My definition of liberal education as the education of liberals no longer sounds provocative. Liberalism, having failed and failed disastrously in all its political experiments from church disestablishment to women’s suffrage to food stamps, still reigns triumphant, with hardly a rival, in the empty corridors of the Western mind. How failed? The church is disestablished, after all; women do vote; and the urban poor still clip the coupons that enable them to lead the life of the idle poor. But the announced intent of these policies was not to change a law or set up a program. Liberal projects always aim at the reformation of society and the amelioration of the human condition, and when the results turn out to be the opposite of the announced intentions, some group of dissident liberals on the make can always be found to criticize the “unintended consequences” of schemes they once favored.
Food stamps, most people will grant me: a program supposed to wean the poor from dependency and teach them the value of money has only succeeded in creating the class of welfare slaves who well might envy life on the old plantation. But the same conclusion can and ought to be applied to every other liberal policy of the past two centuries. Church disestablishment was to give us freedom of conscience and enable a more spiritual religious sense to grow. In fact, we have replaced the grave and beautiful superstitions of our ancestors with the coarse and stupid vulgarities of advice merchants like Dr. Susan Forward, and for the ceremonies of the church we have substituted the rituals of self-abuse: drugs, pornography, and advertising. Women’s suffrage—and all the other women’s liberation policies—have reduced women to the lowest social and moral plane on which human beings are known to have existed, and in the name of equality we have virtually decriminalized rape.
So far from admitting failure, liberals celebrate their defeats as victories. Their triumphalist mentality is not all hypocrisy, because it is the genius of liberalism to insure that each succeeding generation is dumber and less-educated than its predecessor, and after 100 years of liberal education the result is the so-called Generation X, whose historical sense has been shaped by Brady Bunch reruns on Nick at Nite and the oldies stations their almost equally obtuse parents listen to as they dream of golden days in the sunshine of their 60’s youth.
To plumb the shallows of the liberal mind does not require any extensive research. You do not have to take the trouble to read the editorial pages of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Just find a newspaper with the only section worth reading—the funnies—and look at “Doonesbury,” the sclerotic epitome of 60’s liberalism. The past few weeks, Mr. Trudeau has been boosting the work of a Yale professor who claims to have discovered evidence for homosexual marriage in the early Church. What, you are shocked? Everybody knows that the Old Testament Jews abhorred buggery and that St. Paul regarded the practice of sodomy not so much as a vice in itself but as a terrible punishment visited upon idolatrous pagans. What sort of “evidence” could stand against the unanimous sentence of Christians everywhere at all times? Since, according to heterosexual historians, these queer marriages were only pledges of friendship and loyalty, a well-known practice in medieval Europe, such a perversion of scholarship should stand little chance of influencing mainstream (i.e., liberal) opinion.
Christians used to say the same thing about patriarchy and women in the clergy, and it was not long before “scholars” were found to “discover” that, yes, there were priestesses in the early Church, the Earth is flat, and the sun rises in the West. Liberals, because of their ideological commitments, cannot do science or scholarship, because they are unwilling to concede that facts might possibly contradict their worldview. Why else do they fall for the patent silliness of postrationalist literary theory: deconstruction, reader response, and feminist discourse? As deconstructionists they can ignore the evidence of their senses, the facts of nature and history, the intentions of the authors of the New Testament and the Constitution.
The French are quite clever at these things, but Americans, who for the most part cannot read French, only parrot platitudes they do not understand. A shocking case of liberal perfidy was discussed recently by Notre Dame law professor Gerard Bradley in a quirky little newsletter called First Things. Examining the sworn testimony given at the hearings on Colorado’s Amendment Two, Bradley notes that Professor Martha Nussbaum willfully misrepresented the meaning of a passage in Plato’s Laws to show that Plato did not disapprove of sodomy. Nussbaum, a bona fide academic celebrity on two continents by reason of her gender and her genuflexive liberalism, deliberately cited an out-of-date edition of the standard Creek- English lexicon in order to avoid the entry that disproved her case. To make matters worse, she ridiculed John Finnis, a respectable natural law philosopher, accusing him of relying on translations out of ignorance of Greek. Rumor has it that Nussbaum is now trying to cover up the affair as a friendly disagreement, but she not only perjured herself—which is a crime—but, what is far worse, she prostituted her scholarship to a political cause. If Brown University had any integrity, Nussbaum would spend this summer going door to door in search of a college without any ethical standards. Perhaps there is an opening at Boston University.
