Liberalism and the Black Legend

«Liberalism», a wise pastor once admonished the world, «is a sin». It is both a sin against faith and against the moral order: «In the doctrinal order, it is heresy, and consequently a mortal sin against faith. In the practical order, it is a sin against the commandments of God and of the Church, for it virtually transgresses all commandments». This was the language of the Church in the days when her bloody and heroic wars with the liberal order were still within living memory, with more still waiting to be fought after Don Félix wrote his polemic.

As with many other heresies, Sardá wrote, «the uniform of the [liberal] enemy is so various, changeable, sometimes even of our own colors, that if we rely upon the outward semblance alone we shall be more often deceived than certain of his identity». This deceptive uniform has recrently been the subject of much discussion in English-language debates on Catholic political doctrine, where the transient sympathy between the Church and cosnervative liberals is visibly collapsing. The conservative’s garb has been shown to be just one more of the liberal’s disguises.

Coming to this realization about conservatism is a liberation of peculiar politcal importance for Catholics: the breaking of the (hopefully) last ideological chain, or at any rate one of the most entrapping, to liberalism. That is, it is becoming clear that no third way is possble between truth and the various flavors of error. Of course, the nature of politics is such that liberalism’s attempts to justify itself to various audiences, including to Catholics, will continue (tedious and non-responsive as most are). An authentic apostolate of politicsnow mercifully free from any perceived need to kowtow to conservative pietiesmust therefore carry on to sort out these confusions.

An admirable exercise in this mandate is today on display in our friend Pat Smith’s post about «The Legends of Liberalism», over at Semiduplex. Smith argues that «much of the resistance to liberalism is premised upon some legends about liberalism». These are «White Legends», whereby «liberalism misrepresents itself as the sole defense against the implicit wickedness of illiberal doctrines». It is, Smith says, «the inverse of the misrepresentations and omissions of the Black Legend» it was created to oppose.

This is the way many heresies are built. In the words of Sardá,

[The] beginnings [of heresy] nearly always present the same character, either wounded self-love or a grievance to be avenged; either it is a woman that makes the heresiarch lose his head and his soul, or it is a bag of gold for which he sells his conscience.

Liberalism is, rhetorically, an avenger of past grievances, a rectifier of legendary wrongs. It must present itself clothed in heroism.

Smith tackles two particular cases of this strategy: liberalism’s absurd claims to be the only true bulwark against tyranny, on the one hand, and theocracy, on the other. With delicious ease, Smith deconstructs these pretentions simply by citing to the most authoritative exponents of Catholic illiberal thought, showing that their conception of political order is crucially concerned with preserving both liberty and the distinction of the temporal and spiritual orders. One simply does not find in them what the White Legend would have us believe is there.

By doing this, Smith clears a path that needs to be opened, and one hopes he will continue debunking other liberal myths and showing the utter falsity of its White Legend. As Smith’s post shows, this is chiefly an effort in historical resurrection. One must rescue the truth about what the pre-liberal order taught and did from the dark cave to which the liberal narrative has relegated it. In other words, crucial to exposing the White Legend is understanding its central preoccupation with the preservation of the Black Legend, its dialectical raison d’être.

The liberal’s White Legend is not historically intelligible as a purely theoretical construction. It was rhetorically and politically effective because it showed its partisans as engaged in a heroic battle with what they could portray as a true and existing evil. Like Hobbes’s Leviathan, whose existence had its sole and sufficient justification in holding back the monstrous chaos of an alleged Behemoth, the liberal order’s entire justification rests on its capacity to heal the world from the wounds and outrages of pre-liberal worlds. Indeed, Hobbes’s political theory is precisely one early attempt to put this rhetorical strategy in philosophical terms.

The hero, if he is to win followers, needs a credible villain, not an enumeration of theoretical errors.

One hundred years of careful historical study has by now shown not only who this villain was, but how the liberals created her. She had a peculiar face, she spoke a particular language, she lived on an identifiable plot of land, her deeds are known to history. In fact, she continues to roam the earth, now vanquished and, what is more, converted to the enlightening truths of liberalism, her past crimes and errors washed away by numerous and bloody acts of contrition. The name of this ancient foe is Hispania.

She was drafted for her role in the liberal drama by centuries of systematic and evangelical propaganda that taught Northern Europe of her allegedly horrific and unconscionable crimes. In retrospect, it is clear now how this strategy was so successful. The propagandists were not merely stoking outrage, but fear. They told of the crimes committed by a people livig scarcely a few hundred miles away. People everyone knew. And, crucially, people they feared. And so, the White Legend was the heresiarchs’ historical justification, and it was built quite deliberately on the occasion of the Black Legend. The Black Legend of Spain.

This was the legend of a monstrous empire, a power like none had existed since the Caesars, which had vanquished the Moor and the Turk and brutally subjugated half the globe, which controlled both the lands of Europe and the oceans of the world, almost undefeated and with virtually limitless resources, an armed barrier that no amount of protestant ardor or privateer’s greed could breach. And Catholic. So Catholic. Inquisitorial and inflexible, legalist to a fault, full of superstitious feasts and made-up saints, ignorant and brutish, lazy and venal, barbarous and a lover of gold, racist and arrogant, mindless and subservient to authority, chaotic and incapable of rule by law. And—most terrifying of all—fanatical and unyelding, as if on a permanent crusade—a crusade of a thousand years.

