The New Moderate Goes Radical, Part 2: Lashing Out at the Left
All right, I’ve promised you an attack on the excesses of the left this time around — in keeping with my mission as a “fair and balanced” moderate provocateur. I’m an equal-opportunity basher when it comes to enumerating the foibles and follies of our extremist friends.
But (the progressives among you might ask) how can I lambaste the left in good faith when the right is running the show — even under the watch of a purportedly liberal president — at this moment in our history? Don’t I recoil at the monstrous gluttony of the rich, the depredations of Wall Street, the belligerent ignorance of the Tea Partiers, the employees-be-damned attitude of corporate America? Yes, yes, yes and yes! Just read my previous column.
Still, a lingering distaste for the left wells up from my inner regions. Maybe it dates all the way back to the Vietnam era, when scruffy student radicals were disingenuously using an unpopular war to promote a Marxist revolution on the home front. Maybe it springs from my readings in twentieth-century history: how the once-robust Communist movement in the U.S. infiltrated Hollywood and other institutions, applied coercive methods to quash dissent, then — in the most sanctimonious voice imaginable — feigned innocence and indignation when “turncoats” like Elia Kazan outed their warriors in public. Even today, we tend to remember only the abuses of McCarthyism and not the genuine threat posed by the far left during a critical phase of the Cold War. Leftist propaganda has a way of seeping into the culture.
Maybe I still bristle at the abusive rhetoric hurled at white males since the 1960s by radicalized feminists and minority activists. I’m a white male, and believe me, half a century is a long time to be absorbing a steady stream of insults and accusations. Even if their initial grievances were legitimate, these aggressive victimologists succeeded in alienating me with their bilious, bombastic diatribes. Collective guilt is a baseless, primitive and ridiculous concept, and I don’t buy it. So sue me.
But does the left really threaten the American way of life today? Probably not to the extent that we need to panic over it. And shouldn’t we be a little more vigilant in reporting the abuses of the right — especially as it spreads its grasping tentacles over our economy and politics? Yes, we probably should.
Still… the left has wrought its own share of the damage, even during the recent resurgence of the American plutocracy. Where do we begin?
Let’s start with the essential nature of the left: a restless, often relentless political force that would impose reforms based on its own high-minded need to improve the condition of the masses.
Everyone should have access to higher education, they asserted — so now we have millions of disgruntled college graduates laboring at the local Walmart or java joint for want of professional job openings.
Everyone needs a basic income, they reasoned — so we put countless poor people on welfare, rewarded single parenthood and inadvertently spawned a permanent underclass of entitled underachievers.
Everyone should be able to own a house, they told us — so we forced the mortgage companies to lend money against their better judgment, and we all know what happened next.
Everyone should be free to start a new life in America, they exclaimed — so we looked the other way as millions of mostly unskilled immigrants crossed the border illegally, settled down, multiplied abundantly and strained state treasuries to the max. Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos!
In each case, you’ll notice that the instincts were generous, even noble — but the consequences have been (or will soon be) disastrous. Our well-intentioned liberals have a lamentable tendency to ignore the second half of the equation.
Why does the left appear to lack all common sense, especially for a movement supposedly undertaken on behalf of “common” people? It all dates back to the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century, championed by an assortment of strange bedfellows (Theodore Roosevelt meets Emma Goldman!).
Progressivism arose in response to Gilded Age excesses and inequities: the Robber Barons were robbing us blind in pursuit of personal riches. Yes, progressivism was a vital and even heroic movement at the time, and yet… something about it still grates like the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. The humorless missionary zeal… the shrillness… the starchy puritanical need to control the appetites of others… the bias in favor of collectivism over individualism… the elitist desire to forge an enlightened citizenry in its own image, if only those unwashed masses would come around to their way of thinking! Sound familiar?
Today’s left is the grandchild of that movement: not identical to it, but clearly a lineal descendant. For me, that fact explains the paradoxical nature of progressivism in America: why a movement ostensibly of, by and for the masses seems to be dominated by privately schooled upper-middle class thinkers and their disciples.
By now, progressive views are virtually used as a class identifier by upwardly mobile types in search of kindred spirits: if that articulate couple you met at the David Sedaris lecture professes to love NPR, The New Yorker, Salon.com and Keith Olbermann, they might be worth inviting to your next dinner party. The Polish-American plumber who still watches Jay Leno, not so much.
For me, this is the most damning indictment of the modern American left: it reeks of snootiness when you’d think it would descend into the trenches to aid the cause of average working stiffs. Yes, plenty of American liberals still care about the plight of the downtrodden, but generally from a safe distance… and almost as a marker of their own superior social status. Lefty documentarian Michael Moore, for all his faults, actually seems to identify with the beleaguered American proletariat, and I respect him for being true to his creed. By contrast, most of today’s left appears to bask in privilege and self-anointed holiness.
