Lately I have been involved in a number of discussions with people who read this blog regarding just what the hell is it I believe in. My liberal friends mostly think that the copious amounts of Tequilla consumed in my well documented ridiculously over extended youth have finally killed off too many brain cells and that I have lost the ability to reason beyond “old way is good…new way is bad”, while my conservative friends, when they discover that my social views are quite accommodating to all who wish to play, regard me as they would a cigar butt suddenly surfacing in their half consumed bowl of soup.
In the early days of the “blogosphere” following the events of 9/11/2001, Steven Den Beste’s intellect and prolific essay writing skills on nearly any subject you could imagine burned like a super nova for a couple of years before one day, leaving a short post saying he had had enough, he faded back to where ever he had come from (personally I think it was the distant future, or maybe that planet on Star Trek populated by the guys with the giant throbbing brains showing through their paper thin skulls). In 2003 he wrote a brief (for him) essay in which he theorized that as he was a liberal in the historically classical sense of the word, this made him a Conservative in todays political universe. This essay still comes the closest to anything I have read since that describes my world view. The only significant area in which I would differ from Mr. Den Beste is that although I am not a religious person, I wouldn’t self identify as an atheist. I mean…why take the chance. If God does exist, the last place you would want to be was on his radar if he happened to be watching as you so self identified. It doesn’t cost me anything to say I believe in God and the potential downside of spending eternity laboring in some sort of surrealistic steel smelter or something, if the pictures are to be believed, should be avoided if at all possible.
I have reproduced his essay in full below. I hope this clears everything up.
I am an atheist and a humanist. I believe in the fundamental dignity of the individual and the inherent right of self-determination. I am an engineer and “ruthlessly pragmatic”, which means that I understand that everything is tradeoffs and that no right is absolute. But I believe that society works best when it imposes as few constraints on individual choice is possible, consistent with fulfilling other competing public benefits such as maintaining a reasonable degree of public safety.
I think that the single most fundamental right of humans, and the one we should be most wary of trying to infringe, is the right of free thought and free expression. I believe that people should have the opportunity to seek out and listen to as wide a range of opinions as possible on any subject, so that they can then come to an informed opinion of their own based on how persuasively each alternative was presented.
And it is thus essential that humans have the right to make choices that others around them will consider deeply unwise, and to hold and express opinions that others find to be strongly offensive. True freedom is only possible when I have the freedom to make stupid mistakes, and where the consequences of doing so arise only from the direct consequences of my mistake and not from externally-imposed legal sanctions. And it means that I must be free to offend those around me, for if I cannot then I am free, but only to do things my neighbors don’t condemn. And such freedom is illusion.
I don’t want anyone forcing me to think and act in certain ways solely “for my own good”. I want the right to make my own decisions about what’s good for me, even if it turns out I’m wrong. I want the right to hold an opinion even if most of those around me disagree with it.
I therefore oppose any case where a single overriding moral force comes to dominate the political system. I fully oppose the idea of any state religion, and strongly support the legal firewall between government and religion which is in the First Amendment. In fact, I think (and have said more than once) that the First Amendment to the US Constitution is the single most important and profound sentence ever written in the English language.
I am no anarchist. I believe that there must be a system of laws, and that the purpose of the law is to maintain the peaceful and successful operation of the society. But I take a very practical view of law, and strongly dispute the idea that law is an extension of morality. I believe that acts should be made illegal because they threaten the fabric of the society, not because they are considered evil or because the majority disapprove of them.
Thus I strongly support the gradual process over the last thirty years of dismantling a body of law regarding consensual sex. I have always believed that what consenting adults do behind closed doors is their business alone.
I support the idea of legal and formal gay marriage. I think married gays (and I mean “married to each other”) should be permitted to adopt if they are otherwise qualified as parents. I favor legalized prostitution as long as it is regulated sufficiently to make sure that the prostitutes themselves are kept safe from disease and pimp violence and customer violence, which is why I think that it should be handled through formally-licensed brothels (as is the case in Nevada now). I favor legalization of marijuana.
