I have read in the newspapers lately that the scholarly journals have begun to experiment with a new procedural system of editorial acceptance. For generations, article submissions have been made to the editors, who in turn sent the manuscripts out for peer review by specialists in the field. Grants of academic tenure depend heavily on a record of scholarly publication, and so much is at stake for a young professor seeking to place an article in a prestigious journal. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the slow and allegedly clubby old method of peer review is under attack by proponents of a plan to post the submitted manuscripts online and solicit comments or suggestions, not from specialists alone but from all and sundry in cyberspace, exactly as Wikipedia does. The learned editors in their ivory towers will then act as final judges in the matter.
All sorts of theories have been advanced to explain why liberalism has triumphed to the degree that it has in the world. According to many theorists, it is because the Rights of Man will not be denied. Hegel thought that the universal struggle for recognition dictates that men are driven by their nature to insist on a realization of the dignity that human nature confers upon them. Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy, as an idea and indeed an ideal, cannot be improved upon, no matter the temporary setbacks it might encounter in the posthistorical future.
All this may be so, or it may not be. The truth is, all such vaporous speculations are only a waste of time and mental energy, like any intellectual undertaking that insists on ignoring the obvious proximate explanation in favor of distant theoretical speculation. The reason for liberalism’s success plainly has nothing to do with man’s nature, or with Providence (as Tocqueville thought), or with the Triumph of Reason. It is the result, quite simply, of a single, simple fact: Liberalism, in theory and in practice, is easy. It is the prevailing simpleminded political doctrine (never to be confused with a philosophy) of weak-minded people suffering from a form of intellectual and moral laziness that produces a debilitating, and finally fatal, acquiescence, slackness, timidity, cowardice, nonresistance, and surrender in true believers and fellow travelers alike, and, finally in those who happen merely to be hanging about the neighborhood.
Liberalism amounts to the Politics of Easy. Whoever has grasped that fact knows all he needs to know about this most subversive and dangerous political tendency in history. Liberalism is by far the easiest thing that has ever appeared under the sun—except, of course, for conservatives and other nonliberals ignorant and impudent enough to resist it. It is true that, early on in its history, liberalism suffered its own martyrs. Still, liberals have had an easy time of it for the most part, owing to their typically elite status and the speed with which their doctrine made progress in the world, until, better than a century ago, they became the new privileged class, distinguished by their ideological commitments and their emotional orientation.
The founding theorists of liberalism—Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and the rest of them—began by getting rid of the gigantic log that lay square across the path. They accomplished this feat by simply pretending that the log didn’t exist, and never had. Avoiding the ontological problems with which the ancient, early Christian, medieval, and monarchical philosophers had struggled, the liberal philosophers simply ignored every existential issue relating to the question of man’s origin (divine or otherwise) and essential nature, and proceeded as if no thinker of consequence had ever felt himself compelled to address them. These late-coming intellectual titans had no time for such irrelevant notions as the distinction between the City of Man and the City of God, long accepted by Christian philosophers, or the doctrine of the King’s Two Bodies, the foundations for which were laid by the Norman Anonymous around a.d. 1100 in England. Instead, they made a grand leap of faith, unmatched in history, and landed on the smooth (if rather unpleasantly hard) ground, already cleared of brush and trees, of Reason. Pure reason beguiled them into fantastical concepts such as the Social Contract, man enchained by civilization, and the Rights of Man, all of them far less rational (not to mention less attested to by compelling evidence) than the doctrines of the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and Original Sin. Still, they continued to condemn what they called superstition without ever taking the trouble to examine supernatural claims by the application of their practical imaginations.
The problem for liberalism is that removing man from his divine pedestal takes him off the gold standard in respect of every human category: religious, moral, intellectual, artistic, social, and political. In this way, liberalism makes everything easy for the liberal: his agnosticism, his “ethics,” his “thought,” his “art,” his uncouth and antisocial behavior, and his ideological politics. It begins by banishing standards and proceeds from there to encourage dishonesty, fraud, self-delusion, and the spirit of untruth in all who succumb to its laziness, its sloppiness, and its lies. Liberalism makes it easy to believe in nothing, learn nothing, and accede to everything. It seems, in its way, the most enviable persuasion in the history of the world, when we consider the unhappy fact that so many of us—indeed, from time to time, all of us—would so gratefully elect to assume the status of bovis, in preference to that of Jovis, in the world.
