August 1, 2014

An ideological memoir with minimal decorations

The first presidential candidate I supported was Hubert Humphrey in 1968.  I was, at that time, five years old.  My reasons for supporting Humphrey were not the most impressive.  I remember the rest of my family watching the CBS Nightly News on our floor model black-and-white TV.   The TV room, which doubled as a library, was dim and un-air-conditioned.  Cats and people sprawled on the old carpet and rather worse-for-wear stuffed chairs.  Humphrey seemed rather pitiable to me – a stodgy, roundish man with a wavering voice who I sensed, though I was ignorant of the details, was drowning in a world he could not keep up with.  Being overwhelmed is a feeling most five-year-olds can relate to.  “I’m for Humphrey,” I announced.  The rest of my family, all more-or-less adults, seemed amused by this.  When you are five, amusing adults is always a good thing, and Humphrey seemed like he needed a friend.  A few days after my announcement, someone gave me a Humphrey campaign button.  Humphrey lost the primary to McGovern, and Richard Nixon won in the fall, of course.  Nixon, I remembered, looked a little like Ed Sullivan, who also lived exclusively on TV.

Some people cast votes on no more enlightened basis than this their whole lives.  They do not consider policy or study voting records.  They get a certain feeling about a candidate and they trust that feeling.  This is probably not the best way to exercise one’s franchise – but it’s probably not the worst way either.

I wasn’t born with a political party stamped across my forehead.  While I think that most of my family votes now, none of them voted then.  They had, in the way of isolated intellectuals, a certain skepticism about the whole business.  The strongest political sentiment that was present in my fledgling universe was my father’s bitter hatred of the rich.  “Bitter” is a weak word, really.  Have you ever been confronted by a dog that got the idea into its head that you were in its territory and did not belong there?  A dog that stood snarling and tense, baring its teeth, waiting only for you to make the slightest wrong move?  That is how my father felt, and still feels, about the rich.  He denies he hates them, but the denial is about as plausible as Jerry Falwell’s denial that he hated homosexuals.  People do not snarl in neutrality or love.  At that time he hated the local newspaper publisher and, to a lesser extent, his own employer.  Now the media has provided him with Mitt Romney and the Koch brothers, so he snarls dutifully at them.  I doubt his sentiment really worries Mitt, Charles or David very much.  Hatred is not a political belief, per se, but if you had a political coloring book hatred would be one of the more popular colors.  It wouldn’t be a rarely used color in the 32-color box.  It would be in the 8-color box – the one every child in kindergarten has to have.  Apart from his irrational hatred my father is a decent enough man.  He taught me how to construct rational arguments and introduced me to philosophy.  He has a good heart between his bouts of snarling.  Rational arguments are something you do get in 32-color box of political crayons.  Philosophy is a 64-color box item – a crayon for a very fussy child.

My father’s hate was not particularly contagious.  Being around that kind of hatred is unpleasant for anyone who does not share in its source.  Even a child can tell a dog is crazy when it is snarling at the air, and will have no particular temptation to snarl with it.  But, I must admit, there is something to be said for the persuasive weight of dogged repetition.  I never learned to hate the rich, but I did learn to believe that capitalism is a problem.  This put me on a trajectory of its own.

The first political precept I can remember entertaining, one that I held onto tenaciously for quite some time, is that capitalism isn’t fair.  Well, quite obviously, from a certain perspective – it isn’t.  If you have some vague general notion that equality is a good thing, and you believe that people ought to get an approximately the same reward for an equivalent amount of productive effort, then a capitalist enterprise, in which a large number of people toil for a modest reward while the owner of the enterprise collects a far bigger reward, is morally indefensible.  Period.  This really isn’t rocket science, and any young person that approaches the world with the set of moral precepts he or she was taught in elementary school will probably come to this conclusion with very little help.  Morality is a slippery concept though.  The human brain is predisposed to simplify its model of the world as much as possible – and the good guy / bad guy heuristic is a useful, if often stultifying, simplification.  The rich are keeping all the money for themselves and making others suffer as a consequence.  Voila!  And ideology is born!  I’m not saying there is nothing more to leftist thought than that – I’m only saying that there isn’t much more.  Everything that follows is merely an elaboration of this single fundamental premise – the world is a mess because we’ve failed at the task of dividing up the stuff fairly.  Armed with this powerful, hate-optional idea, I began to color the world in with varying gradations of traditional Marxist red.