There is virtually no aspect of this legend that survives the barest historical analysis. Not the Reconquista, not the conquest and civilization of America, not the Inquisition, not the juridical order of the Catholic Monarchy or its economic structure, not the sociological traits of the Hispanic peoples or their achievements. Perhaps I will go into some of these in later posts, but what is clear is that this Black Legend not only exists—and defaces all Hispanics—but that it is the historical raw material out of which liberalism was built.

What use does this knowledge have for an apostolate of politics in the 21st century, in the context of a very different world-empire? Two uses come to mind.

First, as intellectual inoculation. Like all other human doctrines, liberalism is a historically-conditioned creation. We have grown up in it, and though we may come to disagree with its erroneous teachings and perceive its incoherences, we may still be moved by the underlying psychological impulse that (wittingly or not) animates its adherents. An impulse that tells us that even if liberalism is wrong, there must be something we can put in its place. After all, liberalism arose in response to real problems, it fought against real tyrannies, a true darkness, did it not? We cannot look at anything remotely similar to those pre-liberal times without an instinctive shudder, and even when we are no longer persuaded by liberalism’s arguments, we cannot bring ourselves fully to contemplate that past with unprejudiced eyes, and in search for alternatives to the current order, we are moved to look elsewhere. Perhaps to a more moderate liberalism, perhaps to a socialistic variation, perhaps to some liberal-Catholic amalgam. Anything but that.

This, I would argue, was the chief political success of the prophets of liberalism: the Black and White Legends as a kind of automatic reaction among «civilized peoples». The supposed real tyrannies that we unthinkingly come to associate with what liberalism historically opposed are therefore blind spots for us, and they are located precisely where liberalism’s errors are at their deepest and most poisonous. We still shrink from what they claim to cure. Inquisitions! Religious wars! Imperial expansion! For many, it takes much effort to be freed from these instinctive repugnances.

To study the history of the Black and White Legends is therefore crucial to liberate us from these mindless political reactions. The specific shape of liberalism as a historical phenomenon corresponds with them, and they in turn correspond with what liberalism perceived and told itself specifically about the Catholic Monarchy (the actual historical name of what in English is called today the «Spanish Empire»). It is precisely on this empire’s salient characteristics that liberalism’s polemics focused, and they determine its theoretical form. The historical form of liberalism is the anti-form not of «tyranny» and «theocracy» generically conceived, it is the anti-form of Spain.

A second use for this knowledge is as political education. The study of the Catholic Monarchy can show us what an alternative Catholic modernity could actually look like. Because it existed alongside and waged war against the errors of the modern world for over three centuries, as that world grew doctrinally and politically into the place we now inhabit and know, it is much closer to us than more ancient Christian political orders. Critics of integralist thought often invoke the facile quip that we cannot go back to the France of St. Louis in order to conclude that integralis, is at best an amusing philosophical hobby, not useful for practical politics. Indeed, we cannot go back, as integralists themselves have repeatedly pointed out in refuting this straw man. But this does not mean that we have nowhere else to look in Christian history, nothing to illuminate our political thought, between the 13th and 21st centuries.

After all, we live in a world of globalized economic interaction, worldwide commercial and political empire, international communications, massive bureacuracies, multicultural states, overlapping legal orders, religious heterodoxy and confusion, and wide-ranging media coverage and fake news. We live, that is, in the world of Philip II.

There is much to be learned from his world. Not so that we way restore the Catholic Monarchy (though one can pray that God may generously will it) or live as if in the 16th century (though state-sponsored missionary expeditions converting peoples from Mexico to China and ecclesiastics charting navegable routes in the unkown do sound glorious). Rather, that we may restore a view of political order that not only understands what is useful and good about liberalism’s own world, but can also intelligently embrace it in a fully Catholic mindset. Many of the institutions we assocaite with liberalism had in Spain, in a way that is both more illuminating and closer to us than the examples of earlier Christian polities, an existence and a justification entirely foreign to liberal modes of thought, and which is readily available to us.

The principal political oppostion since the coming of Our Lord is not between left and right, but between empire and tribe: that is, between universalism and fragmentation. Gallicanism is a tribalist heresy. Liberalism, a universalist one. The liberal doctrine is a gospel for an anti-empire, and in many ways it has succeeded. In Spain, if we only care to look, there is an actually existing historical alternative: a Christian empire (not a system of commercial colonies a la inglesa) universal in aspiration and almost in fact, founded on law, mighty in sword and pen, a luminous center of learning, artand culture, home to saints and champions of the Church, sword and light of the Faith, builder of roads, cities, and universities like no other people before it, protector and preserver of numerous coexisting cultures, careful and intelligent in its development of global juridical and political structures of semi-federal and bureacuratic administrative rule meticulously archived and organized, subject to the right order of the Gelasian dyarchy, and—perhaps most offensively for the prophets of liberalism—unyielding and ferocious up to utter exhaustion in its bitter war against the enemies of Christ and His law.

A federative and missionary empire. Or, what the United States (or its successor) could one day be.

Destroy the White Legend, that we may overcome it. Said another way: ¡viva España!, ¡viva el Rey!


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