Eight years ago, Fr. Jape examined a Yale Law Review article staking out the next frontier in Enlightenment. Excerpt:

Some militant secularists, especially militant feminists, have recently argued that the law’s tolerance of religious practices is too broad. Madhavi Sunder sets out the theory quite clearly in her recent Yale Law Journal article “Piercing the Veil.” Several blogs (CacciaguidaTurnabout, and Legal Fiction) have noted the radical nature of Sunder’s claims and the threat or non-threat they pose to religious liberty, but this approach misses the really interesting parts of Sunder’s argument. She argues, bluntly, that “law has a problem with religion.” And the problem, according to Sunder, is not “religion qua religion,” but rather it is law itself, which is “premised on a centuries-old Enlightenment compromise that justified reason in the public sphere by allowing deference to religious despotism in the private,” thus allowing religion to remain “a sovereign, extralegal jurisdiction in which inequality is not only accepted, but expected.” This compromise creates what Sunder calls “the New Sovereignty,” against which she sets her hope on “the New Enlightenment:” individuals who “seek reason, equality, and liberty not just in the public sphere, but also in the private spheres of religion, culture, and family” and thus seek to “pierce the veil of religious sovereignty.” Sunder’s greatest complaint is that the “fundamentalists and traditionalists” are using an old compromise intended to modernize the world as a bludgeon against the new modernizers: “contemporary fundamentalists are using law to buttress authoritarian and patriarchal claims against the challenges of the New Enlightenment.”

Sunder’s New Enlightenment consists of those who have rejected both the public/private dichotomy of the Old Enlightenment and the private relativism such a split engenders. Instead, they insist on “reason, choice, liberty, and equality within their religious and cultural communities.” They demand not only the “right to religion” but the “right to choice within those confines.” Sunder’s New Enlightenment is, in fact, the ideology of choice pushed to its furthest extreme. Her primary objection is that in the status quo there is no “right to contest cultural or religious norms from within”–no “right to religion or culture on one’s own terms”–no “choice within culture” or religion. “In short,” Sunder concludes, law requires us “to choose between religion and rights.” In response, the New Enlightenment is “demanding an individual right to construct one’s identity, not just without religious and cultural community, but also within it.” (Remember young Haley Waldman’s mother?) Thus, the New Enlightenment is refusing “to choose between religion and rights.”

And so the ideology of choice is brought full circle. When choice and the right to construct one’s own identity is made the very ground of our existence, without reference at all to any external authority, it fills the whole universe, consuming all choices, and finally, consuming choice itself so that even the freedom to choose what we have chosen against must be ours. Sunder’s New Enlightenment is the latest and perhaps most poignant version of the Ouroboros, the Gnostic symbol of self-realization, a serpent devouring its own tail.

I am reminded of this passage from the Economist essay I quoted here yesterday. The Economist is quoting below from a report by Nordic governments praising their societies’ approach to egalitarianism and individualism. Excerpt:

“Though the path hasn’t always been straight, one can discern over the course of the twentieth century an overarching ambition in the Nordic countries not to socialize the economy but to liberate the individual citizen from all forms of subordination and dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, the workers from their employers, wives from their husbands, children from parents – and vice versa when the parents become elderly…legislation has made the Nordic countries into the least family-dependent and most individualized societies on the face of the earth. To be sure, the family remains a central social institution in the Nordic countries, but it too is infused with the same moral logic stressing autonomy and equality. The ideal family is made up of adults who work and are not financially dependent on the other, and children who are encouraged to be as independent as early as possible.”

Remember that this paper is not some airy-fairy exercise: it was written for Davos and endorsed by the Nordic governments. It goes on to suggest that there is such a thing as a “Swedish theory of love”, which believes:

“authentic relationships of love and friendship are only possible between individuals who do not depend on each other or stand in unequal power relations. Thus autonomy, equality and (statist) individualism are inextricably linked to each other.”

This is what James Kalb, in his philosophically deep book “The Tyranny of Liberalism,”  calls the ideology of “equal freedom” — giving everyone what he wants, as much and as equally as possible. This is the regnant ideology in contemporary America. Kalb writes:

The incremental style of liberalism obscures the radicalism of what it eventually demands and enables it always to present itself as moderate. What is called progress—in effect, movement to the left—is thought normal in present-day society, so to stand in its way, let alone to try to reverse accepted changes, is thought radical and divisive. We have come to accept that what was inconceivable last week is mainstream today and altogether basic tomorrow. The result is that the past is increasingly discredited, deviancy is defined up or down, and it becomes incredible that, for instance, until 1969 high school gun-club members took their guns to school on New York City subways, and that in 1944 there were only forty-four homicides by gunshot in the entire city.

