Saturday, March 06, 2010

More Observations On The Failure of the Left posted by Anthony McCarthy

In her very useful essay, The Tyranny of Petty Coercion*, Marilynne Robinson gives some more ways in which liberals are silenced and, especially self-censored, into ineffectiveness. Here is an excerpt.

... To say that the disparity between rich and poor in this country exceeds any previously known in American history (putting aside the marked economic disparity between plantation owners and slaves) is to say something falsifiable — that is, for practical purposes, verifiable, and in any case arguable. But such statements are now routinely called “Bush bashing.” In other words, something that is objectively true or false is dismissed as the slur of a hostile subgroup. Perfectly sensible people flinch at the thought that they sound a trifle Jacobin, and they are shamed out of saying what they believe to be true in the plainest sense of the word “true.” Nor is it the critics alone who lose their bearings when these strategies are employed. Those who identify with the group toward whom the criticisms are directed — in this case, the present administration ---- can hear irrational attack where they might otherwise hear a challenge to their values or to their theories or methods.

So the exchanges that political life entirely depends on, in which people attempt in good conscience to establish practical truth and then candidly assign value to it, simply do not take place. This is a failure of courage on both sides. I assume many apologists for the administration would find it painful to say that radical economic polarization is a good thing. So they are relieved to learn that they are only being “bashed,” and therefore need not consider the issue on its merits.

Why critics are so flummoxed I can only speculate. Perhaps it is because most of the people in this country who take on public issues are educated and middle class. As is true of their kind anywhere, they are acculturated to distrust strong emotion, so they are effectively rebuked when they are accused of harboring it. Oddly, they seem often to be shamed out of defending the poor and vulnerable on the grounds that they themselves are neither poor nor vulnerable, as if there were properly no abstract issues of justice, only the strategies of interest groups or, more precisely, of self-interested groups. That their education and experience prepare them to think in terms larger than their own immediate advantage makes them an “elite,” and ipso facto they are regarded as a self-interested subgroup of a particularly irksome kind. Even when they benefit, materially , from the policies they deplore and wish to change, their position is dismissed as nothing more than elitist, through the pols and pollsters who use the term have identical credentials and much greater power. To be intimidated in this is a failure of courage, and to abandon democracy from an excess of self-doubt and good manners is no different, in its effect, than to abandon it out of arrogance or greed.

Not wanting to risk violating copyright I won’t go on to give Robinson’s brilliant observation that Democrats were, and I’d say continue to be cowed, on the basis of their not being in style. It could be a good part of the clear failure of courage we are witnessing in Barack Obama and the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party today.

As I said here last week, there are many other reasons that the left lingers in an ineffective state of impotence, despite the evidence and reason in support of our policies, but the ones given by Robinson in her great essays are among the most important.

* The essay is the last in the great collection by Robinson, The Death of Adam. If you have a subscription to Harper’s Magazine it is also available to read online.