Progressive obsessions with race and class blur individual achievement. Those of the past instead are judged as one-dimensional players, either good or bad based on their perceived liberalism as interpreted by 2017 standards.
The humane General James Longstreet and the racist General Nathan Bedford Forrest are equally culpable because they fought for the Confederacy. It doesn’t matter that Teddy Roosevelt was an environmentalist and trust-buster when few others were — because his views of imperialism were uncouth by our standards.
The scary thing about contemporary progressivism is this reduction of individuals to cardboard cutouts, whose sins and saintly works fade before cosmic concepts of race and gender.
Making the Necessary Allowances
Exemptions work in the present, too. Leftists think that state-mandated equality is of such critical importance that illiberal means are sometimes excusable to achieve it.
Another example is the current campus tendency to suspend constitutionally protected due process when students are merely accused of sexual assault, or to deny free speech in order to shield students from views they find illiberal.
Exemption is more than just normal human hypocrisy. It takes such contradictions to a cosmic plane and is far more effective than pseudo-confessionals and apologies, individual contextualization, claims of victimization, and blame-gaming that humans seek refuge in when caught in hypocrisies.
As a corollary, liberals can escape the ramifications of their own ideologies. They may place their personal interests “in context” by public professions of caring. Recently, liberal journalists Mark Halperin and Leon Wieseltier were exposed as long-time serial sexual harassers — or worse — a fact that many of their associates must have long overlooked, given their support for feminist agendas.
Next to exemption is the closely related doctrine of secular penance (or the cessation of punishment through purchased indulgences). It usually follows when the currency of exemption is finally exhausted. Personal sins are then absolved by assertions of liberal orthodoxies. When desperate and in extremis, liberals find absolution by promising to do compensatory liberal good works — feminism, environmentalism, and identity politics become their feel-good version of hair shirts, ashes, and fasting.
Had Ted Kennedy not been pronounced the progressive ‘Lion of the Senate,’ he might have been charged with everything from involuntary manslaughter to sexual assault.
Had Ted Kennedy not been heir to a liberal dynasty and later pronounced the progressive “Lion of the Senate,” he might have somewhere along his career path been charged with everything from involuntary manslaughter to sexual assault — and on the latter grounds ended his career in the fashion of a Senator Robert Packwood or Bill O’Reilly.
We have seen plenty examples of both exemption and penance recently.
Take the Uranium One deal. Most liberals knew that after 2008 Hillary Clinton would run for president in 2016 and thus, they hoped, complete a 16-year Obama-Clinton progressive trajectory.
The Clintons assumed that in the intervening eight-year period they would need 1) cash for their campaign chest to keep Clinton the apparat ready and employed, and to have resources for easy travel and access; 2) transitory government quid pro quo service to extract such cash from commercial interests; 3) and enough public exposure to weather the messianic Obama domination of the news.
Bill’s speaking fees and the global business community’s gifts to the Clinton family foundation, Hillary’s tenure as secretary of state, and the wink-and-nod acknowledgment of her looming presidential bid met all three conditions.
Liberal necessity trumped ethics when it came to Bill’s receiving $500,000 from Russian interests for a brief speech in Moscow, or over $140 million gifted to the foundation from the same connivers, or Hillary’s prominent role in approving the sale to Kremlin interests of 20 percent of the diminishing supply of U.S. uranium.
Most of Hillary Clinton’s long career was predicated on the doctrine of liberal exemption — from the hyper-capitalist greed and malfeasance of making $100,000 in cattle futures on an initial $1,000 investment (the odds of a return that large are less than 1 in 1 trillion) to destroying over 30,000 emails while secretary of state, at least some of them sent and received with classified government information.
California is an excellent example of how liberal exemption works. Liberal causes can require some personal discomfort for their adherents, and so unease is exempted for the higher good. Demand that irrigation water be diverted from farming to fish — but not so water from the Hetch Hetchy Valley, routed over great distances from Yosemite to the Bay Area. Insist on high-speed rail, but try it first on rustics far distant from not-in-my-backyard northern California neighborhoods. Oppose the idea of border walls as illiberal and counterproductive, but install high fences and gates around one’s own residence, which work well enough to remind the Other of the doctrines of private sovereignty. Promote open borders, but insist that one’s own children are schooled in private academies immune from the influxes of poor and non-English-speaking illegal aliens from Latin America and Mexico.
Oppose the idea of border walls as illiberal and counterproductive, but install high fences and gates around one’s own residence.
On a national level, universities, corporations, and government are subject to liberal orthodoxies that define and enhance diversity on the two principles of proportional representation and disparate impact. Yet sometimes that norm is waived because of merit: There are no apprenticeships and mentor programs to ensure Asian-American quarterbacks or Latino wide receivers in a NFL that is nearly 80 percent African-American, although such tools are used to prevent a UC Berkeley from having too many Asians admitted on merit. Not standing for the National Anthem violated an NFL rule with impunity, while placing a patriotic decal on a uniform earned rebuke.
Liberalism makes celebrity life easier.
Penance and Indulgence
Hollywood liberal mogul Harvey Weinstein apparently has been sexually harassing, assaulting, and even raping women for decades. Such sins were commonly known in Hollywood circles. So how was Weinstein able to navigate around the law?