The dishonesty of liberals is routinely revealed in court decisions imposing some judge’s vision of the good life upon his unwilling subjects. Recently in Illinois a federal judge decreed that Good Friday could no longer be declared a school holiday, for the usual reason of the so-called separation of church and state supposedly guaranteed in the First Amendment. Illinois civil libertarians hailed the decision as a victory for truth, justice, and the American way. If any of them had ever read the Constitution or studied American history, they obviously had agreed not to divulge the ill-kept secret that the Bill of Rights was never meant to be applied to the states, that Massachussetts had a church establishment until 1833, that George Washington himself refused to oppose a bill in the Virginia legislature for the public payment of clergymen.
What is odd about liberals is not so much their ignorance of history and law as their capacity for forgetting what they knew once upon a time. Anyone over the age of 40 remembers a time when school days began with a prayer and a Bible verse, when Christmas was celebrated with hymns and manger scenes. Were Supreme Court Justices from Marshall to Frankfurter simply blind? Did they not know that Christian symbolism permeated public life in the United States? What is it that liberals think they know about the Constitution that neither the Framers nor the leaders of the Republic were able to grasp until a few decades ago?
Some liberals know these facts; they could hardly help learning them, even in the mock universities of the Ivy League. But, as Dr. Johnson used to say, they lie and they know they lie. Their justification for distorting the Constitution and misrepresenting history is that they are working for a better world in which no one point of view is privileged, a society where every individual has dignity. “Celebrate Cultural Diversity,” says the sign outside our local YMCA, “One planet, one people.” If we are all one people, asks my wife, how can there be diversity? But liberals do not want diversity: instead of a symphony of differing instruments, they want to hear their own voice magnified by endless repetition; they want to see their own face on every poster, their own party listed on both sides of the ballot. Why else do liberals spend so much time writing about what conservatives really ought to believe? And why is it that the true meaning of conservatism always turns out to be liberalism?
Nothing so brings out the liar in the liberal as the subject of religion. What, after all, makes religion so radically different from other social and cultural institutions that it must be banned from public places? Is it because of the ceremonies and symbolisms? That can hardly be the case, since all public business is carried on by symbolic ceremonies. The inauguration of a President, the conduct of a trial, the graduation of students, all are attended by the ceremonial processions, magic formulas, and funny costumes that we associate with traditional religions.
If it is not ritual that offends the liberal’s sensibilities, it must be the beliefs held by Christians. I say Christians, because their faith is the real target of liberal persecution. If Christianity disappeared, the ACLU would not bother to persecute Jews or Muslims. What Christians believe can be, more or less, summed up in a few principal statements such as the Decalogue and the Nicene Creed, which taken together represent a particular point of view about the nature of the universe (created in the beginning by God) and about the way people ought to live (do not murder, steal, commit adultery, slander, worship false gods). It is this point of view, and its claim to be the truth, that liberals wish to eliminate.
Of course, Christianity is only one such point of view. There are others: some of them, like Judaism and Platonism, are close enough to be considered first cousins of the Christian faith; while others, such as Jainism and liberalism, are so alien to Christianity as to make dialogue profitless. Liberalism, it goes without saying, is the dominant point of view of the ruling classes of Europe and the United States. It is the opiate of the sophomore, who thinks he has understood a flower once he has stripped it of its petals and leaves.
Liberalism has many characteristics, some of them worthy of respect—an emphasis on individual dignity and an insistence upon reason—but the essence of liberalism lies in its claim to impartiality. The liberal is supposed to make his judgments as if he were a public official with assets in a blind trust; that is to say, he is to do what some “impartial spectator” would declare to be just and fair. Unlike the traditionalist or the man of faith, the liberal cannot accord his own point of view any privilege, simply because it belongs to him or just because his people have always believed it. The law of liberalism is toleration, because whatever one claims for one’s self, the same right must be extended to others, hence Robert Frost’s mocking definition that a liberal is someone who would not take his own side in an argument.
Frost should have said “a true liberal,” because in their quarrels with other philosophical perspectives, taking their own side and ramming it down our throats is all that liberals know how to do. This is especially clear in the church/state controversies. If Christianity cannot be taught or represented in schools, because it is a particular point of view, why should liberalism be tolerated? After all, there is nothing self-evidently true about the basic tenets of liberalism—the human race got along quite well without them for over 99 percent of its history, and most people today live quite comfortably without worrying too much about the categorical imperative. Even if one believed liberalism to be the true faith, as a liberal one could not, by definition, know it to be true, because such certainties can be given only by the kind of god that liberals do not believe in.
