Progressivism and the authoritarian impulse
Performed rather perfectly by Stanley Fish, who — because he has spent an academic career immersed in the insular logic of the linguistic turn — is able to comfortably slide into a description of benevolent “liberal” tyranny that he counsels his fellow travelers (satirically?) to embrace.
To which I answer, well, at least he’s honest about what it is progressives are doing. Fish:
If we think about the Rush Limbaugh dust-up from the non-liberal — that is, non-formal — perspective, the similarity between what he did and what Schultz and Maher did disappears. Schultz and Maher are the good guys; they are on the side of truth and justice. Limbaugh is the bad guy; he is on the side of every nefarious force that threatens our democracy. Why should he get an even break?
There is no answer to that question once you step outside of the liberal calculus in which all persons, no matter what their moral status as you see it, are weighed in an equal balance. Rather than relaxing or soft-pedaling your convictions about what is right and wrong, stay with them, and treat people you see as morally different differently. Condemn Limbaugh and say that Schultz and Maher may have gone a bit too far but that they’re basically O.K. If you do that you will not be displaying a double standard; you will be affirming a single standard, and moreover it will be a moral one because you will be going with what you think is good rather than what you think is fair. “Fair” is a weak virtue; it is not even a virtue at all because it insists on a withdrawal from moral judgment.
I know the objections to what I have said here. It amounts to an apology for identity politics. It elevates tribal obligations over the universal obligations we owe to each other as citizens. It licenses differential and discriminatory treatment on the basis of contested points of view. It substitutes for the rule “don’t do it to them if you don’t want it done to you” the rule “be sure to do it to them first and more effectively.” It implies finally that might makes right. I can live with that.
Fish’s single standard, distilled and properly understood, is that self-styled liberals are (they’ll claim) morally superior by virtue of their very belief in their own political identities — which identity is tied to an ideology that, manifested politically, privileges governmental theft, sanctioned inequality as a function of tribal identity, and a giant foundational question beg: namely, that moral superiority comes from being on the left, so therefore being on the left means you can really do no fundamental moral wrong. Progressivism (that is, the leftist political home to philosphical anti-foundationalism), as Fish sees it, is the “non-formal” — that is, I suppose, situationally free-floating — antidote to restrictive “conservative” or classically liberal universalism*. That that restrictive conservative/classical liberal universalism is, as we know from the Declaration and Constitution, the foundation upon which this country was imagined and later framed, well, that’s irrelevant. Those documents are hoary totems, and their impulses Enlightenment fantasies. And we can “fundamentally transform” the country simply by denying it its institutionalized powers by force of will.
“Progressivism” is, as Fish evinces — and as I’ve spent years on protein wisdom demonstrating through my various discussions of identity politics and language — a belief system that, once its kernel assumptions are adopted, leads fundamentally and inexorably to tyranny. Fish doesn’t call it such, of course. He chooses “might makes right.” But there is no difference. Tyranny and authoritarianism — when lorded over by the “liberal” — is, by virtue of the adopted morality of those running it, both moral and good.
And it is because of this — the progressives’ fidelity to a belief system that is fundamentally at odds with the idea of equality of the individual before the law — that I’ve said time and time again that modern progressivism / “liberalism” is nothing like the classical liberalism upon which this country was founded, and is in fact antithetical and hostile to the very notion of individual autonomy, and a foundational “fairness” that comes about as a result of a system of law that seeks to create an even playing field. That is, it is in a very real and strict sense un-American.
To the progressive, your social and political worth — in fact, your very claim to morality — comes from your various identity politics alliances. That is, your morality is a function not so much of what you do, but rather of where you claim to stand, and with whom.
Progressivism cares not about fairness or equality in the sense those words are used under a political paradigm that adheres to classical liberalism; instead, it seeks to redefine “fairness” and “equality” (and “tolerance”) as based on the outcomes it desires, a deconstructive procedure it then justifies by tying those outcomes to its own self-serving descriptions of what comes to count as moral. It is circular reasoning made perfect. Might makes right. The ends justify the means.
Fish says he can live with that. I’ve spent a decade on my site showing you precisely why, if you believe in the American experiment, you cannot and should not.
The choice may soon be yours.
(thanks to TerryH and geoffB)