Pandemic aside, no issue of the past year has become more reviled on the American right than critical race theory, the progressive educational paradigm at the center of a vehement vocal and electoral uproar nationwide. Conservative politicians have been quick to serve up critical race theory as proof of an ever-radicalizing left, most notable among these Glenn Youngkin during his victorious march to the Virginia governorship.
Sparking political action from Florida to the Washington D.C. suburbs, this opposition has been largely homogeneous in sentiment: Critical race theory must be banned, not only because it teaches falsehoods about American history and systemic racism, but also because such lies present an active danger to the health of the polity.
To be sure, even the most cursory disapproval of critical race theory is justified. The right’s opposition points beyond a simple squabble over education, however, indicating a deeper tension within the conservative movement—one at the level of foundational philosophy, first principles, and reality itself.
To witness this tension manifested we need to look no further than the popular prescription for handling critical race theory: using the arm of the state to blacklist, censor, and prevent its promulgation. Is it not the political right with which we associate concepts like “free speech,” “individual liberty,” and the “marketplace of ideas?” Censorship, even of things hostile to the American project, seems to run contrary to conservatism’s historic modus operandi.
Certainly an incompatibility exists: on one hand, the right’s affinity for personal autonomy; on the other, a desire to limit and restrict for the sake of the good. It is this dichotomy which reveals the underlying state of affairs.
The right is engaged in an internal war over freedom.
What is freedom? This is the question at the core of the matter. Indeed, the word is notorious on the right, titular at seemingly every conservative rally, student conference, and think tank initiative. And for the greater part of American history, conservatives have treated the word as monosemous—indicative of personal autonomy, laissez-faire policy, and the Gadsden flag. Still, the rejection of critical race theory—particularly on the grounds of its falsehood and depravity—suggests that there is something more to freedom than mere choice. Rather, it implies that true freedom resides not in unrestricted license, but in a state of being oriented towards objective goodness and truth.
Seeking to highlight this conflict, I posed the freedom question to Senator Ted Cruz and Daily Wire host Michael Knowles during an event at the Catholic University of America last October, asking each to give his definition of liberty. By juxtaposing their answers, the dichotomy can be made clear.
Knowles’ answer first: “Liberty is not the ability to do whatever you want to do, but rather the right to do what you ought to do…to have true freedom, we have to have some idea of what is good.”
Cruz, in response: “Liberty is the right to make your own choices in your own life…if you want to exercise your free will to be a sloth, or a drunkard, or to fritter away your life, you have the right to do that.”
One word, two radically different definitions. The contrast is striking. Yet this disagreement is nothing new. It is the American right’s iteration of a philosophical divide which has endured since the classical era: a debate, as distinguished by the Dominican friar Servais Pinckaers, between the “freedom of indifference” and the “freedom for excellence.”
Most prominent in America today is the freedom of indifference, the liberal tenet that freedom lies in choice and consent. This definition takes both negative and positive forms: a freedom from coercive force and a freedom to act as one pleases. It is fundamentally autonomous: You have a right to do whatever you want, so long as you maintain others’ ability to do the same. Indeed, it is this definition which largely underpins modern conservative politics, even for many conventional right-wingers like Cruz. Such is not surprising. The Enlightenment liberalism at the center of the American project is predicated upon this type of freedom. It is the freedom of indifference which gives us the conservative mantras “free markets, free people” and “don’t tread on me,” but so too the leftist slogan “my body, my choice.”
Long has this liberal conception of freedom reigned supreme in America, from the pages of John Locke’s treatises to the rhetoric of Planned Parenthood. As the heavy-handed response to critical race theory indicates, however, this definition is now encountering a resurgent alternative: the freedom for excellence.
Given rise in the classical era, the freedom for excellence rejects the notion that freedom lies in choice, arguing that it is instead found through participation in the transcendent good. It holds that man possesses a rational will higher than fickle emotions, one which finds fulfillment in those things conducive to his flourishing—goods ranging from basic nutrition to knowledge, family life, and ultimately to God, who is goodness itself. In this way, the student is made free not through exposure to an unrestricted free market of ideas, but through a targeted study and contemplation of those things objectively true and edifying.
Further, to act in contrast to the good is to be deceived and drawn away from freedom. In this way the heroin addict, supposedly free to partake as he pleases, is in fact enslaved by his addiction—controlled by his base appetites and the vices which inflame them. Here the major distinction between the two definitions is drawn out: while the freedom of indifference shirks any notion of personal limitation, the freedom for excellence sees such order as the very vehicle for its achievement.
Thus the American right finds itself in the midst of an internal war over freedom, a disagreement which cuts to the very nature of the human person. It is ultimately a pedagogical divide, one side favoring autonomy and choice, the other order and direction. Yet these two viewpoints are epistemologically incompatible, evidencing that the right today lacks any deep metaphysical cohesion.
So how might we respond to this conflict? At the base level, a certain amount of concern is justified. Any divide in the “big tent” will inevitably cause stagnation and cannibalization—particularly at the ballot box. At the macro scale, however, we ought to embrace the right’s war over freedom as beneficial, allowing it to challenge the old liberal consensus and serve as a catalyst to pursue a more complete understanding of the freedom question.
After all, we owe much of our modern social decay—normalized sexual licentiousness, corporate corruption, deceitful academic curricula, and the like—to the permissiveness and faux-neutrality of the freedom of indifference. To move away from the liberal definition would be to strike these issues at their philosophical roots.
Perhaps the right should make room for order and limitation within its conception of freedom, the response to critical race theory presenting an appropriate starting point. It will be a heavy lift—the liberal status quo is a stubborn thing—but one which, if successful, can yield a stronger conservatism grounded in a foundation both reflective of reality and aligned with human nature.
The opposition to critical race theory presents a key front in the right’s war over freedom, a place where the freedom for excellence has loudly returned to the fore. As such, let us use this resurgence as an opportunity to pursue a higher vision of the word, and in doing so lift our gazes to the ultimate truth and goodness it reflects. Certainly, our quest to remain the “land of the free” asks as much.
Samuel D. Samson is a writer working in Washington D.C. Sam’s work focuses on the intersection of contemporary politics with St. Thomas Aquinas’s natural law theory and classical teleology. You can follow him on Twitter @SamuelDSamson.