The Pursuit of Knowledge

Totalitarian Sentimentality

The fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives.

By From the December 2009 - January 2010 issue

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Conservatives recognize that social order is hard to achieve and easy to destroy, that it is held in place by discipline and sacrifice, and that the indulgence of criminality and vice is not an act of kindness but an injustice for which all of us will pay. Conservatives therefore maintain severe and -- to many people -- unattractive attitudes. They favor retributive punishment in the criminal law; they uphold traditional marriage and the sacrifices that it requires; they believe in discipline in schools and the value of hard work and military service. They believe in the family and think that the father is an essential part in it. They see welfare provisions as necessary, but also as a potential threat to genuine charity, and a way both of rewarding antisocial conduct and creating a culture of dependency. They value the hard-won legal and constitutional inheritance of their country and believe that immigrants must also value it if they are to be allowed to settle here. Conservatives do not think that war is caused by military strength, but on the contrary by military weakness, of a kind that tempts adventurers and tyrants. And a properly ordered society must be prepared to fight wars -- even wars in foreign parts -- if it is to enjoy a lasting peace in its homeland. In short conservatives are a hard and unfriendly bunch who, in the world in which we live, must steel themselves to be reviled and despised by all people who make compassion into the cornerstone of the moral life.

Liberals are of course very different. They see criminals as victims of social hierarchy and unequal power, people who should be cured by kindness and not threatened with punishment. They wish all privileges to be shared by everyone, the privileges of marriage included. And if marriage can be reformed so as to remove the cost of it, so much the better. Children should be allowed to play and express their love of life; the last thing they need is discipline. Learning comes -- didn't Dewey prove as much? -- from self-expression; and as for sex education, which gives the heebie-jeebies to social conservatives, no better way has ever been found of liberating children from the grip of the family and teaching them to enjoy their bodily rights. Immigrants are just migrants, victims of economic necessity, and if they are forced to come here illegally that only increases their claim on our compassion. Welfare provisions are not rewards to those who receive them, but costs to those who give -- something that we owe to those less fortunate than ourselves. As for the legal and constitutional inheritance of the country, this is certainly to be respected -- but it must "adapt" to new situations, so as to extend its protection to the new victim class. Wars are caused by military strength, by "boys with their toys," who cannot resist the desire to flex their muscles, once they have acquired them. The way to peace is to get rid of the weapons, to reduce the army, and to educate children in the ways of soft power. In the world in which we live liberals are self-evidently lovable -- emphasizing in all their words and gestures that, unlike the social conservatives, they are in every issue on the side of those who need protecting, and against the hierarchies that oppress them.

Those two portraits are familiar to everyone, and I have no doubt on which side the readers of this magazine will stand. What all conservatives know, however, is that it is they who are motivated by compassion, and that their cold-heartedness is only apparent. They are the ones who have taken up the cause of society, and who are prepared to pay the cost of upholding the principles on which we all -- liberals included -- depend. To be known as a social conservative is to lose all hope of an academic career; it is to be denied any chance of those prestigious prizes, from the MacArthur to the Nobel Peace Prize, which liberals confer only on each other. For an intellectual it is to throw away the prospect of a favorable review -- or any review at all -- in the New York Times or the New York Review of Books. Only someone with a conscience could possibly wish to expose himself to the inevitable vilification that attends such an "enemy of the people." And this proves that the conservative conscience is governed not by self-interest but by a concern for the public good. Why else would anyone express it?

By contrast, as conservatives also know, the compassion displayed by the liberal is precisely that -- compassion displayed, though not necessarily felt. The liberal knows in his heart that his "compassionating zeal," as Rousseau described it, is a privilege for which he must thank the social order that sustains him. He knows that his emotion toward the victim class is (these days at least) more or less cost-free, that the few sacrifices he might have to make by way of proving his sincerity are nothing compared to the warm glow of approval by which he will be surrounded by declaring his sympathies. His compassion is a profoundly motivated state of mind, not the painful result of a conscience that will not be silenced, but the costless ticket to popular acclaim.

Why am I repeating those elementary truths, you ask? The answer is simple. The USA has descended from its special position as the principled guardian of Western civilization and joined the club of sentimentalists who have until now depended on American power. In the administration of President Obama we see the very same totalitarian sentimentality that has been at work in Europe, and which has replaced civil society with the state, the family with the adoption agency, work with welfare, and patriotic duty with universal "rights." The lesson of postwar Europe is that it is easy to flaunt compassion, but harder to bear the cost of it. Far preferable to the hard life in which disciplined teaching, costly charity, and responsible attachment are the ruling principles is the life of sentimental display, in which others are encouraged to admire you for virtues you do not possess. This life of phony compassion is a life of transferred costs. Liberals who wax lyrical on the sufferings of the poor do not, on the whole, give their time and money to helping those less fortunate than themselves. On the contrary, they campaign for the state to assume the burden. The inevitable result of their sentimental approach to suffering is the expansion of the state and the increase in its power both to tax us and to control our lives.

As the state takes charge of our needs, and relieves people of the burdens that should rightly be theirs -- the burdens that come from charity and neighborliness -- serious feeling retreats. In place of it comes an aggressive sentimentality that seeks to dominate the public square. I call this sentimentality "totalitarian" since -- like totalitarian government -- it seeks out opposition and carefully extinguishes it, in all the places where opposition might form. Its goal is to "solve" our social problems, by imposing burdens on responsible citizens, and lifting burdens from the "victims," who have a "right" to state support. The result is to replace old social problems, which might have been relieved by private charity, with the new and intransigent problems fostered by the state: for example, mass illegitimacy, the decline of the indigenous birthrate, and the emergence of the gang culture among the fatherless youth. We have seen this everywhere in Europe, whose situation is made worse by the pressure of mass immigration, subsidized by the state. The citizens whose taxes pay for the flood of incoming "victims" cannot protest, since the sentimentalists have succeeded in passing "hate speech" laws and in inventing crimes like "Islamophobia" which place their actions beyond discussion. This is just one example of a legislative tendency that can be observed in every area of social life: family, school, sexual relations, social initiatives, even the military -- all are being deprived of their authority and brought under the control of the "soft power" that rules from above.

This is how we should understand the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama. To his credit he has made clear that he does not deserve it -- though I assume he deserves it every bit as much as Al Gore. The prize is an endorsement from the European elite, a sigh of collective relief that America has at last taken the decisive step toward the modern consensus, by exchanging real for fake emotion, hard power for soft power, and truth for lies. What matters in Europe is the great fiction that things will stay in place forever, that peace will be permanent and society stable, just so long as everybody is "nice." Under President Bush (who was, of course, no exemplary president, and certainly not nice) America maintained its old image, of national self-confidence and belligerent assertion of the right to be successful. Bush was the voice of a property-owning democracy, in which hard work and family values still achieved a public endorsement. As a result he was hated by the European elites, and hated all the more because Europe needs America and knows that, without America, it will die. Obama is welcomed as a savior: the American president for whom the Europeans have been hoping -- the one who will rescue them from the truth.

How America itself will respond to this, however, remains doubtful. I suspect, from my neighbors in rural Virginia, that totalitarian sentimentality has no great appeal to them, and that they will be prepared to resist a government that seeks to destroy their savings and their social capital, for the sake of a compassion that it does not really feel.

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About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.