Thursday, April 03, 2014

Left Hand Path

Michelle Goldberg:

Call it left-wing anti-liberalism: the idea, captured by Herbert Marcuse in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” that social justice demands curbs on freedom of expression. “[I]t is possible to define the direction in which prevailing institutions, policies, opinions would have to be changed in order to improve the chance of a peace which is not identical with cold war and a little hot war, and a satisfaction of needs which does not feed on poverty, oppression, and exploitation,” he wrote. “Consequently, it is also possible to identify policies, opinions, movements which would promote this chance, and those which would do the opposite. Suppression of the regressive ones is a prerequisite for the strengthening of the progressive ones.”

Note here both the belief that correct opinions can be dispassionately identified, and the blithe confidence in the wisdom of those empowered to do the suppressing. This kind of thinking is only possible at certain moments: when liberalism seems to have failed but the right is not yet in charge. At such times, old-fashioned liberal values like free speech and robust, open debate seem like tainted adjuncts of an oppressive system, and it’s still possible for radicals to believe that the ideas suppressed as hateful won’t be their own.

...At times like this, politics contract. On the surface, the rhetoric appears more ambitious and utopian than ever—witness, for example, the apparently sincere claim by Suey Park, creator of the #CancelColbert hashtag, that Twitter activists intend to “dismantle the state.” But at the same time, activism becomes less about winning converts and changing the world and more about creating protected enclaves and policing speech.

Despite scurrilous rumors to the contrary being spread by Brian, I have not been undergoing a slow conversion to conservatism. If anything, the only shift in my worldview has been a renewed appreciation for good old-fashioned liberalism. This, then, is my basic framework for making sense of the left side of the spectrum:

Liberal: To me, it just means left of center. As you can see from the above link, it's somewhat of a Rorschach term, so I'm not going to bother trying to define it any more closely than that. It's what's left over by process of elimination once the other two groups are dismissed.

Progressive: This is what I think of as the multiculti left. Multiculti, meaning, an obsession with cosmetic diversity. The ditzy descendants of the New Left, the kind of people Christopher Hitchens memorably complained about who turned formerly weighty political issues into a concern with the perspectives of "obese Cherokee lesbians". Heavily overrepresented in the twitosphere, where their bumper-sticker sloganeering is perfectly suited for expression in the tl;dr environment of social media, these are the privilege-checking simpletons who tie themselves up in anxious knots over whether it implicates them in racism or sexism if it turns out that most of their favorite authors or songwriters are white men. They may parrot some of the more academic leftist themes, but they probably prefer the lite version featured regularly on sites like Salon, Slate, HuffPo, the Guardian and NPR. Well-meaning and mostly harmless, yet painfully shallow and incredibly annoying.

Leftist: The class-based left; also, the academic left. The former may be more classically Marxist, the latter more culturally Marxist. The former also disdains the New Left turn away from economic analysis toward identity politics, while the latter (especially as typified by Slavoj Žižek, radical academia's version of a reality TV star) is content to spend its time producing endless amounts of incomprehensible jargon and bafflegab while remaining equally baffled that global capitalism keeps blithely and monstrously blossoming like a toxic orchid despite being endlessly critiqued and deconstructed in countless academic journals. Leftists traditionally scoffed at liberal meliorism in favor of radical political solutions; I have no idea how many of them still honestly believe in the possibility of radical change for the better any more, but most seem to at least still pay lip service to it for lack of any better ideas. They vacillate between rationalizing Communism's failure and attempting to resuscitate its potential, like jargon-spewing Roombas stuck between the coffee table and the sofa.

Obviously, this isn't intended to be a rigorous, detailed taxonomy. It's just intended to make the point that for me, liberal is the default, non-ideological stance, since I consider the other two groupings to each be hopelessly moribund in their own way.