Liberalism is in trouble and it’s a crisis of its contradictions. Too much freedom can make you unfree. That was what Vladimir Putin implied at the G20 meeting when he put his crafty finger on several of our problems.
Mass migration: when you have open borders, people will come who have no intention of integrating. Multiculturalism: when you let migrants stick to their own customs, what if their culture undermines the freedom of other people, like sexism or homophobia? And sexual diversity: if everyone has a right to do what they want, that right becomes a kind of sacrament and there’s hell to pay if you criticise it. Men can self-define as a penguin; penguins can be gay; and society acts like the emperor with no clothes, strutting about without a stitch on, all of us pretending not to notice. At rock bottom, liberalism has just become a bit silly – and the dictators, like Mr Putin, are laughing at us.
Now, some Catholics call themselves post-liberal or even pre-liberal: they don’t sign up to this social order and they won’t bother to defend it. I respect where they’re coming from but I must offer some words of caution. Sure, the Catholic Church has historically been in conflict with liberalism and its vision of the individual as a totally free agent. Catholics see man as a child of God, with a conscience, a nature and a relationship with the rest of society that includes duties as well as rights.
But there are elements within liberalism that do fit with Catholic teaching and, as Benedict XVI has written, the commitment to freedom of conscience, even the separation of church and state, is a big part of our tradition. It’s absolutely true that liberals seem to have shifted from taking a neutral attitude towards Christianity to being critical, even censorious – and many Christians find that frightening. Sometimes it feels as if we are on the verge of ostracism or proscription, and I’m not wholly sure why. Opposing abortion, for example, is hardly an anti-social opinion. We just really, really like babies.
But I’m still convinced that some day – simply for stating the belief that life begins at conception – one or two of us will go to jail, and my sense of tragedy isn’t just for myself or the unborn baby but for liberalism and its decline into stupidity. It needn’t be like this. There was a time when this philosophy had muscles and made profound sacrifices to confront fascism and communism, and many liberals believed that fight was endorsed by God.
During the recent D-Day commemorations, I was reminded of the prayer that Franklin D Roosevelt read out on June 6, 1944: “O Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in Thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade… With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy.” You might argue that Roosevelt could use such language because in the Second World War it was unusually clear who was good and who was evil, whereas today we lack such certainty. Personally, I think the government of China is pure evil, but the West is confused: the Reds have lifted a lot of people out of poverty, after all, and given the West’s own history of imperialism, who are we to judge?
That latter point is key. Not only can the West not call out evil but it struggles to call itself good – because it is embarrassed by its past and because it doesn’t even believe in good as a concept.
In the twilight of liberalism there is no such thing as right or wrong because the free individual writes his or her own rules. Each defines what is good for himself and, hence, there is no common agreement. So, we’re back where we started with Mr Putin’s observation that liberalism has almost argued itself out of existence, like the philosopher in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who “went on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing”.
The liberal project needs to return to planet Earth and rediscover itself, especially that part of it that acknowledges the existence of a soul in search of Truth.
What will it take to make the West intervene in Hong Kong? Flattery? One surprising side to the democracy protests in this former British colony is that locals have been flying the Union Jack, and I don’t know if they’re trying to charm us or guilt-trip us into acting; or if, genuinely, what can be a symbol of colonialism for some represents freedom for others.
I hope that’s what my flag means to the Chinese. If it is, then the West’s history, far from embarrassing us, should galvanise us into action. It’s time to confront Beijing’s communist tyranny head-on, which means taking whatever diplomatic and economic actions are necessary to advance the God-given rights of its people.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor