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The false worldview of liberal progressives
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Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
May 3, 2012

Originally published July 8, 2004

This essay begins with a recap and commentary on Thomas Sowell's brilliant critique of the old liberal obsession with "change" and with seeking socioeconomic "root-causes" for all social problems. The bulk of the essay will deal with the historical roots of the false liberal worldview and its belief that all our problems can be traced to "root causes" that can be blamed upon American society, and its irrational preference for "change."

The fallacy of root causes and change ideology

Syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell's critique of the liberal bias towards "change," and the predilection for "root causes," was a barn-burner. Sowell compared the prosperity, freedom, and stability of America with the rest of the world. The blessings we enjoy are exceptional. They are not the natural order of things. It would make more sense to explore the root causes of our blessings than to explore the root causes of our problems. Our social problems are much like the misery suffered by a majority of humanity. The question that should be posed is, why are our blessings so special and so widely shared among the populace — and why are the common social problems of mankind not more widespread in America? Liberals are not capable of framing the problem this way because of their topsy-turvy worldview and their knee-jerk bias against America.

America's unique achievements are possible partly because of our institutional, legal, social, economic, and spiritual heritage. Our forbears struck delicate and sensible balances between freedom and order and between pioneering enterprise and social conservatism. We upset these balances at our risk. An unreasonable bias for "change" can lead to impulsive and destructive changes that can upset the social balances. Harmful changes instigated by well-meaning reformers can rend the social fabric and destroy the fortuitous matrix of cultural, social, and spiritual elements that have made possible our freedom, order, and prosperity. Hasty "reform" can kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. The liberal myth of "root causes" helps to keep the bandwagon for "change" rolling.

The notion of looking at root causes is not entirely wrong. But the liberal worldview is blinded by humanistic pride and is wrong-headed in its social engineering. The causation of complex social phenomena is very difficult to correctly identify, even more difficult to prove, and profoundly difficult to change through government programs in a satisfactory and non-destructive way. Yet liberal reformers arrogantly presume that they can identify the exact causes and the correct cures. In their self-assured myopia, they assert that they can design a government program with just the right fix — and can blithely ignore the unintended consequences of their meddling. The bold worldview of liberalism furnishes them with the brash assurance of a fool or a child.

We have survived the damage from a lot of bungled social engineering and still have prospered because of the remarkable resilience of our economy and our society. But this resilience is historically remarkable. The prosperous French economy of the seventeenth century was ruined by the social engineering of Louis XIV and the social fabric was incurably rent. The cost of the king's folly, which was to be paid during the century following his death, was famine, revolution, cultural deconstruction, dictatorship, and an era of total war. France fell from the cultural, economic, military, and diplomatic leadership of Europe to a permanent second-rank status among nations.

A false worldview

The false worldview of the liberal "progressives" goes back two hundred and fifty years. Much of old liberalism is good-hearted but wrong-headed folly. Postmodern liberalism is malicious and delusional. We must cure the hopeful but unhealthy illusions of the old liberalism before we can hope for a cure to the terminal illness of postmodern liberalism.

The delusions of Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau originated the idea that society is responsible for all human ills. He imagined an original state of nature in which man is naturally good and happy. Then, as civilizations arise, man is corrupted and made wretched by the evils of the city. This novel idea contradicted the belief that man is naturally wild and wicked but can be somewhat tamed by family, the restraints of civilized society, and the example and stimulus of high culture. Rousseau's new idea became the foundation for the liberal-progressive worldview.

It is incredible how the foundation for of a worldview, now accepted unquestioningly by millions, came from the fancies of one embittered, self-absorbed, and antisocial crank — who had a way with words. Perhaps we should not be surprised that bitterness and narcissism are endemic among postmodern liberals.

After one decompresses from unreality after reading Rousseau, and is restored to one's right mind, one realizes that the city sometimes tames and the city sometimes corrupts. This is common sense, and I think it is confirmed by our common general experience of life. However, the idea that the city is responsible for all our ills defies common sense — unless you believe in the myth of the noble savage. If man in the wild is naturally noble, then all corruption must indeed come from the satanic city. If the myth of the noble savage can be discredited, the idea that all corruption comes from civilized society will collapse.

A second myth of economic determinism (embraced by many modernist liberals) and cultural determinism (embraced by many postmodern liberals) also supports the myth of root causes. I have dealt with the fallacy of closed system determinism in other essays. In this essay, I shall concentrate on the myth of the noble savage.

Debunking the myth of the noble savage

Just as a city can tame or corrupt, a savage tribe can also tame or corrupt. Some savage tribes are mild and friendly. Some are vicious, bloodthirsty, and depraved in the extreme. This is the common testimony of the wide-ranging early explorers of Africa, North and South America, and the Pacific islands.

The solitary life in the wilderness can be either for better or worse. Englishmen used to say that a safari in Africa or India can make you or break you. The returning English gentlemen is renewed or ruined. In the case of desert prophets, religious hermits, or men who are like the fictional prototype of the classic English novel, Robinson Crusoe, men are sometimes matured and seasoned by long solitude in the wilderness. But there is there are also dark prototypes described by the classic English novels The Lord of the Flies, Lord Jim, and Heart of Darkness. A romp through the wilderness can degenerate into a demonic nightmare of terror. The climactic words of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness were "The horror, the horror."

Some of the American mountain men in the Rockies went savage and became brutal and cruel. Some went mad. And yes, some escaped their tormentors in the city, were freed of their illusions, and became quieter, more patient, and more sensible.

(One caveat: civilization can make people "better" in terms of superficial behavior. We can become superficially less antisocial and destructive and superficially more sociable, creative, and constructive. A wise theologian named John Gregory Mantle called the good works of unsanctified individuals "learned behavior built upon a corrupt root." The city can civilize, but it cannot change human nature at the ersatz.)

