Dissecting the liberal mentality

January 21, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Although the Niagara of words from people connected with, or commenting on, the visits of Yasser Arafat to the United States and of Pope John Paul II to Cuba was bound to contain some nonsense, the quantity of it has been astonishing. But useful, because it illuminates the liberal mentality.

The Holocaust Memorial Museum extended (then scotched, then extended) an invitation to Mr. Arafat to visit. The invitation came at the behest of several of the State Department's makers of Middle East policy who ''felt strongly,'' the Washington Post reports, that a visit ''could mark a psychological breakthrough for skeptical Jews and help Arafat understand the fears of an adversary.''

Skeptical Jews presumably doubt the peaceful intentions of Mr. Arafat, whose vocation is the killing of Jews; whose Palestine Liberation Organization is committed to the destruction of the Jewish nation created in the aftermath of the Holocaust; who funds the dissemination of the idea that the Holocaust is a Zionist fiction. Imagine the State Department mind that thinks Mr. Arafat needs ''help'' in understanding the Holocaust.

Three liberal assumptions

The idea that Mr. Arafat's visit to a museum would be a ''breakthrough'' illuminates three defining assumptions in the liberal mind: Harmony is the natural condition of mankind. Conflict is the result of misunderstandings or ''psychological'' problems, meaning irrationalities, that can be dispelled by ''dialogue.'' And foreign policy, like all government, should be therapeutic. (Hence the national ''conversation'' on race. And the academic discipline of ''conflict resolution.'')

The liberal assumption undergirding the ''peace process'' is that constant territorial and other concessions by Israel will so improve the regional ''atmosphere'' (a synonym for ''psychology'') that Israel's final borders will not matter much. State Department liberals cannot understand what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands: For Mr. Arafat, an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders would be an ''interim solution.'' Israel's destruction is his final solution.

The pope's visit to Cuba illuminates the liberal mentality's inability to disapprove of a communist as heartily as it disapproves of Joe Camel. Exhibit A is this Washington Post headline: ''Castro and the Pope: Opponents With Shared Values; While Differing on Religion, Both Embrace Altruism and Reject ,, Unbridled Capitalism.'' So that is Cuba's system -- not communism but capitalism-on-a-bridle, a New Deal with a Latin beat.

The New York Times says the pope's criticism of ''savage capitalism'' is among his views that ''match'' Mr. Castro's. Even considering the source, that is a remarkably tendentious gloss on the pope's meditations on the challenge of preventing the mutually dependent dynamisms of capitalism and democracy from degenerating into callous majoritarianism and desensitizing self-indulgence.

The ''shared values'' analyses arise from liberalism's approval of ''diversity,'' disapproval of cultural ''chauvinism'' or ''ethnocentrism,'' discomfort with ''intolerance'' (other than of Joe Camel) and penchant for discerning the moral equivalence of diametrically opposed systems. Twenty years ago, America's secretary of state (Cyrus R. Vance) proclaimed that Leonid I. Brezhnev ''shares our dreams and aspirations.'' (Brezhnev just differed about gulags, invasions of neighboring nations.)

Still, must Time magazine refer to the pope and Mr. Castro as ''two giants of the 20th century''? The pope, a spark that lighted the fuse in Eastern Europe, is perhaps the most consequential man of the century's second half. Mr. Castro's giant achievement -- it is remarkable -- is to have prevented his captive population of 11 million from participating in the greatest years of wealth-creation and freedom-expansion in history.

Perhaps it amounts to beating a dead horse, but consider Time, again:

''Both are absolute rulers of their realms. Each plays a dominant role on the world stage, imposing his system of belief upon millions through brilliant intellect and sheer force of will.''

Vatican City, Cuba, whatever. Mr. Castro's ''force of will'' would be nothing without his police; his ''brilliance'' makes him an intellectually buffoonish inhabitant of the ludicrous little cul-de-sac called Marxism.

A beloved leader

The pope, who in two decades has been seen by more people than anyone in history, does not impose ''his system'' on any of the 981,465,000 communicants who freely confess his faith. Living in an age when religion is no longer a necessary legitimizer of political and social arrangements, he has made his religion the most powerful delegitimizer of the sort of arrangements that keep Mr. Castro's boots on 11 million necks.

Two giants? Hardly. An unfortunate island's unhappiness was deepened for decades because Castro seized power Jan. 1, 1959. The world changed profoundly and for the better because of the event announced by a puff of white smoke over the 108 acres of Vatican City on Oct. 16, 1978.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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