Medieval Liberals

Unlike classical liberals, the liberals of today hew to doctrine in the face of the evidence.

by Victor Davis Hanson // National Review Online 

A classical liberal was characteristically guided by disinterested logic and reason. He was open to gradual changes in society that were frowned upon by traditionalists in lockstep adherence to custom and protocol. The eight-hour work day, civil rights, and food- and drug-safety laws all grew out of classically liberal views. Government could press for moderate changes in the way society worked, within a conservative framework of revering the past, in order to pave the way for equality of opportunity in a safe and sane environment.

Among elite liberals today, all too few are of this classical mold — guided by reason and empirical observation. By far the majority are medieval and reactionary. By medieval I mean that they adhere to accepted doctrine — in this case, the progressive doctrine of always finding solutions in larger government and more taxes — despite all the evidence to the contrary. The irony is that they project just such ideological blinkers onto their conservative opponents.

Reactionary is a good adjective as well, since notions of wealth and poverty are frozen in amber around 1965, as if the technological revolution never took place and the federal welfare state hadn’t been erected — as if today’s poor were the emaciated Joads, rather than struggling with inordinate rates of obesity and diabetes, in air-conditioned apartments replete with big-screen TVs, and owning cell phones with more computing power than was available to the wealthy as recently as the 1980s. Flash-mobbing sneaker stores is more common than storming Costcos for bags of rice and flour.

In the medieval-liberal worldview, gun control stops violence like that in Chicago or Detroit. Solar panels are the energy way of the immediate future; fracking is not. Voting fraud is almost nonexistent and mostly a right-wing conspiracy trope. High-speed rail is an efficient and economical means of transportation. The problem with public assistance is that there is too little of it, not too much. Affirmative action ensures fairness. Climate change is proven; further debate is counterproductive, and disturbing data to the contrary are little more than propaganda of the ignorant.

Like a medieval bishop, the new medievalists also seek to avoid the ramifications of their own ideologies. Like residents of a walled medieval city or religious order, they prefer enclaves and cloisters filled with others of their kind.

In California, the medieval liberal thinks it is terrible that the state’s public schools test near rock bottom in science and math. Cannot such testing be postponed? Are multiple-choice tests sufficiently sensitive to the contours of class, race, and gender? He senses that teachers’ unions and politicized mandates from the state may have something to do with the decline. Perhaps privately he is fearful that the vast migration of illegal aliens from Latin America, coupled with the inability of many African-Americans to achieve social parity, might be a contributing factor to the implosion in public schools, as well as the degeneration of the nuclear family across class and racial lines. Yet, in his projection, he accuses others of such blasphemous thoughts, even while he is usually guided by them in decisions he makes for his own progeny. For now, ensuring that the transgendered can use either public-school restroom is about all that he can offer to raise test scores and create a safe high-school campus.

The medieval-minded progressive clings to all sorts of calcified bromides for educational chaos — higher taxes, more mandates and regulation, more entitlements, and always more money. Charter schools, deunionization, a back-to-basics curriculum, or restored standards of discipline and behavior just rub the medieval liberal the wrong way.

He is more interested in spreading doctrine and saving souls than in the concrete welfare of his flock. The result is that medieval liberals talk grandly while adroitly navigating their own children’s way through the school system, preferably through a top charter or public school in a good coastal enclave, or, if need be, through a high-priced prep school. Unlike the East Coast, in California the elite were once almost universally publicly educated. The introduction of our versions of Andover and St. Paul’s into the coastal strip is a relatively new phenomenon brought to us by medieval liberals. In our best new private schools, diversity is praised as much as the methods of avoiding its consequences are institutionalized — or it is de facto defined as elite gays, women, and affluent Asians, rather than the products of the inner city and the barrio.

The medieval liberal of California either makes good money or inherited it — enough of it, at least, that he is not particularly worried that he pays the highest gas, income, and sales taxes in the nation and gets in return the country’s near-worst schools and infrastructure, with high poverty levels to boot. That others cannot afford what he takes for granted is regrettable, but can be offset, at least psychologically, by the medieval idea of penance or exemption. For the administrative assistant who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in San Jose, the Atherton tech lord offers something far better than an economic plan that would lead to better jobs, lower taxes, cheaper homes and energy, good schools, and affordable fuel.

Villeins of the manor can suffer nobly in apartments and part-time jobs, nourished spiritually through the faith that their state is going green, with the proliferation of new high-priced solar panels and windmills. Would the part-time administrative assistant really rather pay $150 per month to power his rental through combustion of cheap, though hot-burning, natural gas, when he could pay $400 knowing that wind and solar do not create carbon emissions? We surely can borrow $300 billion for high-speed rail, on the idea that the best way to fix those distant decrepit freeways — the dinosaurs of our parents’ age that “they” use daily — is to force millions onto rail.

