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What Makes the Left Tick

The improvement of society cannot be left to children.

David Solway


October 28, 2010 - 12:11 am

The “deep ideology” of the left, rooted in the triple assumption that the ideal of earthly perfection is realizable, that human nature is a social construct which can be remade or transformed, and that radical change is preferable to gradual amelioration in the evolution of human societies, is the bane of the modern era. This verdict has been proven many times over, from the reverberating failure of the malignant Soviet experiment to the faltering economies of socialist and welfare states across the world. Even Communist China has moved toward a capitalist-oriented market system. Yet the infirmity persists, each new generation containing its insurrectionary or “progressive” cohort convinced that the reason for dereliction resides only in the misguided application of fundamental principles. So they try again and meet inexorably with the same miserable consequences.

The program that envisages the flattening out of differences between people, the sharing equally in the total wealth of a nation regardless of individual input to the whole, and state control of the “means of production” ostensibly for the benefit of the masses never seems to work and only creates entrenched systems of mediocrity, stagnation, apathy, and enervation. The question is: what accounts for the dogged and pernicious investment in so obviously defective a formula for human improvement, despite the harsh lessons of that most severe of pedagogues, Reality? Apart from state inculcation and the ruthless exercise of power to impose blanket assent, some factors accounting for the leftist and liberal-left worldview would seem to be the following:

The formative: upbringing and education. As William Wordsworth wrote, “The Child is father of the Man.” We are familiar with the concept of the “red diaper baby” — Naomi Klein is a good example — and with the practice of socialist indoctrination in the humanities departments, including the social sciences syllabi, of our universities.

The aleatory: chance (generally negative) experiences on the road of life. Some people turn toward communist ideology and the dictatorship of the proletariat as a result of economic suffering and humiliation, and invariably find ways to spackle the holes in their gospel. After his father had endured a crushing bankruptcy and descended into poverty, a colleague of mine in his youth arrived at the conviction that capitalism was an unmitigated evil and that East Germany was a model state whose example should be followed by all thinking people. The wall presented no problem. It was obviously erected to keep out the West Germans who would otherwise have inundated the GDR with asylum seekers and immigrants hungry for the good life.

The theoretical: a reading of the philosophical and political literature — Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Fourier, Althusser, Gramsci — sparking interest and assent in minds hospitable to dialectical subtleties. Many of us experience a passion for the beauty of the philosophical instrument, the way people like complicated tools and equipment and children are seduced by the gleam of a new toy. (Full disclosure: I, too, experienced this infatuation when I first read Marx’s The German Ideology, Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks.)

The fiscal: the shrewd manipulation and exploitation of markets, associated with leftist attitudes and preoccupations such as the drive toward renewable energy projects, many of which are, for practical purposes, a generation or more away from standard efficiency levels. Al Gore and the chair of the UN’s IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, come immediately to mind. The rationale is social betterment; the truth is personal enrichment.

The psychological: the unconscious or semi-conscious attempt to justify one’s reprobate or otherwise problematic, ambiguous, or disgraceful behavior, which is really a form of pandering to a pestering conscience with sanctimonious deceptions. This is one reason, no doubt, that so many impenitent plutocrats who draw their wealth from family fortune, lucrative businesses, or currency speculation steer to the port side of the ship of state — one thinks of the Clintons, of Nancy Pelosi, of Ségolène Royal in France, of George Soros, and of innumerable others.

One or another, or several, of these explanatory factors may be necessary to  account for the ideological shift toward a leftist worldview, but none of them is sufficient in itself. With the obvious exception of the schemers and defalcators who cash in on the political fads of the day and who are “socialists” in nothing but name, the predisposition to the left derives from a tropism of the mind rooted in what we might call the “utopian temperament” — which is to say, in a condition of prolonged infantilism. The belief that human nature can be either transformed or superseded by social and political legerdemain is a function of arrested development, of the child’s conviction that make-believe can somehow alter the structure of the world he or she inhabits. Adults who feel and act the same way would appear to be differentially retarded, despite their ability to spin ideas, practice oratory and compose intricate texts and ringing manifestos. Leftists, writes Bernard Paul Chapin, author of Escape from Gangsta Island, “are addicted to emotion. … In the old days we used to call such persons … children”

A related element that seems to be at work is the leftist penchant for submission to authority, the callow need for assurance, for the embrace of the family or the presence of the “strongman” acting in loco parentis. The despot represents the power of the father which the child or adolescent secretly craves, surrendering his will to the commanding figure of the leader and becoming part of the intimacy of the sanctuary group. In those cases where he is not pre-trained, as it were, he is coddled in the select and festive community that operates as the family-in-waiting for the feral child who has repudiated the nest — yet cannot do without it. Whether the revered figure is Stalin or Mao or Ho Chi Minh or Castro or Che or Nasrallah or Chavez, the moral pubescent and emotional nursling cannot flourish without the consoling and explanatory self-confidence of the ostensibly enlightened tyrant. The same applies to a nonviolent and lower caliber messiah like Obama in whose personal charisma million of Americans (and Europeans) willingly submerged their identities.

