The Magazine

Liberal Dogmatism

How a far-out idea becomes orthodox.

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By EDWARD ALEXANDER
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In his dissent from the Supreme Court’s recent overthrow of the Defense of Marriage Act, Justice Antonin Scalia observed that the majority opinion accused the Congress and president who had enacted this law not merely of exceeding their powers but of spreading malice, encouraging stigmatization, and—above all—denying equality. “It is one thing,” wrote Scalia, “for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race.” 

What would Arnold say?

The triumphant campaign for gay marriage (and gay adoption) had swept all before it, once Vice President Biden forced President Obama to accelerate his “evolution” from the traditional (for most of human history) understanding of marriage as a heterosexual institution to endorsement of same-sex unions. The campaign had been conducted on the lowest possible intellectual level, i.e., that of “equal rights” for all people who love each other. But do any two heterosexual people in love have a “right” to marry? Suppose one of them is already married? Suppose one of them is the child of the other? Sloganeering, however, was the order of the day, and it has carried the day, not only in the left wing of the Democratic party but in one state after another, sometimes in the courts, and sometimes (as in the state of Washington) in the legislatures.

Even the IRS got into the act. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan revealed that one of the chief victims
of that agency’s discrimination against “conservative” groups was the National Organization for Marriage, whose cardinal principle is affirmation of heterosexual monogamy. Apparently denial of the collective mind and common experience of most of the human race is now liberal orthodoxy. It was as if mankind knew nothing until liberal reformers taught it to them; until, that is, about 10 minutes ago in historical time, when the brand-new dispensation became unquestionable truth. So rapidly did the new dogma become rooted in the liberal mind that there was a genuine innocence in the irate denial by Lois Lerner, chief of the tax-exemption unit, and her IRS colleagues that they’d done “anything wrong” in punishing troglodytes still in thrall to the Genesis view of these matters: “Male and female created He them.” 

Some state legislators, who know how fast liberal dogmatism gives rise to liberal dictate, began scurrying about looking for ways to protect unconverted clergymen from being prosecuted for objecting to gay marriage from their pulpits, or adoption agencies from being accused of civil rights violations for requiring both a father and a mother for their wards. Fox News reported in mid-July that a 27-year veteran of the Utah Air National Guard who objected in a private email to a same-sex ceremony being held in the Cadet Chapel at West Point was treated as if he had incited mutiny. He was officially reprimanded and had his six-year reenlistment contract reduced by five years. No doubt the busy virtuosi of campus speech codes establishing “verbal abuse” policies to protect “diversity”—but not, it seems, la différence—are now hard at work incorporating “same-sex marriage” into the body of infallible doctrine that is never to be called into question at a university.

Did I say liberal dogmatism? Surely that is a contradiction in terms. The usually astute John Henry Newman, after all, declared in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) that liberalism was “the anti-dogmatic principle.” And Newman’s long struggle against the liberal (or “Protestant”) branch of the Church of England (which he would leave for Rome in 1845) demonstrated and documented this. But as he added in a note dated 1865, “Merely to call [liberalism] the anti-dogmatic principle is to tell very little about it.”

More could have been told by Newman’s adversaries, the leading Victorian liberals themselves, who often sensed within their own most cherished doctrine the seed of its eventual undoing. Take John Stuart Mill, whose On Liberty was published five years before Newman made his remarks and was almost certainly in Newman’s mind when he espoused the doctrine of infallibility (of the Roman church, not the pope) in Chapter Five of the Apologia. Mill had relentlessly argued in On Liberty that “all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility,” and “there is no such thing as absolute certainty.”

But Mill was a man of ideas, not ideology, and could recognize the dangerous tendencies within his own school of thought. In his magisterial essays of 1838 and 1840 comparing his teacher Bentham, the great progressive (“the same division with ourselves”), and Coleridge, their formidable conservative adversary, he identified one glaring deficiency in the former. Bentham, like most progressives, ignored “the collective mind of the human race,” which develops from “common wants and common experience.” It is often forgotten that Mill decided to write “a volume on Liberty” because “almost all the projects of social reformers in these days are really liberticide.” On Liberty, to be sure, excoriated the “despotism of custom,” but with this qualification: “The despotism of custom .  .  . proscribes singularity, but it does not preclude change, provided all change together” (italics added).

Matthew Arnold, who described himself as “a liberal tempered by experience, reflection, and renouncement,” also warned of liberalism’s herd instinct, that trait which would later earn American liberals the sobriquet “herd of independent minds.” Here he is in the famous 1865 essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” satirizing doctrinaire liberalism: “Let us have a social movement, let us organize and combine a party to pursue truth and new thought, let us call it the liberal party, and let us all stick to each other, and back each other up. .  .  . If one of us speaks well, applaud him; if one of us speaks ill, applaud him too; we are all in the same movement, we are all liberals.” 

A few years later, in Culture and Anarchy (1869), Arnold singled out for relentless mockery liberalism’s obsessive campaign to change England’s marriage laws so as “to give a man leave to marry his deceased wife’s sister,” that is, to eliminate the longstanding English taboo on in-law marriage. Defenders of the taboo claimed that Leviticus forbade such marriages. Liberals said Leviticus did no such thing and therefore “man’s law, the law of liberty, .  .  . makes us free to marry our deceased wife’s sister.” But Arnold’s objection to the liberal position had nothing to do with Leviticus—“the voice of an Oriental and polygamous nation.” Rather, it expressed his sense of the sacredness of marriage and the customs that regulate it as the delicately woven fabric of civilization, a barrier against the promiscuity of primitive life, against “anarchy.” Such barriers are laborious to create, easy to unravel.

England’s 65-year battle over this taboo, viewed from the perspective of our own recent reversal of the laws (to say nothing of ancient custom) regarding marriage, reverses Marx’s famous saying about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. But there is an eerie resemblance to the present that is worth noting. Arnold mocked Victorian liberalism’s obsession with the “right” to marry one’s deceased wife’s sister as the perfect example of its Philistine “double craving” because it combined “the craving for forbidden fruit and the craving for legality.” (Joe Biden, whatever his shortcomings, grasped this combination instinctively; and it is thanks in large part to him that a future book of presidential history may well be entitled Legalizing Forbidden Fruit: The Age of Obama.)

Newman may have been wrong in calling liberalism “the anti-dogmatic principle,” but he was prescient in saying, “The liberalism which gives a colour to society .  .  . is scarcely now a party; it is the educated lay world.” Hélas.

Edward Alexander is the author of, among other books, Matthew Arnold and John Stuart Mill (Columbia University Press, 1965). 

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