Thursday, December 11, 2008

Imagined perfection and imperfect reality

R.R. Reno believes "It’s wrong to wring our hands over the shrill and intensely competitive nature of politics. The alternatives are so much worse: tyranny or indifference." Nevertheless, he thinks that our political divisions are becoming dangerous, that we are "careening toward an ever-deeper split, one that threatens the underlying unity of our nation." The reason is "that progressives are socially divisive. We forget that revolutionaries seek revolutions, because we tend to think of progressives as idealists, people who just want to make the world a better place." As many have done before, Reno finds Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France a source of wisdom. From "Conservatism and the Culture Wars" at FIRST THINGS:
In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke helps us see beyond our usual moral sentimentalism. He recognized the way in which abstract principles can become objects of devotion. The great patrons of liberty and equality in revolutionary France loved their ideas of justice, so much so that they would willingly destroy the actual goods of their imperfect society in order to implement an imagined state of perfection. Nothing is so selfish as to attack reality—and to do so on the basis of one’s own ideals.

Burke had an epithet for these selfish idealists. They were “men of theory,” and they so often seem to have the rhetorical advantage. The imagined world is shiny and spotless, unlike the real world and its hopelessly compromised institutions. It’s easy to compliment your moral insights when you juxtapose the ideal with the real.

“The pretended rights of these theorists are all extreme,” he wrote, “and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false.” And more than false. Reflections on the Revolution in France is a very passionate book, urgent and strident in tone, because Burke thought the “men of theory” wicked.

The wickedness comes from a crucial fact about progressive politics: Our social world needs to be destroyed in order for moral and political ideals to be realized, unsullied by the past. ....

Burke’s insight in the imperialism of theory helps explain why culture wars seem to be escalating. Economic progressives are not terribly influential, as Obama’s cabinet appointments demonstrate. But the cultural progressives are very much in ascendancy. Every desire has an equal right to its fulfillment. And this ideal can only be realized if every desire feels free to speak its name.

Therefore, establishing an empire of desire requires more than political triumph, more than legal protection. Like all progressive ideals, it requires the destruction of the sentiments and pieties that lead people to think otherwise. This ideological project takes on the familiar distortions of all modern propaganda. “Words take on new meanings,” James Kalb writes in The Tyranny of Liberalism, “hatred comes to include opposition to liberal initiatives, while inclusiveness requires non-liberals to abandon their principles and even their identity. Tolerance treats objections to liberalism as attacks on neutrality that are oppressive simply by being made.” [more]
FIRST THINGS: On the Square » Blog Archive » Conservatism and the Culture Wars

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