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Conservatives, Progressives, and Cancellers in The Time of Babel

I read an essay on Voegelinview questioning whether “conservatives” have the capacity to be “progressive.” [1] The essay made me wonder about the words we use in 2020. Who are “conservatives” and “liberals?” What is “progress?” One clue for me that my wonderings were not unfounded was that in the essay, the term “liberal” was replaced by “leftist,” because the author recognized that “progressives” on the “left” were not really “liberal” at all.

These wonderings led me to consider other words we use. For example, the term “socialist” is used quite often as an insult, particularly in American politics. Democrats are referred to as socialist during election campaigns, though I have never heard a Democrat running for President who argued auto factories or telecommunications should be nationalized. I have heard Democrats who champion expanded welfare programs, but that is not socialist jargon necessarily, as I understand the term. Are conservatives and Republicans open to helping people financially when times are tough? I believe so. I wonder if “socialist” is a term we should drop from everyday use. Currently, there are no socialists out there who I know of except maybe in China, and even that is a long shot if the lifestyle of Meng Wanzhou, the phone executive under house arrest in her Canadian mansion, is any indication.

Another essay by Roger Scruton [2] reminded me that even if a person becomes clear with their terms and has something to say, there is a risk of not being able to speak due to a new social movement in democratic societies called “cancel culture.” If reasonable voices, to say nothing of tradition, are “cancelled,” what does this leave us with? I realized problems were getting serious when a former student told me about her small Canadian University, founded by a Christian denomination centuries ago, that had been pressured to cancel its annual Christmas dinner. The cancelling was done, according to the “cancellers,” because the dinner victimized non-Christians by excluding them. My experience of Christians welcoming the stranger would counter this concern, but either way, the deed was done. In this case, cancelling Christmas actually victimized Christians, but “cancellers” are happy to victimize Christians because they are “colonizers,” and perhaps, in the end, because Christians don’t fight back. I have also witnessed celebrities get cancelled for sometimes innocent slips of the tongue, or for a wish to engage in intentional, reasoned conversations around issues like human “sexuality” and “gender,” which, incidentally, are distinct terms. J.K. Rowling was put on the proverbial hot-seat for just that subject, but when I read an essay she published on her website [3], I felt her views and experience were genuine and certainly not inspired by hate, or a desire for divisiveness.

It is tempting to suggest “cancellers” are largely illiterate, but that suggestion would probably be seen by “cancellers” as a compliment, however backhanded. Much of the Western canon, and the reasoned dialogue that follows from studying it, seems to be viewed with suspicion by “cancellers,” part of a culture established by an elite that needs to be overthrown. To be an illiterate, at least as far as I understand Eric Voegelin, doesn’t mean a person can’t read a cereal box, it just means a person has not read intentionally with an eye to understanding the human condition, or the state of their own soul. This may sound complicated, but Christians with little formal schooling used to read with these things in mind all the time, for millennia, even before the invention of the electric light bulb. Reading and meditating with these intentions in mind has the potential for the formation of a mature person who is patient with himself and his neighbors, a person who can visit with the stranger about a whole host of issues. Non-readers are not excluded from this “literacy,” ironically. At least in liturgical Christian traditions, such as the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox and Anglican Churches, a person with an open soul can follow the guidance of the liturgy and find themselves in a place of spiritual and intellectual maturity without knowing how to print their own name.

Voegelin’s exploration of stupidity, following Aristotle’s human types, includes a quote from Novalis: “The world shall be as I wish it!” [4] This conjures up for me the worst type of infancy, that being the petulant child. This appears to be the state of the canceller. “Reason” and “dialogue” are useless when trying to convince a canceller not to tear down a statue of some founding figure like Canada’s first prime minister. Besides toppling statues, other techniques of the canceller include throwing paint, physically barring people from speaking in libraries and university lecture halls, and condemning people to the hell of social oblivion through vigorous on-line cancel campaigns.

The state of victimhood the cancellers promote should be questioned, at least for the sake of clarity. I do not wish to sound glib. Many of us have been victims of violent acts, such as being physically beaten, neglected, sexually assaulted, or threatened with imminent violence. These events can leave a victim traumatized for a lifetime. When speakers with a reasoned argument, or with reasoned questions, are cancelled, the people they may potentially victimize appear to be citizens who are carrying on with few impediments in their way except their own immature state of being. In the case of cancelling Christmas dinner, for example, the non-Christians who were at risk of being victimized through exclusion must be people who had not meditated on the Buddha’s first noble truth, which states that life is suffering. The potential victim had also not meditated on the Buddha’s subsequent teachings which help people deal with truth number one. The canceller’s potential victim had also not meditated on the crucifix, which shows that indeed, life is filled with suffering, but that with a soul oriented to divine presence, suffering can also play a redemptive role on our pilgrimage. In other words, the human spirit fully alive is a beautiful thing, and can soar like a bird even in the face of persecution. The canceller’s victims, at least in the canceller’s eyes, seem to be as helpless as a sloth away from its tree.

