Mr. Farron’s politics recall the liberalism of Gladstone, Chesterton and Isaiah Berlin, which treated conscience as king. Today’s liberalism has triumphed so spectacularly over the claims of faith and tradition that it has nothing left to conquer but the individual conscience. This is why modern liberals are so unmagnanimous in victory.
It isn’t enough to emancipate transgender people—you, rabbi, must adhere to strict pronoun guidelines and feel in your soul that Chelsea Manning was always a “she.” It isn’t enough to legalize abortion—you, Tim Farron, must like it.
Liberals welcome believers insofar as religion can be deployed in service of liberal causes, to be sure. But any expression of theological or moral judgment is met with hostility.
Many years ago, I read an article about a former neo-Nazi who had repented of his beliefs and was now dedicating his life to traveling around the country giving speeches to adolescents in hopes of keeping them from falling under a similar influence. His turning point came about at some white supremacist gathering, where, feeling philosophical, he turned to a friend and asked, “When the race war is over and we’ve won, then what?” The friend laughed it off by saying, “Oh, come on, you know we’re going to start on eye color next.” The unwitting truth in the revealing “joke” struck home for our protagonist, and he shortly thereafter renounced his worldview.
Needless to say, I hope, I don’t mention this story in order to make some facile point about how it’s all just one slippery-slope continuum from bleeding-heart progressivism to Nazi racism. Still, another famous classical liberal, Lord Acton, reminded us about the danger of absolute power. Power abhors being without a wielder, and Ahmari is correct to note that liberalism is no more likely than any other creed to voluntarily relinquish power due to abstract principle. As Nietzsche would excitedly interrupt us here, will to power is the truest instinct of life, and any being (individual or collective) feels most alive when exercising power against opposition. In Orwell’s 1984, O’Brien boasts to Winston Smith about not merely torturing men into submission, but about conquering their consciences. Martyrs who are allowed to remain unrepentant in their hearts only inspire more martyrs. Enemies being led to their own executions were still allowed to carry rebellion locked up inside their skulls, an intolerable remnant of uncontrolled freedom to zealots like O’Brien. When the war against officially-sanctioned bigotry backed by law is over and we’ve won, then what? Come on, you know we’re going to start rearranging the inside of people’s heads next.
Again, the point isn’t to imply that soon we’re all going to be frog-marched to Room 101 for being suspected of rolling our eyes during the next ESPN special devoted to transgender heroes. But, if we’re going to be philosophical about it, where is the line? Can we even conceive, in the abstract, of a point at which we would finally stop trying to eliminate error or dissent altogether? Granted, some will blithely retort that the “freedom” to hold ignorant, outdated opinions is not worth preserving anyway. You may not have any sympathy in particular for trans-skeptics, religious opponents of gay marriage, or proud Confederate flag-wavers, but you’re naïve if you think that the crusading will end once those opponents have been defeated and re-educated. Formerly-innocuous opinions and practices will become crimes, just so that those in power have an occasion to test their strength against an enemy, or an excuse to experience the thrill of bending others to their will.
Let me stress this for the third and final time: I’m not paraphrasing the famous Niemöller quote and saying that your freedom to tell dirty jokes among friends is contingent upon Milo being allowed to have a book deal and a Twitter account. I’m saying that homo sapiens may be inherently incapable of ceasing to attempt to optimize and sanitize the world, even when those attempts lead to unintended consequences, and that we might do well to contemplate in advance just how much imperfection in social life we’re willing to live with. Individuality was always going to be a fragile achievement of a social species, but perhaps we could try a bit harder to allow people to carry a bit of rebellion inside their skulls without attempting to starve or beat them into submission.