I got a little carried away with this one... forgive its length. I do type fast.
There’s been discussion of a fascinating article in The Observer (January/07) by a prominent columnist, Nick Cohen, describing how he was brought up is a typical, fiercely leftist British home and had always thought himself a ‘man of the left’... but that dogma-drift had gradually changed the political landscape so much that - he now concludes - the “left” doesn’t even know what it stands for, anymore. For example, he finds it discomforting that the one defining reflex is opposition to American policy, even if that often means reflexively excusing or ignoring horrific fascist or fundamentalist tyrants.
--“at none of the demonstrations in hundreds of cities did you see banners or hear speeches denouncing Saddam Hussein. If this was 'the left' on the march, it was the new left of the 21st century, which had abandoned old notions of camaraderie and internationalism in favour of opposition to the capricious American hegemony. They didn't support fascism, but they didn't oppose it either, and their silence boded ill for the future.”He describes a few deep thinkers, who have lately called for pause and reflection. But then adds --
“Most people, myself included, are not like Ariel Dorfman. In moments of political passion, we are single-mindedly and simple-mindedly sure of our righteousness. From the day of the marches on, liberal leftish politicians and intellectuals kept up a vehement and slightly panicky insistence that they were right and their goodness was beyond question.”
(Of course, this is deeply related to my own riffs about how self-righteous indignation may be a veritable addiction, a bona fide, scientifically-verifiable, self-induced “drug high.” http://www.davidbrin.com/addiction.html)
I’d like to comment on the piece in the Observer. Nick Cohen is a capable thinker who appears openminded enough to notice discomforting discrepancies that are inherent in a left-right so called “political axis” that was already deeply misleading way back when it was first invented, as a lobotomizing curse, by the French during their maladroit and bloody revolution of 1789. He rightly points out that dogmatic members of both the “left” and the “right” no longer even try to define their movements, other than to wave vaguely at some hated Other and shout “I’m against THEM!”
This reflex has resulted in the appalling situation that we now see, in which the left-liberal alliance rightfully despises the insane, deceitful and monstrous behavior of the current Bush Administration, but allows no subtlety or nuance into this opposition. Obeying what can only be called a spasmodic reflex, the European left, especially, has adopted a party line policy of “the enemy of my enemy must be my friend.” Hence, as Cohen cogently describes, the euroleft takes sides with - or at least shrugs off - modern fascist and theocratic bullies like Saddam, the Iranian mullahs and Al Quaeda, along with anyone else who shares the simple qualification of being anti-American.
The euroleft is certainly not alone in this kind of “dogmatic drift.” Indeed, the crazed American neoconservative movement is far worse, having failed to even blink or blush over a myriad hypocritical reversals. For example, switching:
- from opposing “wasteful and poorly-planned utopian adventures in so-called nation building”... over to squandering a nation’s prestige, budget, readiness, alliances and countless lives, trying to “plant democracy” in the rockiest soil imaginable,
- from demanding balanced budgets... to excusing fiscal hemorrhage,
- from preaching for less government... to vastly augmenting its intrusive power,
- from demanding accountability... to prodigiously expanding secrecy and excusing any questionable or illegal action as a pure presidential prerogative...
...and so on, through an astounding array of rationalized absolutions, exonerating foul offenses against decent governance, the smallest of which would have sent them screaming, if it had been perpetrated by Bill Clinton.
The real lesson from all of this is not that some “other side” indulges in loony self justification and contorted logic. It is actually far more general than that.
This reflex does not have to be a controlling, or a litmus test for 21st Century liberalism. Take the European territories that most recently experienced genuine tyranny, in the former Warsaw Block and in the Balkans, where gratitude toward NATO propels a little more subtlety of thinking, including a mature willingness to separate (mentally) one U.S. administration from another.
Indeed, the euro-left could have skewered the horrific cabal of George W. Bush - which a majority of Americans has already repudiated - far more effectively by pointing to the ways that it has aided and abetted fascist regimes, in complete violation of the better traditions of America.
