Here’s a long rant on liberalism and Leftism, considered as two clusters of traits that I don’t like. This post is a mess. After taking it down a few days ago in the hopes of cleaning it up and shortening it, I realize I’m just not going to have the time to do that, so here it is again, nearly unmodified.
- The liberal mind is rationalist. Its characteristic attitude toward nonliberals is contempt. It considers society a machine for the maximization and equalization of personal preference satisfaction (autonomy) and considers itself, by virtue of its freedom from “prejudice” and “superstition”, the perfect operator for this machine. It is irreverent, regarding flippancy in matters of religion and group identity a sign of high intelligence and freedom from “prejudice”. The outrage this provokes among those with more pious sensibilities is taken as proof that these others are guided by emotion rather than reason. Because the liberal’s beliefs are so self-evidently co-extensive with rationality itself, because they express in themselves the most perfect open-mindedness, he sees no need to understand anything about rival belief systems or nonliberal cultures. These, after all, could only be “hate” or “ignorance”. He does not consider that liberalism is one creed among many, even if the only true one. Other creeds he reinterprets as personal preferences, as idiosyncratic personality accessories. The liberal affirms their right to exist as such, demanding only that they make no public normative statements which would constrict others’ lifestyles. You can hold any beliefs you want; you just aren’t allowed to actually believe them.
- The Leftist mind is passionate. Its characteristic attitude toward non-Leftists is outrage. It sees anger as meritorious, as a sign of moral authenticity. It always divides the world into oppressor and oppressed. On any public question, its only concern is to identify which party is which. The oppressed must be defended. The oppressor must be crushed; he has no legitimate interests. While the liberal holds that mockery is a virtuous act–at least when aimed at religion, tradition, or lower-class whites–the Leftist holds that certain classes of people may not be legitimately criticized at all. Criticism is itself a form of oppression when the target belongs to an oppressed class, and it is liberating when directed at oppressors. In neither case does the truth or fairness of the criticism matter.
Why divide the two attitudes, when they are so often combined in the same soul? First, because they are very different intellectual styles, and they lead to very different rules of discourse. For example, outbursts of indignation are a sign of thin-skinned stupidity in one set of rules but a sign of refined moral seriousness in the other. One says that nothing is sacred, and that hurt feelings are irrelevant where issues of truth are concerned. The other insists that we abase ourselves before the Other, that truth is a scam of the ruling class, and that redressing feelings of exclusion is the ultimate imperative. Second, we do see the two attitudes, apparently so different and incompatible, coexisting in many of the same people. Certainly, we see that some members of the Left-liberal coalition lean more heavily toward one pole than the other. The New Atheists, whose modus operandi is mockery and deliberate mischaracterization, clearly lean toward the liberal end. Liberation theologians and postmodernist literature professors, with their logic-scorning “structures of oppression” obsessions, are clearly more Leftist. Among Democratic client groups, irony-craving gay men and upper-class whites belong to the liberal wing, while angry lesbians and blacks belong to the Leftist wing.
If it were just a case of two groups with incompatible beliefs working together toward some limited objective, there would be nothing remarkable about this. Neither side would be caught in any sort of contradiction. However, we have all seen many times the same person utilizing both modes of thought. How do they deal with the contradictions? Since most of the high-intelligence members of society are committed Leftists, one would think they would put a lot of work into reformulating the two sets of claims so that they at least appear to be consistent. Certainly there are Left-liberal political philosophers who try to reconcile the whole movement into a coherent body of thought, but most educated Left-liberals don’t seem to feel the need for these philosophers’ services, and they happily go along condemning conservatives on flatly contradictory general principles.
Apparently, these two conflicting modes of thought are able to serve each other, and they actually serve each other better when they are allowed to remain contradictory. One would think contradictions would be a major weakness when debating opponents, but in fact it can be a great strength when–as in this case–the contradictory beliefs are tied to contradictory rules of discourse. For example, suppose a Left-liberal and a conservative are debating gay marriage. The Left-liberal can attack complementarian marriage on liberal grounds (mocking the sacramental understanding of marriage as “superstition”, making libertarian or utilitarian “who could it hurt?” arguments, accusing opponents of “ignorance”) or on Leftist grounds (calling heteronormativity “oppressive”, establishing sodomites as a victim group, accusing opponents of “hate”). The conservative can himself respond either calmly or emotionally. He may think that a carefully-reasoned argument on the importance of gender roles or the telos of sex will serve best. In this case, his opponent can adopt a Leftist frame and accusing him of caring only about “abstract rules” and “institutions” instead of “real people” and say that he would not see things so calmly if it was him or his loved ones who were being “oppressed”. However, the conservative had better not think that he can gain credibility with an emotional outburst of his own, accusing his opponent of trying to promote perversion, corrupt his children, and persecute his religion (accusations that would all be true, by the way). Then the Left-liberal can adopt a liberal frame, roll his eyes about how agitated Christians get when people question the commands of their “angry sky god” and lecture the audience on the history of the “paranoid style in American politics”. Having contradictory beliefs means that the Left can always switch the rules of the debate in whichever way serves it best at the moment. There is always some reason–either liberal or Leftist–why a conservative’s arguments can be dismissed out of hand.