In Canada, where I happily live as a citizen, I am not sure there is such a thing as a “conservative” movement, intellectually or otherwise. Reading Voegelin’s New Science of Politics, however, I have come to understand that “conservatives” honor human nature as real and unchanging. It is the idea of human beings living in a “fallen condition,” sort of like the Buddha’s first rule of being. This may seem pessimistic, but it shouldn’t be understood that way. To acknowledge our fallen condition is to understand human limitations and human frailty, and to celebrate the wonders of a well-grounded cultural and political life that honors our limitations while still allowing citizens to freely ponder the mysteries of life during work and leisure time. As we read in Genesis 4:7, even as a fallen people we are not enslaved, because our souls have the potential to experience freedom. This freedom has been realized by people throughout the millennia, even when they were in prison. Cain may have felt things were not fair, but guided by the summum bonum, he had a choice to make, and so do we.

“Conservatives” have nothing to do with progress, if “progress” means ignoring human nature, as “cancellers” seem to do. I must hasten to add, however, that conservatives are not opposed to progress of the immanent variety. Can we build a better automobile? Sure. Can we improve relations between neighbours through better dialogue? Absolutely, but if the neighbor is a canceller, then they need to be reminded that it takes two to tango, and two to dialogue. Can “racism” be eliminated from any society? As fallen people who will suffer through periods of anxiety, do we sometimes objectify others racially, religious-culturally, politically, sexually, or socio-economically?

There is a need to explore the idea of “progress” in more detail, because it seems to me it is a broad term, and not always easy to recognize when solutions to societal problems are proposed by leaders from every field, beginning with politicians. Voegelin identified “scientism” as a modern movement alongside and similar to “progressivism.” [5] Scientism refers to those who believe the development of science and technology can rescue us from ourselves, in part by helping our human nature “evolve.” Scientism is a good term, and is one that applies to many progressives. Science, of course, is managed and carried out by human beings, the same human beings that science will rescue. It is a closed loop, and one that could kill us all, or at least drive us insane, if we make scientism our “philosophy” of the day. Let’s remember that science flourished under Stalin as it did in Nazi Germany. This suggests that in our day, where science and technology carry such weight, a discussion on what grounds our moral lives could be fruitful, even if the discussion strayed into the realm of metaphysics, which, I am told, is much feared by “liberals.”

Progressivism, like scientism, involves no God or source of grace. “Progress” is a closed loop just like scientism—humans magically rescuing themselves because they have a saving idea considered new—never mind how they found a utopian understanding of things in their cranium to begin with. Voegelin referred to progressives as “gnostics.” The world is a dark, sleeping place from which to be rescued, and gnostics have the key to understanding the escape route. Separated from “progressivism,” the word “progress” is best used to refer to mundane problems individuals or teams are working on, without bothering anyone else. For example, we need a vaccine for Covid 19, and so people are working hard to orchestrate a solution. This is progress, to be sure, but it is not a stepping stone toward our utopian end. So called liberal progressives should substitute the word “progress” with “a slippery slope” when discussing the salvation of society, for reasons of clarity. For example, “we’re making a slippery slope! Soon all people will be earning the same amount of money!” This will hopefully jar a few progressives into wondering what the “slippery slope” is. Is some beautiful part of the human spirit tamped down when the State bureaucracy understands and controls your happiness through weighing your wealth against your neighbour’s wealth? How do we understand “freedom” and “necessity,” and how are they required for a human being to find their way through the noise and haste in order to carve out their own destiny? How much money does a person need to be happy? Do conservatives recognize the justice of a “living wage?” When the world economy slows to a snail’s crawl one day, will that mean the end of happiness in the West? It doesn’t need to. The apocalypse does not need to be chained to the rise and fall of macro-economics.

