Conservatives are put into awkward positions of critiquing liberal ideas on grounds that they are impractical, unworkable, or counterproductive. Yet rarely, at least outside the religious sphere, do they identify the progressive as often immoral. And the unfortunate result is that they have often ceded moral claims to supposedly dreamy, utopian, and well-meaning progressives, when in fact the latter increasingly have little moral ground to stand upon.
Take a few contemporary controversies.
Radical environmentalism. When “conservation” sometime in the 1970s was redefined as “environmentalism,” the morality of the entire issue likewise changed. Most Americans had wanted clean air and water; and they were willing to pay to curb pollutants and drive more expensive, but cleaner, cars. They had no desire to see condors die off or kit foxes disappear.
But at some point, the green creed began to dictate that all species were equal to humans. Soon concern for a tiny frog or worm trumped a needed project — a dam, an irrigation canal, an oil well, or a mine — designed to alleviate human suffering. Here I am not talking about large-scale species annihilation, but rather taking a truth about wishing to protect a natural habitat and perverting it into elevating concerns for insects, amphibians, and small fish over people’s elemental struggles to exist and prosper.
When California elites shut down 250,000 acres of irrigated agriculture to divert water into the San Francisco regional delta and bay, purportedly as a remedy to help the three-inch delta smelt, they were making a loud moral statement that those who mostly had secure jobs, mostly nice homes, and well-off environments were going to destroy the jobs of those in agriculture — not just the land owner and foreman, but the agricultural workers themselves — without much worry over the consequences.
In crude terms, the ideology might be paraphrased as something like the following, “I got mine, Jack, and can’t worry about you.” Or, “You don’t interest me as much as does a tiny fish in the delta.” In truth, I would be far more worried that the town of San Joaquin had little money for basic civic services from a cutoff in irrigation water than I would a drop in the delta smelt population.
Had a tractor salesman in Mendota or an irrigator in Firebaugh had an environmental Shane to square off against the Bay Area’s hired Jack Palance, then the dispute might at least have been more equal and honest. By that, I mean surely there are environmental problems with Berkeley’s treated sewage that goes into the Bay; a particular moth larva in theory could be found to be “in danger” when the next UC environmental sciences building is envisioned; and there must be all sorts of ways to ensure the Fish and Game Department’s trucks and SUVs run only on natural gas or propane, right?
In other words, so often in matters of producing gasoline for the lower middle classes, or cutting timber to ensure affordable housing, or making sure that we have plentiful cheap asphalt to fill potholes, we forget the moral argument that such resource utilization is critical to ensure that average folks have the same sort of chance for jobs, money, and aspirations as do the more wealthy whose green religious zeal makes them absolutely insensitive to — and in truth immoral about — the concerns of others less well off.
When Steven Chu admits both that he wishes gas prices to soar to European levels and that he has no need either to drive or to own a car, then he is really saying, “I don’t have much concern for the results of my own fantasies.” Yet had his lab and assorted lasers once been put on regular 12-hour blackouts to conserve “skyrocketing” energy, then he might have worried more about the consequences of his utopianism. When Barack Obama both calls for “skyrocketing” energy prices, and on his first January day in office turns up the West Wing thermostat to tropical temperatures, then there is a sort of immorality implicit in his entire ideology. At least Jimmy Carter put on a sweater and turned down the temperature to match his malaise rhetoric. Does Al Gore think that the Mexicans, Nigerians, or Venezuelans who supply some of the jet fuel that allows him to huckster via private aircraft are kinder to Earth in the Balance when they drill than when we would in ANWR or North Dakota?
Multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is another unkind dogma — the very notion that all cultures are professed equal, and those in the West often have a particular obligation to elevate illiberal and intolerant systems above their own in recompense for their supposedly ill-gotten prosperity and success. This week, SheikH Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia — not a minor voice in the world of Islam — announced that he wished, according to his reading of Koranic-inspired statute, that all the churches in the Gulf region be destroyed. That threat was met with silence in the West. We know that had the pope said something equivalent (e.g., Europe should be free of mosques), we would have heard loud denunciations, perhaps even a declaration from President Obama that he did not wish his daughters growing up in a world of such religious bias.
But again the press said little or nothing — even though Abdullah’s creepy declaration will spur Muslims even more to persecute Christians, most of whom are Arabs who have been Christian for millennia. Nor does the liberal establishment worry much that Jews are fleeing the Middle East, Africa, and other “third-world” countries, largely because of a new anti-Semitism, fueled by radical Islam.
All over the Middle East, Christians and Jews are treated as untermenschen (only in Israel are they safe), and in immoral fashion we believe that our multicultural fides exempt us from the fact that we are quite callous and unapologetically uncaring over the plight of tens of thousands.
Illegal immigration. Unfortunately, illegal immigration has turned into an abjectly immoral enterprise. Here I won’t dwell on the usual moral dimensions of massive influxes — illegal immigration makes a mockery of federal law in a way that would not be sustainable if the law were so assaulted in other areas; it undercuts the wages of U.S. entry level workers; it results in billions of dollars in remittances, often from subsidized senders, that leave the U.S. economy to Mexico; and it burdens insolvent states with entitlement costs bornd by the strapped general population.