Hollywood actors and directors are especially given to such professional naivety and furnish an exemplary illustration of almost complete mental vacancy and thwarted affective development — Oliver Stone, Sean Penn, James Cameron, Jane Fonda, etc. They are like children who have been absorbed into the world of illusion and can no longer discriminate between play-acting and reality, between celluloid and brass tacks. But Hollywood is only a petri dish signifying a far more pervasive phenomenon. Broadly speaking, the aspiring leftist lapses into a species of idolatry and reifies what is nothing less than a political apparition, namely, the apotheosis of the “suffering masses” with which, for the most part, he or she has nothing in common, and the global community as the “end” — i.e., both the purpose and the consummation — of history.

Fortunately, those of a conservative temperament tend to grow out of the longing for anointment and the hunger for group vetting. But the left is rhizomed in the pathos of abandonment. It is actuated by the fear of independence and by an almost feudal yearning for emotional refuge and moral security in the assembly of the elect or, as all too often happens, in the incendiary kinship. But at bottom, its hypothetically noble vision of human redemption is founded in the child’s need for reinforcement and protection, propelling the fledgling spirit into the orbit of the magistral savage or mentoring autocrat and their faux-therapeutic nightmares.

Author and professor Jonathan Haidt, a popular psychologist and liberal democrat, has suggested a similar etiology in a recent lecture on Haidt has challenged the notions and presuppositions of his own political class in positing a system of intuitive ethics — “the five foundations of morality” — which attempts to quantify various aspects of moral commitment. Deriving his conclusions from extensive research, Haidt finds that liberals identify with two of the five moral values intrinsic to the human mind, designated as “Harm/Care” and “Fairness/Reciprocity,” while conservatives focus on the remaining three, “Ingroup/Loyalty,” “Authority/Respect,” and “Purity/Sanctity.” (“Authority” here implies the recognition of the significance of tradition which prevents a society from going off the rails.) But what is most interesting is that the graph he presents in his video talk clearly reveals that conservatives also identify, only slightly less robustly, with the initial two values as well, suggesting a far more mature and holistic view of life’s complexities. An anonymous blogger posts a somewhat more readable version of Haidt’s chart:

Further, as the blogger has pointed out in his commentary, an exclusive or almost exclusive convergence on the first two principles are expressions of “moral adolescence,” that is, of largely untested assumptions dissociated from actual life experiences and a knowledge of history. Care and Fairness are centrally important values. The problem arises when they are not adjusted to real-world human conduct where such norms are not interculturally recognized and can be easily exploited by unscrupulous actors, and at the same time may displace the other basic ethical precepts which, as Haidt contends — with support from Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature — are inherent to human nature. It is as if, to quote from poet James Cummins, the liberal-left is stuck in “the border region between narcissism and an inner life.” In short, the political ideology of the liberal-left, in hock to slogans rather than insights and predicated on fantasies about how the world works, is a symptom of moral immaturity.

This is not to say that liberals (not counting the Tinseltown crèche) are wholly stunted human beings but that their “physical, intellectual and chronological maturity,” such as it is, belies and obscures a woefully inadequate and undeveloped moral substratum. It is precisely here that we note the dangers of arrested development, of being trapped in — to use Haidt’s term — the “moral matrix” of the adolescent world in which there are no shades of grey, in which the appeal to ridicule and blamestorming is irresistible and substitutes for rational debate, and in which the tendency to jejune self-righteousness and collective behavior is paramount.

Indeed, another sure sign of resident infantilism is the evident absence of humor and wit, replaced chiefly by coarse insult and vulgar taunting, so prevalent in leftist discourse. This deficiency is the case even among the arguably more sophisticated, left-leaning hosts of most TV late shows, where the humor is stale, forced, predictable, and often downright embarrassing. David Letterman and Stephen Colbert are excellent examples of patently unfunny left-liberals. It is not so much a reversion to childhood that we are remarking as, rather, never having managed to escape, morally and emotionally, the gravitational pull of “childish things.” One recalls the words of Saint Paul in I Corinthians 13:11. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” This is precisely what the left has not succeeded in doing. What is even more bizarre, it considers itself a “cognitive elite” when it is in actuality an epistemic rabblement, a truant demographic of cortical delinquents and moral charlatans.

None of what I’ve said above should be taken to imply a callous disregard of the corrugations on life’s journey, of human plight and suffering. There are ways of helping the disadvantaged, of showing care and fairness, that do not founder in theory, platitudes, bureaucratic excess, and merely good intentions, for example: a stringently monitored policy of foreign aid in which Western largesse does not end up in the pockets of dictators, warlords, terrorists and kleptocrats; individual charity and looking out for one’s neighbor (one of the strengths of the American, though not of the European, character); volunteering with hands-on organizations dedicated to helping the poor, the sick, and the elderly; reducing taxes to stimulate job creation; and reasonable programs of social alleviation and job retraining that respect both the dignity of the person and the demands of a vital economy.

