Monte Python and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism

William Urban, 1996

The story of intellectual conversion has become an art form. The essentials remain the same, the details differ according to time and place: a young person of reasonable intelligence and high ideals is at one and the same time repelled by societal injustices and attracted by individuals and ideas which promise to correct those obvious evils and some which are less obvious. At length, events or maturity create some doubts (which are quickly suppressed out of pride and some alarm about the possible need to rethink one's entire value system). The doubts are eventually reinforced by the fact that others are going through the same thought process, a few working through the ideological consequences more swiftly than others, a few turning into true believers who refuse to acknowledge that any problems have arisen. Finally, a break is made. It is a painful break, especially for those in the intellectual professions, because it dissolves long-standing friendships and professional alliances, creates some strains inside the family and with colleagues, and requires more than a little explanation of why what one said previously was, more or less, wrong or wrong-headed. Hence, the need to produce a Confessions. Not as profound as Augustine's, but every bit as necessary and sometimes just as instructive.

My own intellectual and emotional transition consisted of these elements:

1) Like many academics, I was not all that liberal. More talk than action, and most of the talk was writing. Of course, there was some modest Civil Rights activity, some anti-war quasi-agitation. Enough to have two presidents of my small college tell me that people wanted me fired; not enough to have many consider me dangerous. I did not join SDS, go to the 68 Convention in nearby Chicago, or take a bus to Washington to participate in mass rallies. There was something in my personality and academic training that made me mistrust such things.

2) Innate practicality. We liberals long thought that the failure of the social programs lay in not having committed sufficient resources. Just as FDR had failed to get the country out of the depression until we were at war, Lyndon Johnson had squandered his chance to end poverty at a single blow by using the nation's resources to fight an expensive war. If only we could end the Cold War, we could get back to America's primary justification for existence: to serve as a model for the world how a people could combine democracy, prosperity, and opportunities of all kinds for all members of our society. We argued--and still continue to argue, perhaps correctly--that we just needed to spend enough to get over the hump. In time, however, it became clear that the demand on services was growing too swiftly for anyone to hope that sufficient revenues could be raised to meet them. We believed, for example, that special efforts had to be made to overcome the effects of slavery and segregation on the Black community; we did not anticipate that Hispanics, Native Americans, women, and other groups would raise valid claims on our sympathies and dollars. Liberals divided into two groups: those who believed that cuts in military spending and more taxes on the "rich" would do the job, and those who possessed sixth-grade arithmetic skills.

3) Suspicion of special pleading. We mistrusted politicians, at least the traditional kind; we trusted those who claimed the moral high ground. In time some of us came to see that the new moralists were building careers by espousing each new "concern" as it arose. We saw individuals take advantage of the opportunity to be a "victim." As we mused that human beings had not changed much over the centuries, some of us noted that this reflection was a traditional conservative position, somewhat incompatible with the theory that we can make a new society of the malleable human material at our disposal.

4) Monte Python. We grew up on the Flying Circus. I, quite by chance, even had a pleasant exchange of letters over the years with Terry Jones, that imaginative man of many talents who might be considered the soul of the madcap team that created the television programs and movies. What kept the Flying Circus from being consistently ultra-liberal was its marvelous sense of humor: a satirist cannot resist making fun of stupid people even when they are saying the "right things." There was that marvelous creature who interrupted skits that were getting out of hand, saying, "things are getting too silly." The Monte Python gang provided us with an effective BS Detector and an awareness that things could indeed get too silly.

5) The liberal arts education kicked in. When Proposition 209 confronted the principle of Affirmative Action with that of non-discrimination, liberal leaders argued that sometimes discrimination was necessary to end discrimination and a federal judge suggested that a referendum forbidding discrimination might even be unconstitutional. What came to my mind was the phrase from Orwell's 1984: "White is Black, Black is White." And from Animal Farm, that some animals are more equal than others. Indeed, things were getting too silly.

6) Outrage with dishonesty. Most liberal causes are good-hearted, reasonably plausible means of achieving desireable social goals: ending poverty, inequality, unfairness; providing opportunities, supporting education and the arts, opposing unjust wars and being skeptical of military and political intervention abroad. These can be defended on their own merits, with a substantial array of facts and traditional attitudes to support their ends and means. However, as the general public has moved ahead of the intellectuals in sensing that the time has come to reassess the liberal agenda, liberal spokesmen have gone on a rhetorical offensive that matches in crudeness anything that George Wallace or the Young Americans for Freedom said in the last years of segregation and McCarthyism. Anyone with respect for logic and the English language had to rethink what was going on. Alas, in the age of Deconstruction and Post-Modernism, too few academics have much respect for logic or the English language. Where is the Flying Circus now that we need them?

So here I am, more talk than action, writing down a few thoughts in the hope that they will help others get over the last brow of the hill, eyebrows quivering with that combination of anticipation and fear that the new prospect will be more exciting and pleasing than the last, looking forward to a moment to stand, catch one's breath, and survey the road that lies ahead.