Friday, April 29, 2005

Problematic Dissent

Every time I delve into the world of the Chomskyites, I thank God for Dissent Magazine, if only because it reminds me that an intelligent, non-Chomskyite Left does exist, albeit on the margins of the ideological map. Had I remained a Leftist, I would likely be in their camp. However, reading this article by Michael Walzer on the Bush victory and how to deal with it reminds me of why I did not and could not do so.

I've always had an ambivalent opinion of Mr. Walzer. Personally, I much prefer Paul Berman, who is a better writer and a more courageous thinker, in my opinion. Walzer's position on Vietnam was, to my mind, utterly immoral and indefensible; and his writings on just war theory strike me as, at best, the naivete of a sheltered intellectual. I think he is an intelligent man who remains, unfortunately, mired in an inchoate nostalgia for the iconography of the Old Left, and for the aesthetic pleasures of revolution and revolt for its own sake. His musings on the state of the left today serve only to confirm that opinion. The piece is long, so I will confine myself to a few essential quotes:

The experts have apparently agreed that it wasn't values that lost us the last election. It was passion, and above all, it was the passion of fear. But maybe frightened people look for strong leaders, whose strength is revealed in their firm commitment to a set of values. Fear politics and value politics may turn out to be closely related.
Now, I understand why this is a popular theory for people who simply can't understand how anyone could vote for George Bush, but it nonetheless remains a fairly obvious rationalization. Yes, people are afraid of terrorism, and they should be, but in my view Bush represented more than fear to the people who voted for him, myself among them; he represented defiance, resoluteness, anger, and the belief that America is worth fighting for because it is fundamentally better than an ideology of theocratic totalitarianism and mass murder. At its most basic level, this represented a certain elementary courage; one which is, I believe, rooted in the very human desire to stand up and defend oneself when attacked. One can debate all of these things, but the manner in which Walzer reduces them down to "fear politics and value politics" trivializes something profound and important to a great many, perhaps a majority, of Americans; which is both shallow and never a smart thing to do if one is seeking a viable political platform.

Questions about just and unjust, right and wrong, goodness and evil...for the right today, the market takes care of such matters, or God takes care of them; the common good arises out of the competition for private goods-in obedience, amazingly, to God's word. On the left, however, we have to take care of moral matters by ourselves, without the help of history, the invisible hand, or divine revelation.

Maybe the struggle against Islamic radicalism and religious zeal is a world-historical struggle, as the struggle against communist totalitarianism was. I doubt that Islamic radicalism has the expansionist potential that communism had, but . . . maybe.
The first statement being made here, that the left is less moralistically extreme than the right, is simply categorically untrue. If anything, the left has become even more moralistic, even more fanatical, and even more extreme since 9/11 and the war in Iraq. They may not evoke God as much as the right, but the fervor with which they regularly compare Bush to Hitler was certainly religious in nature, and Hitler is, after all, merely a secular word for Satan. Moreover, even the mainstream organs of the left have proven willing to defer to these pathologies to a disturbing extent, even to the point of embracing political unpopularity (witness the rise of third-place loser Howard Dean to DNC chair). The problem is not that the left is uncertain of itself, but that its certainty has coalesced around an illusory and frankly psychotic worldview which perceives its own country and president as a manifestation of cosmic evil and refuses to acknowledge the reality of such other possible evils as, say, Islamic radicalism and its attendant terrorist acts. Walzer, in denying this phenomenon, is, like most well-meaning leftists, both in denial and setting himself up to reach all the wrong conclusions about the left's current impasse.

The essence of that impasse lies in two statements which say a great deal more than Walzer likely intended them to; his concept of "the common good", and his assessment of the threat posed by radical Islam. As to the latter, it is obvious to me and to many others that a theocratic totalitarianism which has political momentum, widespread popularity, access to sophisticated weaponry, and a demonstrated willingness to use said weaponry to cause wanton death and destruction is, to put it mildly, a major threat, and in the age of nuclear proliferation, perhaps even an apocalyptic one. At any rate, the question of whether radical Islam is the equal to communism in its danger is an irrelevancy; Islamic terror has proven that it can massively damage, upset, derange, and traumatize the United States, not to mention cause massive loss of innocent life. Its declared intention is to continue doing so until it is victorious or stopped by armed force. Walzer dismisses all this with a "but...maybe" which pretty much tells the whole story.

But it is the former which is really the heart of the matter, since it goes to explain the long term decline of the left, and not merely that which followed 9/11; since it makes it abundantly clear that Walzer simply doesn't understand modern conservatism in any way shape or form. And that, moreover, this lack of understanding is based in a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of human freedom. Like most leftists, Walzer is obsessed with the economic-political realm, or rather, he believes that the economic-political realm encompasses all of human society. As a result, he cannot grasp the fact that conservatism does not desire "the market" to "take care of such matters"; but rather for people, autonomous human beings, to regulate themselves without the interference of the state. For the conservative, there is no "common good" per se, because society is too complex for there to be a single good to be held in common by all; there is only the interaction of free individuals self-regulated by culture, morality, and, yes, religion, all of which exist independent and autonomous of politics. In truth, beyond all questions of war, peace, morality and values, this is the quintessential failure of the left today: its inability and conscious refusal to recognize the limits of politics and the very existence of the free individual. In the leftist mind, we are all merely pawns in the "common good". This is why they can see the War on Terror as a product of politics (i.e. the wicked Bush administration and/or the past machinations of the wicked United States) and also see the solution to the War on Terror as political (i.e. the election of a benign Kerry administration and/or overthrow of the existing political order by riot and street theater). The idea that religious, cultural, or moral forces at work in the world - such as radical Islam and its incompatibility with modern secular democracy - may create immovable realities is simply inconceivable to the left; and thus the possibility that politics means nothing in this struggle and that secular democracy, with all its flaws, may have to be fought for with blood and treasure, no matter who occupies the White House, becomes a fundamental threat to the entirety of their worldview, and must be denied out of existence. Michael Walzer is one of the smartest and most sober leftists writing today; and the fact that even he cannot begin to look beyond the impasse that is his and his movement's is, for me at least, as someone who hopes for an intelligent and engaged opposition, very disheartening indeed.