12-1 faith

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

12.1 (Winter 2012)


faith and cultural meltdown


courtesy of artrenewal.org


The “Religion” of Progressivism Encore Une Fois

Our previous issue appears to have stumbled into an interesting discussion of why people embrace the progressive cause politically.  One contributor proposed that a religious impulse underlay this ostensible rejection of formal religion–that progressive ideology is indeed compensatory for our high-tech age’s loss of faith.  The new god is nothing less than Man writ large: collective humanity, ever evolving through its uniquely rational capability toward a life without disease passed in wandering among far galaxies.  Inasmuch as I lately completed a critical analysis of Jules Romains’s unanimist fictions about a year ago in these pages (see 11.1 and 11.2), I can hardly conceal a strong sympathy with that view–with the view (to be clear) that the gradual “angelification” of mere mortals through applied science shares the delirium of a mystical faith; for my analysis did not lead me to endorsement.

Dr. Singleton’s ensuing piece did not chide “Pancratistes” for any logical flaw, but begged to suggest that attributing progressivism categorically to religious zealotry was rather too charitable in many specific instances.  His piece argued that in the academy, at least, thinkers will pose as progressive–teaching progressive authors, defending progressive ideas, savaging the progressive’s enemies, sporting bumper-stickers and lapel-pins for progressive candidates at election time (and years thereafter, in the event of a romping defeat)–to lay open claim to a certain group membership.  As a survivor of several years in that gulag known as the University of Texas at Austin, I cannot find fault with this thesis, either.  Though little more than a boy during my first exposure to the Austin campus, I immediately noticed that all of my fellow undergrads wore the same frayed jeans, the same faded tee-shirts, and the same long hair and stubble, all of it as rigidly, thoughtlessly reproduced in each particular being as the regimental insignia of some massive populist army.  These adolescents wanted to belong, above all: they wanted to rebel, but only because their friends were rebelling.  They wanted to belong to the rebellion.  Thirty and forty years later, the least original and most pusillanimous of the lot–those who have become college professors, in short–still march to the same drummer.

Pancratistes, however, was not addressing the progressive phenomenon exclusively as it appears in academe.  Those of us who know academics well are not in the least surprised to hear incoherent, even self-contradictory “idealism” dribbling from the podia of classrooms.  We understand that such people are gathered (or are forever attempting to gather) in a big, eternal group hug from whose oxygen-depriving stricture a society without poverty, racism, competition, envy, failure, or boredom is only a pipedream because outsiders will not squeeze their proper bourgeois heads into the scrum.  The outsiders are always the bad guys.  The intellectual elite are always outside of these outsiders and their oppressive institutions, but their “outside” is always an almost hermetically sealed “inside” that promises to carry its initiates through life securely insulated from cruel adult realities.

What is more curious to us cognoscenti of ideological lunacy is how mainstream America comes to subscribe to the same “principles”.  For make no mistake: a substantial number of stock brokers, accountants, clerics, attorneys, “infotech” mandarins, and other highly trained private-sector professionals will always salute the banners of diversity, graduated taxation, universal medical coverage, guaranteed retirement income, etc., etc.  These are people who know how to make a buck, and how to allot its pennies and dimes for necessary expenses.  They are not members of any romantically “fringe” cadre, either, but eight-to-five taxpayers with a mortgage and an investment portfolio.  To be sure, the man-in-the-street they are not, inasmuch as one out of every two American citizens pays no tax at all.  To be an “ordinary taxpayer” these days is to bring home an extraordinary paycheck in many cases (though people like me also get shorn of their meager earnings, especially by state and local government, if a spouse also works in a desperate bid to lift the household’s prospects).  Yet this gives all the more reason to wonder why such people hold the system which has so enriched them in contempt.  Why, like Warren Buffett, do so many of them willingly contemplate a tax hike to finance more Go-Cart Halls of Fame and giveaway programs for the chronically depressed?