But the liberal-left is mainly enamored of abstractions and high-sounding proclamations, of taxing and redistributing other people’s money, of lowest- common-denominator equality to the detriment of individual liberty, of oracular temptations, and of administrative parasitism at the expense of entrepreneurial productivity and personal ambition. In this context, conservative republicanism represents a far more mature perspective on the world than the puerilities of the Democratic left. As Margaret Carlson, a Democrat and former correspondent for Time magazine, says, “If I break down on the side of the road, I hope a Republican stops — he’ll fix my flat and offer me a drink. A Democrat will get busy forming a Committee to Protect Women Who Own Vulnerable Cars.” Referring to Carlson, Matt Patterson, a senior editor at the Capital Research Center, justly comments, “Liberals rarely see individuals except in the abstract. … To smooth out the differences [between individuals] … is to suffer from a tragic myopia that can lead only to destruction — of rights, of property. To see only groups is to necessarily dehumanize; to dehumanize in theory is to oppress in practice.”

Another way of viewing the dilemma which bedevils us, summarized as the conflict between left and right (to some extent, a perfunctory distinction, but it will do), is furnished by the economist Martin Whitman, author of Value Investing. Whitman adopts a mature view of socioeconomic activity, believing that a collaboration between “voluntary exchanges” (conservative) and “coercion” (liberal-left) is eminently feasible. In other words, restraint and freedom are not antitheses but mutual participants in the proper functioning of a society. “Coercion” ensures that the rules which enable social existence are observed, that corporative monopolies and competitive anarchy are “ruled out.” At the same time, individuals and corporations must be allowed sufficient latitude to pursue “voluntary exchanges” in order to grow and prosper if society is not to whither and decay. The trouble with the doctrines of socialism and Marxism is that, by intruding so profoundly into the vitals of individual, cultural, and economic life in all their ramifying manifestations, they stifle the creative spirit, reduce the individual to an integer in the social and political equation, and trend inescapably toward a generalized state of inertia, torpor, and slavish dependence on a dominant elite. The irony is that this transactional deformation is imposed under the rubric of humanitarian compassion and transcendent idealism.

The fuel that powers the left and liberal-left imagination is the dream of human perfectibility and the complete reconstruction of human society in defiance of the inevitable natural constraints that render such a project both nugatory and ruinous. The cost is exorbitant and the result is always, in the course of time, one or another form of social devastation. What makes the left tick is a hedonic time bomb, an explosive device located in the coltish longing for pleasurable havoc and subversion in order, presumably, to attain to a condition of unfettered, aggregate freedom. But certain truths must be acknowledged if we are to steer clear of social and intellectual pauperdom and evade the perils of totalitarian mutations. Human nature simply cannot be re-engineered. The “human stain” is with us to stay.

Of course, limited, remedial change is always possible, but it should be regarded and pursued as change for the better. Personal growth, equality of opportunity (though not necessarily of outcome), the “right” to gainful employment honorably carried out, a level playing field in market economies, humane social legislation that does not cripple or deprivilege those who have earned the claim to enjoy their property and dispose of it as they see fit, is slow, difficult, and piecemeal, as it must be if calamitous upheavals are to be avoided. The larval sensibility, however, is enamored of sudden and radical change, of rapidly supplanting a time-tested and resilient social architecture with the eclogues of spectral metamorphoses. Plainly, there is nothing wrong with change per se, but one can become drunk on the idea of disruptive transformations. Better the sober attitude which the Hellenistic philosopher Philo of Alexandria paradoxically called the nephalios methi, the “abstemious intoxication,” in which one’s childish or befuddled impulses are distilled, so to speak, by reason and humility.

At some point, one needs to grow up. And at some point, conservatives need to realize that, try as one might, one cannot debate with unruly children and half-demented teenagers. One sends them to bed without supper, or deprives them of their allowance, car keys, and nights out. They need to be “grounded.” Which is only another way of saying that the left must be sent packing before the brats take over the house, crash the car, and vandalize the budget, believing they are establishing the pastoral estate of collective empowerment, freedom from ancestral limitation, and exemption from the rule of necessity.

For the fact is that the revolutionary cadre of self-indulgent puritans, in all their impatience and inflexible righteousness, cannot do the work of Mother Nature or replicate the strategies — or accidents — of evolutionary genetics. And the human quest for salvation, whether personal or social, cannot be left to the reckoning of children.

David Solway is a Canadian poet and essayist. He is the author of The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity, and is currently working on a sequel, Living in the Valley of Shmoon. His new book on Jewish and Israeli themes, Hear, O Israel!, was released by Mantua Books. His latest book is The Boxthorn Tree, published in December 2012.
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