“Progress,” as used by liberals in Canada, at least, is a spirit of sorts. Not the Holy Spirit, for that is a spirit from the dark ages. Besides, the Holy Spirit participates with the pilgrim in transcending the mundane closeness of material reality and self-interest. The “Progress” Spirit, on the other hand, is a completely immanent Spirit who will lead us to a utopian paradise here and now by feeding our self-interest while suffocating us with politically correct language. The current Canadian Liberal Prime Minister Trudeau called my country a “post-modern” nation, which suggests he is a big proponent of progress/a slippery slope. The Prime Minister’s belief in progress was complicated, however, when it was revealed during an election that he spent the early 1990’s wearing blackface at gala events. In the moment of revelation Trudeau did the right thing and apologised, even asking for forgiveness. That is good. After he won the election, Trudeau then began a séance of sorts to bring the “Progress Spirit” to Canada, suggesting that in light of his experience, difficult questions could no longer be avoided by Canadians, and a hard look at “systemic” racism in Canada needed to begin. The “Progress Spirit,” in other words, absolved Trudeau of his sins by transferring them to all of us.

This confused me. Early in the 1990’s when Trudeau was wearing black face, my roommate was black, and back then we discussed how hurtful blackface was. Had the “Progress” Spirit visited us almost thirty years before it visited Trudeau’s soul in 2019? Oops–I must remember, we don’t have a “soul” anymore, only our rational, post-colonial minds. Doesn’t “progress,” as liberals conceive it, visit us uniformly? If not, then the question is, will there always be racists who haven’t been visited by the “Progress” Spirit? If so, then how can we ever claim “progress” to be achieved? To complicate matters, is it possible Trudeau is no longer a racist, but that someone who was not a racist when Trudeau was could now be one when Trudeau no longer is? As I said, “progress,” or, “a slippery slope,” is confusing, and hard to pin down.

The term “philosophy” should also be clarified since I used it in conjunction with “scientism.” Philosophy is related to the life of virtue, to the seeking after wisdom. To “seek” suggests that people are also drawn mysteriously to the quest. How else can a quest begin except by an invitation or evocation of some sort? The quest or pilgrimage is a fluid reality, a participation in the cosmos with an open soul. It is beautiful, yet difficult at times. Conversely, any idea one rigidly lives by is not a philosophy. It is not even a dogma. It is stubbornness, born of a closed soul.

Anyone who proposes a remedy to save us from ourselves in a book or speech referred to as “philosophical” is probably a “sophist.” A sophist can be highly intelligent and well-studied, but they are dreamers who have become untethered from the human condition and the limits to that condition. Some sophists write books that offer a plan to bring us our unending happiness, or to end world poverty. These remedies to our collective suffering will have a hypnotic power for many, and this needs to be respected. I believe the literate person, discussed above, will be careful in following the allure of magical cures to problems universal in scope. Politically correct language, for example, does not magically create a happier and more vibrant culture. The movie Gran Torino, where genuine community is reclaimed to some degree with anything but politically correct language, is a good example of this. Strengthening relationships between people open to having a relationship, combined with self-sacrifice will go a lot further to building community than worrying about superficial banalities like legislated pronoun use. [6]

To put “progress,” or “a slippery slope,” to bed, let us acknowledge those people who grow excited thinking one day science will conquer death, so they may live forever. These are genuine illiterates, and all I can suggest for a cure is that these people be locked in a room for seven days, listening to Madonna’s “Material Girl” over and over. This might help them understand the culture that gives birth to such hopes, and an understanding of who they will be sharing reality with forever and ever. It may even motivate someone to dig a little deeper, and to learn more of this reality we are experiencing now. We are only mortal, and to remember that master realist Shakespeare, our revels will end soon enough. Inspired by Jesus’ teaching, we can ask ourselves, regardless of whether we are “progressives,” “cancellers,” or “conservatives,” if a human being was lying beat-up and robbed beside the road, would I stop to help them, or would I wait for the State to send a professionally trained compassion team?

 

Notes

1. Can a Conservative Be Progressive? by Emina Melonic, Voegelinview.com

2. The Threat of Free Speech in the University, by Roger Scruton, Voegelinview.com

3. https://www.jkrowling.com/opinions/j-k-rowling-writes-about-her-reasons-for-speaking-out-on-sex-and-gender-issues/

4. Why Democracy Requires God, by Eric Voegelin, Voegelinview.com

5. The New Science of Politics, by Eric Voegelin. Found in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 5, Modernity Without Restraint. University of Missouri Press, 2000. Page 222

6. The Ministry of Love, by Dr. John von Heyking, on Voegelinview.com, is a great essay that discusses the legislation of language use in Canada.

Michael BuhlerMichael Buhler

Michael Buhler

Michael Buhler is the Pastoral Care Worker for the Northeastern Catholic District School Board in Timmins, Canada. He has a B.A. from the University of Alberta in History and Comparative Religious Studies, and a M.A. from Wilfrid Laurier University in Religious Studies. His studies included two years of work for a M. Div. at Newman Theological College, Edmonton.

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