And I think that the single most basic right we have, and the true measure of whether our freedom is real or illusion, is the right to scandalize the neighbors. (As long, that is, as that’s the only harm done.) We, as citizens, must tolerate scandalous behavior by our neighbors as the price of our own liberty.
Government exists to serve the people; it is a construct of men and women, and it has no inherent right to exist except to the extent that it is supported by the women and men who live under its control.
I am a humanist. I am a liberal, in the classic sense of the term, meaning that I think that the goal of a political system should be to liberate the individuals within it to have as much ability to make decisions about their own lives as is practical, with as little interference by other citizens or the mechanisms of the state. I strongly believe in diversity at every level: diversity of opinions, diversity of political beliefs, diversity of lifestyles. When in doubt, permit it unless it is clearly a danger to the survival of the state or threatens the health and wellbeing of those within the state.
Which, in 2003 in the United States, makes me a “conservative”, at least in the reckoning of self-anointed “Liberals” in this nation. I’ve never been comfortable with that term, myself, and indeed I’m uncomfortable with almost any “ism” as a label for my beliefs (except for “humanism” and “populism”). Is there such a thing as “ain’tism”, as in “I ain’t any ism”?
Part of why I’m uncomfortable being labeled “conservative” is that those who categorize me in that way then group me with many other “conservatives” with whom I deeply and fundamentally disagree, and try to pretend that I must agree with them and defend them and partake of their attitudes. For instance, it’s hard to see how I could disagree more strongly with anyone than I do with the so-called “Christian Right”, as epitomized by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. With their belief that we should establish the US as a Christian theocracy, and their desire to use the legal system to enforce orthodox behavior and punish sinful lifestyles, not to mention their wish to use the school system as an extension of the church to indoctrinate all children, I oppose their programs as strongly as I possibly can. I have been opposed to Falwell as long as I’ve known about his political agenda.
But part of why I get labeled that way by leftists is because I believe in private property, and because I oppose the use of taxation as a way of legally compelling redistribution of wealth. Like nearly everything else my feelings on this are relatively centrist; I don’t believe in totally abolishing the “social safety net”, for instance, but I strongly disagree with the idea that wealth is automatically sinful. I’m not one to try to abolish taxation, but I view it as a way of raising revenue for legitimate government operations and generally oppose its use as a direct tool of social engineering.
Equally, I get labeled as “conservative” because I am unashamedly patriotic. I do not think that my nation is flawless, but on balance I would much rather be a citizen of the US than of any other nation I know of, past or present, and I strongly support my nation. I think the US has done much that is wrong, but I think we’ve done a lot more right than wrong. All other things being equal, I’d like my nation to continue to exist and to prosper. I certainly have no sympathy at all for the Chomskyite idea that the US is the root of all that is evil in the world today, and thus ultimately even responsible for the attack in September, 2001.
And I think that there are things which are worth fighting for. I think there are fates worse than death, and choices worse than killing. I wish it were possible to avoid killing or dying, which are certainly terrible, but sometimes we face situations as a nation where all paths which do not involve death are worse than the ones which require war. To refuse to face terrible realities and to instead embrace pleasing fantasies is to me the ultimate intellectual sin.
These things are all consistent with my basic liberalism, which is to say my belief in liberty as an ultimate good for myself and my fellow citizens. I know that my liberty is fragile and easily destroyed. That liberty can only exist as long as my nation continues to exist to defend it. Our lives as citizens exist inside an artificial bubble which is constantly under greater or lesser threat and which must be actively maintained. There’s nothing natural about our lives. The natural state for humans is barbarism, cruelty, violence and death.