Take the Great Betrayal of 1991, in which Bush’s father, supported by Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, called upon the Shiite majority of Iraq to rise up against their fascist tyrant, Saddam Hussein, amid the fighting to oust him from Kuwait. “We’re on our way!” promised Bush Senior’s infamous radio broadcasts, that provoked insurrections across the entire southern half of that unhappy land, among people who confidently expected U.S. forces to liberate them soon, as those forces were doing for the oil sheiks.
Bush’s outrageously vile and cynical reneging on that promise, recalling the troops just hours short of Basra and thereafter doing everything to prop Saddam back in power, was one of the most foul and pungent stains ever to disgrace American honor, at a time when the southern Shiites would have greeted U.S. forces with “kisses and flowers.” Subsequent bitterness over that betrayal is a seldom-mentioned but fundamental driver of today’s bilious hatred expressed by Iraqi Shiites toward American occupation forces, yea, even among those who were glad to be rid of Saddam’s yoke, at last.
How easy it might have been for the left to take up this betrayal as a banner issue, both accepting the fall of a fascist monster as a good thing and denouncing the entire Bush family-trust as a pack of immoral, cynical, short-sighted and hypocritical morons, unqualified to lead either a great nation or western civilization. Certainly unqualified to preach to anyone about Saddam Hussein.
(Lest there be any doubt of a clear pattern, take a look at the chief beneficiaries of Bush Administration policies. The true winners of this “utopian exercise in democratic nation building” have been the Saudi Royal House and the mullahs of Iran -- the latter of whom no longer fear any democratic uprising by the nation’s pro-western youth. Those youth having been driven into the mullahs’ arms by relentless Condoleezan saber-rattling.)
There are so many ways that the european left (and its more tepid fellow travelers in North America) could have distinguished between a monstrous administration and America in general, thus finding a way to oppose BOTH fascist dictators AND a malignant imperium. But it is the nature of dogmatists that they cannot observe subtle distinctions. Cohen is courageous to risk many friendships by pointing out this deep flaw.
Alas, it is also where Cohen really needs to go back to school and do more serious re-thinking. For the defects that vex him go far beyond politics of the moment, or even the French Curse -- that maniacally bonkers metaphor, the “left-right axis”
What it is actually all about is something much deeper, a set of flaws in human nature that make “zero-sum” minds incapable of recognizing the complexity of a modern world that was built - despite every impediment - largely by “positive sum” workers who embrace the gifts - the emergent properties - of the Enlightenment with eager arms.
The latter group can recognize the many faults of modernity, but they think differently about how to solve them. Often, the positive-sum approach involves attempting to deal with issues one at a time, sometimes in sincere negotiation with rivals, trying to find common purpose, a way to bridge chasms in order to get important changes made. This approach seems so alien to the zero sum mind set that they can only perceive it in terms of traits like “tepidness” or wishy-washy compromise, instead of the pragmatic progressivism that has actually wrought every decent improvement in the world.
Indeed, these two personality types think so differently that, I suggest, it is almost as if two different species occupy this world.
The discomfort that Cohen feels is one that I can sympathize with. He is a positive-sum thinker embedded in a zero-sum community. Like so many decent American conservatives who now blink in confused dismay at the bilious unreasonableness of those who have taken over their movement, he stares at a similar plague of mindless rage on the left, feeling torn between revulsion and lingering, nostalgic loyalty to a dream that once had some basic beauty and appeal.
I have wished that some of the best of the conservative intelligencia would do as Nick Cohen has done, stand up and recognize that the “sides” in this critical century are not left-right, but forward vs backward, whether to concentrat on problem-solving or slide into dogmatism, anti-modernism, indignation-addiction and hate.
Alas, I see very few conservatives with even a shred of the brains or integrity of - say - Barry Goldwater, who engaged in precisely this kind of re-evaluation, before he died. The left is a little better, though not enough. The best that can be said for that movement is that it currently has no power... and that many “liberals” are able to see the madness on their side.
Cohen should come over to join us neo-modernists, because it is futile -- and it will always be futile -- to try explaining to non-zero types that their indignantly addictive purity and passion are anything less than perfect, sacred. And right.