Now, before you start envisioning me as some sort of dedicated revolutionary, laying down life and limb for the material salvation of his comrades worldwide, I need to widen your perspective with two minor but essential points.  First – I am a coward.  Maybe not an abject coward, but not the sort of person who is going to be found squatting in a jungle with the Sandinistas or any other group of guerillas.  I was happy to wear the T-shirt and the boots on campus.  Maybe the beret, but come on – lets be reasonable.  Second, like most twentysomethings, probably in any country and at any period of history, what I wanted, really, was to have an identity that I could live with.  To be somebody doing the right thing.  Maybe not somebody pivotally important – but somebody.  I wasn’t about to pursue a business degree, certainly – not with my upbringing.  I settled, instead, without any special plan, into being a faux socialist student among sympathetic liberal professors at a state university.  That is only a romantic image if you imagine very, very hard.  I did imagine hard.  I learned to paint, and to write short, inventive research papers with suspiciously wide margins.

Pursuing one’s identity is, by the way, about the worst thing one can do.  You end up knowing neither yourself nor anybody else.  If you want to increase the misery of the world, at least a little, narcissism is a pretty reliable way to do it.  If you want to do some good, on the other hand, stop worrying about yourself.  Gandhi once said something to that effect.  Of course, you can’t just try to be Gandhi either.  Dhotis look as stupid on faux Gandhis as berets look on faux revolutionaries.  The real trick to being somebody is to be yourself without managing to notice.  Buddha said that somewhere – probably.

In any case, I read some Marx, a dash of Che Guevara, a fair amount Lenin, and finished with some Trotsky and a little Rosa Luxemburg.  If I wasn’t really all that well-read I was, at least, well… Red.  It doesn’t seem worth the effort to discuss that literature in any depth.  Philosophically, it’s pretty thin.  Luxemburg, and Trotsky in places, are at least humane.  As a narrative, the aggregate of genuine red literature does have a certain monotonous coherence.  It is not altogether a departure from the facts.  It is a body of work that does best on the attack.  It actually does little else.  The Marxist rests entirely on the wickedness of his enemies, and of his own principles says practically nothing.  The splendid future to be expected after the revolution isn’t merely theoretical, it is in every way an article of faith.

My two older siblings joined the Socialist Workers Party at some point in the early 80’s and took me along to protests and some meetings.  It is amusing to me that conservatives of the Reagan era feared and hated little leftist parties like the SWP so much.  They were really too inert to be a threat to anybody.  If I was a coward I certainly was not alone.  What these people did, in practice, was to get together to share a steady diet of formalized class indignity.  They were interested neither in electoral success nor in bloody revolution.  They were content to walk the dogma with thousands of ordinary liberals at major protests in Washington and New York, and to boast of having a single member in some legislature somewhere in the far west.  Conservatives imagined such people were nests of Soviet collaborators ready to wreak havoc on the American soul.  Soviet agents could probably have found more useful potential agents on urban middle school playgrounds.  If the problem with the recent Occupy Wall Street movement was that they didn’t know what they wanted, the problem with the Socialist Workers Party was that what they wanted was a certain kind of revolutionary romanticism which was all too easy to attain – and having attained it they were untroubled by their own actual irrelevance.  They were me, in other words.  No one with an ounce of integrity can really stand his own reflection.  Then too, I’ve never gotten the hang of institutions based on faith, religious or otherwise.  My father did teach me to reason, as I’ve said.  Reason does not get on well with doctrines centered on belief.