When the challenge to my nation becomes sufficiently great, nothing less than war will save it, and I consider destruction of my nation and eradication of the liberty it provides to its citizens to be a far greater evil than war. I do not wish to see war; I’m sorry we’re in one now. But I cannot in good conscience turn away from it and pretend that it doesn’t faces us now, or refuse to participate in making the hard decisions needed to triumph in it. We didn’t choose this war, and we didn’t start it. But we can’t make it go away just by wishing really hard, or by pretending that it doesn’t exist.
The irony of modern American political labels is that “Liberal” is used to refer to a deeply illiberal point of view.
Of course, “Liberals” are at least as varied as are “conservatives”, encompassing positions as deeply contradictory as my position is compared to Falwell’s. But there’s a strong strain of “Liberalism” which is sometimes referred to by its opponents as “bleeding heart Liberalism” or “Berkeley Liberalism”, which is nearly as much my ideological opposite, on the other side, as is Falwell.
But in fact that’s not really surprising, because Berkeley Liberals and Falwell actually agree much more closely with each other than either does with me.
Both believe in using the power of the state to “do good” by directly interfering in the lives of citizens and applying legal sanctions to those who don’t live good lives. They disagree about what that means, of course, but both are strongly illiberal in believing in active government interventionism in our lives in ways which go well beyond the minimum needed to keep us safe and free. Falwell would use the law to punish immoral behavior (according to his morality) which would include such things as recriminalizing homosexuality and recriminalizing pornography.
And the Berkeley Liberals also want to use the power of the state to do good, only what they wish to ban is much deeper, for they want to infringe my freedom of thought and of expression much more profoundly.
Equally, both of them wish to use the power of government to deeply indoctrinate the citizenry, especially the schools. Falwell wants the schools to teach Christianity; the Berkeley Liberals want to use it to indoctrinate children with their own version of “right thinking”.
With regards to any dedication towards freedom, what Berkeley Liberals say and what they do vary dramatically. They give lip service to the idea of free speech and free expression and diversity of opinion, but everywhere they’ve ever gained temporal power they have used it to try to forcibly suppress political ideas strongly counter to their own. Mostly this has happened on certain college campuses, where they’ve created an entirely new crime: insensitivity.
The idea is that anyone holding or expressing certain points of view is a thought criminal because what they think or say deeply offends someone else who is a member of a “victim group”. In essence, they say you do not have the right to scandalize the neighbors; you do not have the right to hold opinions which are unpopular or which others might find offensive. But not every other; only “victim” others.
Of course this is, or should be, a two-way street but in practice it isn’t applied equally, as has been amply documented.
Unfortunately, there’s the US Constitution standing in the way of all this, and so the degree of ability they’ve had to actually impose punishment has been severely limited in most cases. The usual punishment is to academia’s equivalent of the Soviet Gulag. Those who are “insensitive” must be indoctrinated through compulsory attendance in what they refer to as “sensitivity training”.
But if you ignore the rhetoric and pay attention to how this is being used – ignore what they’re saying and look at what they’re doing – then it turns out that they are attempting to squelch dissent against a certain specific orthodox liberal position. Any indication of divergence from that position is a “thought crime”. And any idea that we as citizens should tolerate outrageous behavior by others as the price of our own freedom to act outrageously has long since fallen by the wayside.
In fact, what becomes clear is that there are no more strong proponents of intrusive censorship in the US today than its hardcore leftists. Falwell just wants to make sure no one can buy pictures of naked titties; the leftists want to censor any attempt to discuss political positions in opposition to their own.
But because of our legal protections in the US, they have not gotten far in this effort. However, it’s instructive to see how their avowed ideological allies in other nations have used their temporal power when they actually control the government and are not constrained by the kinds of limits we in the US have laid on our government.
As an advocate of maximum free expression, I fully support the right of all to say what they really think, even if it is deeply offensive. For example, I deeply support the right of such disparate groups as the North American Man-Boy Love Association, the American Nazi Party, Jerry Falwell, and Noam Chomsky, to think what they want and to talk about it in public without legal peril, with their friends and also with the rest of us, even though I emphatically disagree with them all.