In this regard, Al Gore is the medieval liberal par excellence, whose own life is not lived in accordance with his ideology, and who is more interested in becoming wealthier than in leading a modest but principled life. Like the worst of medieval clerics, Gore is an elitist who spouts pieties to save his soul, as compensation for selling it to the highest bidder for fossil-fuel-generated dollars.

Wood is to be imported for fine floors in a few tasteful and elegant vintage homes, not to be harvested in our Sierras for 2 x 6s to build thousands of new, tasteless tract homes. “Diversity” is the Chilean professor’s only child or the Chinese national’s wonder kid at the local Montessori, not something like the Madera or Porterville schools, where half the students do not speak native English. A “gorgeous mosaic” is what you see when you walk across the Stanford campus appreciating the diversity of the children of the world’s elite, not what you would find a few miles away in sometimes dangerous East Palo Alto or Redwood City among the much praised and more avoided other.

For the medieval liberal who has created two classes out of the old three, he knows that such places as Bakersfield, Mendota, Inglewood, and Los Banos exist, but he knows few of the unfortunates who actually live there. These areas can be safely driven by on the way to the John Muir Trail. If he is a Silicon Valley magnate, he praises high taxes and regulations, and then does his best to outsource production abroad and keep his capital offshore.

The medieval liberal is certainly self-righteous and pious. Suggest to him that more timber could be harvested in our forests rather than left to burn, and he may become irate: You are a tree killer who would slash the wilderness. Politely point out that fracking and horizontal drilling might lower power and fuel costs, provide millions of new jobs, and jump-start the economy, and you are subverting all that the environmental movement has worked for. Inquire whether cutting taxes and regulation might entice job-creating firms back to California, and he sneers that you are a Rick Perry smokestack Neanderthal. Ask whether we could close the border and work with aliens already here through classical modes of integration, assimilation, and intermarriage, and he snickers that you are too white, too old, and too few, as if uttering that statement provides exemption and ensures that he is not and will never be too anything.

He is worried that banks and businesses are not sufficiently racially diverse, rarely that progressive magazines and the White House staff are mostly white and male, apparently because they are the good white and male — a sort of self-determined affirmative-action category.

The medieval liberal could not imagine himself the materialist and reactionary that he most certainly is, wedded to Detroit and Chicago nostrums of big government, high taxes, increased entitlements, tyrannical unions, racial condescension, and apartheid — and in pursuance of the metrosexual good life.

As recompense, he is not just liberal, but liberally hip and cool. The zillionaire wears jeans to his Mountain View work cockpit; at Starbucks, who can distinguish the scruffy billionaire from the unemployed? The high priest of the educational technocracy has $10,000 worth of cutting-edge hiking boots, tents, sleeping bags, and camping appurtenances. The muckraking journalist can nonetheless write a thesis on the comparative advantages of iPhones and their epigones, and in his 50s he listens to Jay-Z and Beyoncé as well as Springsteen and the Dead. Cool and privilege are the two hallmarks of the contemporary medieval liberal, sort of like the obese friar with a neat tonsure.

Cool is Barack Obama, not necessarily what Barack Obama has done. He symbolizes the medieval liberal’s view of the underclass, arising from the privileged Choom Gang at Punahou. Platitudes and ritual dominate — late-term abortion regrettable but a necessary evil; gay marriage somehow vital, while civil unions just won’t do; no IDs for voting, though they’re still needed at Bloomingdale’s; irrigation water for the noble three-inch smelt, and a bit higher food prices at Whole Foods with fewer jobs for some losers somewhere; Obamacare for most, exemptions from it for us; illegals trimming bushes outside, but their kids not beside mine in fifth-grade geometry; private profiling is proof of racism, but should we really go tonight to that hip new bistro that borders a sort of iffy transitional neighborhood?

The medieval world of two classes, lord and peasant, continued for centuries. What was hated, then and now, was the newcomer, the upstart, the man without contractual obligations, neither rich nor poor, neither dependent nor surrounded by dependents, the skeptic who Tocqueville thought would keep America from becoming what it is becoming.

The non-medieval mind always fails to perceive the romance of the poor, and fails to hanker after the tastes and culture of the lord. Translated, that means he is the uncouth ignoramus who has no clue what Sidwell Friends or the Menlo School is, no grand strategy of how to get Junior into Princeton or Stanford, no idea what a Hobie or Cannondale is, but maybe knowledge of a handgun, a jet ski, a camper, or any other of the many superfluous appurtenances that are proof that the tax rate is too low.

I think America is becoming sick and tired of being lectured by some young pompadour who made a billion dollars in Silicon Valley and therefore deems himself Socrates; by some ossified Washington Sixties-era careerist who believes the laws that he passes simply cannot apply to himself and his kind; and by some crusading hip talking-head whose self-absorbed material aspirations and values make the 1950s suburbanite seem bohemian in comparison.

We need a cultural Reformation, a Renaissance in classical thinking, a return to true diversity and real intellectual tolerance that rejects the medieval reactionary’s mind, exposes his hypocrisy, and recreates three classes from his two.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books.


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