We Are All Liberals Now–And We Always Have Been
(Soundtrack: Joey Ramone — Don’t Worry About Me)
Okay–since three of my favourite people (John Commonplacebook, Marc Singer, and erstwhile guest-Motime columnist Jamo) saw fit to question my confident assertion that Fascism “can’t happen here [in North America]”, I think I owe it to them (and to myself!) to clarify my position a little bit…
When I say that we are all liberals, well, I’m exaggerating a bit, of course. There will always be Jim Kalbs out there, trying to pass their crusty Medieval rhetoric off as something indigenous to the New World–but these people will never make much headway in America, because their love of hierarchy renders them absolutely unfit to participate in the debates that will continue to define the culture. Forget Jim Kalb. Forget Fascism–that kind of thinking grows out of an organic conception of the state, and North Americans (outside of Quebec) just don’t think that way.
However, Neocons are something else again. These are classical liberals. Their conception of society is just as atomistic as mine is. They’re just letting Original Sin get them down, that’s all…
As I’ve often stated, my understanding of American culture grows out of an obsessive engagement with Puritanism, and it owes a great deal to Perry Miller and Sacvan Bercovitch. The crux of the matter is this: Right and Left don’t mean the same things in North America that they do in the rest of the world.
When you get right down to it, radical Protestantism, which is just another name for Puritanism, is only concerned with one thing–the individual’s relationship to God. Ethnic ties, the rights-and-duties associated with feudal hierarchy, the connection of a people to the land–all of these things were anathema to the Puritan mind, from the most extreme theocrat (the right-wing of the movement) to the wildest Quaker (the left-wing). The Puritan “Errand” was a quest for a place in which individuals could act out the drama of their own salvation or damnation without interference. That’s America. Everyone gets a chance to hear “the Word”. If they’re schedueled to be saved, well, good for them. And if not, at least they can’t say they never had a chance.
In a later, more secular, age, this would be redefined as the “pursuit of happiness”. Thoreau expressed the same desire when he set out to “corner life”–whether it proved to be sweet or “mean”.
Everyone wants the chance to pursue happiness, whether they’re destined to attain it or not. But the question then becomes–what does it take to ensure that everyone gets this chance? I happen to believe that people require free access to education, medical care, and a moderately comfortable existence before they can even begin to figure out whether they’re “saved or damned”. The state cannot grant happiness to its citizens–but it can (it must!) ensure that all of the preconditions to happiness are met. That’s the rationale behind an “economic Bill of Rights”.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of “national security”. People aren’t gonna be doing much soul-searching if the borders aren’t secure. American expansionism is always about creating a stable situation for the individuals within the polity. That’s where it differs dramatically from the “test-your-nationhood” expansionism espoused by breast-beating Fascist theorists. Of course, you can still do a lot of harm whilst fighting to “make the world safe for democracy” (even, or maybe especially!–if you are sincere), and we’re seeing a fine example of this in Iraq. The right-wing Puritan’s greatest fault is the tendency to place so much emphasis upon strengthening the polity that the original point of the Errand is forgotten. That’s what Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme is all about–and I think I’m going to begin discussing that series very soon. It’s not really a Lord Acton scenario–absolute power doesn’t corrupt absolutely, but it certainly furnishes those who wield it with the opportunity to make terrible mistakes. On the other hand, left-wing Puritans (like me–and Kirby’s Forever People, right J.W.?), focus upon the Word to the exclusion of all else, and thus run the risk of being trampled…
Another quintessential American problem has arisen out of the hubristic belief, on the part of some of the country’s citizens, that they possess the ability to recognize “the unregenerate” when they see them. Skin colour, ethnicity, work ethic, sexual preference–none of these things have anything to do with a person’s status before “God”, and yet all of them have, at times, been interpreted by fools as markers of “sainthood” or “damnation”. This is why I disagree with Marc Singer when he argues (by implication) that Americans have accepted the idea of a hierarchy in the past. Americans have always been, and always will be, radical egalitarians. However, they have very often been guilty of arbitrarily excluding huge numbers of people from the social contract (reducing this noble idea, in the process, to a pathetic “Gentleman’s Agreement” between “Visible Saints”–a far cry from what it was meant to be: a covenant which enables every individual to work out his/her destiny before “God”), based upon an untenable inference of moral superiority on the part of those in power. Again, for reasons of “national security”, some steps must be taken against those (murderers, rapists, etc) who pose an obvious threat to the majority’s pursuit of happiness–but this calls for the nicest possible judgement on our part, because no human being can tell for sure whether another person is a member of “the Elect” or not. I prefer to believe that they are–it makes life a lot more pleasant–but the point is that I don’t know for sure, and neither do you (and neither does “God” for that matter–there is no God–so don’t tell me God inspired you with the knowledge that all “lazy/gay/whatever people are going to Hell”! Stick with the program here son!)
Good Afternoon Friends!