Human life is harder to change than are proclaimed social standards. It is easier to denounce gender stereotypes than to make little boys and little girls the same. The triumph of liberalism in public discussion and the consequent disappearance of openly avowed nonliberal principles has led the outlook officially established to embody liberal views ever more completely and at the same time to diverge more and more from the permanent conditions of human life. The result has been a growing conflict between public standards and the normal human understandings that make commonsense judgments and good human relations possible.

The conflict between public standards and normal understandings has transformed and disordered such basic aspects of social life as politics, which depends on free and rational discussion; the family, which counts on a degree of harmony between public understandings and natural human tendencies; and scholarship, which relies on complex formal rules while attempting to explain reality. As a consequence, family life is chaotic and ill-tempered; young people are badly instructed and badly raised; politics are irrational, trivial, and mindlessly partisan; and scholarship is shoddy and disconnected from normal experience. Terms such as “zero tolerance” and “political correctness” reveal how an official outlook deeply at odds with normal ways of thinking has become oppressive while claiming to have reached an unprecedented level of fairness and rationality.

In a society that claims to be based on free speech and reason, intelligent discussion of many aspects of life has become all but impossible. Such a state of affairs is no passing fluke but a serious matter resulting from basic principles. It is the outcome of rationalizing and egalitarian trends that over time have become ever more self-conscious and all-embracing until they now make normal informal distinctions—for example, those between the sexes—seem intolerably arbitrary and unfair. Those trends have led to the politically correct managerial liberal regime that now dominates Western public life and makes demands that more and more people find unreasonable and even incomprehensible.

What defines that regime is the effort to manage and rationalize social life in order to bring it in line with comprehensive standards aimed at implementing equal freedom. The result is a pattern of governance intended to promote equality and individual gratification and marked by entitlement programs, sexual and expressive freedoms, blurred distinctions between the public and the private, and the disappearance of self-government. To implement such a program of social transformation an extensive system of controls over social life has grown up, sometimes public and sometimes formally private, that appeals for its justification to expertise, equity, safety, security, and the need to modify social attitudes and relationships in order to eliminate discrimination and intolerance.

The last are never clearly defined, but in practice they turn out to include all attitudes and distinctions that affect the order of social life but cannot be brought fully in line with market or bureaucratic principles, and so from the standpoint of those principles are simply irrational. “Discrimination and intolerance” are thus held to include those attitudes, habits, and ties—sex roles, historical loyalties, authoritative cultural understandings, religious commitments and teachings—on which independent, informal, traditional, and nonmarket institutions and arrangements normally rely in order to function and endure.

Because such arrangements operate on principles that are regarded as irrational, and because they are difficult to supervise and control in the interest of rationality and equal freedom, they have no place in advanced liberal society and are edged out as the social order progresses. The normal functioning of the institutions of liberal society has precisely that effect. Social-welfare programs reduce the need for institutions and ties other than the state bureaucracy and various market and contractual arrangements, while “inclusiveness” abolishes the relation between the workings of society and any specific religious, cultural, or sexual standards. Only rational formal institutions remain functional and authoritative. What were once traditional social institutions with definite form, function, and authority become personal pursuits that each can make of what he wishes so long as all others remain free to participate or abstain as they will. Marriage and family are replaced by “relationships” and “living together”; religion becomes a freeform pursuit of individual fulfillment; and inherited culture becomes an optional consumer good, a matter of personal style or group assertiveness.

Such tendencies make it impossible to deal reasonably on their own terms with issues of identity, such as sex, kinship, ethnicity, and religion. Those distinctions play no role in the liberal understanding of rational social functioning, so they are understood as pure principles of irrational opposition and hatred: absolute, unbridgeable, and impossible to reconcile with a peaceful, just, and efficient social order. The consequence is that they must effectively be abolished—trivialized, conceptually dissolved, canceled through reverse discrimination, or kept from entering into thought at all.

We are going to have Scandinavian-style equal freedom in America, and the state is going to give it to us good and hard, no matter who or what it has to roll over to achieve it.