Aside from practical issues, liberalism and Leftism need each other–or at least, each needs something like the other–because each is incomplete on its own. Liberalism–public nihilism in service of private autonomy–is contradictory, even self-contradictory, when taken at face value. Consider the ravings of Left-liberal hack writer Wendell Berry. Here’s a summary of the argument:
- Condemnation of a category of people is evil. It is the most noxious form of hatred.
- The class of people who are active homosexuals is a category of people.
- Disapproval (or even disagreement with granting official approval) of a behavior constitutes condemnation.
- Conservative Christians disapprove of gay marriage. Therefore…
- Conservative Christians are behaving wickedly and are basically the same as all the villains in liberalism’s version of history.
Seriously, that’s it. Now, on it’s face, this is an absurd bit of reasoning, because it is obviously self-refuting. Berry himself just condemned a group of people based on their behavior. The point is so obvious, I don’t want to waste time on it. The thing that I do wonder is how a member of the cognitive elite could go around making an argument and not notice that it’s self-refuting. In fact, this is a common argument among progressive (meaning, for the most part, cognitive elite) Christians. This isn’t even a particularly egregious example. Most liberal claims are self-refuting–the claim that liberalism should be publicly established to prevent any belief system from forcing itself on people, to mention just one other.
Abstractly, liberalism is certainly self-refuting. However, that can’t be the whole story, since many people are able to independently reason from liberalism to the same set of conclusions. From contradictory premises, one should be able to reach any conclusion, so something else must be going on. What happens is that people don’t apply liberalism abstractly. They only apply it within the narrative of Leftism, and it is the narrative that tells liberals how to apply their beliefs. To make Berry’s reasoning work and not self-refute, we must supply the missing, Leftist, qualifications. First, homosexuals are an oppressed group; therefore, liberalism’s open-ended personal-autonomy imperative applies to them with full force. Second, conservative Christians are an oppressor group. The fact that they have less private wealth, education, and public clout than homosexuals doesn’t change this; these are just other signs of conservative Christians’ intrinsic inferiority. Therefore, applying autonomy guarantees (e.g. to not have to violate their consciences to keep their jobs, or to not have their children taught a hostile ideology) and freedom from group condemnation would be inappropriate. Once we work within Berry’s Manichean mental universe, everything makes sense. The man is still a bully and an ignoramus, but there is nothing inexplicable about his reasoning.
Demanding that everyone approve of sodomy is a rather recent Left-liberal innovation, but earlier liberal victories, so complete that they are now uncontroversial, are no different. For example, no one in public life would dispute the conclusion of Brown vs the Board of Education that it is unjust to have separate public schools for whites and blacks. Since then, the principle has expanded, so that it is now universally regarded as wrong for whites (but only whites) to set aside any space, even purely private, for themselves. Since we were children, we’ve heard that segregation is an egregious evil, so that the principle is taken to be obvious, even though the reasons given–e.g. “separate is inherently unequal”–are obviously absurd. How would a visitor from Mars, knowing nothing of our culture, respond to the idea of putting children of different races in different schools? He might think it pointless and silly, but a sin crying out to heaven? In fact, when told that the different races formed distinct subcultures, the Martian would probably think the arrangement natural. After all, how surprised would you be to hear that two tribes on the other side of the world living in close proximity educate their children separately? I realize that most of my readers are outraged by what I’ve just written, and I know what your objections are. First, segregation was unfair because the black schools weren’t as good as the white schools. True, and this was indeed in many cases unjust, but both the Supreme Court then and public consensus today reject the idea that equally provisioned but still separate schools would be acceptable. It is they who insist that segregation in itself is unjust; if so, we should be able to establish its immorality in isolation from any other injustice. For the same reason, one cannot invoke the Leftist narrative, in this case the “shameful history” of white oppression of negroes. The liberal principle involved claims to be an abstract truth of moral reasoning (“separate is inherently unequal”); if so, one should be able to justify it without a history lesson. Will you say that I wouldn’t talk this way if I were a disadvantaged black child? Probably I wouldn’t, but why should that perspective be privileged over the non-elite southern white perspective, according to which segregation was okay? We need an abstract principle, such as liberalism claims to provide; it must be something accessible to all reasonable parties and not depend on inhabiting the perspective of any one of them. Lastly, you will protest that I was dishonest in ascribing a respectable-sounding motive to white southerners–preservation of their ethnic subculture–when what really motivated them was naked, unprovoked hatred of blacks. Now we come to it, the real rationale: demonization of the white race. If you heard that the aforementioned hypothetical tribe on the other side of the world educated their children separately and taught them to revere only their own ancestors, if it forbade its women to marry out of the tribe, and if it forbade foreigners from settling inside its own territory, you wouldn’t have any trouble understanding that these are cultural adaptations serving to preserve the tribe. But when whites do exactly the same things, you feel certain that an entirely different, purely malevolent, motive must be at work. The point here is not that school segregation was a good idea–due to its potential for abuse, it probably wasn’t–but that conflicting liberal and Leftist modes of reasoning are combined to justify the civil rights/multiculturalism regime. The ultimate rationale–the desire to socially obliterate the white race–is Leftist, but liberalism is needed to provide a veneer of disinterested moral principle.
