As I’ve gotten older, I’ve increasingly had the experience of saying things that would have been considered pieties in the liberal catechism when I was young—and which now will get you labeled as a howling reactionary.
In retrospect, this is partly because the left didn’t always mean some of the ideals it used to pronounce for itself, or at least it didn’t mean them in the high-minded, principled way they sounded. The left had the reputation of being defenders of free speech, for example, but it was always something of a case of “free speech for me but not for thee.” They were all in favor of “questioning authority”—until they became the authorities.
More important, the left has moved farther to the left, leaving moderate “liberalism” behind and embracing a more consistent, authoritarian collectivism.
Here is a small list I’ve been keeping of the liberal pieties that now only seem to be believed by people on the right.
1) The right to offend.
Once upon a time, the old liberals lionized those who had the boldness to push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. After all, people have a right to offend, don’t they? And we shouldn’t try to suppress them, because sometimes people who say offensive things are also pointing out the impolite truths that we need to confront, right? Right?
Not so much any more.
When I was young, for example, one of the great liberal icons was the late comedian Lenny Bruce—a pioneer of a new style of comedy that combined frank discussion of sexuality, free use of obscenities, and biting social commentary. (Like Madonna, this was considered new and shocking in its day but has now been ubiquitous for so long that it seems old and tired.) Bruce’s legacy was celebrated in a 1974 film made by such liberal luminaries as Dustin Hoffman and Bob Fosse.
Today, Jerry Seinfeld—hardly a bolder voice than Lenny Bruce—has joined a growing list of comedians who won’t perform on college campuses because today’s kids are too politically correct, and there’s too great a risk of getting blacklisted as racist and sexist—a fear thoroughly confirmed by the preposterous response Seinfeld got.
Similarly, a 1981 TV movie celebrated the ACLU for championing the right of Nazis to march in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Skokie. This was viewed as a sign of extraordinary dedication to principle, as shown by the willingness of the ACLU’s Jewish lawyer to defend everyone’s rights, even the rights of people who hate him. It was a real-life example of Voltaire’s famous vow: “I may disagree with everything you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”
Oh, and back in the day, the right to offend most definitely included the right to challenge and even ridicule religion. We can’t let those blue-nosed Puritans keep us under their thumb, can we?
Fast-forward to today, and the left won’t even stand up for the rights of cartoonists who are targeted for assassination by religious fanatics—as Pamela Geller and Bosch Fawstin discovered earlier this year. If you want to find people who will stand up for the right to offend and the right to criticize religion, you will have to look for them on the right. The left has long ago given up on that article of the liberal creed.
2) The value of a liberal education.
The “liberal arts” did not originally refer to a political leaning. The phrase referred to the kind of education in the humanities that was considered appropriate for a free man. But the mid-20th-century political liberals embraced a liberal education and regarded the liberal arts departments of the universities as their natural home. Young people were encouraged to get a liberal arts education to open their minds and broaden their horizons, requiring them to understand the great historical debates and confront unfamiliar ideas.
It all seems so hopelessly antique. There is a debate currently going on about whether a liberal education is worthwhile, and whether anyone should bother to get one any more. But the wider context for this debate is that the liberals are the ones killing liberal education.
They’re killing it economically by means of the Paradox of Subsidies—the decades of subsidized student loans that have made a college education so outrageously expensive, and leaves young people with such enormous piles of debt, that most students can’t afford to dabble in any field that doesn’t promise an immediate economic payoff.
But they’ve also killed it off by stamping out all of the challenging and unfamiliar ideas. This started in the 1990s when students protested for the elimination of courses in Western Civilization, on the grounds that being asked to think about great ideas produced by “dead white European males” is racist. Today, this closed-mindedness has become a full-blown system, with “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” designed to quarantine students from contact with uncomfortable ideas. As one student explained to a reporter, she needed to seek the isolation of a safe space because, “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.” Way back when, liberals told us that this was the whole purpose of college. Then they built a system that was intended to prevent precisely such encounters. It’s almost as if they never really meant it—as if they meant that you were only supposed to encounter ideas that challenge the beliefs of the right, not ideas that challenge the dearly held beliefs of the left.
3) Government should stay out of the bedroom.
This was one of the big selling points for the liberals. Conservatives were scary religious zealots who wanted to tell you what music you should listen to, censor your movies and television shows, and worst of all, invade your bedroom and tell you who could sleep with and what you could do with them.
It was all a bit overblown and it wasn’t as simplistic a partisan narrative as you might remember. (The campaign against rock music lyrics, for example, was spearheaded by Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator Al Gore.) But there’s little doubt that things have changed, and now it’s the left that is pushing a neo-Victorian code of sexual conduct.
I remember during Bill Clinton’s impeachment, when Ken Starr released a report poring over the details of Clinton’s sordid encounters with Monica Lewinsky, how creepy all the liberals thought it was for a prosecutor to examine every detail of other people’s sexual encounters, like some kind of peeping Tom. Yet this is now the exact system set up on every college campus, which is prepared to produce a Starr Report for every drunken hook-up.
