"So how were you mugged by reality?"
"Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."
Human history must be littered with these kinds of revelations. A hard truth hits you upside the head. Right at the same time, you realize you had known something was off kilter for a while, but it’s only when the sucker punch comes that you put it all together. These epiphanies can be terrifying and unnerving; at other times, comforting and relieving. It depends whether the reality you are now facing is better or worse than the fairy tale you had been believing.
For a lot of people, one of those blows came in the form of 2020, as it became apparent that “by the consent of the governed” was really just a suggestion, not an actual principle fundamental to a liberal society. Freedom to assemble was suspended with the public confined to quarters (unless you were rioting). The right to practice one's religion was rescinded as a new orthodoxy of safetyism and technocracy vied to become the state-sanctioned church. Speaking against the approved agenda was verboten even as many of those who claimed impartial authority of “The Science” proved to really be liars, only interested in their own fame.
When it came to the crunch, the shared social compact we thought was in effect did not compel folks in our media, Big Tech, public health or even in D.C. to stick to their own rules nor to seek the welfare of those with whose care they had been charged. What had been assumed about the rights of individuals, tolerance and speech proved to be just that – assumptions. It was maddening, it was unsettling. But as is often the case when reality bites, a lot of sleepwalkers were shaken wide awake.
The same thing is happening again. This time, the catalyst is the vicious attack on Israelis by Hamas. The October 7th pogrom has been rattling the commentariat as they try to reconcile the world they thought they had with the one they are seeing with their own eyes. The discord is coming not so much from the thought that a violent terror organization was capable of such savagery, but rather that homegrown violence against Jews and support for barbarism could flourish on American soil. Didn't we do this already? Wasn’t Anti-Semitism sorted out last century?
Yet, over at Washington University, students projected images onto a campus building celebrating Hamas' "martyrs", calling for an end to Israel's existence, “from the river to the sea”. There are reports of many other incidents, with Jewish students wondering if they are safe on campus. Despite the sentimental belief on the part of wealthy donors that universities are places of open inquiry, free speech, and the instilling of character, this is clearly not their grandfather's alumni (if it ever was). Their money has helped produce a hive mind of progressivism, intolerance, close-mindedness, and seemingly a fresh crop of anti-Semites to boot.
Is this the society that liberals signed up for? What happened to the glorious End of History as the “liberal world order” scattered democracy and prosperity to the ends of the earth? Yet here we are, trying to triage the right to free speech against calls to “gas the Jews”.
Thoughtful writers took to their various publications to sift through the evidence. At Intelligencer, Jonathan Chait tried to make sense of the response to Hamas’ attacks. No one who identifies with a liberal worldview could possibly "withhold condemnation or cheer the murders [of Israelis] outright,” he reasons and therefore these must be the actions of “illiberals”. Chait writes that illiberals on the Left and Right have sullied liberal values, splicing them with identity politics and social justice. The result is a Frankenstein's monster capable of "inherent cruelty, repression, and inhumanity."
But Chait’s critique really just kicks the can. Separating the woke from the rational center may help him sleep at night, but it provides no explanation of where illiberalism comes from nor how to temper it. Is it a reaction against its predecessor or is it is a continuation of it? When you boil all morality down to the values of consent, liberty and equality, any one of those can be used to liquidate everything else, as podcaster Carl Benjamin noted during a recent interview. As Benjamin and others have argued, illiberalism is not a lamentable shadow-realm evil twin of its virtuous sibling, but the logical end of a corrosive liberalizing process.
An atheist, Benjamin concedes that whatever good liberalism has wrought, it was only ever piggybacking on the "substrate" of a theistic worldview, specifically Christianity. Liberalism cannot check sinful human nature nor produce moral people, thus it contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Without good men being fed into the system, liberalism’s lofty propositions become a burdensome hundredweight or as is the case today, they fade into irrelevancy.
