Saturday, March 7, 2009

What we can learn from My Cousin Vinny

You folks remember My Cousin Vinny -- the Joe Pesci flick where he plays Vincent Gambini, a bumbling lawyer who manages to save his cousin from going to jail for a murder he didn't commit (and, if I'm not mistaken, the last major film Marisa Tomei was in where she kept her clothes on the whole time)? Good film. Fun to watch.

One of my favorite lines is from Vinny, in his opening statement at his cousin's trial, when he responds to the prosecutor's opening statement by saying, "Everything he [the prosecutor] just said is complete bullsh**." It struck me just now, that Pesci managed to distill, in one sentence, one of the most striking features of modern Liberalism: its fanatical and iconoclastic revisionism.

Over at The Only Orthodoxy (the website I write for) one of the other staff writers posted an article about how Liberals -- and this is no exaggeration -- often tend to believe that non-Liberals are neurotic, that the only thing keeping Conservatives and traditionalists from believing in and supporing Liberalism is a kind of mental problem. (Again, I'm not exaggerating. See for yourself.) This isn't usually said with malice, but with condescending (in the classical sense) concern and pity, much the same way we'd talk about how an aspiring basketball player in a wheelchair can't play in the NBA.

The hubris of this position is literally unbelievable. It basically amounts to quoting Vinny's opening statement about just about all religions and nearly all moral traditions.

I posted a comment to my friend's article (linked above), which fleshes out my views. (I didn't think of the My Cousin Vinny angle until after I posted the comment.)

The late, great Richard Hofstadter (a dyed-in-the-wool Liberal) did quite a bit to promote the idea that traditionalism and conservatism are both neuroses in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”. [Post-comment note: read the whole "Paranoid Style" here if you don't believe me; it's only 11 pages.] He identifies this angry, irrational style in the Know-Nothings, the Illuminatis, the Masons, and the KKK of old and (in his time) McCarthyism and the John Birch Society. Notably absent from his analysis are any movements on the political Left — despite the fact that Wilson was a poster child for the Paranoid Style as Hofstadter describes it.

The hubris of this view — that traditional political ideals are the result of an unbalanced mental state — is truly breathtaking. It amounts to a psychological indictment on virtually all of human history. Liberalism as we know it goes back no further than the 1890s and the Progressive Era (spell that word as you wish: Its intellectual foundations go back no further than the Reformation (from which it drew its anti-clericalism and disdain for traditional authority) and the Enlightenment (from which it drew its materialist metaphysic and its naively absolute faith in human beings). It is a completely revisionist philosophy which claims to trump every other philosophy or religious tradition — not like Christianity (because it perfects and makes sense of them) but like Islam (because it brooks no rival and crushes any competing explanation of the sunum bonum).

What Liberalism claims is that all people at all times in the past were deranged and mistaken about the things that were most important to them. Only in our own time, they say, are we enlightened enough to see what really motivates people, and what is really good for them. (Many forms of conservative Evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity also make this mistake in asserting that only people who believe their particular forms of Christianity, or that only people who’ve physically heard the Gospel preached to them, can be saved.) Whereas traditional Christianity looks at much of human history as a flawed-but-honest search for the truth that has much merit to it, Liberalism looks at all of it as fatally flawed (and ultimately worthless).

I encountered this view for myself at a conference I attended while still in graduate school in DC. At that point I worked for a health care policy advocacy organization which hosted an annual conference with famous speakers. One speaker was the Washington Post Op-Ed writer, E.J. Dionne, who gave a speech about the need for Liberals to pursue their policy goals honestly and unashamedly. During the Q-and-A time after his speech, I asked him why I didn’t hear Liberals reference their philosophical traditions anywhere near as often as Conservatives. Why, I asked, when they have revered political philosophers like John Stuart Mill as well as newer philosophers like John Rawls and Richard Rorty to draw from did I so rarely meet Liberals who were at all well-versed in the philosophical underpinnings of their preferred politics?

Dionne’s response was both revealing and underwhelming. Liberals, he said, were too busy doing good things to reflect on the reasons why. Also, he said, Liberals eschewed such philosophers and traditions because “traditions” sounds so much like “traditional”, which is what Conservatives are about, for Liberals’ taste. So he essentially said that Liberals’ intellectual posture is that of unrepentantly rebellious adolescents, with a Pavlovian disdain for nearly anything revered or traditional (except for those traditions they revere — like the myths surrounding JFK’s Camelot and FDR’s New Deal).

Given this perspective, the fanatically revisionist and iconoclastic nature of modern Liberalism makes sense. Teenagers and college students tend to always think that they are experiencing things for the first time, that they alone have discovered the answers to questions that have vexed humanity for millennia, and that their infallibly correct answers must be implemented now. Most people usually grow out of this way of thinking as they mature. Political philosophies, however, are not people and they don’t necessarily have to mature. Liberalism hasn’t. Instead, in the spirit of adolescent arrogance, it’s come up with a self-evident explanation for why virtually all people at all times and in all places have disagreed with them: they’re crazy.

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