, and he will mildly take issue with people who do. But he will never state as an explicit principle why we cannot expect such equality, namely that there are intrinsic racial differences in civilizational abilities. Since he has no grasp of non-liberal truth, but, at best, only a certain skepticism toward his fellow liberals’ overly devout belief in liberal truths, he therefore has no solid basis on which to oppose ever renewed efforts to achieve such equality, and in fact he will end up supporting them. Similarly, the neoconservative will recognize that the liberal belief that Islam is a religion of peace is somewhat overstated. Unlike the liberals, he will recognize that a tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists and jihadists, and he will support the use of strong measures against them. But he will continue to believe that Islam overall is a religion of peace and that ultimately Muslims can be democratized in their own countries and assimilated into Western countries. He will never grasp the non-liberal truth about Islam, which is that Islam as such is inherently hostile to and incompatible with non-Islamic societies and peoples.
4. Finally, there is the true conservative, or, as I prefer, the traditionalist. Traditionalists know that the liberal beliefs about reality are false. They know, for example, that there are intrinsic racial differences in civilizational abilities, and that Islam is inherently hostile to non-Islamic society. Therefore they are not shocked or mugged by revelations of such differences and such hostility. To the contrary, they expect them, and support non-liberal policies that reflect those understandings.
A “liberal mugged by reality” is one who has enough sense to recognize that some particular liberal formulation has proven ineffective or disastrous. However, he continues to adhere to other liberal positions derived from the underlying fundamental assumptions. He does not reconsider, or perhaps even consciously identify, those assumptions.
Those assumptions include a commitment to 1) radical personal autonomy and will, free of transcendent limit, 2) an inflated human universalism that denies the reality of ethnic and historic difference in identities, 3) a belief in the myth of human moral and ethical progress (as opposed to progress in natural science which is real enough), and 4) an extravagant egalitarianism, which goes far beyond civil and legal equality to a hostility towards all difference.
At the deepest level, the liberal is a Pelagian, who denies the reality of the tragic nature of human existence, the reality of man’s fallen nature. He is furious that everything isn’t perfect, because he believe that in principle that that is possible. He looks for scapegoats, since there is no good reason things aren’t perfect. Yet he is a nihilist—every improvement is not good enough. Anything that sets limits to his will and his fantasy that “we” can collectively manage things so as to control our own destinies, free of limiting conditions of human existence, is rejected. He does not realize that the reality of human nature sets limits to his dreams and ambitions.
So while the “liberal mugged by reality” may back off some given position, much to the consternation and anger of his fellow believers (for liberalism is a kind of faith community), his commitment to a fundamentally unrealistic philosophical anthropology means he is condemned to superficiality in both thought and feeling, and he will continually blunder into new policy mistakes.
Gordon from Arizon writes:
I prefer, “Scratch a liberal, find a conservative underneath.” The proof of that is easy. Virtually everyone who received a tax rebate check from George Bush and who had voted against him for president should have put his money where his mouth is by sending his check(s) back to the government. This would prove that he truly believes that government knows best how to spend his money. How many did? Probably a few. Most kept theirs, proving they are really conservatives underneath.
Keep up the good work.
How does the fact that someone will keep money (his own money in fact) that has been given back to him make him a conservative?
By your minimalist definition of conservatism, virtually everyone in the world is conservative, conservatism is virtually synonymous with being human, and so the word doesn’t mean anything and would become useless for discussing politics.
Evan H. writes:
Depending on how this financial crisis plays out and who ultimately gets blamed for it, we may have to coin a new phrase: “A liberal is a conservative who has been mugged by Wall Street”.
Jim F. writes:
I wonder just how many muggings by reality it takes to turn a liberal into a true conservative? In the same vein, I wonder how many liberals have had a few muggings, many muggings, or a sufficient number of muggings to be turned? The impression I get is that there must be quite a spread of partial liberals, half-way liberals, and almost conservatives in the political mix. Would that we could supply the missing muggings—legally, that is!
The answer is that there is no such thing as a sufficient number of muggings to turn a liberal into a conservative, because it is not muggings, shocks, unpleasant surprises, painful experiences, traumatic events, that make a liberal a conservative. What makes a liberal a conservative is realizing the falsity of liberalism and the truth of conservatism. Muggings can help trigger that thought process, but they cannot be a substitute for it.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 23, 2008 08:56 AM | Send