I have never, at any point in my life, considered myself a liberal.  If the SWP was bad, the liberal Democrats have long been far worse.  At least the SWP theoretically wanted something that was theoretically better than the status quo.  I was to eventually conclude that even the Marxist dream itself was flawed, but at least it seemed to offer something better than a world run by the usual group of elitists painted with a coat or two of political correctness.  When liberals ooh and aah over the Kennedys or the Clintons, I get the depressing feeling that we haven’t changed much since the middle ages.  Mind you, those Republicans that pledge undying fealty to the uninspiring House of Bush don’t thrill me either, but at least they don’t muddy their stupidity with the same hypocritical blather about being somehow dedicated to political equality.  In Animal Farm, George Orwell said: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  That ought to be the motto of the current Democratic party.  At the top there are the Kennedys and Clintons of the world, followed by the lesser politicians and assorted bureaucrats.  Beneath, there is an advisory layer of academics from the best universities.  Lower still, an assortment of workaday professionals of various kinds – people who think that they are part of the planning process because they know something about wine and read the New Yorker.  At the very bottom, are the people with their hands out and their mouths open – waiting to be fed and led.  It may be that the world has always been like that.  It may even be that the world always will be like that.  It might even turn out, though I doubt it, that such an arrangement is ultimately for the best – but let’s at least not say that equality is just a clever alternate spelling for oligarchy.  It isn’t.

Despite what you might think, my anti-aristocratic fervor is not the same as a snarling hatred for the rich.  I no longer object at all if people make themselves wealthy by engaging in good old fashioned free market enterprises – the kind that produce arguably useful goods and generate employment for that most luckless of minorities – people with a work ethic.  I am less convinced that investment bankers and hedge fund managers are a net boon to humanity, and perhaps it’s not unreasonable to dislike a group of people who make money by destabilizing the entire global economy.  Still, as bad as this latter group of high rollers might be, they have at least one saving grace:  they do not, as rule, give a damn about what I think or how I live.  They want my money, if I have any, but they have no ideological fascination with curtailing my free agency.  The elites that worry me are not the ones building floating houses in the Caribbean, but the ones building utopian ant farms who insist I play the obliging role of ant.

How could I have been so blind as to have ever been a leftist?  This is not really a question, but a lament.  The question itself I have already answered.  It sounded nice.  How could something that claims to be progress not sound nice?  The real question is – how could I have been so caught up in the rhetoric and romanticism to have failed to think the inexorable logic of leftism through?  The answer to that question lies in an understanding of world history.

My mother’s major contribution to my postnatal development was to infuse me with a love of history.  She read books about ancient Egypt and she talked about them.  That threw open a window for me that for many people remains forever shuttered.  Without an understanding of history, one can only understand politics in the way an Alzheimer’s sufferer understands her relationships.  Everything just comes as a continual surprise.  Unfortunately, learning enough history to begin to get an accurate sense of how societies actually behave takes a very long time.  The primary reason it takes so long is that all historical analyses are burdened with the ideological zeitgeist of their particular period and place of origin – whether their authors intended them to be burdened or not.  To do more than merely indoctrinate yourself, you have to read old books and new – foreign and domestically produced.  A quick read of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is insufficient.  It will tell you much about Howard Zinn, but only one oblique perspective on the history of the United States.  You can learn to argue intelligently in a few months if you have the aptitude, but discerning facts from axe-grinding exercises is an art – and, even then, an imperfect art.  Read a book on any historical topic and you will usually come away with one of two impressions.  The first is that the author has taught you something interesting and valuable about the world.  The second is that the author is a brainwashed, opinionated ass.  Which of these two conclusions you come to tends to depend on what beliefs you started with.  History is not like chemistry.  You can’t just run the experiment again to see whether or not the author got it right.  In time though, if you expose yourself to enough variety of material, certain patterns do begin to appear out of the noise.  It was on reaching this sort of critical mass of historical knowledge that my illusions about leftism started to fade.  If this is vague, it can’t be helped.  Mine has never been an easy path to trace.

