Matthew Continetti discusses today’s Progressivism in the light of Irving Kristol’s 1969 lecture on â€œUrban Civilization and Its Discontents.â€
Beginning in the 19th century, writers, artists, philosophers, and intellectuals adopted an adversarial stance toward the dominant â€œbourgeoisâ€ ethos of orthodox religiosity, marital fidelity, conventional morality, and traditional manners. With the advent of mass media and the rise of higher education in the 20th century, the adversarial impulse permeated the institutions of culture. It gained more adherents in each rising generation.
What Roger Scruton described as a â€œculture of repudiationâ€ revised inherited understandings of history, politics, economics, society, art, psychology, and behavior. The philosophy of Darwin, Marx, and Freud deprived individuals of agency. It reduced them to mere products of the environment. The will of â€œthe people,â€ no matter its direction, was considered a good in itself. â€œWhat we may call the transcendental-populist religion of democracy,â€ Kristol said, â€œsuperseded an original political philosophy of democracy.â€
The population fought over the dispensation of entitlements. But it shared a state of mind. â€œIt is, to be precise, that state of mind,â€ Kristol went on, â€œwhich lacks all those qualities that, in the opinion of the founding fathers, added up to republican morality: steadiness of character, deliberativeness of mind, and a mild predisposition to subordinate oneâ€™s own special interests to the public interest.â€
The most important question, Kristol liked to say, was, â€œWhy not?â€ Why not do drugs, consume porn, abandon your children, break into and steal from a Target store? The institutions that once supplied the answers to such questions â€” the family, the church, the community â€” receded in importance and withered in strength against the power of an adversary culture that embedded itself in media and government and the liberation of desires that accompanied conditions of security and affluence.
It became difficult to justify submission of the will to external moral authority. That those authorities were often bigoted or unjust gave rise to the additional demand of justice as a precondition of civil peace and order. But this was a non sequitur. Order is the basis of justice, not the other way around. â€œTo demand â€˜justiceâ€™ as a precondition for political or social stability,â€ Kristol wrote in 1979, â€œis to make a demand on this world which the world has ever refused to concede.â€
What I find remarkable is how the Left had managed to enroll not only the naive and romantic Dummer Jungen, but also the Boobs and Babbitts; the Christers, Wowsers, and Reformers; the Goo-Goos and the energetic ladies whose sex lives are over under a single virtue-signalling, self-congratulatory banner.