Egalitarianism Was a Crazy Liberal Idea

Guest post by Dr. William Turner.

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One of the most impressive accomplishments of twentieth century conservatism was passing off the ridiculous idea that liberals are the elitists in American culture. 

Granted, liberals did enable this ideological coup by denigrating many ideas that are, or were, popular in the United States, starting with white supremacy, and continuing with the literal truth of Christianity.  But just for starters, the specific policy choice that propelled this conservative coup was legislation ending racial segregation – yep, that’s right, American liberals are elitists for passing legislation that ended deliberate discrimination against the descendants of slaves.  Make sense?

Anyone with any serious knowledge of the intellectual history of liberalism and conservatism in the United States well knows that, in terms of explicit philosophical commitments, the elitists are the conservatives.  This proposition dates back to the founding division of western political thought and activism into “liberal” and “conservative” camps with the publication of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government in 1689.  Locke did not use the term, “liberal,” but subsequent observers agree well nigh universally in identifying his book as the founding document of western liberalism.

That book functioned as a blow against hierarchy insofar as its primary purpose was to provide a theoretical justification for the act by the English people the year before of chasing off a wildly unpopular king and substituting a constitutional monarchy for the putative absolute monarchy that the deposed king had attempted to impose.

Beyond this concrete function, Locke’s Second Treatise is the source of Thomas Jefferson’s assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”  Locke’s book is quite explicit on this point, which he derived from his reading of the Bible:

The Christian god in Locke’s reading created all humans as equals, making the conservative commitment to hierarchy and deference un-biblical.

In the nineteenth century, American conservatives were able, for some time, to carry the proposition that their rights to private property in slaves was more important than this principled commitment to egalitarianism in the Declaration of Independence.  Hoping that slavery, if not segregation, were long forgotten, twentieth-century conservatives intoned that “[f]or the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law….”  This from noted American conservative Russell Kirk. (Read more.)  You will look long and hard and still not find any self-professed liberal in the United States who will utter such an explicit paean to social hierarchy.

Then, of course, everyone’s favorite twentieth-century American conservative, William F. Buckley, explicitly defended the “right” of white majorities to subject African Americans to racial segregation.  (Read more.)  Hierarchy indeed.

Yep, you read that right.  The next time some self-styled conservative tries to tell you that liberals are a bunch of latte-drinking elitists, ask her/him about ol’ Russell Kirk and his “surviv[al] [of] orders and classes,” or Buckley, “the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro.”

Funny, isn’t it, that those who value orders and classes are always at the top of both. 

Should we really be all that surprised that the old white guys who are accustomed to running the place would try to pull of such an impressive act of political projection in order to conceal their own commitment to hierarchy?  They’re petrified that the former subordinates, once they become the numerical majority, as they are well on their way to doing, will turn and treat the former masters as the former masters treated them.  I hope not, but I shan’t shed any tears should it come to pass.

©2011 Dr. William Turner. Visit his web site

Click here to see our series of posters about the crazy liberal ideas that have made America what it is today

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