Kierkegaard observed that the people who demand the freedoms to which, as human beings, they think they are entitled are the people least likely to exercise the one freedom that no government can deny them, which is the freedom to think. For 200 years, liberalism in the form of popular democracy has encouraged people not to think for themselves; today, ideological hyperdemocracy would punish them for doing so, by making an extraordinarily difficult mental operation a dangerous one as well.
It is really no long step from the pseudoscholarship that is routinely printed in scholarly journals and advertised in university-press catalogs to the gangbang scholarship practiced by Wikipedia and now proposed by the reformers of the professorial periodicals. The Old Liberal Whig scholarship of the 19th and early 20th centuries was one-sided, oversimplified, tendentious, and smug, but it was still recognizably scholarship of a kind. The New Liberal postmodern scholarship is only pretentious fakery. One reason for this is ideological, the other social. A significant effect of the availability of higher education, first to the bourgeois mass and later to the proletarian masses beneath it, has been to glamorize the intellectual and the artist, to inspire in trivial and thoroughly banal minds the ambition to be one or the other (or both), and to persuade them that they have the mental capacity to fill the role. Liberalization has made it possible for them to do so, by degrading the standards and tastes that, in an earlier age, would have exposed them for what they actually were. Anyone who looks into a much-celebrated modern novel, hears a composition by a much-touted contemporary composer, or observes a widely exhibited painting or sculpture and has the inward, half-guilty, and self-doubting response that the work of supposed art in question required no skill or even intelligence in its making is, more likely than not, exactly right. Liberalism makes all these things easy, because it imposes no intellectual standards on them. And that is a very important explanation for why most writers and artists today are liberal. Liberal intellectuals have assumed, from the 1930’s onward, that all intellectuals are liberals, because liberals are more intelligent and creative than ordinary people. In fact, the opposite is true. Liberalism makes it possible for academic novelists, historians, painters, and composers to play a successful game of let’s pretend that allows them to present themselves to each other, to publishing houses and impresarios, and to the public as bloomin’ geniuses, and get away with it. Nobody knows better. Not the editor, not the impresario, not the vast majority of the audience. It is far, far easier not to know—or care.
Liberalism makes other things easy, too; all things, indeed. Nobody needs anymore to have what people used to call morals, meaning a code that demands some sacrifice on the part of whoever subscribes to it. In their place, liberalism offers “ethics.” which require only that someone should hold a liberally specified attitude toward, or opinion about, something—one that costs him nothing while allowing him to congratulate himself on thinking rightly. Right thinking comes easily, too, because it ensures that liberals need never fear incurring the disapproval or enmity of other liberals, who are the only people they associate with anyway—a predilection that further spares them the mental effort and social unpleasantness of having ever to defend an unpopular idea. Since, for liberals, the only behavior that really counts is thought behavior, social relations are easy, too. Dressing in the morning is easy—no need for a coat and tie on any occasion, including work, international travel, and funerals. No need for constraining manners and other forms of strict and onerous bourgeois civility, from which the authenticity of proletarian social norms has rescued us. No need for going to the bother of weddings or marriage (excepting “gay marriage,” for the sake of human equality and to make a political statement), and no need to work at a marriage that can be terminated as easily as a pregnancy. Under the reign of liberalism, the world itself, it almost seems, is made easy, and we all just go flopping along.
In the realm of theology, all liberal or liberalized religions, from Episcopalianism to the faith of the megachurches, are religion made easy for everyone, congregation and clergy alike. The Catholic Church Herself, since Vatican II, has been religion made easier for the spiritual descendants of the great saints, martyrs, and Fathers of the Church, and for the children and grandchildren of Catholics who faithfully attended Sunday service each week, celebrated in the Tridentine Rite. As for political theory and practice, they, too, have been reduced by liberalism to an easily expressed and easily understood trinity of identity and interest-group politics, entitlement, and rights, surrounded by the sheltering crèche of paternalistic government.
“It is much harder to believe than not to believe,” said Flannery O’Connor. That is why liberals believe nothing, and know less.