THE LIBERAL ETHIC: A HISTORY
Modern conservatism favors financial responsibility, individual freedom, limited government and a strong national defense. Its tradition, by definition, dates back at least to Plato. As such, it has a spiritual dimension that affects its morality, and cannot be considered secular in any absolute sense. But conservatism is regarded “behind the times” in liberal quarters.
The proliferation of newspapers, literary journals and salons occurring in the 18th Century resulted in an explosion in mass communication and exchange of information. This, and the growth of public venues where ideas could be shared, developed and spread, resulted in the shaping of public opinion and enabled challenging the status quo to an unprecedented degree. Government control of the electorate initially was made more difficult by the growth of public venues where ideas critical of the existing order could be widely discussed. The American and French Revolutions were encouraged in large part by this phenomenon.
Today’s liberalism has its roots in the cultural revolution of the Enlightenment (and consequent advent of Modernism, ‘the culture of rational discourse’). “Enlightened” intellectuals rejected the entrenched religious authority pioneered by historical philosophers and its penchant for inference and reason. It embraced instead a philosophy of natural reason—conclusions based solely on evidence—pioneered by Descartes and his largely mechanistic approach to the world. Although the Enlightenment commenced within Christianity, the “philosophy of language” nevertheless sought to replace any religious thinking with a fusion of scientific-technological and secular humanistic values.
The movement reached its zenith with Karl Marx, whose humanistic socialist theories challenged traditional aristocratic authority. Marx would create a mass society; his activist State assuring social conformity by managing its economy to provide employment and welfare for all. Marxist ideas spawned the Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School) in Germany in the early 20th Century in response to a perceived need to spread Marxist communism. The Frankfurt School came to New York in the 1930s and California in the ’40s, finding a convivial home at the University of Wisconsin-Madison along the way. Whereas Western thought is founded in the individual, in communism all valid ideas are professed to come from The State. The Frankfurt School initially employed Sigmund Freud’s psychological conditioning methods in an attempt to dislodge the structures of traditional Western society by promoting the thought that certain of its beliefs are disrespectful of others and must be tempered to atone for past inequities and injustices. The result: the birth of PC.
Political Correctness, the scourge of our times
PC’s foundation lies in the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory, a term not embodying critical thought so much as criticism itself. Based on Marxist conjecture and an underlying thesis that “all history is about which groups have power over which other groups,” its goal was to combine social theory, philosophy, economics and cultural criticism in its behalf. Its framework includes Deconstructionism, an outgrowth of the “philosophy of language” that removes meaning from existing text and re-inserts another meaning of current choice. (It amounts to one’s being told by the ‘enlightened’ what one thinks, a simplistic but correct description of the work of Jacques Derrida.) Eventually, critical theory abandoned its German idealistic roots and morphed into American pragmatism, a strand of thought appealing to practicality and common sense. Postmodernism began as a reaction to the modernist certainty of scientific (objective) efforts to explain reality, focusing instead on idealism, relativism, skepticism and the ‘relative truths’ of each individual in an effort to understand his own reality.
Postmodernism continued the modernist rejection of absolute truth and remains an ideology rather than a philosophy. The modern liberal practice of rejecting formal convention in favor of good intentions spawned its own unique ideology (a body of doctrine, myth and belief) rather than a primary socially-grounded philosophy. Ideologies claim to be indifferent, but by definition have an agenda and tend to breed extremism in their effort to debunk conflicting philosophies (i.e., if facts intrude, the well-meaning liberal’s response may well be: “that’s just not the way we do things.” This approach is characteristic of an ideology.)
…to be continued…