James Burnham was an American philosopher and political theorist. In his book, Suicide of the West (1964), he catalogs 19 ideas/beliefs/values that typify the liberal (or leftist) mentality. For contrast, Burnham presents for each liberal conception a corresponding non-liberal conception. Here is Burnham’s second pairing:
Elements comprising the doctrinal dimension of the liberal syndrome:
L2) Human beings are basically rational; reason and science are the only proper means for discovering truth and are the sole standard of truth, to which authority, custom, intuition, revelation, etc., must give way.
One possible set of contrasting nonliberal elements:
X2) Human beings are moved by sentiment, passion, intuition and other non-rational impulses at least as much as by reason. Any view of man, history and society that neglects the non-rational impulses and their embodiment in custom, prejudice, tradition and authority, or that conceives of a social order in which the non-rational impulses and their embodiments are wholly subject to abstract reason, is an illusion.
Burnham’s L2 surprises me. Had I been an adult and a trained political theorist in 1964 I wonder if I would have attributed rationality and truth to the liberal mentality. I might have attributed irrationality and untruth to the conservative mentality which, at the time, was simply the status quo and often satirized. Dr. Strangelove, for example, also came out in 1964. But today L2 is more closely aligned with conservative than with liberal thinking.
Similarly, Burnham’s X2 strikes me as a contemporary liberal position. That is, liberals today celebrate the non-rational elements of human nature. To be sentimental, passionate or intuitive is inherently justifiable to today’s liberal. You can see this in liberals’ support for certain political protests that turn violent, for example.
How to account for this apparent inversion?
One possibility is to resort to historical context. The liberal mentality often traces its origins to the Enlightenment. To be liberal in this classical sense is to be liberated from various anciens régimes. But during the same historical period there was also a prominent conservative mentality which opposed radical social change. The two camps, symbolized by Rousseau and Hobbs, respectively, have been arguing with each other for so long that the transformative inversion we see today is perhaps an inevitable consequence of incremental accretion.
Another possibility is that human knowledge and experience have advanced so far beyond Enlightenment preoccupations that neither side in the old argument is sustainable anymore. Biology, for example, has moved beyond Darwin’s evolutionary theory; physics is moving beyond the Big Bang. At this point, liberals and conservatives alike can perhaps be forgiven for “making it up” with their ideologies. We are all waiting for the next “big thing.”
Perhaps it will be AI.
4 thoughts on “Learning Liberals 2”
“If a man is not a Socialist at 20 be has no heart, but if he remains one at 30 he has no head.” King Oscar II of Sweden(and many others)
Of course, King Oscar never thought anyone would be foolish enough to pass the 19th Amendment. Women remain motivated by emotion only for life.
My woman wants to put a new roof on the house, our third. She’s right; we need it.
We have three estimates: Fiberglass ($40K), Aluminum ($60K), Slate ($76K).
All three probably would outlive us, so the question is which is best to leave the children?
The cheapest leaves us money for other needed improvements. The most expensive would restore the house to nearly the condition it was in when we bought it. The structure was erected in 1922.
To me, trying to learn or understand the liberal mind is an exercise in futility. They completely lack any common sense or refuse to exercise it, expect everyone to believe and play fantasy, believe not contributing to the workload of society deserves reward and act like valley girls at the Galleria with daddy’s credit card. In other words they lack any sense of reality and staunchly fight against facing it while their existence solely relies on the promise of free money for those that vote for them.
I feel much the same way, but I am not comfortable with treating liberals as a class of deplorables. That’s what THEY do to people they don’t like.
I think that Burnham describes the liberal mentality fairly well and in a way that captures the fascist tendencies that are inherent to it.
So, while Burnham was writing half a century ago, there may be some hope that contemporary liberals and conservatives alike may discover something useful or informative in his musings. We all need to move on.