And the crazy ideas that start on campus have a tendency to escape from the asylum. Thus, the Washington Examiner‘s Ashe Schow reports that the campus system of “yes means yes,” in which lovers must receive express permission for every minor stage of a sexual act or risk being prosecuted by a regretful partner after the fact, is now being proposed as the legal model for criminal prosecution nationwide. As Schow puts it, this is a standard “so stringent that it would criminalize millions of Americans overnight,” and is “part of a push to bring authoritarianism into the bedroom.”
And it’s not just what goes on behind closed doors. Every statement about sex, every public depiction of anything that remotely connotes sex—from movies to music to video games—has to be loaded up with social and political significance and policed for evidence of forbidden sexual attitudes.
These days, if you want to hear someone tell everyone to lighten up when it comes to sex and to stop making everything a crime, you’re far more likely to hear that from the right. Frankly, there are a lot of us who are just wishing we could hear less about what is going on in everybody else’s bedrooms. Which brings me to the next liberal piety.
4) Live and let live.
The old era of liberalism was the era of “Free to Be You and Me.” Everybody was going to do their own thing, man, and you could really let your freak flag fly.
Unless, of course, your own thing is the wrong thing. Because today the left’s chief imperative is social conformity.
Consider the case of Brendan Eich, who was fired as CEO of Mozilla because he was discovered to have donated $1,000 to a group that opposes gay marriage. As Mollie Hemingway pointed out, what got him fired was not the donation, but his refusal to recant his views under pressure. And the social media mob is still harassing him one year later.
But the final destination we’re headed to is on display in Berlin, where the left’s peculiar vision of gender-neutrality is being imposed with German efficiency. And yes, that should scare you.
Consider a new set of rules for billboard ads.
Girls in pink “with dolls” are basically out, as are boys in blue playing “with technical toys.” In ads showing both adult women and men, females cannot be depicted as “hysterical,” “stupid” or “naive” alongside men presented as “technically skilled,” “strong” or “business savvy.” Adult women—featured alone or otherwise—must not be shown “occupied in the household with pleasure.” And in one stipulation pounced upon by critics, the equal-opportunity board of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg—home to Checkpoint Charlie and remnants of the Berlin Wall—no longer wants to see images of women “smiling for no reason.”
That part about not “smiling for no reason” has got to bring back some memories on the East side of Checkpoint Charlie. Which makes this quote from Anne Wizorek, “a self-described feminist author based in Berlin,” all the more ominous: “Language reflects power structures. If we want an inclusive society, we need to reflect that in our language.” That thing about language and power? I believe that was kind of the point George Orwell was making. Except that he was against it.
More and more, the left is openly declaring that they are opposed to individual choice. Feminist crusader Anita Sarkeesian informs us that “feminism is not about personal choice” but is instead about “the collective liberation of women as a social class.”
By contrast, if you want to hear someone say that “a feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses,” you’re most likely to hear it from a Republican candidate for president.
5) Support for Israel.
Back when I was young, the big campaign of the era was advocating boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against the government of South Africa, in order to pressure it to end its regime of Apartheid. But Israel was still widely admired as an embattled sanctuary for a persecuted people.
The old liberals drew a lot of their identity from the triumph over fascism in World War II under FDR. They saw themselves as the ultimate enemies of fascism (and consequently assumed that anyone who disagreed with them must be a fascist), so they naturally sympathized with the biggest victims of fascism, the Jews. It didn’t hurt that Israel, in its early decades, adopted some aspects of socialism, which made it seem like a kind of model of democratic liberalism.
But then this traditional support for Israel came into a head-on collision against anti-colonialism and racial identity politics. The left began to reflexively identify any non-Western people as the victims of persecution and exploitation by the West. And the Palestinians inserted themselves neatly into that narrative. Despite their own genocidal ideology and culture of racial incitement, Palestinian propagandists made themselves out as a persecuted minority targeted by Israeli bigots. That’s how we got to today, when Israel is denounced as an “Apartheid state” and targeted by a new campaign known as BDS: Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.
Meanwhile, NPR journalists indulge in conspiracy theories about Jewish influence in government, and there are reports of a wave of anti-Semitism on college campuses. It’s another example of how kowtowing to Islam has become a way for the left to vent its fury against the supposed corruption and oppressiveness of our own Western culture, of which Israel has become a symbol. At the same time, full-throated support for Israel has started to become a partisan issue that elicits wild applause and chants of “USA!” at Republican rallies.
This isn’t the only way in which the left has set out to disavow the pro-freedom legacy built by the old liberals. Take the next liberal piety that the left has abandoned to the right.
6) Support for human rights.
It used to be taken for granted that America should care about human rights abuses across the world and that we should be ashamed of our alliances with “friendly dictators.” There was even a liberal doctrine of the “responsibility to protect,” which told us we had an obligation to prevent genocide and other abuses wherever we can.
The person mainly responsible for pushing “responsibility to protect” was Samantha Power, who is now our ambassador to the United Nations, where she has been the international face of a policy of near-total indifference to human rights. From Egypt to Syria to Russia, the United States has pioneered “hashtag diplomacy,” in which State Department officials post trivial expressions of concern on Twitteer while we do nothing for fear of being considered belligerent and imperialist.