If liberals had even the smallest particle of honesty, they would insist upon applying their judgment on the Christian Weltanschauung to their own point of view. And if they did, such concepts as equality, the progress of democracy, ethical rationalism, universal principles, and even the scientific method would all have to be either eliminated or else presented as one point of view, with equal time given to other representative perspectives. For years American Evangelicals have tried to force the courts to acknowledge “secular humanism” as the religion of public education, and while their occasional successes are gratifying as jeux d’esprit, theirs is a pointless crusade. The number of full-blooded secular humanists has always been very small, since the movement’s appeal is limited to village atheist kooks like B.F. Skinner and Sidney Hook. The real enemy is liberalism itself, a fact that some Evangelicals cannot acknowledge, because so many of them are, beneath the Christian surface, committed liberals. It is democratic liberalism, not Marxism, that has torn apart traditional societies, delivered families up to the state, and waged the most terrible wars in human history. It is liberals who would destroy the world to make it safe for democracy.
There is a certain integrity about the gangster ideologies of communism and Nazism. The Nazi did not claim to be more compassionate and merciful than the Jews and Christians he was persecuting. The Nazi claimed to be their superior in health and courage and freedom, because he was liberated from the Jewish weakness that had infected the Aryan race. Hitler was a guileful politician, but he was honest and consistent in carrying out his announced intentions. The same can be said for the communists, who always said that truth was only what served the cause of their revolution and expressed impatience with all the bourgeois niceties of fair play and independent judgment. We can hardly blame Stalinists, either in the Soviet Union or the United States, for being true to their convictions.
If there is honor among thieves and integrity among Nazis and Stalinists, what can one say of modern liberals, who prate endlessly of tolerance, diversity, and skepticism but devote their lives to imposing their own point of view upon other people’s children; who confiscate our incomes in order to carry out their schemes; who send American boys out to kill and be killed in brutal wars that they insist upon calling, in the sanitized and hypocritical language that liberals always use, crusades for democracy, police actions, and rescue missions? The world has seen. Lord knows, an almost infinite number of bizarre religions and cults, and men have worshiped everything from phalluses to cargo planes, but nothing has been seen under the sun so bizarre and so malevolent as the triumphalist liberals who insist that you agree with them, even as they persecute your faith and brainwash your children. These are men who cannot be faithful to their wives but insist upon writing the laws on marriage and divorce; who cannot believe in the Creator of the universe but insist upon infiltrating and taking over all the churches; who cannot read or write a foreign language but set themselves up as experts on history and literature; who will not tell the truth, even when it can do them no harm, because a single drop of honesty would destroy their superstition, as a single ray of sunlight illuminates a darkened room and reveals its secrets. One of the greatest early liberals was right in his approach to superstition: écrasez l’infâme; he only had the wrong religion in mind, and I hope to see the day when the last professor dies at the hands of the last federal judge.
The difference between liberal and conservative scholars can be illustrated by comparing Martha Nussbaum with the far-right classical scholar Revilo P. Oliver. One of the founders of the John Birch Society, a militant anti-Semite, and—like so many racists—a sworn enemy of the Christian faith that grew out of Judaism, Oliver is among the most learned men who have descended into the arena of political commentary. Older right-wingers can amuse each other for hours telling stories of Professor Oliver, who used to wear a gun to class because of the many death threats he had received. When the University of Illinois tried to fire him for writing a cynical piece on the JFK assassination called “Marksmanship in Dallas,” that bastion of academic civil liberties, the AAUP, refused to defend him, Oliver is a major scholar, an expert on, among other things, the textual tradition of Tacitus, and while his dislike for Jews and Christians has induced him to say many foolish things, he has not, so far as I know, lied about the subjects on which his academic reputation is based. He is a man honest in his prejudices, frank in his follies; most liberals are as incapable of his dignity as of his erudition.
Liberalism is a term that is used to cover a multitude of sins. The doctrines were corrosive from the very beginning, but the liberals themselves were typically honest and civilized men, fairminded to a fault, moderate in their projects. Enormous contributions to economics and law were made by such British liberals as Adam Smith and Henry Sumner Maine. But the logic of liberalism is a historical dialectic in which each generation is compelled to undermine the certainties that its ancestors took for granted. The target, as it turns out, is always the same: Christendom, and not just Christian faith and Christian institutions. The whole of civilization, the Christian bricolage made out of the ruins of classical and Judaic antiquity has been under attack, and each generation of liberals stands in the senate of fashionable thought, ending every oration on no matter what subject with the clausula Christiniatas delenda est: classical art and “classical” music, stable marriages and good table manners (“He ate his dinner like a Christian,” they used to say), Aristotelian logic and Ciceronian rhetoric—as well as the languages of Cicero and Aristotle. All must go, because all had been used in the construction of a world that was shot through with the Christian revelation.
