First, there is a characterological issue. I won’t say that narcissism is exclusively a left-wing character deformation. There’s plenty of that liability to go around. (It is worth noting, however, that narcissism is not the same thing as haughtiness or pridefulness or even smugness. Narcissism requires a certain supplement: a fatal injection of unassailable moral superiority.) Taranto is surely right that “It is healthy for America that the president be criticized and even mocked. Deference to a Dear Leader has no place in a democracy.” Cast your mind back over the satire, ridicule, and calumny that was heaped upon Bush (both of them), Clinton, and Ronald Reagan. Then consider the way the Left reacts to criticism or ridicule of Obama. They regard it — or pretend to regard it — as evidence of racism. Court jester Chris Matthews even claims to find deployment of the word “Chicago” racist. Which is why, as Taranto observes, criticizing the president and even poking fun at him is good for race relations, too: “It’s healthy for race relations, too, that he be judged on his record rather than held to a lower standard in the name of racial progress. When a black politician is treated just like any other politician, that’s genuine progress.” Taranto continues:
If Obama had been subject to the usual rigors of politics in 2008 and before, and if his backers in the media and elsewhere had not been so keen before and during his presidency to deflect criticism by invoking race, he probably would have a thicker skin, better arguments and a deeper understanding of America. Those qualities would make an incumbent a better bet for re-election. Then again, without the racial symbolism and all the accompanying baggage, he probably would still be the junior senator from Illinois (if that).
“If that,” indeed. But I haven’t yet touched on the second major reason that the Left finds it difficult to accommodate criticism. Narcissism is one reason. But behind that is this fundamental component of the liberal world view: the conviction that their view of the world is the sole virtuous view. This has been the case at least since Robespierre appropriated Rousseau’s hot-house notion of virtue: the virtuous man is not he who acts in a virtuous way, but he who is intoxicated by the spectacle of his own virtuous feelings. Take a look at the behavior of the Occupy crowd, of Code Pink, of the Greens, of the left flank of the Democratic Party. Dissent from their point of view is not regarded as a different opinion: it is rejected as heresy, as the benighted machinations of people who are not just misguided but downright evil. Paul Ryan delivers a speech at the Republican National Convention, and a writer for Salon assails it as a pack of “brazen lies.” The New York Times runs a “son-of-Satan” photograph of Ryan on its front cover that even one of my liberal friends was embarrassed by.
There’s a lot more that could be said about the Left’s response to the speeches at the RNC. For now, let me step back and note the close link between left-liberal intoxication and intolerance. Conservatives in contemporary America stand for limited government and individual liberty. They applaud James Madison, who (in Federalist 45) noted that the Constitution accorded powers to the federal government that were “few and defined”—having to do mostly with “external objects” like war, peace, and foreign commerce—while the powers delegated to the individual states were “numerous and indefinite,” extending to “all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.” What happened to that ideal, they wonder? The Left, meanwhile, is the party of government unlimited, individual liberty be damned. That’s why the Left is the party of speech codes, nanny-state intrusions into everyday life, and overbearing regulation of business. Thomas Jefferson once observed that “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” Just imagine how such a declaration would be assailed today by the Left!
President Obama is right: this election is about two fundamentally different views of America. One is the view promulgated by Madison, Jefferson, and their colleagues — a view that championed limited government and individual liberty — he other is the Republic of Virtue the Left from the time of Rousseau through Marx, Lenin, and all the other “Friends of Humanity” have been promising us. The very extravagance of their promises is part of what (for those susceptible to the rhetoric) makes them so seductive. Remember: back in 2008 Obama assured his adoring acolytes that “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” (wild applause). He said that his ascension would mark the moment “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” (air-sickness bag alert). Conservatives offer more pedestrian promises. Mitt Romney, for example, noted in his acceptance speech Thursday night that while “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet,” his promise was merely “to help you and your family.”
Merely. The real choice is between boundless but unrealizable utopian promises and more modest but realizable promises that take account of human and economic realities. Behind that choice is another choice: the choice between the limited but real freedom offered by the rule of law and its often tedious processes and that virtue-saturated utopia the Left keeps promising us. Think about it the next time you encounter an Occupy Whatever demonstrator destroying private property, or an academic administrator or college professor stomping on the free speech of a student with whose politics he disagrees, or a government bureaucrat who prohibits you from buying a large can of soda or an incandescent light bulb or charges you more for driving a gasoline powered car. Maximilian Robespierre, who knew a thing or two about what it took to impose virtue on a recalcitrant people, put it with all possible clarity when he spoke of “virtue and its emanation, terror.”
Of course, that was a long time ago, and history since Robespierre has demonstrated that we humans have progressed far beyond employing such blunt scenarios of coercion.
(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)