Looked at historically, modern socialism consistently fails to achieve its aims.  Whether we are talking about the Soviet Union of the 1980’s or Western Europe of today, it has failed to produce prosperity for the public as a whole.  Leftists can get some limited projects done, but they cannot bestow prosperity on the public after having denuded them of the agency to pursue prosperity themselves.  I remember once watching a cat who had beaten and clawed a little bird to death.  Despite the bird’s condition, the cat continued to bat the thing into the air in a miserable and obviously frustrating attempt to make it fly.  Try as it might, it just couldn’t get the game restarted.  This is more-or-less what any group of socialists is prone to do when given power over an economy.  Having wrecked the thing for their own ideological amusement, they expect its broken corpse to flourish under their ongoing punishment.  It never does.  Socialism elevates the poorest of the poor by pushing down the living standards of the middle class.  The net result is always negative.  The collective pie gets smaller, only to accomplish the modest gain that no one actually starves for want of the most miserable of slices.  This does not seem, to me, a resounding success.  Worse still, socialism’s equality project is an utter sham.  This is obvious if you simply pay attention.  Are the central planners and the public ever equal?  No.  Moreover, their inequality is not merely economic, but political in the extreme.  The central government makes all of the decisions and imposes them through the authority of the state.  The citizen obeys – or suffers punishment.  All governments coerce, but under socialism the scope of government intrusion into the life of the individual is unlimited.  There is a tragic difference between a legislative body whose members owe their stations to the public’s approval, and a body of appointed central planners who preside over the public in the public’s name.  “Social Democracy” is an oxymoron because central planning and democracy are as antithetical as two concepts can possibly be.  “Freedom is Slavery,” said George Orwell, not in Animal Farm but in 1984.  I understood Orwell’s ruthless irony when I read it, but quickly covered it up with lots of dreamy, optimistic, collectivist perfume.

The last straw, really – the final insult to my leftist point of view, was the discovery that socialism is ultimately regressive rather than progressive.  The long history of civilization can fairly be said to have been one slow, uncertain advance against the bulwark of political oppression.  In other words, the direction of progress has been that of the triumph of the individual over state authority.  Kings, pharaohs, sultans and great khans, varied and colorful though they might have been, had a set of salient features in common – their authority was capricious, arbitrary, and largely unrestrained.  The great khan may have indeed been great, but if you displeased him there was nothing in the makeup of his government that limited the amusing and horrific things that he might do to you.  Maybe, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (though, personally, I doubt it) – but it is historically undeniable that no one initially bothered with creating rights.  Rights were chiseled away from established authorities bit by bit, generation by generation, in an uneven manner and with numerous reverses.  They are hard-won things.  Constitutional government, in which authority agrees to be bound by a framework of laws – effectively on pain of public revolt – must rank among the greatest of human accomplishments.  Under the rule of law, the government protects people from murdering and robbing one another, and the people protect themselves from government by the vigilant defense of their own generally understood rights.  Rights are not given to us by government, or by God, or by anybody else.  Rights were wrested from authority by the very fact that we, the people, had sufficient collective power to effectively demand them.  Unfortunately, when people begin to feel that government should do more than be the administrator and policeman of last resort – that it should, in fact, serve as parent and provider to its citizens – the historical progress that brought us Constitutional government is inevitably undermined.  If the question becomes “How can government help?” there is hardly any personal sphere into which government cannot find justification for intruding.  Eventually, in the name of the public good, capricious, arbitrary, and largely unrestrained authority is reinstated.  There is no reason to think a committee of planners has innately better motives than an individual tin pot dictator or, for that matter, than a hedge fund manager.  Restrained by the vestiges of public traditions and democratic processes, socialism may present a benign appearance for a time, but an unelected bureaucracy’s relationship to the public – that of master to subject – is essentially the same one that existed under any ancient despot.  F.A. Heyek said this all seventy years ago, of course.  It is still worth saying.

