According to the cliché, most of us are liberals at twenty, and conservatives by forty. By middle age, as the truism holds, we have been “mugged by reality”.
Leaving aside the fact that reality is a concept over whose meaning ontologists have argued for millennia, whoever happens to employ this infelicitous metaphor—I’ve heard it most often, in fact, on the avuncular lips of conservatives themselves–, “mugged by reality” is another expression of liberal condescension. It suggests that conservatives are exhausted liberals: liberals, that is, who have given up on their sweetly innocent, youthful ideals—the ideals of liberalism–, having grown weary of an arduous struggle for justice and truth against a recalcitrant—i.e, conservative–world.
Since the Sixties, it has been understood that only liberals have ideals, which conservatives have always stood athwart in their determination to preserve a corrupt status quo. This is self-serving nonsense, of course. All ideologies, left and right, are about ideals; that’s what the word means. The apparatchiks of Lenin and Stalin had ideals, so pure and uncompromising, in fact, that thirty million Russian zeks needed to be sacrificed to them. Even the proponents of realpolitik believe in the ideal that morality ought generally to be subordinated to expediency. Being an idealist is neither a virtue nor a defence; to paraphrase a recent grand master of realpolitik, it all depends on what the meaning of the word idealism is.
If we accept for a moment the doe-eyed liberal definition of idealism, then I’m not sure conservatives have ever really grown up. What is more idealistic, I wonder, than the conviction that most human beings are sufficiently talented and industrious as to be able to thrive without constant reliance upon the State?; that historically aggrieved minorities can transcend their ancient sufferings, without subjecting others to the same injustices?; that people ought to be treated (and identify themselves) as humans, rather than members of this or that tribe, gender, sub-gender, or other victim-group? These are fundamental conservative desiderata, and they all appear pretty naïve in the context of a tenaciously entrenched liberal status quo. Those who cling to them seem to believe in hope and change as mystically as any of Obama’s cultists.
I’m prepared to grant that liberals were once idealists; but since then, they’ve been mugged by…by something. They’ve been seduced, more correctly, by the soft-totalitarian power they now enjoy as masters of the political class, of the educational establishment, of the media, of the popular culture, of just about everything. Even Big Business (which liberals reflexively diabolize) has become a battering ram for the overthrow of traditional moral norms and their replacement by the dogmas of the Church of Progress, as evidenced by its boycotts of states like Indiana that dared to defend the religious liberties of Christians against Big Gay and their enforcers in the federal government.
As Joe Sobran has observed, government is organized force, and raw government power (in the hands of the military or the police) was once something that liberals used to despise. Indeed, in the salad days of the New Left, liberals regarded government force as fascist. Now they are happy to use the police (whom they once denounced as “pigs”) and the law (which they once vilified as the instrument of a coercive “authority”) to enforce the purity of progressive orthodoxy, and criminalize dissent from it. It’s quaint to recall that one of the first and defining enthusiasms of the radical Left in the Sixties was the “free speech movement”. Its advocates sensibly insisted that freedom of speech means nothing if it doesn’t extend to speech that is unpopular, and indeed, the ACLU at the time even defended the speech rights of Nazis. Today, liberals are content to trample on the free speech rights of anyone who opposes even the most extreme and neoteric of their ordinances: abortion to within seconds of natural delivery—no protesting inside the bubble zone, and no graphic images, please–, same-sex “marriage”—no declining to participate on the grounds of religious conscience—“self-identified” gender—no using atavistic pronouns like “he” or “she”.
The free speech movement’s original laboratory was Berkeley, where lately, if he came to speak, Thomas Jefferson would be violently shouted off the podium. At Berkeley recently, as on other American campuses, “anti-fascist” political mobs have been smashing windows, setting fires, and shouting down conservative speakers–exactly as the henchmen of the real twentieth-century fascists (Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao) did to intimidate and silence their political foes.
A significant proportion of non-liberal opinion is now simply outlawed as “hate speech”; I suppose calling people bigots, fascists, racists, and homophobes is “love speech”. The most exalted ideal of liberalism is supposed to be “tolerance”. But liberal politicians, commentators, and corporate bureaucrats are never constrained by it when they abominate this or that idea or practice as “not to be tolerated”, “unacceptable”. It tells you something that such formulations as “unacceptable” are heard practically every day, and invariably from those who regard themselves as limpid vessels of “open-mindedness” (another supposed liberal “ideal”). Of course, liberals are only tolerant of the nostrums of liberalism; and any demurral from them provokes protest mobs, Maoist shamings in the media, or heresy trials in state or provincial human rights tribunals.
The current legal regime (on abortion, same-sex “marriage”, transgenderism, and so on) seems to have been granted an exemption from another liberal ideal, the hippie-era obligation to “question authority”. How many Christian refuseniks have to be arraigned before human rights tribunals, I wonder; how many abortion protestors have to be jailed, and how many Pride Parades do local police and elected officials have to attend, before liberals admit that they are the authorities? For liberals, conveniently, authority has always meant the bigoted and oppressive totality of everything that came before them. But now that liberalism has become the overwhelmingly dominant ideology of the ruling class, its adherents are blithely unconscious of the potential of government might to be arbitrary, irrational, or oppressive; and “authority” no longer seems to be a pressing moral problem. The only sign that they are uncomfortable with it is that progressives continue to cast themselves in the role of oppressed outsiders: victims of racism, homophobia, transphobia, “theocracy”– even as the State pays for their sex-change surgeries, blesses their same-sex unions, and compels Christians to do the same against their will.
It is notable that the authority liberals reflexively question is that which once inhered in an ancient consensus omnium, as distinguished from the latest moral and intellectual fashions, acceptance of which must now be compelled by government force. (There would scarcely be any need to enact novel legislation–recognizing same sex “marriage” or “non-binary gender”–in the first place if the general population already agreed with and accepted them sua sponte.) Something like the voluntary authority of the consensus omnium is what Chesterton meant by “tradition”, when he defined it as “the democracy of the dead, as opposed to the oligarchy of those who happen at the moment to be walking around”. In government, the schools, the media, and all the other corridors of power and influence, liberals are currently walking around, indeed, strutting triumphantly, like the “pelting, petty officers” who, in Shakespeare’s description, are “dressed in a little brief authority”.
Liberals are thus opposed to authority in the abstract, but insouciant about it in present and concrete reality. To quote Sobran again, when they admonish us to “question authority”, “it always turns out that they mean every form of authority except their own, [before which] they demand that we fall to our knees.”