The new liberalism cut itself off from universal principles and focused on choice itself

Once upon a time, there was a parsimonious parson who, to save money, tried to brighten the exterior of his place of worship with watered down paint. After he finished his job and saw the paint cascading down the chapel walls, he called upon God for guidance. According to the tale, the Deity adjured the penitent parson to “Repaint and thin no more!”

Christ’s first public miracle was changing water into wine. Since then, the world has been relentlessly trying to change wine back into water. One of the casualties, among countless others, of this enthusiasm for adulteration is the notion of “liberalism.” The substance of liberalism has been watered down by the inclusion of willfulness, and as a result, no longer conveys its original meaning nor serves the purpose for which it first came into being. In a word, it no longer holds.

Liberalism is a wondrously pliable term. There is thelaissez-faire economic “liberalism” that John Paul II inCentesimus Annus and Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum both condemned. There is he moral “liberalism” of the drug-tripping, sex-intoxicated hippies of the 1960s. There is the “liberalism” that accommodates abortion. In each of these examples, the relationship between the will and that which is good, is variously compromised. As the free agent withdraws more and more from what is good, he isolates himself as an individual, and in the process, renders his life increasingly meaningless.

Authentic liberalism cannot be dissociated from the good. A quarterback throws passes. But his function would be pointless if he did not throw to his receivers. The quarterback who misunderstood his function as simply a “passer” who threw the ball independently of receivers would not last very long at his position. He could claim that by liberating himself from receivers, he was enhancing his freedom. The more telling point, however, would be that such freedom would be entirely meaningless.

America’s Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was directed to the good of black Americans. This was surely a social justice movement since it was subordinated to transcendent principles of justice and human rights. And its participants were rightly proud of what they termed its “inclusiveness.” Here, the will was tempered or mastered – through great hardships and personal sacrifices – so it could faithfully and consistently choose the good.

Less than a decade later, “liberalism,” without changing its name, changed its essence. The new “liberalism,” which was consistent with “liberalizing” abortion laws, cut itself off from universal principles of justice and focused on choice itself. By severing the will from the good, it separated choice from its proper moral object. One could choose to disregard human rights and principles of justice and still be considered a “liberal.” Liberalism, therefore, went from an ethic of “inclusiveness” to one of “exclusiveness,” with virtually no objection from its adherents. It lost sight of its own universal heritage, America’s “liberal tradition” that provided justice for all. In other words, it degenerated into an ideology that offered justice for some, but surely not for everyone.

Nat Hentoff is one of those rare secular figures who sees no contradiction in being a civil libertarian and a champion of the unborn. He posed a politically incorrect question for Ken Burns, director and producer of the PBS documentary, Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. “Why did the film exclude any reference to what these two founding feminists had to say against abortion?” he asked. Did not Mr. Burns, who won acclaim for his documentary on the Civil War, know their position? Burns acknowledged that he was familiar with their opposition to abortion but did not want his documentary “burdened by present and past differing views on choice.”

When he produced his documentary for PBS on baseball, he did not worry about being burdened by present and past differing views about blacks. In fact, he devoted more footage to baseball’s crossing the colour barrier than he did to any other aspect of the game. He did not omit Jesse Jackson’s hyperbole about Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league baseball: “He was medicine. He was immunized by God from catching the diseases that he fought.”

The “present and past differing views on choice” provide us with a terse, but accurate distinction between “inclusive liberalism” and the new “exclusive liberalism,” the difference between the will that serves the good and the will that serves itself. For the record, to provide the reader with what Ken Burns saw fit to omit, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote: “When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit. There must be a remedy even for such crying evil as this [abortion]; and Susan B. Anthony stated: “The woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed [abortion]. It will burden her conscience in life. It will burden her soul in death.”

Burns was really adding a “burden” that he thought he was omitting. By avoiding the “burden” of good, he was promoting the burden of pointlessness.

Donald DeMarco is a professor of
philosophy at St. Jerome’s University in
Waterloo, Ont.