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Jewish World Review Sept. 25, 2000 / 24 Elul, 5760

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg
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Consumer Reports

Conservatives adopt abandoned liberalism -- RECENTLY, the Yale Political Union invited me to give a speech on a topic of my choosing. Last night, I finally showed up. My speech was titled, "Resolved: The Left has become the enemy of liberalism."

This was something of a trick title, as I wasn't referring to the liberalism of Alec Baldwin or the nightly news. I meant classical liberalism, the liberalism born of the Enlightenment and referred to in the phrase "the liberal arts." This liberalism reveres the rights of the individual, believes in universal truths and is skeptical of governmental power.

Today the Left, once a defender of classical liberalism, is its chief betrayer - or at least that was my argument last night. This New Left has replaced the conservatives who once opposed notions of equality and truth.

Take race. Conservatives largely championed the notion that race, or gender, spoke volumes about you. In Europe during the French and American revolutions, old guard conservatives thought phrases such as "all men are created equal" were absurd. The leading European monarchist intellectual of the time, Joseph DeMaistre, railed against the idea of a "universal man."

"There is no such thing as 'man' in this world," he wrote. "I have seen in my life French, Italians, Russians . But as for 'man' I declare that I have never met one in my life."

He meant we are all born into our station, which can't be transcended. Some men - and some races - are born high; others are born low. The liberalism of the Enlightenment rejected this idea - that we are all just Jews or Africans or Asians. Classical liberalism holds that we are first and foremost human beings.

The Left has abandoned that worldview, arguing instead that racial and ethnic identity comes first. For example, in a 1995 Vanderbilt Law Review article, an African-American civil rights attorney argued that because race was rightly being used to dispense benefits, the government needed to start policing "racial fraud." Punishing those who "falsified their racial identity" is the only way to recognize what he called the "permanent importance" of racial divisions.

We've had laws like this before, when it used to be illegal for black people to claim they were white. In 1920s Virginia, you could have spent a year in jail if you "falsely" told the government you were white. In so many ways, the Left seems to have adopted the policies and attitudes it once considered racist: "Colored people" was racist thirty years ago, but today "people of color" is the preferred term.

Or take the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a moral triumph for classical liberalism and American liberals. The Left has walked away from the ideas embodied in that legislation. A few years ago, California passed Proposition 209, a measure touted by conservatives to get the government out of the race business. Prop 209 said, "the state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting." That language is almost verbatim from the 1964 Civil Rights Act; yet Leftists denounced it as racist and evil.

Thurgood Marshall insisted that "classifications and distinctions based upon race or color have no moral or legal validity in our society," and Martin Luther King dreamed of a day when blacks and whites could be judged on the content of their character not the color of their skin. But today these are conservatives' arguments.

And it's not just on matters of race that the Left has surrendered the high ground.

For centuries science was the Left's obvious partner. From the "scientific socialism" of Karl Marx to the optimistic promises of the Kennedy administration's New Frontier, science was considered a valuable tool for alleviating hunger and poverty and improving the human condition. Today the Left distrusts science.

Most consequential is the fight against scientific progress, such as biotechnology. Though the scientific evidence against genetically engineered foods is almost nonexistent, environmental groups have managed to block, ban and boycott the field. Consider so-called golden rice, created after decades of researching ways to feed the Third World. Golden rice is genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, which makes vitamin A. If the Third World were allowed access to it, one million children would be saved, and it would prevent another 350,000 from going blind - every year.

But, the Left stands in the way, sounding like old conservatives who used to say things like, "If G-d meant men to fly, He'd have given them wings." Conservatives have entered the breach, making arguments that only a generation ago altruistic liberals would have made.

Today conservatives are the champions of science. We are the ones in favor of being colorblind. We are the ones who believe in universal truths and values. Yes, we conservatives are the true liberals now.

To comment on JWR contributor Jonah Goldberg's column click here.


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