Instead, I am curious why an abstract fact of legal or illegal entry into the United States has become a de facto “Latino” issue. There is zero concern voiced by Democrats over illegal aliens in general, unless, as in the case of the president’s aunt and uncle, they are well-connected. By that, I mean no political leader announces, “We are quite cruelly deporting those who overstay their visas or arrive without one, and just this month unfairly deported 10 South Korean students, 6 Nigerian workers, and 4 Russian tourists.” There is no interest in pondering how to free more Cubans from a totalitarian Castro regime that has systematically jailed and sometimes executed dissidents.
California Latino politicians are instead interested in the issue entirely on tribal grounds, not just out of empathy for those of the same ethnic background, but more practically in political terms of advancing their own careers as self-appointed tribal spokesmen in a multicultural system where hyphenation brings dividends. If the Mexican border were secure, and 1 million French Canadians were pouring into the U.S. without English, legality, education, or capital, the Latino community would be calling for border enforcement, expressing worry about the unfair competition to entry-level American workers, decrying the cost and separatism in providing French-English official documents, and regretting the mockery made of the law. It is hard to recall a comparable example in the history of two nations, in which millions of foreign nationals fled their own nation to a neighboring one, and then immediately made claims upon their new hosts, often in deference to their home country that they had just abandoned due to its failure to provide them basic services and opportunities.
And yet to suggest that illegal immigration has morphed into an issue of ethnic chauvinism, predicated on ignoring the law only in one particular instance — illegal entry into the American southwest from citizens of Mexico and some regions of Latin America — is to incur a charge of racism. How Orwellian that — a largely race-based lobbying effort, aimed at a single ethnic constituency, defends itself by alleging “racism” on the part of any who would so identify its own unapologetic motives as such.
Affirmative Action. Race-based exemption has become illiberal, and increasingly immoral. By that general term, I mean not just discriminatory quotas of a near half-century, or race-based advantages in hiring and admission, but a general pass given to illiberality on the basis of race. Just this last week, Lovie Smith, the coach of the Chicago Bears, released a video for Barack Obama’s reelection efforts. Here’s what I wrote about it on NRO’s Corner:
What are we to make of the coach of the Chicago Bears, Lovie Smith, announcing on a campaign video, “I have the President‘s back and it’s left up to us, as African Americans, to show that we have his back. Also join African Americans for President Obama today.” Does Coach Smith mean that “as African Americans” one has a duty to support the president by virtue of his race rather than his politics alone, or his politics as they relate to the welfare of African Americans? Are those African Americans who oppose Obama, then, doing so “not as African Americans”? Are whites and Hispanics who support Obama doing so because he is also half-white or as “not African Americans”?
And is the coach of the Chicago Bears now starting a precedent that the coaches of all NFL teams shall endorse particular political candidates (e.g., “I have Senator X’s back and it’s left up to us, as (fill in the blanks: White, Latino, Asian) -Americans, to show that we have his back.”), in hopes that their own races and team loyalties will sway voters? If so, Lovie Smith should read Procopius on the Nika riots and the volatile intersection between sport, faction, and politics.
These sorts of Byzantine blue/green tribal loyalties become creepy when our president is encouraging well known Americans to state them so overtly. And, of course, it is only a matter of time now when some will, in counter fashion, publicly state that they are voting against Obama as a matter or racial politics in the way that others are voting for him on that very basis—or perhaps by virtue that they also don’t like the Chicago Bears.
Again, the Obama-Smith strategy of race-based ethnocentrism is a suicidal path for any multiracial society that has hopes of transcending tribalism.
I am not suggesting that Mormons in Utah might not vote for Mitt Romney over Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum because of their shared faith. But I am suggesting that if Mitt Romney overtly were to have the coach of the University of Utah football team proclaim that he supports official Romney-designated “Mormons for Romney” groups, and remind Mormons that it is “up to us as Mormons” to cover Romney’s back (from what?), then such a video would be stupid and morally wrong — and would be widely denounced by liberals.
Where does all this lead? At first, of course, only to embarrassing hypocrisy. Those in the Bay Area who idled critical food-producing farmland would not wish, as the proverbial Committee for Public Safety, the same environmental zealotry aimed at their own offices, cars, homes, and institutions. And they assume that they have the incomes to buy increasingly expensive food when others would not. The grand mufti would not like Billy Graham to announce that he wanted North America freed of all mosques. La Raza would not like a Volk movement that sought to waive immigration law for Germans on grounds they were once America’s largest immigrant group and should be again. Lovie Smith would not wish other rival coaches to pitch their own favorite presidential candidates on the basis of shared racial affinities.
To do all the above is retrograde and ultimately nihilistic. That something so unsustainable continues then is predicated on one unspoken truth: most in the West will not act like Bay Area greens, the grand mufti, La Raza, or Lovie Smith, because for all others to adopt their favored methodology and ideology would lead to something other than liberal life as we know it. Thus they act as they do because they know others will not act as they do — at least for now.
Tit-for-tat factionalism leads nowhere but to chaos and carnage. But the Western tradition is not made of adamantine metal; it is fragile and singular. Anytime we do not stand up and defend it, however unpopular, we cede to barbarism ourselves.
In other words, the only way to question these illiberal doctrines is without apology to identify them as immoral — and to welcome the hysterical reaction that ensues.