Contrast that to an old liberal like John F. Kennedy. Right off the bat in his Inaugural Address, he promised that Americans were “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed” and declared: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Today, this would get him branded as a dangerous, war-mongering Neocon.
Probably the single biggest threat to human rights at the moment is the rise of ISIS, which revels in advertising the barbarity of its tyranny. Yet human rights activists are banging their heads against a wall trying to get anybody to pay attention. One feminist complains that “Today’s feminists are…disproportionately focused on Western imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism, while ignoring Islam’s long history of imperialism, colonialism, anti-black racism, slavery, and forced conversion.”
But this tracks surprisingly well with the left’s actual history on human rights, which it usually preferred to cite as a way of beating up on US foreign policy by blaming us for the crimes of friendly dictators while soft-pedaling the crimes of the Soviet Union.
And speaking of the Soviet Union, that brings us to what liberals used to think about the workers of the world.
7) The dignity of the working man.
I’m so old that I can remember when liberals were the party of heavy industry, rather than the party that wants to shut down all the power plants and raze all the smokestacks. Back then, the liberals claimed they were the party of the “working class” and the “working man,” the blue-collar roughneck who works with his hands.
As usual, this was never quite as straightforward as it seemed. Describing blue-collar workers as the “working class” implied that nobody else does any work—not managers, not professionals, not entrepreneurs, not investors. The liberals liked to imply, contrary to all available evidence, that only people who are members of unions do any work.
But they insisted that the dignity of work was their goal, and that even the welfare state was intended only as a temporary measure to get the working man back to a good job. In his 1934 State of the Union Address, Franklin Roosevelt declared:
I shall continue to regard it as my duty to use whatever means may be necessary to supplement state, local, and private agencies for the relief of suffering caused by unemployment. With respect to this question, I have recognized the dangers inherent in the direct giving of relief and have sought the means to provide not mere relief but the opportunity for useful and remunerative work. We shall, in the process of recovery, seek to move as rapidly as possible from direct relief to publicly supported work, and from that to the rapid restoration of private employment.
Similarly, when he launched the Great Society welfare programs, Lyndon Johnson promised:
We are not content to accept the endless growth of relief rolls or welfare rolls. We want to offer the forgotten fifth of our people opportunity and not doles. Our American answer to poverty is not to make the poor more secure in their poverty but to reach down and to help them lift themselves out of the ruts of poverty and move with the large majority along the high road of hope and prosperity.
If the welfare state seems like an odd means to this end, let the result speak for itself. But now a major portion of the left has stopped even pretending that they value work. Hence the growing support for a guaranteed minimum income, a lifetime handout large enough to provide everyone with a comfortable existence.
The goal, according to one supporter of this idea, is precisely to allow people not to work.
People could pursue a lot of activities that are not particularly well paid but that have a lot of social use or personal satisfaction: art, creative work, volunteer work, working with people who have disabilities. So if we were a very rich world, which I think we are to a certain degree, it would be a remarkable way to make sure that people could maximize their ability to express themselves but also maximize their ability to participate in the communities that they live in in a full way. Stay home and take care of kids if that’s what you want to do. Take care of your parents when they’re old and sick.
If I had a hammer? Nah, if I had a handout. And as I pointed out, the evidence suggest that when people are paid just for breathing, when they lose the basic habit of working, they don’t spend their time writing symphonies. They sit on the couch smoking pot and watching bad TV.
In this context, what has happened to the work ethic? It has become a right-wing cause. That explains this story about Mike Rowe, the television host who has gone from doing dirty jobs on TV to becoming an advocate for helping willing workers fill the nation’s shortage of skilled blue-collar labor. For this, he found himself confronted for promoting “right-wing propaganda.” If you’ve followed Mike Rowe and his previous comments about Walmart and the minimum wage, you know what’s coming next. Rowe politely but thoroughly eviscerated this commenter, rejecting the attempt to make work into a partisan issue.
But I’m afraid he’s fighting a losing battle, because the moral value of work is becoming a partisan issue. You can glorify dirty jobs and the unglamorous men and women who do them and still feel like you’re being true to the industrious spirit of the old liberals. But you’re only likely to find eager applause from the right.
I suspect I’m not alone in any of this. Think of it as the rise of what you might call the “liberal right”: a lot of people upholding ideas that once upon a time would have made us liberals in good standing—yet finding that this gets us designated as right-wingers today. And the list above is just a start. I could (and in the future probably will) add other former liberal pieties like the value of wealth and prosperity, the rejection of genetic determinism, judging people based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, or the old-fashioned notion that putting on blackface is really offensive.
This is part of the reason we’re so exasperated when people on the left reflexively dismiss us as racist and sexist and in the pocket of big oil companies, because we self-identify as enlightened, liberal, and even progressive, in any reasonable sense of those words. And we’re increasingly convinced that today’s stridently collectivist, petty authoritarian left is none of these things.