Man is, according to Aristotle, a political animal. Politics, on the other hand, is fast becoming a ravenous beast devouring every social interaction and institution. The NFL and Hollywood, hurricanes and mass shootings, bedrooms, bathrooms, and classrooms are all being swallowed whole as we stand impotently by. The Right complains that the Left politicizes everything, overlooking the irony that even lobbing the accusation against “the Left” is to play the game. They do have a point however. Everything is in danger (yes danger) of becoming a political issue and unless we step in, civilization as we have known it will be relegated to the dustbin of history, politicization’s last victim. It is only by understanding this tendency that we can hope to turn the tide.
Plato and Christopher Dawson on the Democratic Ethos
It is Plato that can help us explain the ubiquitous nature of this behavior. Putting his obvious personal biases towards democracy as the system responsible for the death of his teacher Socrates, his insight into the democratic ethos is particularly relevant to our current conditions. The spirit of democracy is animated by a single principle—freedom. In order for this to happen, a second principle needs to arise—equality. Equality exists so as to maximize the number of options upon which a man may exercise his freedom. This equality is not merely the belief that “all men are created equal,” but an absolute equality, even in areas where equality does not actually exist. The democratic ethos then sees equality everywhere.
In a democracy, the political realm exists to maximize freedom for the individual and, since any threat to equality becomes a threat to freedom, the polis must enforce equality. In other words, in the democratic ethos there is a pretense that all views and ways of life in society must be regarded as worthy of equal treatment. It is the threat to equality, equality enforced by the polis, that forces all debate about views and ways of life, into the political arena. In short, democracies, especially those in which the populace has become a law unto themselves (i.e. only able to make arguments in terms of “Constitutionality” without reference to a higher law), always tend towards a totalitarian mob rule in which everything becomes a political issue.
It is the totalitarianistic tendency that brings us to another important point, one that was made by the great 20th Century historian Christopher Dawson. Dawson points out that the Left-Right distinction, at least historically speaking, is a relatively new phenomenon, arising with the French Revolution. Not only is it relatively new, but it is ultimately based upon what he calls the Left-Right Fallacy. The terms left/right, progressive/conservative, etc. are relative terms. They attempt to grade men according to their relation to a central point. The problem is that this central point does not actually exist. What exactly is the Progressive left of or the Conservative right of? What is their central point? Dawson thinks this is what makes the whole system irrational and ultimately a trap designed to create division. As he says, the “tactics of totalitarianism are to weld every difference of opinion and tradition and every conflict of economic interests into an absolute ideological opposition which disintegrates society into hostile factions bent on destroying one another.”
Changing Our Way of Seeing
We speak so much about division—division in our country, division in the Church–and the reason is quite simple. We continue to think from within the left-right distinction rather than thinking about it. We cannot transcend it while we are trapped within it. The fact that it makes its first appearance in the French Revolution ought to give us a hint as to who we have in mind as its designer. Diabolos, one of the name’s we give the devil, literally means one who tears apart. The Left-Right distinction is one of his greatest inventions for tearing men apart. This is not to over-spiritualize things to point out something that should be obvious. Any time we regularly speak of They without actually being able to name who They are, it is usually an indication that it has a preternatural cause. Any time we find ourselves demonizing other people (evidence this 2014 Pew Survey that found 1/3 of Americans think the other side is out to destroy the country), you can be sure there is more than a fully human explanation. There are always willing human instruments involved, but when its origin and its subtle irrationality are unmasked we should need to change our own pattern of thinking.
It is particularly disconcerting to have seen the Left-Right distinction enter the Church as well. On the heels of the French Revolution, in 19th Century France, liberal Catholicism was born as an attempt to find some sort of accommodation with liberal theory and practice. This yeast has spoiled the whole lump, infiltrating the hierarchy and rank and file Catholics alike. The danger using these terms here is that there is a middle term around which the liberal/conservative filter could be applied—divinely revealed truth. It makes it seem as if the truth is somehow open to interpretation like it is in the democratic ethos. So not only does it divide members of Christ’s Mystical Body, but it also destroys faith in Divine Revelation.
The Church among all human (even if it is not merely human) institutions should transcend these labels and the fact that it can’t does not bode well for the rest of humanity. The Church must lead the way. Not just because a more united body of believers will spill over into the world, but because it is vital for the health of the Body itself. The current division within the Church is a work of the Devil and we only feed it when we allow our thinking to pass through the Left\Right Sieve. Think you’re immune? Who you are closer to—if you identify as a liberal are you closer to your liberal agnostic neighbor or the conservative Catholic who annoys you because of his false piety at Mass? If you are conservative, are you closer to the conservative Jewish man down the street or the liberal Catholic who has the coexist bumper sticker? If it is not the fellow believer, with whom you have an ontological connection within the Mystical Body, then you may only be able to see through the liberal/conservative paradigm. The Church is the only truly liberal society—extending love and mercy to all mankind and teaching man to govern his use of freedom (the true meaning of liberal) by her conservative clinging to God’s revealed truth.
If you are sick and tired of everything being politicized then refuse to play the game and transcend the Left-Right Fallacy. It is the only way to restore any sense of unity in the Church and in Society.