Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Compelled Compassion

To realize the shared vision of the good society we must nurture trust, maintain law and order, and be unafraid to condemn depraved conduct.
Denver Post Archives

There is a fundamental and fundamentally appealing insight at the heart of left-liberalism, as distinguished from classical liberalism or libertarianism, namely, that human societies should be caring and nurturing, integrating more and more of us into the fold, extending a helping hand to those who are struggling, distributing social goods widely rather than narrowly, calibrating their structures to the interests of the many rather than the few. This global insight, this preference, is one that those who occupy the opposite end of the political spectrum from left-liberals generally share. I am speaking here, again, not of libertarian “conservatives” of the “greed is good” Randian sort, but rather, Burkean traditionalists or common-good conservatives, people who actually care about their communities and see those around them as something more than means to each individual’s personal ends.

Although these divergent constituencies agree on the general parameters of what a good society is all about, they often find themselves disagreeing profoundly on the details. Those disagreements, I contend, are more often than not consequences of the fact that there lies at the very heart of left-liberalism a devastating internal tension or contradiction: By seeking to deploy the power of centralized authority to bring a welfare state into being and to give legal force to the sundry policy preferences crowded under the social justice umbrella, left-liberals necessarily undermine the very kinds of organic communal bonds of trust and affection that are indispensable to bringing their own vision of the ideal good society to fruition.

In his classic 1966 work, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, the American sociologist Philip Rieff distinguished between “positive communities,” which aspire toward collective salvation or, more modestly, the attainment of “the good life,” and negative communities, in which the individual merely requires the larger community to fulfill his own needs and ensure his survival. Rieff’s contemporary, the great theorist of community and fellow sociologist Robert Nisbet, made a similar distinction between a functional community and a mere mass, viz., “an aggregate of individuals who are insecure, basically lonely, and ground down…into mere particles of social dust.”

Traditional societies, Rieff argued, cured the sundry discontents and maladies that might come to befall individuals by integrating or re-integrating the individual into the collective through the enactment of various socially sanctioned practices and rituals. For the traditional approach to work, however, there must exist a broadly compelling set of communal norms and values. A culture imposes a set of demands upon individuals, demands that inherently require suppression of certain manifestations of individual self-expression. Inevitably, this entails sexual normalization, that is, a conforming of libidinal desires to prevailing norms for the sake of maintaining communal harmony. And, just as inevitably, it entails the sacrifice of certain facets of individual identity that are very familiar to us today—race and ethnicity and nonconformist religious and political beliefs—for the sake of the health of the larger collective. When everything is working as it should, these exercises in self-effacement are not subjectively experienced as great burdens by individual citizens. Rather, they are sublimated into readily available releases the culture builds in for this very purpose. Individuals, thus, see the successful pursuit of self-mastery as a moral triumph, the attainment of a character ideal.

“A culture,” Rieff concludes, “survives principally…by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood.” It is the job of cultural elites to transmit their culture’s system of moral demands by “exemplifying those demands in their character and behavior.” Steered by such elites, “books and parading, prayers and the sciences, music and piety toward parents … are a few of the many instruments” that serve to “unite men and permit them the fundamental pleasure of agreement.” When it is molded in this manner, the individual “self” is not sacrificed at all; it is, rather, created by the community, “direct[ed]…outward, toward those communal purposes in which alone [it] can be realized and satisfied.” But when elites lose faith in their own culture’s system of values, the cultural fabric may begin to fray, and a juncture may arrive when a culture’s releases become more compelling than its moral demands:

At the breaking point, a culture can no longer maintain itself as an established span of moral demands. Its jurisdiction contracts; it demands less, permits more. Bread and circuses become confused with right and duty. Spectacle becomes a functional substitute for sacrament. Massive regressions occur, with large sections of the population returning to levels of destructive aggression historically accessible to it.


Most pre-Enlightenment societies valued obedience to governing communal norms over individual self-expression. The Enlightenment brought the individual to the world’s stage and began to valorize, at least to an extent, the individual’s need to break free of the collective in order to cultivate his unique personality, interests, talents and desires. But in the second half of the 20th century, post-Enlightenment individualism went into overdrive. The U.S., a nation of outcasts and nonconformists full of immigrants and descendants of immigrants fleeing from various forms of repression in their lands of origin, had always belted out a brash “Song of Myself” rendered in a mélange of non-harmonizing voices. Even against that background, the explosive counterculture that emerged in the 1960s and that overran the establishment in later decades represented a whole different order of magnitude. The ’60s generation rebelled against a post-war culture of self-sacrifice, social cohesion, and conformity seen as stifling to individual expression, and elevated instead the imperatives of the sacred self. Despite the superficially opposed political valences of these respective eras, from what is aptly called a counterculture in the name of self-expression in the ’60s to the “Me” decade of the Reagan ’80s was a natural transition, as Christopher Caldwell has recently argued.

