Today marks the eighteenth anniversary of the 911 attacks, and it is not quite accurate to say that everything has changed. It would be more to the point to say that everything is still changing. One of the basic things still in flux is that Americans are yet trying to find a fixed center where they can get some traction. The previously assumed center—the tenets of a secular liberal order—have been found badly wanting. It turns out that great civilizations require a transcendental foundation. If they don’t have one, then they are like that great house that Jesus talked about that was built on sand. The curb appeal looks really great until the storm comes.
Not to be Tedious About It . . .
A few days ago I responded to the recent debate between David French and Sohrab Ahmari. In that response I pointed out that viewpoint neutrality is not a thing, and that it cannot even be a thing. The arguments laid out in that piece have been rejected, but not answered. I would point out, with my customary mildness, that rejecting and answering are two different verbs.
There have been various responses, but one response of note was from Brian Mattson on Twitter.
“Shorter post-libs and Doug Wilson: The liberal order is the fruit of Christianity. We’ve lost the culture. Therefore, the liberal order must go.”
I do not accept that as an adequate summary at all, and so I responded:
“Brian, and others. No. The point is that the liberal *will* go unless we recover the only possible basis for it. My argument is a defense of the liberal order.”
The classical liberal must stay. But it cannot stay on the basis of inertia alone. It cannot stay on cruise control. It cannot stay if its defenders refuse to take up the only possible shield that will protect it.
Now I do not defend the secular order because secularism is incoherent. But it must be insisted upon that the secular order is not synonymous with the liberal order. Secularism is not the basis for classical liberalism—it is the enemy of classical liberalism. Secularism is the parasite that has devoured its liberal host from within, weakening it to the point where cannot fight off the most obvious enemies.
Remember what set off the French/Ahmari debate—drag queen story hours in public libraries. The viewpoint neutrality advocated by French is not able to keep the taxpayers from having to sponsor flamers grooming the kids. That’s where we are, folks.
So I am not resigned to the loss of the classical liberal order. I am fighting for its survival, which currently looks touch and go. But I am not fighting at all for a secular neutrality, which is a concept that couldn’t find its own rear end—not even if allowed to use both hands. The classical liberal order, by way of contrast, has definitions, and boundaries, and edges. It therefore must have a better foundation than that described in C.S. Lewis’s magnificent Evolutionary Hymn.
Wrong or justice, joy or sorrow,
In the present what are they
while there’s always jam-tomorrow,
While we tread the onward way?
Never knowing where we’re going,
We can never go astray.
In his recent book The Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg demonstrated the warm affection of a grateful son. He knows how different “the West” has been when compared to the rest of human history. He knows how superior it has been, and how fortunate he was in landing here. But if you leave God out of it, as Goldberg deliberately did, and if you try to account for our good fortune here in the West as the result of sheer, stupefying luck, you open yourself up to the most obvious counter-attacks. You open yourself up to the great tsunami of envy that threatens all our coastal cities.
The heritage of the West? Oh, you mean the heritage of privileged whites? The Constitution? Wasn’t that adopted by slave owners? The rule of law? Sure, you bet. Rich people love themselves the rule of law, having as they do warehouses full of attorneys.
This is a place where the social justice critics have a very limited point, but it is one that they shouldn’t have. If “the West” does not have a transcendental basis for her blessings, if it is not the grace of the Lord Jesus in other words, if it is not the result of the gospel of grace working its way like leaven through the loaf, then all our defenses of “the West” really are racist dog whistles.
Shapeless gratitude is merely defenseless gratitude.
And Great Was the Fall Thereof
If the classical liberal order is a Christian house, as I believe it to be, the secularism is the sandy foundation. If the classical liberal order is a cute little beach house in the Bahamas, and secularism is the six cinder blocks that some lax workmen set it on, then what does Hurricane Dorian represent? Hurricane Dorian is the Islamic challenge, it is the carnage of Roe, and it is the perversion of Obergefell. These and a few other random gusts are pounding the older order to matchsticks.
In the meantime, evangelicals, who historically have been concrete workers and who ought to know better, are discussing what we are going to do when it comes time to rebuild. Instead of that older oppressive gray concrete, which was probably invented by some white slave owner, and which was used a great deal in the building of the Washington monument, and he was a slave owner, we are going to go with the new innovative social justice marshmallow packs, with rebar fashioned out of some uncooked critical theory spaghetti noodles.
Yeah, I know my metaphors can get kind of demented. But they are nowhere near as demented as what we are all currently doing in real time. My demented metaphors falter and fall short. They languish on the way. And not only are our cultural leaders doing these things, but they are also demanding that all the rest of us sit there respectfully, solemn as a judge. We are actually being asked, when confronted with some dude decked out like a cross between a circus horse and a Vegas fan dancer, and with face done up in grease paint so that he looks like a diseased hooker, and who is then assigned to have a little wholesome time reading to the little ones, to act as though this is the triumph of the Jeffersonian ideal.
T.S. Eliot once speculated on whether everything would end with a bang or a whimper. He did not envision it as ending like the third act of a Marx brothers farce, with the sound track being provided by an organ grinder with an incontinent monkey.