Michael Barone has a terrific column today on the enemy within. He is not referring to underground cells of Islamofascists but rather to a set of subversive ideas.
Using terms like “the enemy within” (my phrase), “covert enemies” (Barone’s term), “subversive,” etc., inevitably calls to mind comparisons with what we’ve come to know as McCarthyism, although that term is a misnomer because the practices we mean both pre- and post-dated McCarthy.
In my former life I was — and in this life I remain — a critic of the violation of civil liberties that we associate with the McCarthy period. Since I find myself considerably less troubled by many current practices that are often criticized as McCarthyite, however, I am both interested in and troubled by the comparison to the earlier unfortunate era.
One fact that I find highly relevant in considering this comparison (I’ve found that when issues are complex and confusing, facts, often ignored, can be quite helpful) concerns the degree and nature of the threat. Briefly, the threats McCarthyite measures were intended to thwart (domestic subversion, revolution, etc.) were for the most part invented or greatly exaggerated (no, this is not to say there were no commie spies, just that their existence did not justify firing garbage men or professors). Now, however, the threat is real. It’s almost as though the McCarthites were crying “Wolf!” when the wolf was distant and not a domestic threat, but now the wolf is both at and in the door.
This wolf, however, is not what Barone means by “our covert enemies.” Instead, he points to something equally, if not more, subversive:
…. These covert enemies are those among our elites who have promoted the ideas labeled as multiculturalism, moral relativism and (the term is Professor Samuel Huntington’s) transnationalism.
At the center of their thinking is a notion of moral relativism. No idea is morally superior to another. Hitler had his way, we have ours — who’s to say who is right? No ideas should be “privileged,” especially those that have been the guiding forces in the development and improvement of Western civilization. Rich white men have imposed their ideas because of their wealth and through the use of force. Rich white nations imposed their rule on benighted people of color around the world. For this sin of imperialism they must forever be regarded as morally stained and presumptively wrong. Our covert enemies go quickly from the notion that all societies are morally equal to the notion that all societies are morally equal except ours, which is worse.
“Moral relativism” is another way to describe an abandonment of principle, of the very idea of principle itself. The high priest of the abandonment of principle is, of course, Stanley Fish — whose views I discussed, among other places, here, here, here, here, here, and here — but, in The Trouble With Principle and most of his other writings, he has provided a convenient intellectual veneer to others who want to abandon principle whenever it gets in the way of their desired policies.
In my view the first, and emblematic, principle Fish and his school abandoned was what Gunnar Myrdal had once — now, it appears, quaintly — called the “American creed,” namely, that every individual should be treated “without regard” to race, creed, or color. After abandoning the “American creed,” discarding other principles came easy.