In more recent decades, self-expression has only become a still-more-inviolable sphere. If the ’60s was all about ditching the well-arranged bouquet and letting the self flower free of society’s moral demands, and the ’80s was all about accumulating more for yours truly, then the ’90s and beyond brought a total inversion of the once-governing order of things: No longer did the community have the right to demand anything of us; it is now we, a generation of coddled children unable to cope with adversity, who make demands of the community. Rather than our surrendering our particularity, allowing ourselves to be absorbed into the general stream of our society’s culture and to be reshaped in accordance with the communal conception of “the Good,” we began to demand that culture, in the widespread contemporary vernacular, “speak to us” and “affirm us” individually and exactly as we were.

In lieu of an older ethos in which the self was more or less harmoniously absorbed into the identity of the larger group, the self became the locus for the assumption, accumulation, and expression of multifarious group identities, each of which represented another potential arrow in our quiver, another set of demands we could make upon the commonwealth. The critical race theorist Kimberlé Williams-Crenshaw’s concept of “intersectionality” captures this dynamic, in which individual selves become intersections at which various identities collide. The more spectacular the resulting wreckage, the greater the individual’s neediness and concomitant status in our new social hierarchy. Thus, instead of leading the way in modeling a noble ethic of self-control and self-sacrifice for the sake of something bigger and better than the satisfaction of our individual desires, our elites and intellectuals led the slide into a full-on culture of narcissism, as Christopher Lasch put it.

Rieff understood the significance of this development as foreclosing the very possibility of society as such: “That such large numbers of the cultivated and intelligent have identified themselves deliberately with those who are supposed to have no love for instinctual self-renunciation…suggests to me the most elaborate act of suicide that Western intellectuals have ever staged.” Here was the giving way of positive community to negative community, community relegated to a mere pool of material and moral resources that the individual could draw upon to enhance and enrich the self, even as our most accustomed expression became a sidelong squint of envy and suspicion: “This culture, which once imagined itself inside a church, feels trapped in something like a zoo of separate cages. Modern men are like Rilke’s panther, forever looking out from one cage into another.” Once the organic bond of communal fellow feeling had been strained to the breaking point and beyond by individualism run riot, any attempt to level out disparities or forge a more generous, compassionate and inclusive society would look increasingly zero-sum, a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Needless to say, Peter would be unlikely to give up his stash and status without a fight. The state would be required to step in to force his hand, as the economist Friedrich Hayek observed: “To undertake the direction of the economic life of people with widely divergent ideals and values is to assume responsibilities which commit one to the use of force.” As Hayek understood, the resort to state coercion, in turn, would lead to a further fraying of social bonds: “While people will submit to suffering which may hit anyone, they will not so easily submit to suffering which is the result of the decision of authority…. Dissatisfaction of everybody with his lot will inevitably grow with the consciousness that it is the result of deliberate human decision.” The more we exercise state power to remake society in the image of some contestable conception of “social justice,” which Hayek calls “a mirage, being both vague and premised on a consensus of value that is impossible” in modern-day liberal states, the more we undermine the traditional economic and social structures of which are forged functional communities in which the welfare of others is naturally a matter of common concern.

The irony of our story here in the West reaches a still higher fever pitch when we bring contemporary identity politics into the picture. With identity politics, a fundamentally narcissistic and militant conception of the self marches out onto the battlefield under crisscrossing, and sometimes dueling, banners of “oppression” and begins tossing out cluster bombs in purported furtherance of inclusion, solidarity and compassion. The all-guns-glazing barrage against traditional society and its moral, religious and sexual norms and orthodoxies and the frontal assault on whatever groups are perceived as standing in the way of “progress” reify new identities on all sides, drive further social fissures and leave a culture fragmented and individuals alienated from one another and from any sense of the whole.

The practice of identity politics, thus, gives rise to a vicious cycle. An identity-based campaign devoted to the interests of individuals sharing characteristic X leads to a similar identity-based awakening on the part of all individuals to whom characteristic X is in any way salient. This includes those, of course, who already have a generally pro-X or generally anti-X mindset, but it also includes those who, whether possessing or not possessing X themselves, might have never given much thought to X before. They are mobilized from merely possessing X to becoming full-fledged Xers or from merely not-X to anti-X. Still others may see in the practice of the Xers an opportunity to mount their own parallel campaign devoted to the cause of Y. And so it goes. Identities metastasize, people polarize and society devolves to a rabble of individuals grouped into warring tribes, each pursuing its own interest masked by fine-sounding labels like “social justice.” Far from the more generous, compassionate, and inclusive community that the proponents of identity politics may have envisioned, the end-result of this process is a total breakdown in the stabilizing social structures that make community as such possible.