The answer is not just that his victims feared his sticks of career retribution or that he promised commensurate carrots of professional advancement to his would-be targets. Many of the most successful actresses and actors in Hollywood had already transcended anything that Weinstein might have done to them, either good or bad. Yet they kept quiet about what they knew
What made Weinstein exempt from accountability was the fact that he was not just a run-of-the-mill Hollywood progressive, but a well-connected rich political activist who rubbed shoulders with politicians and their families (he hired Malia Obama as a summer intern), funded films that reflected liberal orthodoxies, donated cash to Democratic candidates, and bundled even larger sums for Democrats’ campaigns.
By liberal orthodoxy, Weinstein was known as an abject sexist and sexual predator deserving of prison. But also by liberal orthodoxy, his value to the cause for some 30 years outweighed the harm he had done to individuals.
The cases of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are similar: Their exemptions were predicated on their value for liberal society as progressive artists.
If an Al Gore was not a global-warming guru, he might have had far more trouble nullifying the charge, from a working-class female masseuse he had hired to come to his hotel room, that he was a “crazed sex poodle.” A right-wing David Letterman would have faced career consequences for joking about the rape of Sarah Palin’s 14-year-old daughter.
The locus classicus of how liberal exemption works is Bill Clinton, who had a long history of targeting vulnerable or young and inexperienced women for both consensual and apparently coerced sexual activity. Clinton, though disbarred and forced to make financial settlements (what Hillary now calls “litigated”), was never called to criminal account. While he was most illiberal to individual women, he was felt to be most liberal on issues relevant to the feminist causes. The journalist Nina Burleigh rather crudely but honestly defined liberal exemption during Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky affair and crisis:
I would be happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.
Almost immediately after being exposed as a sexual assaulter, Harry Weinstein wisely understood that his three decades of exemption were exhausted — and now he would be forced to rely on the secondary doctrine of penance.
In extremis, Weinstein proved more cynical in his claim to penance than most liberal transgressors:
I am going to need a place to channel that anger so I’ve decided that I’m going to give the NRA my full attention. I hope Wayne LaPierre will enjoy his retirement party. I’m going to do it at the same place I had my Bar Mitzvah. I’m making a movie about our president, perhaps we can make it a joint retirement party. One year ago, I began organizing a $5 million foundation to give scholarships to women directors at USC. While this might seem coincidental, it has been in the works for a year. It will be named after my mom and I won’t disappoint her.
A desperate Weinstein punched all the liberal buttons — gun control, hating Donald Trump, academic largesse, millions for female directors, even motherhood — in an effort to wipe away his personal sins by devoting himself to cosmic progressive works. I suppose that his offer was also closer to the medieval concept of indulgence — paying money as a form of penance, to avoid divine punishment for bad behavior.
A desperate Weinstein punched all the liberal buttons — gun control, hating Donald Trump, academic largesse, millions for female directors, even motherhood — in an effort to wipe away his personal sins by devoting himself to cosmic progressive works.
Weinstein’s crude post facto pay-for-play sex recalls a more refined gesture of indulgence and penance by former Harvard president Larry Summers. After Summers, in illiberal fashion, had suggested that “intrinsic aptitude” could regrettably help explain why there are relatively few women in science and engineering, he faced a storm of protests.
In desperation, Summers salvaged a few extra months of his presidential tenure by creating two Harvard diversity committees and directing $50 million in Harvard funds to promote faculty diversity, with a special emphasis on promoting women in scientific and engineering fields.
Recently when actor Kevin Spacey was accused of a long-ago attempt to assault an adolescent male actor, he coupled his claims of amnesia about the event with a simultaneous announcement that he was suddenly coming out as a gay actor — as if somehow the charge was mitigated, contextualized, or overshadowed by professing his homosexuality.
The Future of Exemption and Penance
Both liberal doctrines will likely continue because in a vast array of fields — academia, entertainment, government, and the media — they are seen by employees as little different from low-premium indemnity insurance.
Most at some point in their careers will face a crisis over a purported illiberal act, whether real or imagined. Professions of liberal orthodoxy cannot prevent such crises. But, like flu vaccinations, they can lessen the odds of either being infected or suffering a prolonged bout. The cost of vaccination is low compared with the possibility of lost work and income.
Even more likely, both exemption and preemptive indulgence will continue as equality of opportunity is largely achieved through legislation and popular culture, and as we keep pursuing the more problematic goal of ensuring equality of results.
Inequality cannot be remedied by legislation. The multitude of factors that contribute to it — chance, luck, circumstances of birth, innate talent, familial upbringing, human nature itself, and the forces of bias, self-interest, nepotism, and tribalism — require totalitarian remedies. History shows us that attempts to enforce equal results usually result in war or genocide.
The more fervently progressives seek to redistribute income, or use diversity quotas to ensure proportional representation in hiring and admissions, or suspend constitutional free speech and due process to suppress individualism and heterodoxy, the more likely that progressivism’s affluent adherents will risk being exposed or convicted on some counts as illiberal.
Thus they will seek exemptions from the consequences of their own liberal causes — and if trapped without an exit, they will turn to liberal penance or use cash to seek an indulgence.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, released this month from Basic Books.