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 More Progress, Anyone? 

December 14, 2004 
My favorite liberal writer, Michael Kinsley, has made another of the witty arguments that always make me look forward to his columns. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Only this time I don’t think his reasoning leads us where he wants it to. He has unwittingly exposed liberalism’s mortal weakness.

Kinsley recalls that in 1989, The New Republic, of which he was then editor, ran a cover article titled “The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage,” by Andrew Sullivan. [Andrew Sullivan’s article can be read at under the title “Here Comes the Groom.” — website ed.] It was intended less as a serious proposal than as a “thought experiment” to provoke reflection. “Gay marriage itself,” says Kinsley, “seemed so far-out and unlikely to happen that whether you were actually for it was beside the point.”

Since then, however, “gay marriage” has become a serious possibility. “Take a moment to consider how amazing this is,” Kinsley writes. “Just 15 years after that New Republic essay, marriage is the defining goal of the gay rights movement.... Gay marriage is on the verge of joining abortion rights on the very short list of litmus tests that any Democratic candidate for national office must support.” And today, “even the most homophobic religious-right demagogue feels obliged to spout — and may well actually believe — bromides about God’s love of gay people.”

Furthermore, “Today’s near-universal and minimally respectable attitude — the rock-bottom, nonnegotiable price of admission to polite society and the political debate — is an acceptance of gay people and of open, unapologetic homosexuality as part of American life that would have shocked, if not offended, great liberals of a few decades ago such as Hubert Humphrey....

“This development is not just amazing, it is inspiring.... It took African American civil rights a century and feminism a half-century to travel the distance gay rights have moved in a decade and a half.”

Then the kicker: “This is also scary, of course, because there is no reason to think that gay rights are the end of the line. And it’s even scarier because these are all revolutions of perception as well as politics. This means that all of us who consider ourselves good-hearted, well-meaning, empathetic Americans — but don’t claim to be great visionaries — are probably staring right now at an injustice that will soon seem obvious — and we just don’t see it. Somewhere in this country a gay black woman, grateful beneficiary of past and present perceptual transformations, has said something today in all innocence that will strike her just a few years from now as unbelievably callous, cruel, and wrong.”

[Breaker quote: What next from liberalism?]Wow! It’s one thing to celebrate the familiar liberal fads of the past and present, which we can evaluate separately on their merits. It’s another thing to prostrate ourselves before the liberal fads of the future, before we even know what they are. Yet this is just what Kinsley is urging on us. He’s not appealing to any stable standard of right and wrong, just to unspecified “revolutions of perception” and “perceptual transformations.”

And what will these be? That’s anyone’s guess. A less fancy name for them is “political correctness,” the wind whereof bloweth where it listeth, but always in the general direction of more sexual license backed by a more powerful secularist state.

These “revolutions of perception” will seem a lot less random, mysterious, and unpredictable to Christians than they will to liberals like Kinsley, who assumes they are predestined. They’ll surely include, for example, more tolerance for pedophiles. (Why shouldn’t they enjoy the same rights as the rest of us? Iron logic.) And most of these revelations won’t be legislated; they’ll be brought down from Sinai by the judiciary.

Kinsley is offering a sort of mystical liberalism that he thinks transcends politics, when it actually depends on the kind of arbitrary power the courts have been allowed to exercise for nearly three generations. There are signs that this is finally changing, and that liberals won’t be able to enjoy that kind and degree of rule by judicial fiat much longer.

Liberalism’s fatal flaw, as Kinsley’s argument shows, is that it has no permanent norms, only a succession of enthusiasms espoused by minor prophets. Each of these seems like a hot new idea to liberals, but soon goes to irksome and destructive extremes.

Liberalism has no vision of a final, settled social order; it’s always waiting for the next “revolution of perception” to overturn everything. What’s “progressive” today may be embarrassingly “reactionary” tomorrow. Kinsley may find this kaleidoscopic idea of endless and indefinable progress inspiring; the rest of us may find it merely exhausting.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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