The Corner

Politics & Policy

Young People and Relativism

Students on the UCLA campus in 2009 (Reuters photo: Lucy Nicholson)

“As a young conservative,” writes Kevin D. Williamson, “I was taught to despise something we were taught to call ‘moral relativism.’” Kevin may still consider himself to be a “young conservative” — age descriptors are relative, even if morality is not — but he does have 20 years on me. That’s 20 years of living, reading, and writing, which — to be very clear, Kevin — I only mention in order to compare our different starting points.

As a young conservative, Kevin had a clear idea of his enemy. The Soviet Union was not a faceless abstraction, rather it was . . .

 . . . a place of gulags and political prisoners, unnecessary privation, suppression, and — above all — lies. It was an empire of lies, and in such an empire no man is safe – no chess master, no novelist, no composer. The United States had its problems, as did the United Kingdom and the rest of our allies, but you could mock Ronald Reagan day and night and never fear hearing the sound of someone’s standard-issue boot kicking down your door in the dead of night. That was a moral truth, not a point of view.

Today the threat of Russia persists, China looms large, Islamic terrorism rages on. Yet these are not — as perhaps they once might have been — obvious starting points for political orientation. Now we look for enemies closer to home, in metaphors (i.e.“culture war”), though the old ones still have their rhetorical uses.

In 1990, Michael Godwin wrote that “[when] an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or the Nazis approaches 1,” thus coining the term “Godwin’s law.” Why it is always Hitler and not Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, or Nero, for that matter, is partly explained by several decades of progressive education, which have resulted in historical illiteracy (often accompanied by the whitewashing of communism). But if Godwin’s law proves anything other than that, it’s that few of us are really moral relativists.

As Kevin notes, this becomes obvious on the left, in the realm of sexual ethics, where supposedly everything is permitted [relativism] yet nothing is forgiven [absolutism]. “Consent” does next to nothing to resolve this contradiction, as explored in that New Yorker short story “Cat Person.” But once you’ve pointed this out directly, you’re guilty of another sin: victim blaming.

So hypocrisy begets cynicism. Of which there is no better example, in all of literature than in John 18:38, when Pilate, having found Christ to be innocent, asks him: “What is truth?” Pilate, of course, knows what truth is. He is staring Truth in the face and asking Truth the question.

Still, conservatives need to realize that cynicism also begets hypocrisy. On this point, Kevin helpfully draws a line between moral ambiguity (an inevitable fact of life) and relativism. And also explains how moral certitude can be conflated with absolutism in order to justify, well . . . anything.

Believing in moral truth is very different from believing that truth is easily ascertained or articulated. I suspect many young conservatives would be saved considerable embarrassment if they only realized this sooner.

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

Most Popular

White House

The Trump Steamroller

As we settle into high summer and the period of maximum difficulty in finding anything to fill in hours of television news, especially 24/7 news television, two well-established political trends are emerging in this pre-electoral period: The president’s opponents continue to dig themselves into foxholes that ... Read More
White House

Trump and the ‘Racist Tweets’

What does “racist” even mean anymore? Racism is the headline on President Trump’s Sunday tweets -- the media-Democrat complex assiduously describes them as “racist tweets” as if that were a fact rather than a trope. I don’t think they were racist; I think they were abjectly stupid. Like many ... Read More

We All Wanted to Love the Women’s Soccer Team

For the first time in my life, I did not root for an American team. Whatever the sport, I have always rooted American. And if those who called in to my radio show were representative of my audience, many millions of Americans made the same sad choice. It takes a lot for people like me not to root for an ... Read More

How Beto Made Himself into White-Privilege Guy

Robert Francis O’Rourke is white. If it’s any consolation, he’s very sorry about that. “Beto” has been running from his Irish ancestry for some time now. Long before the Left fell headlong into the logical termini of its triune fascination with race, power, and privilege, O’Rourke sensed that there ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Ilhan Omar Is Completely Assimilated

Beto O’Rourke, the losing Texas Senate candidate who bootstrapped his way into becoming a losing presidential candidate, had a message for refugees who had come to America: Your new country is a hellhole. The former congressman told a roundtable of refugees and immigrants in Nashville, Tenn., last week: ... Read More