Magazine article Modern Age

Autonomy on the Road to Tyranny: The Pursuit of Personal Freedom Has Meant the Trashing of Tradition and a Consequent All-Consuming Present

Magazine article Modern Age

Autonomy on the Road to Tyranny: The Pursuit of Personal Freedom Has Meant the Trashing of Tradition and a Consequent All-Consuming Present

Article excerpt

Tradition is how a people shapes its destiny in a fallen world. But talking about tradition is strange in a country composed of citizens who left--or whose ancestors escaped--nations whose traditions kept them from being all they could be. The fullest part of our tradition might be emancipation itself.

This made America a country capable of being the vehicle for a providential democratic progress toward individual equality. But equality is both easy and dangerous for its tendency to attenuate the distinctiveness of particular persons. In contrast, it is liberty that needs an apprenticeship and a defense by more thoughtful denizens.

We live in abundance amid unheralded opportunities for most Americans. But things that should be solid seem to teeter uncomfortably atop creaking foundations. Is there a coherent American citizenship that emerges from a collective memory? Is the lack of any unifying tradition at the heart of our inability to sustain a constitutional consensus that would guide disagreement about political means and ends? Maybe that's just it: a constitutional tradition isn't something you have to articulate--you feel it in your hips, as Willmoore Kendall once said. But when it goes, can you get it back?

Even our Constitution itself would seem to be a document wholly formed and agreed to by consenting citizens concerned only with the all-consuming present. We come to realize that its deeper truths--its political traditions--unfold over time into a political and social order of autonomous adults who leave behind the premodern authority of relational institutions that gtew out of a thick web of largely unchosen obligations. So on one powerful reading, our tradition, to the extent Americans have such a thing, would be made up of self-chosen entities and their practices, all equipped with easy exit ramps should the need to leave any commitment arise.

The politics of identities

Progressives have carpet-bombed our politics with the proposition that personal identities are the source and summit of our citizenship. And these identities are, most prominently, caught up with sexuality and race, such that American citizens are not particular individuals participating in republican self-government. They are rather the products of autonomously willed assertions (call me Caitlyn), or else members of a race that provides a set of ready-made beliefs, attitudes, and opinions to adopt.

With regard to gender, the argument made by the LGBTQ coalition could only emerge in a social order that has been radically shaped by a democratic leveling ethos, one that leads individuals to nod at the assertion that I can remake myself at will. Tocqueville would have understood this in terms of an individualism that refuses to recognize any standards of virtue that might direct the democratic will. This volitional understanding of freedom pulsates among the Americans who, Tocqueville says, everywhere emulate Descartes's philosophy without having actually read his words. Members of a democratic society find in the very exercise of their will proof of its veracity, merely because it's their own.

Identity and dignity are both at stake in the claims made on behalf of gender and its unlimited manifestations. But does liberty rest in what amounts to Cartesianism on crack, a liberty unable to make sense of the body save for its instrumental uses to the inner, autonomous, willing agent? Give me dignity or give me death, progressives say; but I'll settle for the embodied human person who knows that he or she is an acting composite of soul and body that discloses purposes and goods to pursue.

Similarly, this notion of dignity has contributed to the weaponization of race that we now see on campuses, where, for example, white students at Scripps College were denied use of the coffee bar for designated periods in order to help them understand their "white privilege." Readers might think such conduct would be illegal, but the frown you see will only be your own. …

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