On O’Connor’s Politics and a “Compassionate Liberalism”

As one does on a Saturday afternoon, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed. In between tweets about the misdeeds and particular awfulness of the Trump White House and the goings-on across many different professional sports leagues, I came across this tweet by the author (and famed Twitter user) Joyce Carol Oates:

cover-500My reaction to Oates’ tweets has in the past either been positive or indifference and, generally, her political tweets have been things that I’ve found myself in agreement with. This tweet, which featured a re-tweeting of something delightfully snarky that Flannery said about academics, was one that did not sit well with me. It’s not that surprising that Oates would hold an absolutist or negative view of Catholicism but to cast O’Connor as an “ultra-conservative” reflects a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of both O’Connor and Catholicism. While O’Connor’s religious belief made her “conservative” in the sense that it sought to preserve a tradition or connect to a past order (as William Clancy describes in a 1960 issue of Commonweal describing the liberal Catholic point of view, “In the first place, every Catholic—and this includes every “liberal” Catholic—is in a certain sense a conservative. And this is true by definition. It would be monstrous to maintain otherwise. The Catholic accepts a Revelation that was once and for all delivered to the apostles; it is part of his patrimony to conserve this Revelation and to pass it on”) to describe her as an “ultra-conservative” is to take things a step too far. While no one would confuse O’Connor with a strict liberal or progressive, to cast her as a strict conservative misunderstands her and what she espoused.

Talking about who Flannery would or would not have voted for or supported seems like a pretty wasteful use of one’s time. Would she have sneered as some elements of the left and liberalism in the present? Absolutely. But she would sneer at just about everything in the modern world because that was her position, a healthy skepticism with many things about the modern world in which she lived. One shouldn’t overlook that, along with all the fools that think they’ve overcome the need for religion through science and modernity, O’Connor also portrayed the foolishness of those who turned to a performative and overly simplistic religious belief for a sense of superiority. There was certainly a great deal of O’Connor’s writing that criticized and “sneered” at those who claimed to be truly religious but were merely using those things for their own purposes, the kinds of people with which we are inundated and make up much of the right of the present political spectrum.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized it reflected the issues I do have with some elements of liberalism as it is understood in America at present. While, to be certain, much of what I think is in line with modern liberalism in America– a robust welfare state, a free-but-justly-regulated market economy, subscribing to the notion that the government is something that can help achieve the common good and benefit the population, etc. etc.– what Oates hints at, particularly as it relates to organized religion, gives me pause. Those who share this point of view seem to inhabit the Kierkegaardian notion, in my rough understanding of his philosophy, of the ethical stage. In particular, that the laws and the system are the end unto themselves and that order and morality is all that matters.

My view of liberalism, or at least as it is presently constructed in the United States, is that it is the tool, the best one in my estimation, for doing the most good for the most people efficiently. It is not perfect, sometimes it will take smaller steps than one might like, but on the whole it does this job. The emphasis on the individual that is present is something that I find in line with my existentialist sensibilities and is part of what I find unpalatable about more Marxist/leftist/socialist lines of thinking, philosophies and beliefs that do not allow (in my opinion at least) as much freedom and importance for the individual but rather speak in terms of large groups and movements that undervalue or underestimate the individual’s importance.

But liberalism and the structures of governance that come along with it are instruments, they are not the end unto themselves. Kierkegaard makes the point, as he discusses the stages in which one must pass, that the ethical is not overlooked or forgotten once one moves into the third and final stage, the religious. Rather the ethical is subsumed into it, continuing to exist but its existence is predicated by the acknowledgment and acceptance of that larger figure that is (take your pick) God/the divine/the absolute. For the kind of liberalism that comes out through that tweet by Oates, there is not that acknowledgment of that thing which goes beyond, which provides the more lasting and eternal reason for the existence of the ethics or morality that the laws and government reflects.

To be clear, I don’t think that more leftist (and, again, feel free to pick the specific term you want to use to signify what I’m talking about here) lines of thought get away from this. Those almost have too much of an absolute or, put another way, that ethical component is tossed aside rather than being incorporated in. While the most orthodox and strict of liberals today are only stuck in that ethical stage and don’t suppose a “religious” stage, the leftist standpoint would suppose that the ethical is the religious. Also, as I said above, I find my conception of the individual and the emphasis I place on it by virtue of my existential sensibilities does not mesh well with the ways in which much of this leftist thought reduces the individual to being strictly a piece within these larger and strictly economic groups. But just because I have these major issues with the left does not mean that  I find all manifestations of liberalism palatable and the kind that comes to mind from Oates’ tweet and the attitude towards the religious it espouses is one I have issues with as well.

It should be noted that I am aware that I am talking about things in a very oversimplified way and talking about very big ideas in a very broad and sweeping way, whether it be the philosophy of Kierkegaard or these political systems and movements. I also know that, in terms of the politics, I’m generalizing a bit and there is certainly nuance to be found within all these different schools of thought. But while I am talking in these broad, perhaps reductive, terms I do think this point is one worth making.

I find myself thinking about Matthew Sitman’s recent essay in Dissent on our current need for a vocal and present Christian Left. In that essay, he writes:

This basic moral posture means viewing people in terms other than efficiency and utility. It demands humility in the face of social problems: refusing to pathologize the poor; understanding how circumstances or bad luck press upon us; and grasping that we are fallible and flawed beings, not utility-maximizing agents. No human being should be a mere abstraction, a person whose life and livelihood is made expendable by the supposed demands of creative destruction. It also means seeing through the illusions of those who believe the present order of things, the “winners” and “losers” of the status quo, have truly earned all that they have. It becomes a plea to de-link our politics and economics from notions of deserving and undeserving, from the self-serving justifications of meritocracy. We have to strip away the illusion that things are the way they are simply because of differences in virtue.

“The starkest divides that we face are over these matters,” Sitman follows “[a]nd when it comes to such fundamental convictions—on what serving the dignity of the human person means, on what our neighbors deserve—religious people, social democrats, the populist left, and compassionate liberals can find agreement,” and on this he is assuredly true. What must be at the heart of one’s liberalism in this time is a compassion, a care about one’s fellow-man and the world around them that goes beyond mere utility and efficiency. While I don’t think that compassion has to come about from religious belief (or, more specifically, a believed in an organized religion), I do believe it requires an acknowledgment of something larger that goes beyond a mere technical preference or a grounding in something akin to Kierkegaard’s ethical stage. What Oates’ tweet misunderstands about religious belief (in this case, the Catholicism of Flannery O’Connor) is that it is not just a conservative source but also the driving force for a “compassionate liberalism” that is so important, both in this time and throughout recent American history.

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