Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

left, right, and wrong

Over at None So Blind, Andrew Bard Schmookler has a post underscoring (again) what I think is one of his core insights, to wit, that the difference between Left and Right in the USA is a fundamentally spiritual one. This is a touchy subject to articulate, and I am not always sure Schmookler gets it exactly right, but I'm even less sanguine about my own gropings. This is because the rhetoric in which such "spiritual struggle" is couched is so assumed to tend towards a polarization of us vs.them that it is hard to use it without making even one's allies worry that you are firing up the tanks.

As an aspiring philosopher my commitment is always to find the way to speak in a sober and non-inflammatory way about the most important things. This means: no playing down the import, and no ratcheting up the rhetoric. (Due allowance made for human failings.) We might think that Exhibit A of what "spiritual warfare" means is the suicide bomber ready to send a few infidels to Hell in order to get into Paradise; but the alternative to this is not to deny the spiritual dimension but to redefine the struggle as something other than physical violence. I am absolutely committed to undoing the demonizing of my opponents, but the method of this is not to feign agreement.

I first read Schmookler years ago, back when The Parable of the Tribes was relatively new. I commend this book to anyone. Here I am re-posting, slightly edited, the comment I made on Schmookler's post, which specifically raises the issue of the "enthusiasm gap" between the two major political parties in the US.

When I first encountered NSB, it was this diagnosis that the missing dimension of the political discussion was spiritual which I found most compelling. He argued that the Right had generally tapped into a sense that Evil exists and was capitalizing on the energy this gave them, but that it was a misdirected recognition (they wrongly identified Good and Evil); whereas the Left was foundering because it lacked the ability to call evil Evil. (I hope ABS will correct me if he feels I’ve travestied his position). (And please pardon all the Officious Capital Letters, they are only there for emphasis).

My sense is that (at least some of) the current leadership of the right is cynical enough to exploit the spiritual enthusiasm that the righteous indignation of their base gives them, but I do not really believe that they (the leaders) really en bloc share that indignation except in bad faith.

As to the left: their difficulty is that the moral core of the left is far more left than the Democratic party. The leadership know themselves to be utterly morally compromised, and this can only be demoralizing. They settle for “what can be done” in the art of politics, but they know very well it is not much and not enough.

Schmookler asks, why is it that Obama the candidate could generate so much spiritual enthusiasm, but Obama the president, not so much? To this I answer: it was in part a fluke of the historical moment. Spiritual enthusiasm centers on symbols. There was a great symbolic momentum against not just 8 years of moral cretinism in the White House but the whole history of our country going back to the Missouri Compromise and before. The left was so fired about telling itself Yes We Can that it did not really ask what is was we could and would. Those who remained just a little dispassionate noted even at the time that the sizzle quite overshadowed the steak. At the time, enthusiasts who even heard this critique wrote it off as a necessity of election politics, confident that once in office, we would sort out the details. This might even have happened, but the details sorted us instead.

The symbolic triumph attained was a sugar high. The next rush would be that much harder to get because it would not come with a symbol.

The symbol that had kept the right going for (nearly) 8 years had been the smoking ruins of the WTC. A different symbol displaced that one with Barack Obama’s candidacy.

That symbol was: the coming of the Dream, the end of racism, palpable proof that we had put that behind us. In fact, insofar as we have “put it behind us,” this is shown not by having a black president but by the fact that the president still runs into the same intense difficulties that a white president would — this is how we know humanity, by its limits, not by its superpowers.

The great danger now though is that this same symbol has been seized by the right and combined with the first symbol, thereby inverting it. From the very beginning there have been snide insinuations, carefully never overtly endorsed by the GOP as a whole but nurtured: Obama is “not one of us.” This was not enough to derail the impetus of the candidacy, because that symbolic victory had a greater allure. But now that that sugar-rush has passed, now that we think racism has really been defeated (>snort<), there is only the workaday reality to stand against a new symbolic momentum, this time coming from the other direction, and this "not one of us" is being woven together with hints about who he "is": a Muslim, for instance. And we know what they do….

I hope no one will misunderstand me and think I am reducing Obama’s victory to his being voted for “because he was black.” I am speaking of the force of symbolic power-plays.

The last thing I might mention is that --to generalize again-- the Left has tended (for the same reasons mentioned above) to downplay the spiritual in general. It is thus not such a wonder that it flounders when trying to generate spiritual enthusiasm. For a long while, the spiritual per se (="the religious") has been thought of as the territory of the right, alas. It is not by chance that the last time the religious left took a major role was during the civil rights era — which bequeathed us the great symbol that gave us our last high.


  1. I'm glad I finally got back to read your (long)post, and I'm grateful for the link to Schmookler's blog and work.

    I like this point you're both making about the spiritual element in the enthusiasm gap, and the concern over the advantage the GOP picks up by touting even such a low spirituality as they do. I'll be thinking on these things now with a little help.

    I am also concerned with the negative spin achieved with the word 'socialism' (wrongly applied) and the identification of a graduated tax rate with 'class warfare'. These are huge gains for the Rulership Party (the funding arm of the GOP).

