David Brooks writes about our age of anxiety:

Fear is an emotion directed at a specific threat, but anxiety is an unfocused corrosive uneasiness. In the age of small terror this anxiety induces a sense that the basic systems of authority are not working, that those in charge are not keeping people safe.

People are more likely to have a background sense that life is nastier and more precarious — red in tooth and claw. They pull in the tribal walls and distrust the outsider. This anxiety makes everybody a little less humane.

In country after country this anxiety is challenging the liberal order. I mean philosophic Enlightenment liberalism, not partisan liberalism. It’s the basic belief in open society, free speech, egalitarianism and meliorism (gradual progress). It’s a belief that through reasoned conversation values cohere and fanaticism recedes. It’s the belief that people of all creeds merit tolerance and respect.

Emphasis mine. Brooks goes on to say that “the surge of anti-liberalism has meant one of the most important political fissures is now between those who support an open society and those who support a closed society.” And he says this anti-liberalism has been most notable on the Right. More:

It’s up to us who believe in open society to wage an intellectual counterattack. This can’t be done be repeating 1990s bromides about free choice and the natural harmony among peoples. You can’t beat moral fanaticism with weak tea moral relativism.

You can only beat it with commitment pluralism. People are only fulfilled when they make deep moral commitments. The danger comes when they are fanatically and monopolistically committed to only one thing.

The pluralist is committed to a philosophy or faith, but also to an ethnicity and also to a city, and also to a job and also to diverse interests and fascinating foreign cultures. These different commitments balance and moderate one another. A life in diverse worlds with diverse people weaves together into one humane, multifaceted existence. The rigidity of one belief system is forced to confront the messiness of work relationships or a neighborhood association.

Read the whole thing.  I have a few comments on it.

First, it is certainly true that anti-liberalism has been most prominent on the Right, but if Brooks is interested in defending a belief in “reasoned conversation,” and “tolerance” as fundamentally liberal values, I would love to see him make that case on college campuses — in particular at Yale, where until recently he taught a class. It is fine to speak critically of the illiberalism of someone like Donald Trump, but the illiberalism of college students and the administrators who encourage it, either actively or passively, is bound to have far more serious consequences for the country than a long-shot presidential candidate.

Similarly, it is hard for me to think of a more illiberal movement in our cultural politics than the gay rights movement and its fellow travelers in politics, law, media, academia, and big business. I’ve been writing about this for a long time, and in great detail, so I won’t walk into those weeds here. Conservative Christians individuals, business owners, and institutions know perfectly well what the advance in gay rights and the retreat of religious liberty means for them, and will mean for them, in post-Christian America.

“They pull in the tribal walls and distrust the outsider. This anxiety makes everybody a little less humane,” says Brooks, of the anxious. Well, why shouldn’t they? Last year, I had conversations with several law professors and administrators at Christian schools, all of whom said that the fast-advancing jurisprudence on gay rights is forcing Christian institutions to draw and defend hard doctrinal lines.

One headmaster with whom I spoke told me his school is struggling over whether to follow the advice of their lawyers and adopt a hardline policy on accepting homosexual students, or students with gay parents, or to take a more “pastoral” line within the theologically conservative framework of the school. The headmaster and the school’s leadership clearly wanted to take the pastoral path, but they had been told by their lawyers that doing so opened them up to lawsuits that could result in losing control over the overall direction of the school.

The point is, conservative Christians are right to be fearful and anxious about this stuff, because it’s going to cost them their institutions, their livelihoods, and even their jobs.  There is going to be very little tolerance and no respect for them in the fast-emerging order. Pulling in the tribal walls is plain common sense when the tribe is under attack.

Similarly, when working-class people are losing their jobs and their financial security because of de-industrialization and the kind of policies promoted by liberals (= classical liberals, Republicans and Democrats alike), why shouldn’t they “distrust the outsiders” who are attacking their sense of stability? Being mistrustful of the people who will do you and your tribe harm if they have their way is not a character flaw.

Since the first of the year, the stock market has staggered downhill. In 2007-08, when the economy crashed, there was an immense amount of widespread economic pain. Did people see the Wall Street bigs who made hundreds of billions building a “heads we win, tails you lose” system pay for what they did? Of course not. Why, exactly, should ordinary people trust the financial and political leaders of this country to be good, just stewards of the common good?

