If I were to name three books of the year for conservatives, one of them would surely be The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion, by William Voegeli. I contributed a blurb with my assessment of the book that I posted in “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Compassion?” I posted Bill’s account of the book in “A word from the author.”
Bill’s previous book was Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State. That book explains why the cavernous maw of welfare state liberalism can never be filled. It is, in short, one of the keys to the Age of Obama. Pity Party now subjects the “idea” of kindness and compassion that represents the left’s self-understanding to serious if merciless analysis.
Bill is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books; in the new issue of the CRB, National Review editor Rich Lowry answers the call to assess The Pity Party. Rich’s appreciative review is “I feel your pain.”
Voegeli’s critique of liberal compassion, Rich argues, gets at liberalism root-and-branch: “Since compassion is so central to contemporary liberalism, The Pity Party is less a critique of an aspect of liberalism than of liberalism itself.” Voegeli begins by tracing the genesis of a government that “feels our pain.” The guiding principle of compassion rushed to fill the void left by modernity’s destruction of shared standards of virtue and vice, flourishing and debasement.
Compassion is the liberal’s answer to the question of the best life and the best society. Compassion is the last pillar on which liberals can build a political community, because it doesn’t require any shared notions or beliefs: “They rely on what they take to be our natural empathy to forge a togetherness. This dispensation doesn’t depend on any grand theory, and liberals reject both premodern and totalitarian versions of philosophical unity. They notionally reject certainty itself,” though do so with an alarmingly high degree of certitude.
In the name of compassion Liberals reject a vengeful God who might not take too kindly to disbelief, but still they long for the brotherhood a shared father brings: “Liberals, according to Voegeli, ‘want the modern bargain of agreeing to disagree, but also keep trying to graft a moral and teleological unity onto it.’ They envy the universality of the great religious faiths, and seek their own vague, secular version. ‘The marriage of liberal universalism and liberal skepticism,’ he writes, ‘proclaims the brotherhood of man while rejecting the fatherhood of God.'”
To explicate the inconsistencies and contradictions that permeate the “philosophy” of compassion, Voegeli invokes the concept of “bullshit.” Rich explains:
[T]he core of liberal bullshit is the fact that the same people who care so much about social programs—don’t seem to care whether they work or not. Social programs never end, and only extremely rarely are they significantly reformed. Even if programs like Head Start are proven to be ineffectual, they are still defended as totems of compassion. The answer is always more spending, and more programs, regardless of how much government has already grown. This gets to the central dynamic of liberal compassion. To wit, “the liberals who create, perpetuate, defend, and expand social welfare programs are devoted to them less because they care about helping than because they care about caring,” as Voegeli puts it. It is this flaw, he writes, that “connects the theory of liberalism to the malpractice of liberalism,” to its toleration of waste and failure.”
Caring about caring is both “corrosive of our constitutional system,” and “inherent to democracy,” writes Lowry. Inherent—but deeply harmful: “The pity party’s impatience for action and willingness to trample procedural constraints to get it are corrosive of our constitutional system. Its programs erode the mores upon which self-government depends. Compassion, in short, can’t be the basis of a worthy democratic politics.”
Voegeli concludes: “Much more than their empathy we require [of those who govern us] their respect—for us; our rights; our capacity and responsibility to feel and heal our own damn pains without their ministrations; and for America’s constitutional checks and limitations, which err on the side of caution and republicanism by denying even the most compassionate elected official a monarch’s plenary powers.”
Whole thing here, saluting a “brilliant intellectual dissection that bristles with insight and arresting formulations.”