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The Right's Fight for Liberty

Disagreement over the definition of the term creates a chance to recover non-liberal realities.

Aside from the pandemic, no topic on the American right has grown more loathed in the last year than critical race theory, the progressive educational paradigm at the focus of a statewide verbal and electoral outrage. Conservative politicians, most notably Glenn Youngkin during his triumphant march to the Virginia governorship, have been ready to dish up critical race theory as proof of an ever-radicalizing left.

Critical race theory must be outlawed, not only because it teaches falsehoods about American history and systematic racism, but also because such lies pose an active risk to the polity's health. This resistance has sparked political activity from Florida to the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

To be sure, even a casual rejection of critical race theory is warranted. The right's rejection, however, indicates a deeper tension within the conservative movement—one at the level of core philosophy, first principles, and reality itself—rather than a simple fight over schooling.

We don't have to go far to see how this conflict is manifested: the conventional prescription for dealing with critical race theory is to use the state's arm to blacklist, censor, and prohibit its dissemination. Isn't it the political right that we connect terms like "free speech," "individual liberty," and "marketplace of ideas" with? Censorship, even of things antagonistic to the American enterprise, appears to be at odds with conservatism's long-term strategy.

Certainly an incompatibility exists: on one hand, the right’s affinity for personal autonomy; on the other, a desire to limit and restrict for the sake of the good. It is this dichotomy which reveals the underlying state of affairs.

The right is embroiled in a civil war over liberty.

What does it mean to be free? This is the essential question in the situation. Indeed, the phrase is well-known on the right, featuring prominently at nearly every conservative rally, student conference, and think tank effort. For the majority of American history, conservatives have seen the term as monosemous—a symbol of individual liberty, laissez-faire policy, and the Gadsden flag. Nonetheless, the rejection of critical race theory—particularly on the basis of its falsity and depravity—indicates that freedom is more than just a matter of choice. Rather, it means that genuine freedom is found in a condition of being oriented toward objective goodness and truth, rather than in unrestrained liberty.

Seeking to highlight this conflict, I posed the freedom question to Senator Ted Cruz and Daily Wire host Michael Knowles during an event at the Catholic University of America last October, asking each to give his definition of liberty. By juxtaposing their answers, the dichotomy can be made clear.

Knowles’ answer first: “Liberty is not the ability to do whatever you want to do, but rather the right to do what you ought to do…to have true freedom, we have to have some idea of what is good.”

Cruz, in response: “Liberty is the right to make your own choices in your own life…if you want to exercise your free will to be a sloth, or a drunkard, or to fritter away your life, you have the right to do that.”

One word, two radically different definitions. The contrast is striking. Yet this disagreement is nothing new. It is the American right’s iteration of a philosophical divide which has endured since the classical era: a debate, as distinguished by the Dominican friar Servais Pinckaers, between the “freedom of indifference” and the “freedom for excellence.”

The freedom of indifference, the liberal notion that freedom is based on choice and permission, is most prominent in America today. This term encompasses both negative and positive aspects: freedom from coercion and the ability to behave as one wishes. It is inherently autonomous: you have the freedom to do anything you choose as long as others have the same right. Indeed, even for many traditional right-wingers like Cruz, it is this notion that drives current conservative politics. This is unsurprising. This form of liberty is the foundation of Enlightenment liberalism, which is at the heart of the American endeavor. It is the freedom of indifference which gives us the conservative mantras “free markets, free people” and “don’t tread on me,” but so too the leftist slogan “my body, my choice.”

Long has this liberal conception of freedom reigned supreme in America, from the pages of John Locke’s treatises to the rhetoric of Planned Parenthood. As the heavy-handed response to critical race theory indicates, however, this definition is now encountering a resurgent alternative: the freedom for excellence.

The freedom for excellence movement, which began in the classical era, opposes the assumption that freedom is based in choice, saying instead that it is found in participation in the transcendent good. It asserts that man has a logical will that is superior to his changeable emotions, one that finds fulfillment in things that promote his well-being—goods ranging from basic sustenance to knowledge, family life, and, finally, God, who is goodness itself. In this approach, the learner becomes free not by being exposed to an unfettered free market of ideas, but by studying and contemplating those things that are objectively true and edifying.

Furthermore, acting in opposition to the good is a form of deception that leads to a loss of liberty. In this sense, the heroin addict, who appears to be free to do as he pleases, is actually trapped by his addiction, which is governed by his basic desires and the vices that stoke them. The main difference between the two definitions can be seen here: whereas the freedom of indifference rejects any idea of human restriction, the freedom for excellence views such order as the instrument for achieving it.

As a result, the American right is embroiled in an internal conflict over freedom, a conflict that goes to the heart of human nature. In the end, it's a pedagogical division, with one side preferring autonomy and choice and the other preferring order and direction. However, these two points of view are epistemologically irreconcilable, demonstrating the right's current lack of metaphysical cohesiveness.

So, what are our options for dealing with this conflict? At the most basic level, there is reason to be concerned. Any schism inside the "big tent" will surely lead to stagnation and cannibalism, especially at the polls. At the macro scale, however, we ought to embrace the right’s war over freedom as beneficial, allowing it to challenge the old liberal consensus and serve as a catalyst to pursue a more complete understanding of the freedom question.

After all, the permissiveness and faux-neutrality of the freedom of indifference are responsible for much of our current societal decay—normalized sexual licentiousness, corporate malfeasance, deceptive academic curriculum, and so on. To depart from the liberal definition would be to strike at the heart of these issues' intellectual foundations.

Perhaps the right could include order and restriction in its definition of freedom, with the reaction to critical race theory as a good place to start. It will be a difficult task—the liberal status quo is tenacious—but one that, if accomplished, will result in a stronger conservatism based on a basis that is both realistic and compatible with human nature.

The fight against critical race theory is a vital battlefield in the right's assault on freedom, and it's an area where the freedom to flourish has resurfaced. As a result, let us take advantage of this rebirth to pursue a greater vision of the word, lifting our gazes to the ultimate truth and goodness it portrays. Certainly, maintaining our status as the "country of the free" necessitates this.

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