Why the Unreality? | James Kalb | CWR
Making sense of the position and power that secular progressivism holds in public life today requires understanding both its theoretical side and its institutional side
People who reject secular progressivism, especially in its more highly developed forms, are often puzzled by its proponents. Do they really believe what they say they believe, for example that diversity is always strength, or traditional religion and morality are dangerous and irrational bigotries, or there are no significant differences between men and women?
Some say they don’t really believe such things, at least the informed and intelligent ones don’t, but just find them politically useful as claims. That view would make secular progressivism a matter of cynical demagogy and power seeking.
Others say they believe what they say they believe, but do so because of psychological quirks or historical particularities. Leftists are perpetual adolescents always in rebellion, or they’re so horrified by slavery, segregation, colonialism, Nazism, or the Wars of Religion that they find anything other than compulsory equality and rejection of transcendent claims intolerably dangerous.
Such views don’t explain the position secular progressivism holds in public life today: its increasing grip on institutions and professions, its extension to ever more aspects of life, its success in remaking mainstream political and religious movements in its image, its ambition to silence all opposition, its resilience that enables it to come back from all reverses. When non-progressives say some new initiative is silly and won’t last—“gay marriage,” “micro-aggressions,” or whatever—they’re routinely proven wrong, at least on the second point.
Such successes argue for an outlook that is rooted in basic and enduring features of modern life and how modern people look at the world. They show that even what seem like absurdities can’t be laughed off, but must be taken very seriously, because there’s more thought and institutional momentum behind them than might appear.
What I’m calling progressivism, which is the dominant view of our time, has a theoretical and an institutional side. On the theoretical side it might be summed up as a tendency toward scientism, the view that an idealized version of modern natural science is the unique model for knowledge and reason. That view denies qualitative distinctions and turns goods into preferences, because it wants to accept only what is publicly observable and quantifiable. It also implies a sort of moral egalitarianism: preferences define what is good, and all preferences are equally preferences, so they are equally valid and have an equal claim to satisfaction. To reject a preference is baseless discrimination against the person whose preference it is, and thus a form of hatred and oppression.
It’s worth noting that scientism is not scientific, and often aligns itself with obfuscation.