Although liberals now refer to themselves as progressives to emphasize the distinction between the classic free-market liberalism which they abhor and communal efforts to create a better world they question and to convey the idea of progress, they are no different from Lafollette, Brandeis, Dewey, and Lippmann who fought for the rights of the disenfranchised, sought to alleviate poverty through government largesse and social programs.
While conservatives believe in the ineluctability of human nature – human beings have always been self-interested, self-protective, and territorial – liberals see no such thing. While we can do nothing to vitiate the demands of hunger, thirst, and sex, they say, we can certainly curb our more aggressive instincts. Human beings, although descended from apes, were of a completely different order once the threshold of consciousness was reached. Intelligence and an innate sense of morality gave Man the ability to act responsibly and the obligation to do so.
Dorothea Marks had been a liberal for as long as she could remember. She did not come from a liberal family. Far from it. The Marks family has a long aristocratic English history. Dorothea’s branch can be traced back to John Marks who was born in Suffolk, England in 1650, married Elizabeth Hastings, and died in Virginia. The family tree is as complex as any and by no means all reputable.
Henry Marks, for example, left the family estate under suspicious circumstances, but emerged twenty years later as a successful merchant in Norfolk. His descendants had for a long time claimed that he was closely related to the Marks of Marks & Spencer, but once they discovered that the department store scion was Jewish, they quickly distanced themselves from any possible family tie.
Llewellyn Marks, despite his aristocratic pedigree and careful upbringing – Eton, Cambridge, and an oak-paneled office in the City overlooking, of all places, St. Mark’s Cathedral – used his family crest and elite education as a cover for the worst financial dealings that London had seen since the Restoration.
“Marx, like in Karl Marx?”, Dorothea was often asked; and rather than set the record straight and do justice to her breeding and family lineage, she replied, “Not quite, but almost”. As a committed progressive she was pleased that so many people associated her with the great man. In her earlier days Britain and much of Europe was enamored with Soviet Communism and intellectuals chose to overlook Stalin’s autocracy and civil abuses and see only the promise of a more just, equitable, and fair system of governance.
Dorothea was American to the core. In fact Herbert Marks, her ancestor, was one of the first settlers in Jamestown and therefore she qualified as a First Family of Virginia. However, because of her emotional, intellectual, and social commitment to socialist liberalism (a useful appellation, she explained, because it softened the Communist-tinged European movement of the 1950s, and expressed a more American participatory democracy), she never mentioned Herbert Marks nor his tobacco plantations on the Northern Neck nor his trade in cotton. She preferred to think of herself as a Marx.
Unlike many of her progressive friends who came from Jewish families who adored Samuel Gompers and volunteered at The Daily Worker or whose fathers had been academics at Columbia or Chicago and steeped in the ethic of community organization and social protest, Dorothea grew into liberalism as a rejection of her immediate family and its long history.
She had grown up on Park Avenue, went to the finest private schools in the City, spent summers on the North Shore of Long Island, played tennis at the exclusive Piping Rock Club, and was accepted to Wellesley – the only one of the famous Seven Sisters colleges that had not lost its cultural traditionalism; but after only one semester was completely disenchanted by the chatty clubbiness of well-to-do classmates. She was determined to disavow them, the elite life of the Hamptons, and the predictable paths to proper marriage and comfort.
She turned adolescent rebellion into a social cause.
Not unlike most progressives she saw all social ills linked. There was indeed a link between crony capitalism, the One Percent and the affliction of African Americans; or between global warming and white privilege; incarceration and homophobia; the plight of the Palestinians, rapacious multinationalism, and a disregard for the oppressed.
Such conflation, perplexing to some was essential to the progressive world view which, derived indeed from Marx, Lenin, and Engels, was rooted in social inequality, the pernicious influence of class and status, and a distorted economic structure. It was necessary to fight racism, sexism, homophobia, capitalism, elitism, income inequality, and social dysfunction as one complex but unified problem.
Dorothea, therefore, was a member of the American Feminist Alliance, The Coalition Against Global Warming, Queer Nation, and La Lucha. She marched against pipelines, offshore refineries, coal plants, nuclear power stations, clear cut logging, Hooters, and NAFTA. She gave generously to Save the Bay PIRG, The Environmental Defense Fund, and Women Against Men.