Willfully obnoxious conservative pundit Ann Coulter characterized the American left as a religion, and I have to admit she nailed it. Today’s progressives boast their own saints (Martin Luther King, Mother Jones, Nelson Mandela, Noam Chomsky), their own taboos (homophobia, overturning Roe v. Wade, and any problems in the black community not attributable to white racism), even their own kosher food (anything organic and preferably vegan). Their world, like that of their despised fundamentalist Christian counterparts, is neatly divided into the saved and the damned.
Smitten with its own sense of infallibility, the left thinks nothing of forcing mass compliance with its doctrines. Think of the French and Russian revolutions… the mass slaughters engineered by Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot… the bullying tactics of union thugs… the intolerance of leftist academics toward the rare-bird conservatives and moderates in their departments. Theirs is the one true religion, after all, and the heretics (for example, Harvard president Larry Summers, who suggested aloud that we might investigate why relatively few women become outstanding scientists) are promptly excommunicated.
But like the Protestants they love to belittle, the left contains a multitude of denominations: there’s the women’s left, the African American left, the Latino left, the Native American left, the old-time Jewish left, the polite Quaker/Unitarian left, the rowdy labor left, the environmental left, the artistic left, the media left (mainstream and blogosphere), the Hollywood left (big on collecting Third World children), the atheist left, the lesbian/gay/transgender/transsexual left. Each sect, with the possible exception of the Quakers and Unitarians, is represented in academia with its own Fill-in-the-Blank Studies department. Each identifies primarily with its own “community” (yet another leftish concept) that supersedes one’s archaic physical community or country. (Of course, the super-rich have their own “community” as well, though you won’t see any Plutocracy Studies departments on the nation’s college campuses.)
The odd “boutiquification” of the American left into dozens of special-interest groups, each clamoring for its own entitlements, quotas, holidays and other federally-bestowed favors, will keep it from becoming a potent presence in the political landscape. But the left is a powerful force (too powerful, I should add) in our culture. It still dominates serious public discourse and eagerly shapes our cultural taboos. It maintains absolute rule over the academic world, where it politicizes everything it touches.
Political correctness, with its almost dictatorial insistence on stifling unpalatable truths, is a brainchild of the left. Again, here was a well-intentioned concept (“let’s not trample on any group’s feelings”) that went haywire. So Larry Summers wasn’t allowed to promote research into why more women don’t succeed as scientists. Are we better off for not knowing why? Wouldn’t it have served everyone’s interests if we tossed aside PC considerations and looked for answers that might actually help women succeed in science?
The head-in-the-sand nature of political correctness helps nobody, though it does help tighten that all-important social bond among upwardly mobile urban progressives who listen to NPR, wear Birkenstocks and shop at the local food co-op. After all, isn’t that what being a progressive is all about?
What is to be done? Lenin had his own ideas, and we moderates have ours. Yes, the entrenched interests of the ruling elite still dominate our republic, but we have to remember that the ruling elite isn’t exclusively a right-wing club: powerful lefties like George Soros and even our moderate-liberal president are members in good standing.
Furthermore, it seems increasingly difficult to distinguish the elite right from the elite left. As (liberal) columnist Frank Rich aptly put it, the great struggle of our time isn’t so much between the right and the left, anyway; it’s between the elites and the rest of us. (Maybe we need to discard the old left-right spectrum as our first step toward a moderate revolution.)
As a moderate, I’d prefer not to struggle against any one class at all. I’m not in favor of setting up a guillotine on Wall Street or K Street and watching the heads roll. I’d even go as far as to assert that we need our elites and our masses. I’d simply like to narrow the gap between them before they emerge as two separate and biologically incompatible species. That means imposing regulations on Wall Street, corporate America, Congress and lobbyists as outlined in my earlier diatribe against the right.
It also means knocking the progressive elitists off their high horse before they micromanage us into submission. How? Simply by immunizing ourselves against their most powerful weapon: their ability to belittle us as reactionaries, racists, homophobes and sexists when we choose to dispute their irrational beliefs. This requires a certain fearlessness on our part. As the great Dr. Johnson put it, “I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat, by the menaces of a ruffian.” Nor, I should add, by the guilt-mongering of a progressive ideologue.
Whenever we catch the intellectual left celebrating the Latinization of America, or the legal discrimination of affirmative action, or the decline of the WASP male, or even the latest shock art, we need to stop and ask ourselves, “Why is that good?” Then we need to ask it in public.
We need to be bold enough to shrug off the inevitable insults that are likely to be hurled our way; even more important, we must believe inwardly that we’re committing no offense by challenging the holy doctrines of the faith. Just as Hans Christian Andersen’s emperor needed that honest little boy to remind him that he was parading down the street devoid of clothing, our culture needs fearless moderates to stand up and denounce follies wherever we spot them — whether they come to us courtesy of the right or the left.