LIBERALS ARE KEEN TO SNIFF OUT and condemn “privilege,” by which they mean the superior education, the affluence, the influence, and the comfort enjoyed by well-connected, well-born people, usually imagined by them to be political conservatives. None of this has anything to do with privilege in the historical sense of the word, of course, but the fact is irrelevant here.
No person in contemporary Western society is more privileged than the ostentatiously liberal citizen who, so far from hiding his light under a bushel, swings it to and fro like a railway signalman giving the all-clear to the onrushing unstoppable streamliner, the History Express. Liberals today are the beneficiaries of privileges non-liberals do not enjoy, among them preference in hiring, attention paid to their enlightened persons, recognition granted to their achievements, respect for their opinions on every subject, and deference in politically mixed company on those rare occasions when liberals and conservatives come into social proximity. Being liberal today means never having to watch your tongue, apologize for your opinions, or converse in hushed tones in public places. Whereas to be a conservative means putting up with accusations of saying or writing “offensive” things, while enduring patiently and in silence daily offenses offered by liberal speakers, liberal writers, liberal colleagues, and liberal neighbors. It means needing to seek out more or less obscure journals, radio and television programs, and newspapers while being hammered by the ubiquitous, unavoidable politically correct mass media. It means doing your best in church to concentrate on prayer while shutting your ears to the liberal sermons and the sacred Muzak wafting from the choir loft, and avoiding the liberal activists who dominate the lay work in the parish. If you are a church musician, it means having to accommodate your material, style, and technique to the tastes of liberal philistines who resent and resist high art (“elitist”), expertise in execution and musical interpretation (“pretentious”), and anything “old” and “out of date” (“reactionary”). For many centuries, the churches were the primary educators of their flocks in letters, music, the fine arts, and languages, as well as the Bible and theology, but with the arrival of the Century of the Common Man, when exposing the Faithful to anything above the level of crass plebeian culture became an affront to the lowest common social denominator, they readily abandoned that mission.
As J.O. Tate wrote in these pages recently, vulgarity has replaced majestic purple mountains and fruited plains as our physical environment, and tastefulness, delicacy, restraint, and balance as our mental and emotional one. Many liberals deplore the commercial and public culture that produced and sustains it as the crude expression of the souls of the American deplorables who have supported Donald Trump for president, yet so infused is popular culture by subliminal liberal propaganda inserted there by its largely liberal creators, promoters, and interpretive “artists” that even liberals who hold their noses in the presence of this noisome banality are content to tolerate it on behalf of their political and social ends. It is true that many of these mass purveyors of vulgarity are not liberals but political conservatives in the sense that they vote Republican from their personal financial interest, yet they tend also to be people whose spiritual brutishness allows them to swim happily in the continental cesspool that has become the national swimming hole. These people consort contentedly with liberals for commercial ends, no offense taken from any but their own colleagues’ more flagrant political heresies (usually those having to do with tax policy).
Western people today, conservatives and liberals alike, experience the prevailing liberal social atmosphere as the unquestioned norm of modern life, whether they know it or not. And even if they do know it, they are terrified of being thought “abnormal” by their fellow citizens by dissenting from it. Further, middle-class Americans, since at least the turn of the 20th century and increasingly during the 1920’s and 1950’s, have ranked “niceness” and “being nice” among the cardinal moral and civic virtues. In more conservative eras niceness has meant being “respectable.” But from the 1980’s forward, as life in the Western democracies has been progressively liberalized, nice has evolved as the equivalent of liberal, and liberal has come to mean “nonjudgmental,” “tolerant,” “uncritical,” and open to every new thing, every new value, every new standard approved by liberals as something every citizen has a moral duty to approve.
What the British call “virtue signaling” is only one sign among many of this. Virtue signaling is an act of affirmation of some liberal value or shibboleth, intended to establish or reaffirm the sender’s reputation as a socialized, politically correct, and tolerant person. Even the strongest political conservatives—people who believe in the free market and resist statism, support a strong military defense, and go to church every Sunday—participate in virtue signaling to display their generous intentions, maintain social harmony, and compensate for their illiberal opinions regarding fundamental political, economic, and social issues. In this way they unconsciously grow acclimated to liberal society until they are no more aware of it than of the natural atmosphere they breathe—even if the reality of liberal social dominance breaks in upon them occasionally, like a bad-tasting, bad-smelling, choking smog.