Worse, in human terms, than my political mistake was a far broader social one.  I got used to simply disliking the people that the subculture I was immersed in told me to dislike.  That is an exceedingly crappy way to deal with real, flesh-and-blood human beings.  The fact that it is an easy trap to fall into doesn’t mitigate its essential, deep-down crappiness.  The generic leftist-liberal miasma that I lived in dictated that racial minorities and certain other groups were always hapless, noble victims to be pitied and deferred to, and that conservatives, Republicans, and Christians were monolithic, soulless, cookie cutter villains.  I know that there are many decent, caring people who believe this crap, but as a system of organizing one’s understanding of humanity it is crap nonetheless.  It is the same good guy / bad guy heuristic humans beings have been employing to justify despising one another since prehistoric times.  I strongly suspect that even the majority of four-legged animals have the good guy / bad guy trick down pat.  You can be a habitual bigot even before mastering the invention of fire.  You can be a habitual bigot even without a thumb or vocal chords.  At some level, I guess, being narrow-minded is a feature of social behavior.  Now there’s an irony, if ever there was one.

I came to live among the soulless, cookie cutter villains more-or-less by accident.  I moved from a city to a village in pursuit of a better paying job.  I was a leftist among conservatives.  An atheist among Christians.  An urbanite in a rural area.  The first thing I learned about my conservative brethren was that they know what a community is.  They have what used to be called, in rather more innocent times, a sense of social responsibility.  Many of them are habitually charitable.  There is a tendency for liberals to think that conservatives only care about themselves and their own little circles, but in my experience this usually isn’t the case.  I rarely get through a week without an envelope full of money coming across my desk with an attached sympathy card for some poor schmoe who has suffered a misfortune.  The bulletin boards of my company are plastered with charity raffles, donation requests, mission news, etc.  African charities are big here, as are charities for the usual well-known and popular diseases.  Blood drives are a vampire’s delight.  There is no coercion driving any of this that I am aware of.  It is just a feature of the culture.  The culture of these rural, redneck villains – these narrow-minded haters.  It is one thing to be caught in an intellectual error, but it is quite another to have to measure your own humanitarian pretentions against somebody else’s real, tangible charity.  It is humbling, to say the least.

Of course, there is no shortage of bad intentions among the non-progressive population.  There is no shortage of bad intentions anywhere.  We are all human, like it or not, and no group has a monopoly on ill-will or sheer, pig-ignorant stupidity.  I am not naïve enough to believe that people on the right end of the political spectrum are incapable of harboring some terrible ideas.  Plenty of conservatives I know believed that the Bush administration’s torture policy was commendable.  Decent people, I think, should not believe such things.  It is a hellish sort of doublethink when basically decent people somehow manage to.  I hope it hurts their heads, because it certainly hurts mine.  On the other hand, the right has no monopoly on finding justifications for inflicting pain.  When it comes to torturing their own citizens, several socialist regimes are in a class of their own.

What I have concluded, over the long run, is that ideology itself is dangerous.  It is not a matter of backing the right one.  There is no right one.  If you become so caught up in a cause that you are willing to twist reality into a pretzel to forgive its sins – or to shut your mind to the possibility that it even has sins – you cannot meaningfully say that you care either about people or about the truth.  A handful of rough-and-ready principles is probably the best that we can manage in a lifetime.  I, myself, am tired to the bone of being an –ist or an –ive or an –ian.  I will proudly stand with whoever seems to be getting it right at any given moment, knowing full well that human wisdom is always tentative and fleeting – and that any group of people moving in the right direction all at once is probably only doing so by accident.  So be it.  I leave certainty, and Santa, to the enthusiasm of the young.

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