"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall didn't get around to coining that legendary phrase until 1906, but the Enlightenment values she paraphrased with that famous one-liner had already served as the cornerstone of principled American liberalism for more than a century.
In contrast to classical conservatives (in the vein of Edmund Burke) who encouraged communities to reinforce their cultural visions and moral norms through rules and regulations, classical liberals (in the vein of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson) insisted that a slightly less uniform, slightly more chaotic society was a small price to pay for granting individuals fuller freedom to speak and write as they pleased.
For decades and decades, American liberals managed to stay somewhat connected to this honorable heritage. Imagine a family game of "Twister": while the Left contorted itself to embrace this policy or that dogma, it managed to keep one foot planted in the common-sense libertarianism from which it was born.
Don't believe me? Think it over. Of all the Democrat voters I know, around half of them – particularly those middle-aged or older – still partake of these values in a big way. There are plenty of Americans who feel compelled to agitate for a bigger safety net, but who nevertheless roll their eyes right along with the rest of us at when asinine measures like the Fairness Doctrine or a lawsuit brought by militant atheists offend the common sense we all share.
And as much as cultural conservatives scoffed at the teenagers who just had to wear Vietnam protest clothes to high school in the 1960s, or bristle when the ACLU insists than neo-Nazi groups can march in Independence Day parades, this old-school liberal fixation on equal treatment and free dialogue helped to protect rights and keep the country honest.
But the days when those values defined the American Left are now but a faint and fond memory. Consider this report:
A Chicago politician said he will block Chick-fil-A from opening a restaurant in his ward, following anti-gay marriage remarks by the fast food chain's president.
Which was followed by this one:
[Mayor Rahm] Emanuel told the Tribune in a statement he agreed with Moreno, noting “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values.”
And, while we're at it, have a look at this one:
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino's July 20 letter to the president of Chick-Fil-A has become an internet sensation, drawing thousands of comments [. . .] Menino [pledged to] block the chain from opening in Boston because of Cathy's opposition to gay marriage.
Are all businessmen and women to open franchises only in cities where a majority in local government hold political beliefs identical to theirs? Can anyone who thinks it through possibly find such economic hostage-taking remotely justifiable?
The standard-bearers of modern liberalism have abandoned "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" in favor of "I disapprove of what you say, and now I will make your life real unpleasant until you shut your frickin' mouth."
The old liberals were egalitarian to a fault. These new liberals practice naked extortion.
The old culture war saw defenders of the old order argue with those eager to relax traditional standards. This new culture war unites conservatives, moderates and old-school liberals against hyper-activists who marshal the forces of government power to impose their particular agenda and drum out deviants without giving it a second thought.
This virulent strain has metastasized throughout liberal thinking. The New Left clamors for a Supreme Court ruling that would invalidate California's Proposition 8 and force every state in the Union to redefine the centuries-old concept of marriage in lock-step. It cheers on a feckless Mayor who, unable to address an unending tide of brutal urban violence, settles for bashing conservative restauranteurs in time to make the evening news. And the first President cast from this new mold devoted precious political capital to forcing Catholic institutions to sacrifice their core principles on the altar of agnostic uniformity.
Forget about "live and let live" – the other side now marches under a banner on which they have unmistakably printed "Live Like Us – or Pay the Price!" In doing so, they have not only declared war on traditional values, but on all well-meaning Americans of conscience.
And so, if Americans all along the political spectrum rise to the occasion and stand up for the open society we all treasure with sufficient clarity and force, they have picked a fight they cannot win.