Has a sense of reality finally insinuated itself into the pages of the New Statesman? The venerable English weekly, founded in 1913, has always had a decidedly—often, indeed, militantly—left-of-center cast to it. Imagine our surprise, then, when on Valentine’s Day the New Statesman published an essay on liberalism that would not have been out of place in the pages of The New Criterion. Written by Melanie Phillips, a columnist for the London Sunday Times, the essay is partly a heartfelt repudiation of various liberal pieties, partly a wake-up call to her colleagues on the somnolent Left.
Phillips’s essay is titled “Why I am Really a Progressive.” But one needn’t read far to understand that by “progressive” she means the opposite of what left-wing liberals in Britain and the U.S. mean by the term. Phillips begins with a gentle send-up of the utopian presuppositions of contemporary liberalism—presuppositions to which she herself had subscribed:
Once upon a time, in one of the most enlightened countries on the globe and in the most enlightened era known to mankind, there lived and worked a journalist. Let us call her M. This journalist subscribed to certain unshakeable principles. She believed that members of a civilized society had a set of duties towards each other, that selfishness was wrong, that the strong had a particular responsibility to help the weak, that harm to others could and should be avoided and that the lies with which all power was abused should be exposed. She believed that, by adopting these principles, it was possible to build a better society. She was thus indistinguishable from the left-wing circles in which she moved, which congratulated themselves repeatedly on being the most progressive social grouping in the country, if not the world.
As Phillips recognizes, this cozy realm of self-congratulation generally enjoys a hermetic seal protecting it from acknowledging unpleasant truths. It is her task in this essay to break the seal and let in a series of “disturbing facts” that challenge the virtucratic complacency of left-liberal orthodoxy.
About education, for example, Phillips notes that under the regime of so-called progressivism, “Children were not being taught to read; nor were they being taught history or maths or languages or anything very much. A view had prevailed that children were as well equipped as adults to make sense of experience.” The predictable result was “school-leavers who could barely write an application letter and even university undergraduates who needed remedial courses in the basics.” The first shock occurred when Phillips (who is the “M” of the essay) dared to call attention to these unhappy facts. Although parents supported her, “her left-wing friends … told her that she had become a reactionary Gradgrind and appallingly right-wing.” But how, she wondered, “could it be progressive to support a philosophy that inflicted its most devastating damage upon children at the bottom of the social heap?” How indeed?
Phillips’s next shock came when she called attention to the heartbreak and human wreckage caused by casual divorce and single-parent households. Noting the “huge amount of evidence” that “marriage, by and large, was a protection for both children and adults,” she argued that “the state should promote it as a social good.” Once again, her left-wing friends were appalled by her “reactionary, authoritarian, and right-wing” opinions. But how, she wondered, “could it be progressive to encourage deceit, betrayal of trust, breaking of promises and harm to children?”
Phillips subjected several other left-liberal shibboleths to the same treatment, always with the same results. Liberals of a libertarian stripe have long advocated the legalization of marijuana and even hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. Noting the mounting evidence of permanent harm done by marijuana—let alone other drugs—Phillips argued that “legalization would not minimize harm—it would nationalize it.” Fighting words, those, as Phillips discovered when “self-styled liberals” accused her of being “criminally insane,” “evil,” even a “Nazi.”
Irving Kristol once famously quipped that a neo-conservative was a liberal who had been mugged by reality. Phillips is not a neo-conservative; she is a disabused or disillusioned liberal. Her poignant essay provides a case history of the effects of multiple muggings on the sensibility of a thoughtful liberal. The “paradox of liberalism,” Phillips writes, “is that, although it is a philosophy of freedom, it depends on moral restraint as the basis of liberty. License, by contrast, is a threat to freedom because it observes no obligation to others.” The result is the vertiginous situation we find ourselves in today—a situation in which “liberal” means “license” and virtually any check on individual behavior is regarded as an unconscionable intrusion upon freedom.
So in our libertarian society, where individual choice is all, “liberal” and “progressive” have come to mean something very different. Liberals took for granted that freedom depended upon self-discipline. Libertarians decided that all such restraint was repressive. The individual had to be free from all attachments to family, culture, nation, institutions and traditions that might fetter freedom of choice. Since every individual was equally entitled to such free choices, the distinctions that were the basis of morality were eroded. To be progressive was thus inevitably redefined as to be free to do harm, with harm itself being reinvented as virtue… .
People who criticize this attitude as not only selfish but socially destructive are told, however, that they are illiberal, prejudiced and reactionary. They are also intimidated into silence.
The ultimate effects of this rancid form of liberalism go far beyond the much-publicized bane of “political correctness.” Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the phenomenon of political correctness involves a great deal more than university speech codes and consciousness-raising sessions. In the end, political correctness fosters an attitude of ahistorical self-absorption that, although addicted to various liberal slogans, is in reality a surrender of the independence that makes genuine liberty possible. “In such a world,” Phillips notes,
it has become a positive merit to stand for nothing because this means that nothing can stand in the way of change and the march of global capital. All tradition becomes a suitable case for disposal. Yet this is as backward-looking as it is ahistorical… .
The idea that all pre-existing traditions or values are, by definition, unprogressive baggage is as philistine as it is risible. Values dismissed as conservative are actually universal: attachment, commitment to individuals and institutions, ties of duty, trust and fidelity, the distinction between constructive and destructive behavior. Without these things, freedom cannot flourish nor society exist. The paradox is that only by conserving such values can progress occur. Small, incremental steps are the best way of bringing about beneficial change. Radicalism or revolution is likely to implode and leave us worse off than before.
In other words, we have to rescue progress from the progressives. We need a liberal, not a libertarian, social order with deeper values than contract, and with other criteria for progress than material advances. Moral restraint is the glue that provides social cohesion. Liberty is not achieved but threatened by the relativistic pursuit of autonomy and rights.
Melanie Phillips’s remarkable essay has already elicited a great deal of comment pro and con. Whether it will have the tonic effect it deserves remains to be seen. It is pleasant to contemplate the reaction Tony Blair might have to Phillips’s arguments— especially to her rejection of “the Prime Minister’s Manichean division between progressives and the forces of conservatism.” Phillips’s observations are at least as pertinent to the social and political situation in the U.S. as they are to Britain, though there is little to suggest that liberals here have yet awakened from the many muggings to which they have been subjected.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 7, on page 1
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