Since the 15th century, when skeptics first began to boast of their infidelity, down to the time of the Enlightenment, when self-righteous immoralists like Voltaire taught the educated classes to despise the world of their fathers, and right into our own era of monotonous and ritualized whining chanted weekly in the pages of the New Republic, the progress of liberalism can be measured by the loss of faith, the collapse of every ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual standard, the regress of learning. (For perspective, just compare the evil but dignified Walter Lippmann with Michael Kinsley, too frail and insubstantial to be capable of evil.)
To combat this malady of liberalism, we must refresh ourselves at the springs and fountains of our civilization, even those secondary springs that spouted up after going underground for centuries. We live in an age far more barbarous than the early Middle Ages, erroneously called dark, and sitting like savage children in the ruins we might begin the recovery by reacquainting ourselves with certain old friends of the family who have known us all our lives, even if we have never heard their names before: Homer and Vergil, Plato and Cicero, Sophocles and Seneca.
Petrarch, one of the great refounders of our civilization, had no printed books and no real library to rely on most of the time; in fact, he and his young friends had to spend much of their time ferreting out manuscripts of ancient authors that were lying neglected in monastic collections. But to spend a few hours with Petrarch is to rediscover what our civilization is about: a lyric ability to make words sound Mozartean, a temperament passionate in carnal love and Christian faith; wise in morals, at home in the literature of his world, with one eye cast longingly into the next. Although Petrarch, in discovering “the Dark Ages,” may be accused of beginning that reactionary revolution against the medieval order that issued, ultimately, in the liberal counterculture, he was himself a staunch defender of Christendom, supporting both Italian Popes and German emperors.
That counterculture has not been, to say the least, all bad. Mozart was an Enlightenment free-thinker, and Goethe himself was deeply infected with the same disease that corrupts the mind of rationalists and romantics alike. The critic’s task, the reader’s task is to appreciate rather than to deprecate their accomplishments. But let us not deceive ourselves. It is far too late to attempt to go back to some comfortable and creative period when the virus of liberalism seemed like consumption, which, in its early stages, seemed to stimulate the sensibilities of Romantic poets. The patient is now in the terminal phase, wasted, wracked, and coughing blood. To return to health requires a change of climate, the clean air and bright sunshine of a life rooted in the ages of faith and in the brilliant childhood of our culture, the classical past.
Go, if you must, to some finishing school like Yale to collect a degree and meet the future colleagues who will make a professional career possible, but do not imagine for a moment that you will have the opportunity to be educated there. Of course there are eminent specialists on the faculties, and some of them, no doubt, are men of sound learning, but whatever their politics or philosophy, such scholars are undercover agents doing their best in a hostile environment; as covert reactionaries they constitute a fifth column against a liberal regime that is making war on every fact and honest thought it can discover. Truth is treason in the empire of lies.
In our age, every learned man or woman is an autodidact, and the only real schooling for most of us will be homeschooling. Because we frequently receive letters from subscribers who want to know how to begin their lifetime course of home learning, we asked our regular contributors to send in a list of the books they regard as most important. Our intention had been to publish a Chronicles booklist from their recommendations, but there was so little overlap, the task proved impossible. After a period of more work, we will produce a pamphlet to distribute, but in the meantime my advice is to begin at the beginning. The central works of ancient literature are available in bilingual Loeb editions from Harvard or in inexpensive paperbacks from Penguin, and one could do worse than “The Great Books of the Western World”—as silly and pretentious as that series is. My personal advice is to start with some great period (the earlier the better) that catches your fancy—fifth-century Athens, Rome in the Late Republic, Florence in the Renaissance, England under the Stuarts. Read everything you can, poetry, history, philosophy, speeches, letters; in other words, read yourself into the imagination of another age, and when you are exhausted, move on. Inevitably, you will forget the details, but your own imagination will never recover: some part of you will always be Attic or Tuscan, and you may need that part some day, when the idiots have you where they want you.
The drug addict Alexander King used to say that the only thing that consoled him, when he was arrested and forced to go cold turkey, were the hours and hours of poetry he had memorized in a variety of languages. Short of a memory transplant, they cannot take that away from you, not even with a thousand hours of CNN coverage of the House of Representatives, not even if you are condemned to Duke with a sentence of a Ph.D. in English literature. When the scholars arc ignorant liars, it is our job to be educated and honest, “like old Boethius, biding his time among suspicious Goths.”