Left, Right and Wrong

Mother Jones this month had a surprisingly refreshing article (use code MJJ9AK to view the whole thing) on the failures of the left, which spoke to me more than almost anything else I’d read on the subject. The central thesis of the piece, written by Garret Keizer, is this:

The essential problem of the American left is not that it uses the wrong language or doesn’t read the Bible or doesn’t know how to relate to just-plain folks. The essential problem of the American left is that it has been displaced. Its current position in the liberal imagination is that of a dumped first wife.

What now sleeps on her old side of the bed is a purportedly leftist solution to the same bourgeois conundrum that faces the right: namely, how to maintain a semblance of moral decency while enjoying the spoils of a winner-take-all economic system. Or, put another way, how to maintain the illusion that you can be a good person and want a good society without either kind of goodness costing you a dime.

I just finished Jonathan Lowy’s The Temple Of Music, a novel about William McKinley and his assassin, Leon Czolgosz. The parallels to the current time are interesting: McKinley was the first president put into office by enormous corporate campaign contributions; he and his controllers ran the government exclusively for the benefit of big business, and he used lies and propaganda to drag the country into more than one pointless imperialist war. What’s missing in the modern day is the opposition: Emma Goldman speaking to thousands of angry workers in Tompkins Square Park; union members literally laying their lives down for the eight-hour day that we’ve given up without a peep; William Jennings Bryan’s populist outrage. Not that Bryan, who argued against Clarence Darrow in the Scopes trial, is necessarily a great progressive hero. But there were powerful voices speaking out in opposition to McKinley’s policies, and people were listening. There is no one to listen to now.

Keizer, an Episcopal minister, says that the postmodern “everything is relative” argument has not only alienated large segments of the electorate, it has left progressives without a moral leg to stand on. I pulled out a pen and circled this sentence: “The one thing more insufferable than a pretense of moral superiority is a pretense of superiority to morals,” because it exactly encompasses my disgust with what passes for the “left” nowadays. For years I have felt in many ways more “conservative” than many of the “progressive” I talk to. I believe that:

  • There are absolute truths, both moral and factual, and rejection of them is deeply unhealthy
  • Censorship, repression and thuggery are utterly unjustifiable even if perpetrated in the name of “progressive” causes
  • Families are important and everyone, even the childless, needs to take responsibility for the health and well-being of children
  • Violence and revolution almost always do more harm than good
  • Individual rights are less important than the overall health of society and the responsibility of all its members to contribute to the common good.

Keizer concludes: “If we on the left can conceive of no value worthy of sacrifice, then we live for no worthier purpose than to grouse and grow old.” I know I’m doing lots of grousing, and growing old along with everyone else. Something’s missing.

Well, Roosevelt’s in the White House, doing his best
McKinley’s in the graveyard taking his rest
He’s gone, for a long time

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