Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sarah Palin's liberalism

TNR reposts Reinhold Niebuhr's discussion of liberalism vs. conservatism, ostensibly a review of Kirk's The Conservative Mind. Worth a look. Here's a snippet:
"Liberalism" [in the Enlightenment sense] acquired a special connotation as a philosophy of life which did not take the factors of interest and power seriously, which expected all parochial loyalties to be dissolved in more universal loyalties; and which was indifferent to organically or historically established loyalties and rights under the illusion that it would be simple for rational man to devise more ideal communities and rights. The liberalism of the French Enlightenment was thus based upon illusions as to the nature of man and of history. It was quasi-anarchistic and pacifistic in its attitude toward the coercions which are a necessary part of communal cohesion and toward the conflicts of interest which always take place between communities. These were the illusions which Burke challenged in Reflections on the Revolution in France.

The philosophy of the Enlightenment was not shared by such conservatives as John Adams or such Jeffersonians as James Madison. Our Constitution was, in fact, informed by a realism which contradicted all the illusions of the Enlightenment. Nevertheless it became the primary source of inspiration for the democratic movement in America. When sectarian Christian perfectionism merged with the thought of the Enlightenment on our frontier, perfectionist illusions in regard to man became the staples of the American liberal movement.

It must be apparent to anyone that it adds to the semantic confusion if those who do not share the illusions of Diderot and Condorcet are termed "conservatives."
Spotting the "Christian perfectionism" strain in liberalism is good; what's weird is how this strain is now part of the "conservative" movement. Society is good, if only government keeps out. Gay marriage must be prohibited lest it contaminate our children, whose sexual morality presumably would be otherwise impeccable. You can think of more examples.

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