Virtue signaling is one aspect of the urgent exhortative tone characteristic of modern liberal society—the “OK, guys—let’s all go out today and do our ethical thing!” society. The spirit behind exhortative liberalism is purely liberal-bourgeois, yet its pedigree traces from the civic boosterism of the conservative bourgeoisie of the 1920’s to whom Sinclair Lewis’s fictional character of the decade gave the name “Babbittry.” Modern liberals, with different or opposed social and political agendas, look down their noses at the middle-class Babbittry persistent in the civic activities of the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, the Lions Club, and the Elks Club, though those of the League of Women Voters, EMILY’s List, the Children’s Defense Fund, and Planned Parenthood are equally naive, smug, and vulgar. In fact there has always been an intimate connection between liberalism and social and intellectual vulgarity, beginning with the nouveau riche men of commerce, industry, and public affairs who pushed for liberal political systems and liberal economic policies early in the 19th century and including the pseudophilosophical liberal theorists who laid the foundations for a system characterized by high intellectual vulgarity, mental naiveté, and a dangerous misunderstanding of the world, and of man. Liberalism as an idea is ideally suited to the moral, aesthetic, and political vulgarity of modern commercial-democratic society.
The town of 30,000 people where I’ve lived for 17 years now is set high in the Rocky Mountains, geographically speaking, but well below sea level from the cultural standpoint. The local newspaper was founded in 1881; the university five years later. I haven’t looked into the paper’s archives, but I imagine that its character in the days when the town’s economy was based on railroading, ranching, and logging differed drastically from what it is today, as the Laramie Boomerang now ranks easily with the New York Times in the fervency and abandonment of its politically correct liberalism. Much of the change obviously reflects the influence of the university, which, with the exception of those departments devoted to practical fields of study like mining, engineering, and agriculture, is the equal in its liberal dementia to any comparable institution back East—whence a great many of its faculty have been imported to the Cowboy State. Much, but not all of it. The remainder is simply an expression of the liberal spirit that in recent decades has infected Main Street—small-town and middling-city America.
The Boomerang is Laramie’s Plaza Fountain, its Versailles Gardens Fountain, its Trevi Fountain of self-conscious, moralistic, virtue-spouting, liberal exhortation. What hard news there is at hand to report daily is buried under alerts, announcements, feature stories, and photographs promoting a variety of “awarenesses,” “sensitivities,” and other liberal totems: Big Brother-Big Sister, Violence Against Women Week, Run for the Cure races, rallies to save the climate and fight discrimination against the “LGBT community,” Latina seminars, safe-sex crusades, and Special Olympics weekends. In the Boomerang’s world, everyone “cares,” “gives back,” “supports,” and “tolerates” from morn to set of sun, and—no doubt—in his dreams as well. Matthew Shepard is the patron saint not only of the Episcopal cathedral but of the town itself, where The Laramie Project is vastly more familiar to people than Romeo and Juliet. Once or twice per month some retrograde soul has a brief unenlightened protesting screed published on the letters page of the Boomerang, but I know only one or two temerarious people willing to speak their minds even in private conversation. It’s not “nice” to mock, let alone object to, false sentimentality, moralistic self-satisfaction, and virtue signaling, assuming even that people are aware of these things, now as natural a part of the municipal atmosphere as the Union Pacific trains highballing it through the freight yards, the overflowing bars downtown on Saturday nights, and the ubiquitous message T-shirts advertising (in about equal numbers) commercial products, liberal causes and organizations, and sports teams. (Message T-shirts are another ubiquitous message from the Exhortative Society, delivered by bipedal human billboards who imagine their fellow bipeds care a tinker’s damn what products they buy, what left-wing causes they support, or what teams they root for.) It may be, too, that the large majority of Americans have learned unconsciously to accept the liberal media simply as a familiar, unremarkable, and even ignorable element of the liberal atmosphere—especially Americans who take all their news from FOX and never look at any paper beyond the local one.
The world is the liberal’s oyster, but it is a poisoned oyster—and not for conservatives only, though the favored position liberals enjoy prevents them from realizing the danger. A polluted environment damages everyone and everything, including the masses of human bivalves who live hermetically sealed up in ideological shells. Shell-life is an easy life, especially when it is part of a vast shellfish community. But shellfish, too, have their predators, capable of breaking through shells to the vulnerable creatures within, softened by long protection from hard reality and experience.
Originally Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture NOVEMBER 3, 2016