The Gnostic Liberalism Essay
- Note – I just googled the “rejection of absolute truth” quote and realize that I misread it. Obama was saying America’s “deliberative democracy” is based on a rejection of absolute truth and authority, and Obama embraces this view. Although the quote about the American system “privileging ideological minorities” could almost stand without it, that fatally damages the basic argument I made about Obama, but highlights the fact that the liberalism I otherwise describe does reject Obama’s and deliberative democracy’s own rejection of absolute authority and truth.Note 2 – This is Obama’s quote about ideological minorities: “You don’t need a poll to know that the vast majority of Americans – Republican, Democrat and independent – are weary of the dead zone that politics has become, in which narrow interests vie for advantage and ideological minorities seek to impose their own versions of absolute truth.” I don’t think it’s unreasonable to interpret this as rejecting divided government and deliberative democracy institutions like filibustering, but again, when it comes to Obama that interpretation is smothered under the reversal of the quote in the first note. (source)
This is a semi-finished essay I wrote about two weeks before the election day for the presidential race between John McCain and Barack Obama. I posted it here at Free Dominion, where it might be easier to read and was a hit approaching 1000 views which is pretty freakin’ good for something so long, poorly edited, and on the internets. I just searched for it on google and find that it was linked to in this Steynian 258 post. That puts me on the periphery of the neocon conspiracy!
The basic argument was stimulated by this video of Obama speaking to a Planned Parenthood gathering. Obama spoke of the culture war literally as if it is illegitimate. Combined with this essay which quotes him arguing that the American system of divided government is a “rejection of absolute truth” (*see the note above*) and other currents of the left and the election hysteria you get this essay. Was I affected by the hysteria myself? I think that more than anything the very act of running for President moderated Obama’s views. He met an opponent who made a good case for his positions which I saw give Obama pause at least once during one of the debates…
And an America where Barack Obama dominated the Iowa primary. Iowa is 95% white. This was not the America he and Michelle had heard about in the pews of Jeremiah Wright’s church.
Perhap’s John McCain’s reverberating statement during the election to the effect that: “we do not question the motivations of our opponents. They should not question ours” was heard, at least by Mr. Obama.
But enough ado about it…
Heather Mallick, Barack Obama and Gnostic Liberalism
Canada’s usual discreet eavesdropping on the Stateside election has not been so discreet just lately. Rex Murphy wrote a deflating measure-taking of Barack Obama which was linked by a popular right leaning political American blog and touched off a long line of nearly borderless electioneering comments to his piece that may have left third parties wondering if it is sane to call Canada and America two nations. (anyone worried by the thought can rest assured by the obvious certainty that we will remain two countries for as long as Canada has Quebec and America has Alabama) Perhaps the more lasting storm began when Heather Mallick wrote… no, that is a pastel word to describe the process that resulted in her estimation of Sarah Palin and those who like the woman. Return fire came from a Fox news commentator named Greta Van Susteren who took it personally and was who was companiable and genteel in comparison – she called Heather a pig. And, judging by the appearance of David Warren on Greta’s show and her somewhat defensive air, Mallick and Canadian left thought it was very boorish for her to use such abusive language. On its knees, this begs the question – what gives the Canadian left the unbound sense of critical priviledge to view Mallick as the unquestionable victim of the exchange? At the risk of simplicity and condescension, I will offer my understanding of these people.
Members of the left know two things in particular. They know that they are smart, and they know that they are well intentioned. So it is a well-known fact among liberals that their ideas and their values are evidently and inherently superior to those of such people as Greta Van Susteren and Sarah Palin. Heather Mallick is clearly no laggard in her keen sensation of this truth. She knows that she is more intelligent than people who think differently than her and she knows that she is a well-intentioned, good person. So why are there people who differ from her in opinion and values? Barack Obama put it in a nutshell. Speaking to a crowd of Planned Parenthood members last year, he insisted that the American people are in fact basically good, basically sound – its just that sometimes they listen to the wrong radio shows and watch the wrong network. In fact, I believe that the precise quotation includes capitalized W’s:
“… they get confused sometimes. They listen to the Wrong talk radio shows, watch the Wrong tv networks. But they’re basically decent, they’re basically sound… “
Mr. Obama is answering for the liberal members of Planned Parenthood their unspoken query of how Americans can possibly have different values than they do. He argues that the nature of the American people is basically decent and sound – that it is in their nature to share liberal values. To Barack Obama there are two kinds of people that don’t think like liberals. There are the well intentioned people who get confused and there are the people who confuse them. It’s clear that he is not talking about the people who run the “wrong” radio shows in terms of people with factual inaccuracies or honest logical mistakes. And there is no room in his understanding for the possiblity that they have valid moral instincts despite thinking differently from him. They are people who confuse average America with some kind of ill-intent or agenda. They are Wrong. Obama’s word for them in the same speech is “dividers” who muddy the debate in order to gain and hold political power. Liberal values are literally Known to Mr. Obama as natural and correct – there can only be people who don’t think like liberals because they are ignorant, although “of good will,” as he says in the speech, or because they are bad actors with ill-intent. There is no possiblity of honest intelligent dissent. Heather Mallick’s view is similar, except that she is not as magnaminous in her judgement of those unlike her; She beleives that they can be ignorant and malicious at the same time.