John Adams famously warned that the Constitution would be “wholly inadequate” for governing amoral and irreligious people. The same is true of liberalism. Back at the turn of this century, Hoover Institute Fellow, Peter Berkowitz also cautioned that those who prize a liberal social order should not dispense with the study of virtue. “Liberal principles seem to spawn characteristic vices, vices that are entwined with liberal virtues and which threaten the capacity of citizens to sustain free and democratic institutions…The exercise of virtue is indispensable to a political regime seeking to establish equality and protect freedom.”
The link between virtue and free societies is something modern liberals seem to have forgotten. A modern education will teach you to assume that everything good is innate and everything bad is learned or socially-constructed – a twisting of what Christians know actually happened in the Fall. Lacking in understanding of history or human nature, and awash with comfort and distraction, liberals expected that this system could maintain itself. But Auron McIntyre summed it up: “Liberty is the rare and precious fruit of virtue. Virtue is not the fruit of liberty.”
But aren’t the progressive types all about virtue? Isn’t that what it means to be woke? Since modern liberals have discarded God’s law as a starting point, a new taxonomy of alt-righteousness has bubbled to the surface with its zenith being conformity and compliance. Supporting the right causes and cancelling the wrong ones is very important if you are woke. Indeed, to signal your virtue is a moral act in itself! When “Queers for Palestine” groups pontificate about Israel or students parade a banner which states that “reproductive justice” means independence for Gaza, it may broadcast their ignorance, but it is not done ironically. This is virtue on display.
What passes for virtue today is what Pirate Wires writer Mike Solana calls a "moral inversion". Some examples seem “almost too silly to mention” he says. “The excruciating performance of modern art, the soul crushing contours of contemporary architecture.” But some are more sobering. “Public theft, we’re told, is a ‘justice’ issue.” Degrowth is progress. Discipline is fascist. "Evil is framed the good, good is framed the evil, and the public is expected to parrot all the clown world blasphemies in unison as if some twisted Nicene Creed."
The Twitter account Chivalry Guild argues that the devil’s grandest scheme was to “sabotage the language of the virtues, of human excellence.” He posted a collection of the reframed virtues he had noticed, similar to Solana:
Prudence becomes utilitarian calculation Humility becomes round-shouldered self-deprecation Charity becomes niceness, Temperance becomes portion control Hope becomes wishful thinking Justice becomes whatever political outcomes are most convenient for the Regime Courage gets tainted by associated with the supposedly ‘stunning and brave’ artists and activists who say banal and safe things.
Here’s where Christians have a lot to offer. We know that there are older ways of thinking than liberalism. Our forebears spent a great deal of time cataloguing virtues as wonderful traits to inculcate. Contrasted with the hopeless and useless virtues espoused by elites, godly virtues catch the eye like brightly colored “pick ‘n’ mix” candy. Consider how different a display of self-control, or orderliness, generosity, gratitude, circumspection or perseverance is in this time of performative displays of outrage and compelled penance.
Yes, some sleepwalkers are waking up and they may soon experience the unsettling sucker punch because no human political system is strong enough to bear the weight of human depravity. There is a growing “I-didn’t-leave-the-Left, the-Left-left-me” crowd and you may have seen the strange coalitions forming: feminists fighting transgender ideologues, gay men defending marriage and family, transhumanists promoting procreation, academics questioning the academy, atheists encouraging people to get to church, libertines promoting chastity… They may not have connected all the dots between how their ideologies created the monsters they are now battling Many seem to think a little more reform is all that is required. But by God’s grace, the sucker punches will keep coming and the felicitous inconsistencies will be flattened out.
Whether we are headed for reformation or collapse is not for me to say. But our omniscient God is not taken aback by the upheaval of our times. It is business-as-usual in his Kingdom. Already dead and made alive, saints are privy to heaven’s true reality, never to be tossed about by changing political whims and fashionable moralities of earth but rather to be Christ’s ambassadors to these Shadowlands. Transformed by the Holy Spirit, by the God who gives men new hearts, we are being changed into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Life in pursuit of real virtue can be to the praise of God the Father and bring hope to those mugged by reality.
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