Until her mid-Fifties, Dorothea had never experienced a crisis of faith. She marched in lockstep with her progressive colleagues, felt good about the rough-and-tumble, slightly dangerous protest marches that reminded her of Selma and Birmingham. There was indeed a solidarity and a communalism that conservatives would never know. They were isolated by their individualism, dispirited by their belief in the unchangeable and greedy demands of human nature. Progressives understood that living a life of political and social solidarity was a conviction that the means were as important as the ends. One’s life must be exemplary of the goals to be achieved.
As she grew older, however, and as much as she hated to admit it, the bloom was fading from the blush of the rose. She found herself angered at the selfish shenanigans of Black Lives Matter, the persistent embrace of a culture of entitlement instead of individual responsibility, and the constant, interminable howls of protest against rape, abuse, and dismissiveness of women.
Women were quite able to fend for themselves, Dorothea knew after years of outmaneuvering men. Smart, sexually savvy women like her know that their feminine charm and allure, their lock on paternity (only a mother knows for sure), their easy exploitation of fragile male egos, their sensitivity, social skills, and sharp perception all make them equal to if not superior to men. The hoopla about safe spaces, sexual abuse, rape counseling and the feminizing of men was, in her opinion, nothing but an expression of frustrated personal identity and lack of confidence.
Her trips to Africa disabused her of any notion of the rightness of foreign aid. Most African leaders were autocratic kleptocrats who enriched themselves with international largess, made sweet deals for natural resources the profits of which never trickled past Swiss bank accounts. Famine after famine was lamented in the world press. Musicians, Hollywood film stars, and European royalty all sponsored events to raise money for Ethiopia, when corrupt leaders, endless and pointless war, savage ethnic conflicts, and retrograde politics simply siphoned off newfound riches to further their ends.
Decades of liberal concern for the inner cities resulted in nothing but increased violence, social and family dysfunction, failing schools, and political favoritism.
‘A woman’s right to choose’ became distorted and expedient. Any deliberation about the morality of abortion, the inevitable erosion of the dignity of all life, and the Biblical injunctions against it was considered off the table. Abortion was settled policy, Pope John Paul II notwithstanding.
Environmentalism ignored economic reality and evolved from a movement of legitimate concern to an angry defiance of capitalism and economic progress. There were never two sides to the question of alternative energy, no objective risk analysis, no cause-and-effect analysis. Environmentalism became received wisdom insulated against criticism.
In other words the more Dorothea saw of progressivism and its one-sided, arrogant assumptions of right; its sanctimoniousness; and worst of all its rejection of objective logic, the less respect she had for it.
Most importantly she came to see that conservatives were very right in their assessment of human nature. It was indeed self-protective, territorial, aggressive, insistent, demanding, and all-powerful. No civilization, society, or community has ever been exempt from its demands. All social groupings whether families, communities, or nations act in the same, predictable, and similar ways. No matter how much progressives have tried to alter the interminable cycle of human nature, wars, civil conflict, ethnic and religious rivalries not only still exist but are in no way diminished in frequency, severity, or scope.
In short anyone who has lived a moderately long life and who has kept their eyes open at least part of the time can only conclude that unless human nature is altered, human activity will remain unaltered. No matter how high the ideals nor how generous the investment nor how intelligent the planning, human society continues to revolve around the same, millennia-old axis.
By the time Dorothea was 60 she was a committed conservative; and by the time she reached 70 she was absolutely, positively convinced of the rightness of her vision. Yet it would be hard to criticize her for being as insular and hidebound as the progressives around her. She looked. She observed. She pondered, reflected, and thought for fifty years. Her conclusion was not drawn lightly or idealistically. How could one not see what she saw when the world itself was a mirror of her insights?
She lost a lot of friends. Those with whom she had grown up and who had not outgrown their progressive idealism, were increasingly impatient with her and one by one unfriended her, declined lunch invitations, and eventually dropped out of sight.
Because hers was an intellectual, historical conservatism, she found no new friends in the radical fringe, a territory of conspiracy theories, hatred, and venomous attacks. Although she sympathized with religious fundamentalists who, she felt, had been unfairly attacked by secular progressives, she could not in good faith befriend them. Her objectivity and rationalism were too much at odds with their profound a priori belief.
Nor did she become a nasty, bitten, angry conservative. She kept her own counsel, spent time with family and friends who like her had left idealism and identity politics behind long ago. In the end she turned out to be the best sort of conservative. She often wondered how she had put up so long with liberal cant, but that’s life, so much the better. Who knew how myopic she might have become had she simply drifted into her parents’ settled ways?