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Progressivism and Liberalism: A Widening Gap

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The increasing friction between progressives and liberals appears to be causing blisters.

Brendan O’Neill, a pro-choice advocate, expressed dismay at Oxford’s “Stepford students,” who shut down the abortion debate in which he was to participate.

Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist and linguist, has lambasted the movement to ban Israeli products (because they demonstrate micro aggression towards Palestinians) at Harvard.

Former president of Princeton, William Bowen, criticized Haverford College students for sending a list of demands to the former chancellor of Berkeley, Robert Birgeneau, which he was to meet if he wanted to give the college’s commencement address. Birgeneau is pro-gay marriage, a champion of immigrants’ rights, and by most tests, a dedicated liberal.

The controversy is even spilling into religious circles. Progressive Methodist minister Morgan Guyton recently tried to defend his friend and fellow progressive pastor, Tony Jones, who was accused of spousal abuse. However, Guyton is clearly caught between a God he loves, a friend he admires and doesn’t wish to condemn without a fair trial, and a movement he believes in, yet feels is turning in the wrong direction. I highly recommend reading the piece. It’s a tour-de-force in the psychology of contemporary progressivism and poignantly expresses the tensions felt by many on the Left.

These various examples point to a widening gap between “progressivism” and “liberalism.”

The two have always existed in tension. As far back as the nineteenth century (and possibly somewhat earlier), the Marxist progressives who were willing to use censorship diverged from classical liberals who fought such policies tooth and nail. Still, over the centuries the two movements have been held together by their mutually progressive view of history. Both understand history as constantly bettering itself. Material comforts improve. We tinker with political structures and invent some new and better mode of governance. Science guides us toward a better world with the benefits of its work far outweighing any negatives. Not to mention that scientific-historical progress is likely to remedy any problems it inadvertently creates. There were “Dark Ages,” thankfully superseded by a period of Enlightenment, on which we continue to build.

Common ground, however, is no longer enough. Liberals tend to believe in freedom of all stripes: assembly, expression, and sexuality. The true liberal hates hypocrisy, and advocates limiting freedom only in the most extreme of circumstances. Figures as various as Steven Pinker, Peter Augustine Lawler, and Morgan Guyton have all argued against excessive limitations on speech.

However, progressives have started advocating restrictions on liberty, especially when it comes to topics they consider anathema. As Ross Douthat recently observed, they have adopted old techniques that often work: censorship, shaming, and the like. No one can support segregation in polite company and many of those in this group desire the same for opposing same-sex marriage, supporting Israel, or opposing abortion. They oppose such policies with the fervor of religious believers. Their willingness to resort to antagonistic tactics puts them at odds with even the most staunchly liberal-minded of our nation’s populace. They threaten freedom of expression in a variety of ways, something those on the Left and (for the most part) on the Right can agree is bad.

You might say we’re seeing the emergence of blasphemy laws from the Far Left. Fascism is coming, not swaddled in an American flag or holding a cross, but instead draped in a hemp rainbow shawl and carrying a petition.

Maybe this break will benefit conservatives. They certainly won’t win any more allies, but I hope that progressive bullying won’t be tolerated, since it undermines the very foundations of tolerance.

Those of us who believe in freedom can’t acquiesce to the demands of the illiberal Progressive. And while I’m not a liberal in any traditional sense, I do believe in the value of hearing diverse voices. I can only hope in a post–9/11, post–Charlie Hebdo world that others, Left and Right, do too.

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