October 28, 2005

The Partisan Menace: A Rabbit Trail

This is the last week of guided reading and response for Intellectual History because, frankly, we've run out of history to discuss. Well, that and the fact that we have the next month to produce a 20-25 page paper on our topic of choice. With that in mind, the discussion this week was more than a bit fragmented. I, for one, had my mind on a few hundred other things, few of which had anything to do with intellectual history, but we muddled through nonetheless.

As we talked over the the emerging oppositions between Liberals and Conservatives following World War II and growing into the divisive partisan politics of the present day, I remembered a few things in particular which struck me from the reading. I come from a staunchly conservative background, but extremes make me nervous and I prefer to approach issues from a more moderate perspective. Striving after balance, I often pull farther left than I would otherwise go when I am confronted with a narrow-minded, one-sided view from the right. I haven't yet had the chance to see whether I can swing the other way, too.

And speaking of such views, most people I know (on the Right) seem to have a very strange view of what it means to be Left. My understanding of it is almost always different from their understanding. The following excerpt from a piece published in 1960 not only sums up my view of the difference between the sides very neatly, but goes on to discuss (using issues of the times) the basic problems with the Right's criticism of the Left.

The Right, among other things, means — what you are doing, celebrating society as it is, a going concern. Left means, or ought to mean, just the opposite. It means: structural criticism and reportage and theories of society, which at some point or another are focussed politically as demands and programmes. These criticisms, demands, theories, programmes are guided morally by the humanist and secular ideals of Western civilisation — above all, reason and freedom and justice. To be “Left” means to connect up cultural with political criticism, and both with demands and programmes. And it means all this inside every country of the world.

Only one more point of definition: absence of public issues there may be, but this is not due to any absence of problems or of contradictions, antagonistic and otherwise. Impersonal and structural changes have not eliminated problems or issues. Their absence from many discussions — that is an ideological condition, regulated in the first place by whether or not intellectuals detect and state problems as potential issues for probable publics, and as troubles for a variety of individuals. One indispensable means of such work on these central tasks is what can only be described as ideological analysis. To be actively Left, among other things, is to carry on just such analysis.

To take seriously the problem of the need for a political orientation is not of course to seek for A Fanatical and Apocalyptic Lever of Change, for Dogmatic Ideology, for A Startling New Rhetoric, for Treacherous Abstractions — and all the other bogeymen of the dead-enders. These are of course “the extremes,” the straw-men, the red herrings, used by our political enemies as the polar oposite of where they think they stand.

They tell us, for example, that ordinary men can’t always be political “heroes.” Who said they could? But keep looking around you and why not search out the conditions of such heroism as men do and might display? They tell us we are too “impatient,” that our “pretentious” theories are not well enough grounded. That is true, but neither are they trivial; why don’t they get to work, refuting or grounding them? They tell us we “don’t really understand” Russia — and China — today. That is true; we don’t; neither do they; we are studying it. They tell us we are “ominous” in our formulations. That is true; we do have enough imagination to be frightened = and we don’t have to hide it: we are not afraid we'll panic. They tell us we “are grinding axes.” Of course we are: we do have, among other points of view, morally grounded ones; and we are aware of them. They tell us, in their wisdom, we don’t understand that The Struggle is Without End. True: we want to change its form, its focus, its object.

To summarize: Conservatism = "What we have done in the past is good. Society should either remain this way because it's working, or (as the case may be) return to an earlier state because that worked better." It's all about moving backward in order to move forward. Conservatives tend to idealize the past. Liberalism = "Look at everything we've done wrong in the past. Look at the problems with the current system which originated in these attitudes from the past. We should change this. It's time to move forward." It's all about leaving the past behind in order to move forward. Liberals tend to focus on the negatives in the past.

There are potential problems with sticking to closely to either of these views, of course. As always, I'm pretty sure the best view lies somewhere in the middle. However, other telling aspects which I noticed from the above excerpt were "labelling" and dismissive arguments. There is a tendency among conservatives to use terms like "bleeding heart liberal" and, almost in the same breath, to call the left "too intellectual." They go on to object to all of their points on grounds which are either irrelevant or only address the topic at hand tangentially. Too often conservatives object to what they perceive are inappropriate attitudes from their liberal counterparts without examining what they are saying.

Liberals are inherently critical of the establishment, and conservatives attack them for it. I often find myself attacked, or at least "gently reprimanded," for my criticism of those who are in authority, whether it be university administration or the government. When I see something that I don't think is right, I complain that it isn't right. Some of my fellow Christians have this bizarre idea that we shouldn't try to hold our authorities accountable or criticize them in any way because God placed them in the positions they are in. They believe me to be indirectly questioning God, I suppose. Nonsense. God knows better than I do that human beings are fallible.

There was another excerpt I would have liked to discuss, and of course I must be sure to recommend that all of you go read something by Reinhold Niebuhr, a balanced and perceptive scholar of the mid-twentieth century. You can find an excerpt of his work on Wilson's blog even now. I, however, have run out of space and run out of time. That's my two cents for this week.

Posted by Jared at October 28, 2005 12:47 PM | TrackBack