Gauguin and the exaltation of the primitive

For me, years spent in primitive subsistence in the primeval wilderness would be unbearably tedious and monotonous. Some of the higher human faculties atrophy in the stark absence of a cultured human society. Admittedly, culture cannot change us at the core of our nature. But a high culture can enrich and stimulate some human faculties and can adorn and beautify some of the compartments of human nature. Be that as it may, the highly refined French artist Paul Gauguin went to Tahiti to escape civilization and to glory in primitivism. Was he perverse to do so?

Many people delight in Paul Gauguin's intensely colored images of primitive Tahiti — but I find them exhausting and suffocating. He was a genius, of course — but I suspect he was something like a shaman. I think he was telling a Romantic myth imported from Europe as he painted in Tahiti.

We know that Gauguin, who had once been a prosperous stockbroker in Paris, came to despise what he called "the soul-destroying pressures of Western materialism." He was not wrong about materialism, of course. Gauguin was the perfect archetype of Rousseau's worldview — hating civilization and loving nature and primitivism. He was eventually regarded as something of a prophet by the Romantic groupies in Paris.

I happen to think that Gauguin, the prophet of primitivism, missed the true spirit of nature and primitivism. It is a spirit that is very far from European Romanticism. A certain exotic brand of European Romanticism infected Gauguin — a kind characteristic of a highly educated, urbane, and cultured man who goes native. Gauguin was too intelligent and too deeply cultured to be genuinely primitive. He practiced an ersatz primitivism. A faux primitivism. The guy was an intellectual. Yet he was also a shaman of sorts. Very rare.

Notice Gauguin's sophisticated insight as he discusses primitivism: "Primitive art proceeds from the spirit and makes use of nature. The so-called refined art proceeds from sensuality and serves nature. Nature is the servant of the former and the mistress of the latter. She demeans man's spirit by allowing him to adore her. That is the way by which we have tumbled into the abominable error of naturalism." A true primitive would neither know nor care what Gauguin was talking about. But the sophisticated denizens of the Paris art salons marveled at Gauguin's erudite primitivism and elite barbarism.

He may be right about the sensuality of some of the French impressionists and postimpressionists of his acquaintance — who seemed to grovel before nature. I wonder if this was the real source of Gauguin's bitter quarrel with Vincent Van Gogh.

I think Gauguin self-consciously reveals his role as a shaman in his statement about primitive art of the kind he approves. He says it "...proceeds from the spirit and is served by nature." He was imposing upon nature a Romantic ideal that he cherished in his spirit. Nature must serve him in the ideals he was exalting and the myths he was propagating. Here is where I think I see the shaman — as propagator of a myth, as the tribal leader, and as the priest of pagan idiolatry. Shamans cast an evil spell to induce the tribe to worship idols. Sure enough, Gauguin loved to paint the pagan idols of Tahiti. The idols, tucked away in sacred groves — were the titular lords of that dark pagan world of primitive nature religion. To find Conrad's "heart of darkness," one must go deeply into the jungle where the idols are hidden.

This powerful and diabolical enchantment has cast its spell over the liberal imagination. We have pagans in our midst. Our culture war masks a deeper struggle against spiritual darkness. Until the spell which Rousseau and Gauguin cast over the West is broken, the imaginary noble savage will be exalted. As long as the savage reigns in the liberal imagination, Western Civilization in general and America in particular as the leader of the West will be blamed for every human evil. The savage heart of faux primitivism hates civilization.

The myth of progress

The liberal-progressive program of the last two centuries is to change human nature through political and social reforms — and thus achieve progress. Some of the reforms have been for the good. Some have caused more harm than good. But essential human nature has stayed the same.

If human nature is pliable like soft putty and is easily corrupted by urban life, it can be changed for the better if the environment of urban life is improved. If man is naturally good and has the means to change his nature, then progress is inevitable.

Progress towards what? A future utopia. If there is no utopia at the end of the road, the concept of progress loses its meaning. Without the idea of progress, mere "change" has no inherent value. Nineteenth century liberal-progressivism was filled with imaginary utopias. The hope it engendered supplied the energy to push through countless reforms and filled the air with a fever for change.

The whole idea of "progress" and "utopia" is a myth. Human nature has not improved one whit. Communist regimes were committed to changing human nature, had the resources of dictatorship to force the project through, and were not shy about using dire methods. The results were horrible. Millions died. The human nature of the survivors was not perfected as promised. Their spirits were crushed and mangled. Their minds were haunted by flashbacks to horror. Their families were scattered. Their culture was ruined. So much for the "proletarian worker's paradise."

Human nature is intractable. It cannot be forced to change in its essential nature by blunt human instruments. It can be refined along certain lines by a high culture. But only divine grace can work a deep and fundamental transformation — and that seems limited to specially susceptible individuals. Man's essential design is set by the Creator and we are stuck with it. The nature of man cannot be changed and the fall of man cannot be reversed by a social program.

With the exception of a few philosophers, most liberal progressives were vague about what their utopia would be like. The cloudier, more poetic, and more abstract it was, the better. This way each person can fill in the blanks with their own desires and with their own imagination. Such individuals are always carping about "change." They are committed to "progress" and are comfortably fuzzy about their utopia.

A few novelists have fleshed out their happy lands of Shangri-la. Far more have told horror stories about the brave new world. Imaginary utopias are doors to dictatorship. Follow the yellow brick road and Oz looks splendid from a distance. The prospects become more chilling after the high iron gates close behind you.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at Amazon.com.

© Fred Hutchison

 

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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31