I posed myself this question quite seriously upon noticing that the political views of students enrolled in my Freshman Composition class (I do not solicit these views, but they soon leak out) could be indexed quite accurately a) to income and b) to geographical origin.  Students from well-to-do professional families are more likely to espouse the progressive cause.  Students from the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio) are also more likely to lean left than students from here in Texas or from the Deep South.  (Our institution draws few students from the East or West Coast.)  The geographical axis may be related to degree of industrialization: certainly a few decades ago, children of families involved in the heavily unionized industries of the Great Lakes region could be relied upon to hold progressive views about certain entitlements, though their social philosophy might be radically conservative, at the same time.  The days of steelers and stevedores, however, have long passed.  It strikes me as more likely that our Midwestern students are mirroring the professional axis in their geographical axis: that is, I suspect that their families have sent them to us because my university is a “good deal” for the family budget, and that their attitudes therefore reflect regional tendencies far less than the tendencies of a frugal, money-savvy class whose breadwinners probably draw close to six figures of annual income.  Our local students, on the contrary, tend to patronize us because we are handy and they have little disposable income for travel and boarding away from home.

So I am simply restating the previous enigma: why do so many people who have successfully amassed a respectable amount of wealth support progressive causes that often fritter away wealth upon childish whimsy?  It seems counter-intuitive: and indeed, political marketers do nothing to dissuade the masses from believing that poor people vote resonantly for the progressive nanny state while higher and higher income-brackets vote ever more solidly for reduced social welfare programs.

I think the answer partakes both of the religious impulse and the desire to conform (if I may be forgiven an apparent gesture of compromise–for splitting the difference is never right if only one of the competing sides is right).  A kind of dull spirituality must be at work here, insofar as the haut-bourgeois progressive really is willing to shell out more for taxes.  He has quite enough, after all: he is affluent.  Nice house, nice cars, nice private school, nice vacations… he could, of course, aim for a Cessna or a Chris Craft, but he would consider such diversions of the leisure class both to lie forever just beyond his means and, frankly, to be a little crass.  Money cannot buy the satisfaction he now craves deeply: the sense of being a truly good person.  I say he is dully spiritual, though, because he cannot at last find these soulful rewards without some sort of public display.  He has little of the introspective or morally astute in his composition: he therefore needs to “buy into” some sort of game which gives him constant vocal reassurance that he is better than most people.  A few hundred a year in additional tax (or, if you are Warren Buffett, a few thousand) is not really too much to pay for such a gift… is it?  For most people, perhaps it is–but he is a higher, better kind of person, our haut-bourgeois petty philanthropist.  The proof of this is precisely that most people moan and groan over a few hundred in extra taxes.

The capitalist progressive from Middle America, then, turns out to have found yet another great discount.  He can laugh and scoff at his fellow citizens for caring only about themselves and their filthy lucre.  He can ascribe to their political positions the lowest motives accessible to his limited imagination.  He may even, once or twice in his life, be able to shake hands with some national luminary of the Crusade for Humanity.  Segments of the community typically at war with white-collar white-skinned children of privilege recognize in him the rare defector from his kind’s vicious creed.  He is better than we.  He is brighter (since he understands the mechanism of vast change) and more visionary (since he believes in that mechanism even when he can’t understand it).  He rises above our squalor and peers down with a benign smile.  He enjoys, as I say, both the ecstasy of the New Way’s proselyte and the group-identification of a prized recruit among the elite.  His personal happiness, on whatever pyramid or questionnaire an Ivy League sociology department may cook up, is likely to rank very high when compared to yours and mine; for those of us to whom property tax is a blow to the solar plexus and whose minds obsess uselessly about a permanently dependent citizenry will never come to Jesus, as this man sees it.

Now, let the omnipotent government raid his retirement accounts or levy a 75% inheritance tax, and suddenly you will hear gruff protests that progress has been shanghaied by folly.  The jackal in the Pancatantra fable who falls into a vat of indigo and is made king of the jungle eventually howls like a jackal… and his end is far from happy.  ~  John Harris