    I agree that the 'Yes we can' slogan kind of lost its objective content after the election (especially when the ignorant shouters started showing up at the Health Care town meetings and the media called it 'democracy in action'). Before the hateful unraveling of Dem traction, I personally was satisfied with a 'yes we can stop tyranny in America.' But now even that remains to be seen. I sided with the Nobel committee who, in awarding the Peace Prize to Obama, were simply expressing deep gratitude to him for being the focal point of a coalition able to unseat a very evil administration which had become the biggest threat to world peace in this new century. The award made perfect sense to me.

    But yeah, what next? Thanks again.

  2. John, thanks for this response. I think Schmookler's project is slightly dangerous-- when one calls the struggle a spiritual one, one is using fighting words-- so in some respects, I think the Left's reticence to make this a metaphysical issue is probably well-taken. I take my cue from Hayek, who explained that he was "not a conservative" because he had principles and the conservative did not:

    When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own, for a political order in which both can obey their convictions.

    I take this notion very seriously. It is a stroke of brilliance to make disagreement the very engine by which a political system works. This is the very premise of the "art of compromise."

    But of course, there are "convictions" that require more than just a political system to make them good neighbors.

    In any case, this post was one that seemed perhaps to have "fallen stillborn from the press," so I am glad to hear from you on it.

  3. Great Hayek quote, thanks.

    I think it's profoundly true that Hayek nails the conservative mind there with a distinction that I hadn't articulated for myself but which is certainly the case.

    But I think it ends up simply saying that the conservatives are anti-Democracy. Which they are, but they don't want to come across being anti-American, and it would be hard to press the point given their persona as 'patriots.'

    You say you take the notion very seriously but can we do anything with that stroke of brilliance in the present case? I think I understand why the Rulership Party (again, the GOP money) fears democracy and hates government - they'd rather rule without either, even after they are 'elected.'

    I take it you don't want to see the dialogue move to a liberal version of good-vs-evil - is that what you meant by calling ABS's project slightly dangerous? I thought I saw you downplaying the religious violence meme in your NSB comment and so missed part of your point of criticism.

  4. Of course this remark from Hayek needs to be read in the context of his whole essay. I like it, since he is widely considered to be a staunch ally of the right (as of course he was, on fiscal matters at least), and so gives the lie yet again to the overly simple left-right dichotomy.

    I am wary of upping the ante so much in political debate that there is no way for anyone to lose graciously or in good faith. i have a deep dislike for polarizing terms in which I see automatic-democrats casting middle American republicans, and vice-versa. I believe this does a great deal of damage and that the apparent chasm between left and right is crippling to our polity. At the same time, I would love to see the spectrum open up and admit far more radical positions than are now commonly heard; I sometimes think that with 70 or so years' hindsight, the differences between the GOP and the Dems will look like the disputes between Lenin and Kautsky, or between the Chalcedonians and the Nestorians -- yes, they were serious enough to those involved that people could get put up against the wall, but seen from a distance, how much they leave out, and how much common ground they had! Of course, this is precisely why they seem so desperate at the time: the two views have (per hypothesis) seen something essential but differ in finessing the details -- and yet, they consider these details to be THE decisive thing.

  5. That is a great essay. The anxiety Hayek has about fitting into the incoherence of his contemporary political system should ring true to many of us today. I'm sort of happy for him that he doesn't have to see what has become of American politics. He seems sensitive, I'm sure it would pain him.

    Also thinking of Hayek I wonder how he would stand in his debate with Keynes if he could see the current replay of those ideas. Seems his primary criticism was with what he considered the misguided belief that we could use government to engineer the markets. Collectivism was the threat that haunted him the most. Collectivism isn't really the main threat any more. I wonder how he would see our democracy now with its radical demagogues that, in my opinion, threaten the institution itself with their selfish lies. I'm not sure if our government would have survived if we had not bailed out the banking system or the car makers, etc. I mostly agree with Hayek's critique of Keynesian economics but I wonder if it isn't fairer to see it as prudent statecraft rather than bad economics.

  6. I am not a Hayek scholar nor an economist, but my impression is that H. was alarmed by the way the attempt to control and foresee what inherently resisted or exceeded human capacity would backfire and collapse into totalitarianism. He saw the market as by definition (as the emergent (we might say, "fractal") the product of many, many unpredictable transactions, and so as something that could not be "steered"; and the attempt to do the impossible would entail redefining the aim until the market was made "steerable."

    Whether he would have countenanced the recent bail-outs and/or stimulus, etc., is an interesting question. My guess is that those on the right who so loudly decry the saving of the auto industry or the banks increase the stridency of their reproaches in proportion to their resentment that they could not have padded the bail-out with their own pork. In fact, no one in the GOP (I suspect) would have been prepared to let every one of those companies collapse. The Obama admin. took a bit of flak for that remark about "not wasting a crisis," but that is precisely how a McCain admin would have seen it as well. A cynical view would have it that politics practically is, these days, the application of crisis. I try to resist cynicism but this is sometimes how I see it too.

    Especially as to the Keynesian/Hayekian aspect of all this, I am very open to correction.