At times, North American liberalism bears a suprising resemblance to a gnostic cult. Because of their superior intelligence and good will they believe they possess a kind of recieved wisdom and knowledge that less developed people have not yet been able to access. There are the Good People – the liberals in the know, and then there are the People – in Obama’s view, those confused but essentially decent people to whom enlightened liberals offer a better understanding. Those who oppose the acheivment of the better moral order that liberals offer are people with malicious intent and leadership is the proper and necessary role of the Good People who must use that position to lead the people past the “Dividers” into Unity. The natural order is for the people to share liberal values. Those who get in the way are a malignant force. This is what Deepak Chopra has to say about Sarah Palin:
“She is the reverse of Barack Obama, in essence his shadow, deriding his idealism and exhorting people to obey their worst impulses…He is calling for us to reach for our higher selves, and frankly, that stirs up hidden reactions of an unsavory kind….In her acceptance speech Gov. Palin sent a rousing call to those who want to celebrate their resistance to change and a higher vision.”
Gnostic liberals appear to beleive that government is a kind of organic extension of the natural goodness of the people, to be lead by the superior beings who understand the true good morality – and that people with different values are negative beings whose presence in leadership is unnatural and malign. In Canada, the Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper has a strong lead in the current election and they are almost certain to win at least a minority government. This is what a Canadian liberal wrote at a blog called “The Scott Ross”:
“Polls and graphs are numbers and figures, they don’t describe what is right or what is wrong. What is right and what is wrong is decided by reason and knowledge. The polls state the Conservatives are drastically ahead of the Liberals, that doesn’t mean that they should be. What should be, is what is right, and what is right is a Liberal government. Stephane Dion will win this election not because of polls or because of graphs, he will win because he should win, he will win because it is right for him to win.”
Like Scott Ross and Deepak Chopra, Heather Mallick knows that her values are the correct ones and that it is right and natural for them to prevail. Yet there are still people who refuse to come around to the liberal way of thinking and go so far as to have the hubris to unabashedly run for leadership – in Sarah Palin’s case while brandishing negative and unliberal things such as guns, large families, and unsophisticated hairdos. This leaves liberals, Canadian and American, deeply frustrated. As David Warren put it to Greta Van Susteren, Heather Mallick’s incredibly negative view of Palin and what she represents is interesting because on any other topic but that of people who have unlike views Mallick is a wonderful writer. Bill Clinton is a man with liberal values but he showed that he is not a gnostic when he said this:
“My view is … why say, ever, anything bad about a person? Why don’t we like them and celebrate them and be happy for her elevation to the ticket? And just say that she was a good choice for him and we disagree with them?”.
I can answer Clinton’s question. It’s because they beleive that there is only one kind of person who would knowingly disagree and work against what they have to offer. This kind of person is not incorrect, not mistaken, not missing facts, and there is unquestionably no possibility that they could be right. They think differently than the Good, well intentioned intellectuals – how could they be? The angry reaction among some members of the left to Sarah Palin’s candidacy is so explained: they consider her either too stupid or too evil to share their values. When these otherwise sane people are faced with an ignorant and uncowed cultural refusenik standing in the Way they become bitter and they cling to their disgust of guns and religion, and antipathy towards people who refuse to become like them.
To the gnostic left, people who don’t think like them do not have valid disagreements. To Ginger Beer Mallick they are revolting degenerates; to the smoother members, simple folk who have been fooled by the people in talk radio and Fox News. These confusers of the people are not incorrect, not mistaken, not missing facts, but Wrong and in a malignant way. You can reason with them like you can debate a cancer cell. when Heather Mallick describes them in the terms of structured bile she is not being uncouth, but literal. Whatever They might respond with is inherently objectionable, whether it dresses itself up in the shape of an arguement or simply returns fire. Greta Van Susteren is by definition the offender, simply for having the temerity to speak despite having the moral backwardness and ignorance to not share the knowledge and values of the Good People.
I once described liberals to a conservative relative as having different moral values. He did not agree; his view is that liberals are amoral – bad people. The beleif that people with different moral values have flaws in their character is not limited to the left, and it may not be categorically untrue. But there is a difference in this divide. My conservative relative would never think of censoring the political views of liberals. But the moral certainty and belief that those who oppose them are malignant to a natural order of Progress and Unity of the gnostic left has led to the definition of “divisive” taking on a disturbing and perhaps Orwellian meaning in the American political discourse.
It is all but a guarantee that as president Barack Obama would pass the Democrat sponsored Fairness Doctrine, which George Bush has vetoed. It is a law aimed at political radio shows that will require “fairness” in political content. When the government regulates fairness someone has to define what is fair; it turns out that their definition will be more than fair to themselves. In the days of Nixon and Kennedy their respective administrations found radio programs they did not like to be unfair. They used the legal costs of dealing with the legislation to censor opposing political views and talk radio went quiet until Reagan got rid of the law in 1987. And these days talk radio has found a niche as an alternative to what people see as largely liberal print and network media. Indeed, Obama clearly shares this view by singling out talk radio and the Fox network as “Wrong”. The American left is not seeking to censor talk radio because talk radio is practicing speech poorly. They are seeking to censor talk radio because talk radio is practicing speech that is getting in the way of the people recieving their better understanding.
