A couple of weeks ago I wrote a tantrum, “Chastening to come” anticipating an illiberal right-wing backlash to the open illiberalism of progressivists. Ezra Klein’s latest podcast features a conversation with Sohrab Ahmari, a representative of exactly the kind of perspective I fear — a Catholic convert who sees the latest aggressive imposition of progressivist cultural values as justification for imposition of his own traditional values.
I think this is the liberal paradox that is sown through every chapter of The Unbroken Thread… That what is promised as liberation ends up working out as a kind of new and worse tyranny than the authoritative structures that it replaced. So it was possible to say maybe in the 1950s and ‘60s, that cultural deregulation would lead to a neutral society in which no cultural account of what it means to be human or sort of comprehensive account of the good is enshrined and occasionally coercively enforced against individuals.
I don’t think you can say that now, 50, 60, 70 years later, when you see how the project of liberation itself has come to become quite coercive and censorious. So there’s no escaping some account of the good being enshrined and forcibly enforced in society. You cannot say that after a wave of university cancellations, of the degree to which speech is regulated. Again, you have to agree with me that private regulation can be just as coercive as governmental authorities doing it. That the formal distinction between them is a tissue, and it’s not that thick of a tissue.
And if that’s the case, then this concern about regulation just becomes liberals saying, we want our norms to be coercively enforced, to which a more traditionalist person would say, yes, and yours are new and radical and you can see how they do harm, especially to the weak people in society. So, no, I disagree. And I will politically oppose that.
If some official cultural value will always be imposed by someone, is it any more illiberal to impose traditional values than to push anti-traditional ones? Like progressivists, he sees liberal tolerance as disingenuous nonsense, and views progressivism itself as the terminus of left liberalism’s slippery slope of separating church as far as possible from state — first with protections from policies meant to enforce traditional values, but finally enforcement of anti-traditional values through new policies.
When the pendulum swings back right, the left will find itself far less able to make liberal appeals for tolerance, not only because it explicitly scorned these principles when others tried to appeal to them, but also because they demonstrated they were not in fact after equality but for total progressivist domination in every sphere of life.