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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6 Responses to Left, Right and Wrong

  1. “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.”

    Yeah. I’m of two minds on living for no worthier purpose than grousing & growing old. Gosh, of course we all want to live well, avoiding premature death & starvation. I disagree with you about individual rights. The health of society is of no importance if we have no rights. I’ve only got one life, I shouldn’t need to apologize for wanting it to be long and healthy, and I don’t think I was born with a kind of original sin making me responsible for anyone else.

    I guess my other mind on the subject is the one that rebels against liberal self-righteousness (that you can be a good person and still participate in this society). Maybe doing the right thing cannot come without cost and doesn’t always feel good. The universe isn’t benevolent, it’s ambivalent. No one said being good and feeling good had to be the same thing.

    Just rambling and probably pissing you off, but thought you would want to know someone is listening. I’ll pick up that Mother Jones.

    • ken says:

      I do like to know someone is listening. And you didn’t piss me off; my point was not that we shouldn’t want to grow old in comfort, but that we should spend some of our time making some level of effort to ensure that other people don’t die young in misery.

      However, I take issue with your statement, “I don’t think I was born with a kind of original sin making me responsible for anyone else.” Responsibility has nothing to do with original sin and that’s a bizarre concept, although as a fellow recovering Catholic I know where it comes from. I think there’s just a basic decency requirement, a corollary of the Golden Rule, that says you owe your fellow person a reasonable amount of help if you’re in a position to provide it. If the person in front of you trips on the subway steps and starts to fall, you should grab them and steady them if you can, not just walk past them and let them fall down the stairs. Letting the person fall, and stepping over them, is wrong.

      More generally, by participating in society and accepting its benefits, you also accept responsibility. I think that was the core of Krugman’s article in the NYRB, and what is so wrong with what Shrub is doing. I didn’t commit some sin of privilege for which I am required to atone by donating money to support the needy; it has nothing to do with guilt. I have received enormous benefits through no fault of my own thanks to my position in society, and it’s only fair that I give some portion of that back to help people who’ve had enormous problems through no fault of their own.

      Again, it’s just a basic question of decency. If you’re in the crowd around the aid truck and you’re six feet tall, and you catch lots of bottles of water and food packets, do you hoard them all and run away? Or do you give a few to the old woman in the back who didn’t get any?

      • What everyone will answer differently is how much you should sacrifice, and for the sake of whom and how many people. Everyone will profess a belief in human decency. Almost everyone will say he is doing just fine in that department, thank you very much.

        The reason I use the term ‘original sin’ is because we didn’t ask to be born into this society or reap its benefits. By your sweeping statements of belief, you have us all indebted just for being born. I know, some of us have been lucky and we should spread it around; but my ‘original sin’ line comes from the following: I don’t think it’s an inherent state of the human condition that we must be born with an obligation to others. It MIGHT be a state of this society that the haves should really be doing more for the have-nots just because of the circumnstances we find ourselves in, but that’s different.

        I picked up MJ and read the article. I found it kind of rambling and the author too implicitly socialist (just tossing off a passing reference to our economy as “theft” without further elaboration, as if everyone would understand and agree). You picked out a couple of the only few good lines. Indeed I think he just wanted to get his good lines in. I prefer an essay with a stronger plotline, so to speak.

        The conflict of the good of the individaul vs. the good of the many has been a matter of debate in most societies throughout human history and I don’t think there’s one right answer all the time. You’re pretty socialist, and I’m pretty individualist, but I don’t want to take the mean position and argue against human decency. I too wish we would all do more to spread the benefits that human progress has wrought. And I too like the central thesis that sometimes it might take some sacrifice.

  2. bobhowe says:

    This was a very good, thought-provoking post.

    There are absolute truths, both moral and factual, and rejection of them is deeply unhealthy

    I think moral values exist along a continuum from “Extremely Tentative” to “Absolute,” with most values falling in the middle of the bell curve, but it rather opens Pandora’s box, doesn’t it? Who decides which moral values are absolute? I also think that there’s a biological basis for morality, derived from our common ancestors with the other apes: cooperation works better than mayhem, except when it doesn’t. I think our morality is messy to the extent that it mirrors the messiness of the world. We try to transcend that messiness, of course, with bright-line rules (Thou shalt not kill…), as we should, but the older I get, the more I think moral ambiguity is the rule, rather than the exception. This doesn’t absolve us from struggling with the issues, but we have to acknowledge that it will always be a struggle.

    Another issue, which is implied but not fully explored in your post, is the difference between public and private conscience. I wouldn’t exploit a child sexually (assuming I had the impulse to do so) because I can empathize with the child’s fear and suffering, and that empathy would pain me. My reaction to Michael Jackson’s exploitation of children (insert whatever equivocation you need here about the certainty of his guilt), is the opposite of empathy: I’d like to see him stoned to death, with gravel, at least in part from self-righteousness. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be caged, at the very least, to prevent him from molesting other children, but part of my moral revulsion is the desire to feel superior to Jackson.

    Individual rights are less important than the overall health of society and the responsibility of all its members to contribute to the common good.

    I don’t think you can talk about individual rights and the health of society as if they’re different things: they are all part of an organic whole, and the balance shifts depending upon the needs of society and the relative power of individuals. Okay, maybe that’s obvious. Hmmm. Again, maybe the problem maybe is with defining “rights” as if they’re absolutes, when most of them exist along a continuum that makes up the social contract. And again, the key is who has the power to define the rights.

    I’m flailing around maybe, and stating the obvious.

    • ken says:

      Yes, the question of what rights, or which values, are absolute, is thorny. That’s why we have courts, and philosophers, and religion. But so-called progressives too often question the very existence of absolute truth or rights. I believe that cutting off the clitorises of young women is brutal misogyny, no matter what the cultural context. While it may be true that the scientific method as we know it is a Western invention, the truths discovered that way are true no matter where you go. Mathematics has no cultural bias; perhaps the way it is taught, or the areas on which we focus, are cultural, but a parabola is a parabola in any culture. Censorship (or intimidation, arrest and torture of journalists, for that matter) is unacceptable even if it’s performed to protect the revolution or to shield one’s country from Western bias. I’ve heard leftists reject every single one of those things and accuse me of being a racist, a reactionary or a cultural bigot for saying them.

      • bobhowe says:

        But so-called progressives too often question the very existence of absolute truth or rights.

        Well, they can call themselves progressives (you crypto-imperialist lackey), but their beliefs are absolute, just different from yours. Of course they camouflage their certainty in the language of cultural relativism, but the problem at the heart of the matter is a sense of moral certitude, I think.

        In the main, by the way, I agree with you. I think you know that. While few people can match my loathing for the current administration and its right wing fellow travelers, I also have no patience for erstwhile leftists whose lack of empiricism in their worldviews is at least as bad as that of “young Earth” creationists.

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