And I strongly oppose all legal attempts to restrict “hate speech”. When others preach hate, the answer is for the rest of us to explain why they’re wrong rather than to try to use the power of the state to suppress their message. For me, that applies just as much to the leftists as it does to the Nazis.
But to that end I do not advocate any kind of violent crackdown or persecution. It is the constitutional right of any citizen of the United States to adopt all or part of the ideology of transnational progressivism. It is equally my right to argue against those principles, and the proper way, the only acceptable way, for me and those who agree with me to struggle against it is through exercise of our right of free speech and our attempts to make a persuasive case to the majority of our fellow citizens that those who advocate TP are wrong. (And part of that is to alert them to the fact that it even exists.)
We will win not by shooting adherents of TP, or arresting them, or suppressing them in any way. We will win by making convincing arguments so that we retain a majority in elections. If we can’t win that way, we deserve to lose.
Equally, I have written about why I support the right of the members of NAMBLA to try to deliver their message, even though I myself find that message deeply repugnant. I deliberately chose them for my example because they advocate something (pederasty) that nearly everyone considers utterly revolting – but I fully support their right to think about it and to talk about it, as long as they don’t do it. (As soon as they do, they’ve committed statutory rape.)
Unfortunately, the ideological allies of America’s Berkeley Liberals have used their governmental power in Europe to pass laws criminally punishing hate speech, and they’re trying to go much further than that with a new treaty, which paints with a very broad brush. It terrifies me, quite frankly, and I’m damned glad it won’t apply here in the US. Once in effect, online advocacy of a broad range of political positions would become crimes which could be punished by imprisonment.
Berkeley Liberals advocate strong use of governmental powers in many other interventionist ways, always with the best of intentions, but with little concern for my fundamental right to be left alone. And that is why they are not liberal, because the fundamental liberal position is that government should not needlessly meddle in the lives of citizens.
Thus the paradoxical result: I am a “Conservative” because I am a liberal. Berkeley Liberals are “Liberal” because they are not liberal. They believe in government intervention, including censorship and direct punishment of dissent, so as to enforce orthodox thought and behavior. That’s not liberalism, that’s tyranny.
Update: Kyle sends this link to an article which goes into much greater depth about how postmodernism ends up opposing free expression. (Yeah, yeah, yeah; it’s on an Objectivist web site. So sue me.)
The point it makes is that campus speech codes are of a piece with the leftist idea that equality of results is more important than equality of opportunity. Since the leftist message isn’t getting “it’s share” of attention and publicity in the wider nation, then there is a need for what amounts to affirmative action in academia at the level of discourse, so that the ideas common in the mainstream are suppressed within academia to provide more room for the postmodernist message. Just as you are morally justified to discriminate against white males for college acceptance in order to make room for students who are part of “victim groups”, so you are morally justified in suppressing expression of conservative attitudes in academia to make more room for the neglected but vitally important hard leftist message.
Update: Michael J. Totten comments. Yes, there is clearly a line over which speech is not and should not be protected. The courts have been dealing with this for a long time now. Directly threatening someone with violence, or actually deliberately trying to incite crime or insurrection, or “fighting words” are not protected speech. But the kinds of speech codes which are in place on some campuses go well beyond that. I do not see the two issues related.
Update 20030223: Matthew Yglesias comments. I’m not sure just how he came to conclude that I “support the Republicans”. I don’t support any party; I make decisions about issues and support whichever party is closest to my position on that issue. For instance, I oppose the Republican plan for massive tax cuts, but I also oppose the general Democratic tendency to increase spending on social programs. I favor the war and the Republicans are on the right side of that issue, but I’m also in favor of abortion rights and the Democrats get the nod on that one.
Update 20030224: Among all the other things I’m not, I’m also not libertarian.