A final example from today’s universally accepted moral principles. An employer decides that, because it is a man’s job to provide for his family, he will pay his married male employees more than his female employees. Quite noble of him, isn’t it, to voluntarily pay above the market wage so that his employees with special familial duties can meet those duties? “Of course not”, you’ll say. What that man is doing is the most evil thing ever: there should be “equal pay for equal work” (unless the female employees need to spend more time with the kids, in which case there should be equal pay for any work). But how do we justify this principle of “equal pay”? Why not “to each according to his needs”? The justification, of course, is the Leftist narrative. Men are an oppressor class, women an oppressed class. Therefore, a man who slaves away 13 hours per day in an office in a job he hates in order to provide for the family he loves is actually a sinister oppressor, a part of the patriarchal conspiracy that allows him, but not his wife, to “actualize himself” by having a career. And the employer? Leftists will insist that I lied when I said that he might have high-minded reasons for paying men more; in the real world, men do that because they hate women. Here again we see a characteristic feature of the Leftist mind: The reason an act is supposed to be immoral is because it is motivated by hatred, and if one points out a benevolent motive for the act–even an obvious one, even one that the actors themselves give–the Leftist will deny that people really act for that other motive. Leftists are entirely confident in their ability to know the underlying wicked motives of every white, heterosexual gentile man on Earth.
That Leftism needs liberalism is less clear. In fact, it is not quite true. One can view the world from an oppressor-oppressed viewpoint without subscribing to the goal of private autonomy by public nihilism. As an example, I remember reading some years ago that the television news network Al Jazeera colors its reporting quite strongly with an oppressor-oppressed lens. Although clearly Leftist, Al Jazeera cannot offend Muslim sensibilities too strongly, so it cannot be liberal without qualification. One might ask whether this is really a case of Leftism at all, or if it is just Muslims feeling sorry for themselves. After all, it is perfectly natural at all times and places for a group of people–whether defined by race, culture, or religion–to be interested in the past and current sufferings of their own kind. Doesn’t the Babylonian exile figure more largely in the Jewish imagination than the conquest of Canaan? Certainly. Didn’t the memory of the Roman martyrs remain central to the Christian imagination long after Constantine? Indeed, it did, but there is a clear difference between things like this and Leftism, even Leftism applied to one’s own putative victimhood. Traditionally, cultures have liked to remember times of hardship so that they could be inspired either by the courage of their ancestors (clearer and more beautiful in defeat than in victory) or the evidence of divine providence (also somehow more visible when preserving us from absolute ruin than when delivering us glory). The focus is on the holiness of the martyrs (and, thus, the power of grace) rather than on the cruelty of the Romans. In fact, it is a point of some martyr stories how inflexible the saint was in resisting idolatry, indicating that the Romans really weren’t hoping to kill a lot of people. Leftist stories of oppression aren’t like this. The focus is not on the heroism of the sufferer but on the wickedness of the oppressor–his past cruelty and his current guilt. This is how we tell apart the Leftist Muslims from the merely ethnocentric ones: their pride is in the wickedness of the Christians and the Jews, not in their own steadfastness.
So Leftism doesn’t need liberalism, but it does need something else. Suppose one took the Leftist perspective in isolation. One would see the world as a ceaseless saga of groups oppressing each other or being oppressed. There would be no universal principle above the groups to say who is right, or what sort of arrangement between groups would not be oppressive. Life would be a tragedy, with the cycle of oppression destined to continue until the extinction of humanity. Each man would stand with his own tribe out of personal loyalty and would fight to make sure his group became an oppressor rather than an oppressed. While fighting the warriors of other groups, he could yet respect his enemies and realize that they too are following the same imperative and that they too are caught in the same cycle. This would be a much more humane and broad-minded worldview than Leftism as we know it. Leftism as we know it is unique in its complete inability to empathize with its enemies. It needs some sort of moral principle to justify such overbearing self-righteousness. This principle must be something to which enemy groups will be unable to appeal when defending themselves from Leftist attacks. This can be ensured if the principle is something entirely individualistic, so that groups have no right to preserve themselves. Applied consistently, such a principle would also condemn oppressed groups, but there is no intention of applying it consistently, so that’s not a problem. Now, there are two great individualist ideologies in the Occidental world today: liberalism and Islam.
In the end, liberalism and leftism produce extreme forms of the vices they claim to eliminate. Liberalism gives us complete closed-mindedness: atheism without free thought, dogmatism without piety, thoughtless condemnation of all other peoples and eras without any corresponding loyalty toward one’s own kind. Leftism creates a rigid caste hierarchy: self-righteous, self-pitying “oppressed” groups at the top with no sense of duty toward those beneath them, and powerless, demonized “oppressor” groups at the bottom who may not defend even their most basic interests.