The Varieties of Liberal Enthusiasm

A fascinating piece by Benjamin A. Plotinsky on the religious nature of Leftism:

One reason that observers saw the great totalitarianisms as religious was that each had its idol: Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, and Lenin in Russia, followed by Stalin. Take Grigory Zinoviev’s description of Lenin: “He is really the chosen one of millions. He is the leader by the Grace of God. He is the authentic figure of a leader such as is born once in 500 years.” Stalin’s cult of personality was far more developed and sometimes explicitly idolatrous, as in the poem that addressed the despot as “O Thou mighty one, chief of the peoples, Who callest man to life, Who awakest the earth to fruitfulness.” And in Italy, writes the historian Michael Burleigh, “intellectual sycophants and propagandists characterised [Mussolini] as a prodigy of genius in terms that would not have embarrassed Stalin: messiah, saviour, man of destiny, latterday Caesar, Napoleon, and so forth.”

To point out these words’ uncomfortable similarity to the journalists’ praises of Obama is not to equate the throngs who bowed down to totalitarian dictators with even the most worshipful Obamaphiles. But the manner of worship is related, as perhaps it must be in any human society that chooses to adore a human being. The widespread renaming of villages, schools, and factories after Stalin, for example, finds its modern-day democratic parallel in a rash of schools that have already rechristened themselves after Obama, to say nothing of the hundreds of young sentimentalists who informally adopted the candidate’s middle name during the presidential race. Even the Obama campaign’s ubiquitous logo—the letter O framing a rising sun—would not have surprised the scholar Eric Voegelin. In The Political Religions (1938), Voegelin traced rulers who employed the image of the sun—a symbol of “the radiation of power along a hierarchy of rulers and offices that ranges from God at the top down to the subject at the bottom”—from the pharaoh Akhenaton to Louis XIV and eventually to Hitler.


But another strand of modern liberal politics encroaches so far on the private sphere that it begins to resemble the political religions. On the excellent webcast Uncommon Knowledge, Czech president Václav Klaus recently compared “two ideologies” that were “structurally very similar. They are against individual freedom. They are in favor of centralistic masterminding of our fates. They are both very similar in telling us what to do, how to live, how to behave, what to eat, how to travel, what we can do and what we cannot do.” The first of Klaus’s “two ideologies” was Communism—a system with which he was deeply familiar, having participated in the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The second was environmentalism.

Klaus could have expanded his list. Environmentalism does indeed tell its adherents “what to eat” (pesticide-free organic food, preferably grown nearby to cut down on trucking) and “how to travel” (by public transportation or, better yet, bicycle). But it also lays down rules on nearly every aspect of life in a consumer economy: how to wash your clothes (seldom); how to wash yourself (take a shower, not a bath, and use a low-flow showerhead); how to light your house (with fluorescent bulbs); how to choose your TV (look for the Energy Star logo!); how to go to the bathroom (with high-efficiency toilets and recycled paper); how to invest, clean, sleep, and dress (in environmentally friendly companies, with nontoxic chemicals, on sheets made of “sustainable fibers,” and in clothes made of the same); and even how to procreate (Greenpeace has issued a guide to “environmentally friendly sex”).

Think about the life that a truly conscientious environmentalist must lead! Compared with it, the devout Muslim’s five daily prayers and the pious Jew’s carefully regulated diet are a cakewalk. What the British historian Alfred Cobban wrote about totalitarianism—that it “takes the spiritual discipline of a religious order and imposes it on forty or sixty or a hundred million people”—applies perfectly to environmentalism, except for the part about imposition. And there, one might give Jonah Goldberg’s answer in Liberal Fascism: “You may trust that environmentalists have no desire to translate these voluntary suggestions into law, but I have no such confidence given the track record of similar campaigns in the past.” Recycling mandates come to mind, as does the federal law that will impose silly-looking spiral lightbulbs on us all by 2014.

There’s also a close resemblance between the environmental and biblical views of history, as the late novelist Michael Crichton pointed out in a widely reprinted speech. “Environmentalism is in fact a perfect twenty-first-century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths,” Crichton said. “There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all.” That judgment day currently assumes the form of various global-warming disasters that will happen unless we immediately perform still more rituals. Never mind that the science so urgently instructing us to reduce carbon emissions—thus hobbling economic growth and prosperity around the world—is so young, and so poorly understood, that it can’t explain why global warming seems to have stalled over the last decade. Far more persuasive is the argument from faith: we’d better repent, because the End is nigh.


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