And while we’re at it, of all those who led us into the Iraq War, whose career has suffered? Who has been held responsible? In the Catholic Church, whose failure of leadership led to incalculable spiritual damage, to say nothing of a dramatic degradation of the Church’s moral authority, how many bishops were held to account by the Church for their failures? Do you really trust the police and the courts? And on and on.

Look, I’m not asking these things to be a noodge. My point is simply that people’s anxieties these days are often (but not always!) justified by the facts on the ground. I have proposed the Benedict Option — a pulling-inward — in part because I am convinced that the coming decades are going to be very hard for small-o orthodox Christians in the West, and we will need each other for support — and I have reason to believe this.

I have proposed the Ben Op mostly because fundamental forces stand to eliminate orthodox Christianity. These forces include radical individualism, globalism, hedonism, materialism, skepticism, and … well, the forces that created the modern world, and in so doing brought us many wonderful things. The forces of liberalism, which have the effect of depriving us of our past for the sake of freeing us to make our own future. But we are at a time in which that liberalism, and the radical autonomy upon which it is premised, appears unsustainable. As political theorist Patrick Deneen has written:

Liberalism thus begins a project by which the legitimacy of all human relationships—beginning with, but not limited to, political bonds—becomes increasingly subject to the criterion of whether or not they have been chosen, and chosen upon the basis of their service to rational self-interest.

Liberalism often claims neutrality about the choices people make in liberal society; it is the defender of “Right,” not of any particular conception of the “Good.”

Yet it is not neutral about the basis on which people make their decisions. In the same way that courses in economics claiming merely to describe human beings as utility-maximizing individual actors in fact influence students to act more selfishly, so liberalism teaches a people to hedge commitments and adopt flexible relationships and bonds. Not only are all political and economic relationships fungible and subject to constant redefinition, but so are all relationships—to place, to neighborhood, to nation, to family, and to religion. Liberalism tends to encourage loose connections.

The second revolution, and the second anthropological assumption that constitutes liberalism, is less visibly political. Premodern political thought—ancient and medieval, particularly that informed by an Aristotelian understanding of natural science—understood the human creature to be part of a comprehensive natural order. Man was understood to have a telos, a fixed end, given by nature and unalterable. Human nature was continuous with the order of the natural world, and so humanity was required to conform both to its own nature as well as, in a broader sense, to the natural order of which human beings were a part. Human beings could freely act against their own nature and the natural order, but such actions deformed them and harmed the good of human beings and the world. Aristotle’s Ethics and Aquinas’ Summa Theologica are alike efforts to delineate the limits that nature—thus, natural law—places upon human beings, and each seeks to educate man about how best to live within those limits, through the practice of virtues, in order to achieve a condition of human flourishing.

Liberal philosophy rejected this requirement of human self-limitation. It first displaced the idea of a natural order to which humanity is subject and thereafter the very notion of human nature itself. Liberalism inaugurated a transformation in the natural and human sciences, premised on the transformation of the view of human nature and on humanity’s relationship to the natural world.

Could it be that liberalism has run its course? That it is unsustainable because it does not suit human nature? And/or, could it be that we cannot run a stable society that is radically pluralistic without a widely-shared basic set of assumptions that bound our choices? As I understand it, that is the gist of Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of liberalism.

To be clear, I agree with David that we must figure out how to get along in a condition of pluralism. That is what we Americans live in now, whether we like it or not. Besides, as a Christian, I am a believer in a religion that obliges me to love others, not to hate them, even if they are hateful. This is very, very hard to do, especially in an age of anxiety — and it is one reason why we Christians need strong communities committed to the orthodox, Biblical faith, versus the weak-tea theological and moral relativism of the Moralistic Therapeutic Deist churches. The Civil Rights marchers didn’t find the strength to face down Bull Connor, and to return hatred with love, from the pseudo-Christianity we call MTD. I want to be strong enough to stand up for what is right, and to stand against my own temptations to give in to fear and hatred — and I know I am not strong enough to do it on my own. As I see it, churches and Christian communities that practice the Benedict Option will do so to remember their (our) own stories, and to strengthen each other through the present and coming trials, which will wipe out all the MTD churches — but also be there to welcome those escaping the maelstrom and the plague. Because that’s what Christians do.

But I digress. The main point I wanted to make in answering David’s column is to say that it’s all well and good to talk about recommitting to classical liberal values, but people like me hear that kind of talk and think it’s language that cloaks an agenda that disempowers us, and tells us that we deserve it, that really, there could be no other reasonable way to live.