To make these points is not to suggest in any way that all traditional societies of the sort Philip Rieff contrasts favorably with their present-day successors exemplifying an ethos of rampant individualism were invariably marvelous places in which we would want to live. Nor could we return to that pre-modern age even if we tried. And yet there remains a critical difference between societies that retain a measure of their communitarian ancestry and those that have completely surrendered to the kind of self-indulgent narcissism that prevails in the West. While we may not be willing or even able to re-create a feudal kingdom or classical polis in our midst, it is not beyond all imagining to suppose that there might still emerge among us a culture collectively committed to something more noble than catering to the whims of individuals intent on being pleased, a culture collectively committed to the pursuit of some widely shared vision of the good life, a holy city, a city on a hill, not a city of sows.

“Compassionate communities, as distinct from welfare states, exist only where there is a rich symbolic life, shared, and demanding of the self a hard line limiting the range of desires,” Rieff writes, bringing to light a key nuance to which many left-liberals remain blind. Like left-liberals, common-good conservatives want to live in a nation in which the poor, the sick, the disabled, and most of those who find themselves afflicted with misfortune are treated humanely, a nation in which opportunities are distributed far and wide and not reserved for big corporations, the rich, the powerful, or those of any particular race or ethnicity, a nation that judges people based on their character, not their unchosen characteristics, a nation in which our natural environment is pristine and in which our human environment, our architecture and our arts, are beautiful and vibrant.

But what common-good conservatives understand, and what many left-liberals fail to appreciate, is that in order to realize this shared vision of the good society, we must also nurture interpersonal trust, maintain law and order in our cities and towns, be unafraid to condemn conduct that we view as morally or sexually depraved, expect the observance of basic interpersonal courtesy in accordance with our governing norms and reasonable modesty in dress and behavior, and, most importantly, be all right with the understanding that though we give people the latitude to make free choices, we, like all nations, have our default settings, which require their due respect. This means that both those who live here and legal immigrants who come to these shores obey our laws, assimilate into our culture, and learn our language, our customs and traditions, and our history. It means that though there is no official religion of the American State, there remains a principal religion that is practiced here, and our culture and institutions are unapologetic reflections of that fact. It means that though we are kind and generous enough to tolerate some alternative lifestyles discreetly conducted in our midst, this domain too has its traditional defaults and its outer limits. And it means that though we welcome open public debate and historical inquiry, we will not give a free pass to intellectual vandals who want to coopt our schools and other institutions to inculcate hatred of America, sexualize or radicalize our children, and lead them to question the default settings we venerate.

Common-good conservatives understand that if we abide by these general norms, we will nurture a society to which compassion comes naturally, as a direct consequence of living in a truly shared polity. Although there will always be those few at the outermost margins who will undoubtedly feel unduly restricted in such a society and who may feel more comfortable elsewhere, most of us, even most who are outliers in one or more respects, will find that a secure nation confident in its national identity can tolerate a fair measure of dissent and ambiguity and has no need to engineer harsh crackdowns against small slights and harmless deviations from settled norms. It is precisely that sense of a settled, secure national identity that left-liberals have undermined by waging a series of ill-conceived crusades on our traditions in the name of individual self-determination. Having unmoored us from our cultural foundations, made us unable to expect decency and civility from one another, and destroyed our basic sense of mutual trust, left-liberals are left with no choice but to resort to state power and heavy-handed propaganda, censorship, and coercion via major institutions to force us to abide by new, alien customs, laws, and codes of behavior.

All this is in a misdirected effort to compel the compassion that would emerge organically where all is working as it should. This is the difference between Rieff’s “compassionate community” and the contemporary left-liberal “welfare state,” one in which, instead of a helping hand readily extended to neighbors in need, benefits are begrudgingly conferred even as we seethe at one another from behind locked doors. This is no way to live. Our society is rapidly reaching a breaking point. We have a simple choice: we can stand by, let the final calamity unfold and see what, if anything, is left behind in the wreckage. Or else we can wake up, grasping the urgency of the moment, realizing that there yet remains so much worth salvaging, and start working tirelessly, day and night, for the common good, to remake this fraying nation into a small-town, big-tent America where neighbors from across the way and across the land can unlock their gates, leave their bunkers, and step out onto safe city streets and winding country lanes to greet each other with open arms once again.

Alexander Zubatov is a practicing attorney specializing in general commercial litigation. He is also a practicing writer specializing in general non-commercial poetry, fiction, essays, and polemics that have been featured in a wide variety of publications. He lives in the belly of the beast in New York, New York. He can be found on Twitter @Zoobahtov.



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