This is what fair means to Barack Obama – that the Dividers stop getting in the way of the better understanding of the American people. George Bush is known as a “divisive” figure the world over, and that sounds mighty strange to conservatives like myself. He co-wrote what he wanted his administration’s defining peices of domestic legislation to be – education and immigration – with one of the most liberal members of the Senate, Ted Kennedy. His “tax cuts for the rich” took five million people off the rolls, cut taxes by the steepest percentage for the lowest brackets, and while most brackets payed less in tax as a result the highest ones payed more – presumably because more top bracket people took their money out of loophole shelters and invested it. His domestic spending rivalled that of Lyndon Johnson and his foreign policy resembled no one’s more than that of Jack Kennedy. And George Bush censored no one. Yet Ted Kennedy himself has called Bush a “divider”. Its not about policy – its about moral identity. Kennedy isn’t playing politics or lying when he calls George Bush a Divider. As a gnostic liberal Kennedy beleives that George Bush does not share his values either because Bush is ignorant or morally malignant or both. To Kennedy, Bush was not reaching across the aisle – he was mitigating his evil, for practical reasons. And mitigated evil is still wrong and divisive and unnatural. One of Barack Obama’s campaign catch words is Unity. George Bush is a Divider because he is one of the Wrong ones and he has spoken. Division is when the Wrong speak and prevent the advance of the liberal moral order. And Unity is when they – the decievers of the people – are suppressed.
Several years ago, I read an article in my university’s student newspaper that seemed dissonant. The author wrote a long peice explaining why important moral decisions such as abortion should not be made by referendum but decided by court judgements. My thought at the time was that somebody ought to tell him about Parliamentary Democracy – the Canadian system of government. I realize now that many liberals view a republic or parliamentary democracy in the same light as a referendum when it comes to questions of morality – as a system that is too divisive and vulnerable to ignorant or malign and immoral forces. And the most important political story of our times has been the effort of these people to put basic moral questions beyond the reach of democratic choice because they beleive that the rightness of their values are beyond dispute. Rick Mercer – who I will describe to Americans by saying that Jon Stewart is the American Rick Mercer – is no gnostic liberal. But a joke he made during the debate about same sex marriage put a fine point on the degree to which people with liberal values are fundamentally certain in their inherent rightness. During the debate about same-sex marriage in Canada Jim Prentice, a Conservative, made a positive case for same-sex marriage in which he quoted John Stuart Mills. Mercer characterized this as a plea to Prentice’s fellow party members: “please don’t hurt me!” Mercer’s joke marked Jim Prentice’s positive case for gay marriage as a dissonant concessionary plea. The certainty of the rightness of same-sex marriage among its supporters was so profound that it was considered a concession for Prentice to explain why he supported it – he was treating those opposed as if they had valid moral objections and deserved to be engaged as such. This is the mark of the gnostic: they beleive that they are right becuase of their superior nature and that those who oppose their values are wrong becuase of their corrupted nature and should not have the freedom of democratic moral expression.
In a memoir called “Beethoven’s Mask” George Jonas wrote this about the appeal of fascism in Europe in the early part of the last century:
“The First world War brought the collapse of the ancien regime and the dawn of extremely troubled times. Democracy appeared to be both weak and perpetually questioning. As a social system, it seemed to resemble what the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called the suicidal mind. “A mind that questions everything,” Durkheim wrote, “unless strong enough to bear the weight of its ignorance, risks questioning itself and being engulfed in doubt.””
Political liberals are expressing a deep psychological truth when they term those with other values divisive. It is said that the sign of an intelligent mind is the ability to hold two opposing ideas and still function. It is not clear that human society is capable of sustaining that form. Western societies have largely transitioned from a theocratic moral order to a secular moral order in Europe and in North America to a lesser extent. The period of moral democratic freedom in between has been waning. Faced with the societal trauma of perpetually questioning our first principles and allowing the possiblity that our fundamental values may face contradiction, many liberals have rejected the validity of democratic moral expression. Exchanging the black robes of justice for preistly garments, they pronounce truth from the court bench and with honesty call any further questioning Division. With pure hearts they are making an ugly gamble with democracy, one that depends on the respect for democracy and authority of the people whose moral order they reject while they seek to impose their own moral order beyond revision. Barack Obama has said that the American political system priviledges ideological minorities and in doing so rejects absolute truth. What he is saying is that he has absolute truth and those who do not share it do not merit moral democratic expression. He seeks to impose a coherent moral order . Those of us who believe that moral questions cannot be dictated to a free society and that absolute truth cannot be known with the certainty of a theocrat, but must be treated through free debate and democratic expression – disagree, now and always.