Here’s what I mean. The Catholic lawyer James Kalb wrote a very good book a few years ago, called The Tyranny of Liberalism. Despite the talk-radio-ish title, it’s a philosophically serious book. Again, by “liberalism,” he is not talking only about the general philosophy of the Democratic Party, but rather the rationale governing our politics and culture since the Enlightenment. Here is an excerpt of an excerpt:

Tyranny is not, of course, what liberals have intended. They want government to be based on equal freedom, which they see as the only possible goal of a just and rational public order. But the functioning of any form of political society is determined more by the logic of its principles than the intentions of its supporters. Liberals view themselves as idealistic and progressive, but such a self-image conceals dangers even if it is not wholly illusory. It leads liberals to ignore considerations, like human nature and fundamental social and religious traditions, that have normally been treated as limits on reform. Freedom and equality are abstract, open-ended, and ever-ramifying goals that can be taken to extremes. Liberals tend to view these goals as a simple matter of justice and rationality that prudential considerations may sometimes delay but no principle can legitimately override. In the absence of definite limiting principles, liberal demands become more and more far-reaching and the means used to advance them ever more comprehensive, detailed, and intrusive.

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.


Many people find something deeply oppressive about the resulting situation, but no one really knows what to say about it. Some complain about those general restrictions, like political correctness, which make honest and productive discussion of public affairs impossible. Others have more concrete and personal objections. Parents are alarmed by the indoctrination of their children. Many people complain about affirmative action, massive and uncontrolled immigration, and the abolition of the family as a distinct social institution publicly recognized as fundamental and prior to the state. Still others have the uneasy sense that the world to which they are attached and which defines who they are is being taken from them.

Nonetheless, these victims and their complaints get no respect and little media coverage. Their discontent remains inarticulate and obscure. People feel stifled, but cannot say just how. They make jokes or sarcastic comments, but when challenged have trouble explaining and defending themselves. The disappearance of common understandings that enable serious thought and action to be carried on by nonexperts and outside formal bureaucratic structures has made it hard even to think about the issues coherently. The result is a system of puzzled compliance. However ineffective the schools become, educators feel compelled to inculcate multicultural platitudes rather than to promote substantive learning. No matter how silly people find celebrations of “diversity,” they become ever more frequent and surround themselves ever more insistently with happy talk.

Attempts to challenge the liberal hegemony occasionally emerge but always fail. No challenge seems possible when all social authorities that might compete with bureaucracy, money, and expertise have been discredited, co-opted, or radically weakened. When populist complaints make their half-articulate way into public life they are recognized as dangerous to the established order, debunked as ignorant and hateful, and quickly diverted or suppressed. Proponents of the standards now current always have the last word. Freedom, equality, and neutral expertise are the basis of those standards, and when discussion is put on that ground it is difficult to argue for anything contrary. Rejection of equal freedom and of expertise is oppressive and ignorant by definition, so how could it possibly be justified?

At bottom, the problem with the standards that now govern public life is that they deny natural human tendencies and so require constant nagging interference in all aspects of life. They lead to a denatured society that does not work and does not feel like home. A standard liberal response to such objections is that our reactions are wrong: we should accept what we are told by those who know better. Expertise must rule. Social attitudes, habits, and connections, it is said, are not natural but constructed. They are continually revised and reenacted, their function and significance change with circumstances, and their meaning is a matter of interpretation and choice. It follows that habits and attitudes that seem solidly established and even natural cannot claim respect apart from their conformity with justice—which, if prejudice and question-begging are to be avoided, can only be defined as equality. All habits and attitudes must be conformed to egalitarianism and expertise. To object would be bigoted or ignorant.

This. Exactly this. And this too:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.

I sort of agree with David Brooks about “commitment pluralism,” as a practical way to live together in the condition of pluralism. But given the actual realities of who holds power and how they wield it, being the sort of person President Obama once derided as a “bitter clinger” as a rational response to those who want to take away things that are very dear — faith, family, livelihood, among others — and call it progress. What happens when your commitment to one belief or institution radically conflicts with your commitment to another, or others? Something’s got to give. In my own case, my faith, my family, and my local community will always and everywhere take precedence — and if not, may I repent.

The problem in America today is that we have made it impossible for the center to hold, and complain that people will not hold on to the center.