Left2Right – a critical appraisal

I’ve been reading a new blog called
Left2Right, founded in
mid-November 2004 as an attempt by a group of left-wing intellectuals to reach
out to intelligent people on the right of the American political spectrum.
It is indeed a thought-provoking read, but the thoughts they are provoking
are not necessarily of the sort they intend.

This response is intended for the Left2Right authors, so I’ll
rehearse what will be obvious to regular Armed and
Dangerous
readers; I’m not a conservative or right-winger
myself, but a radical libertarian who finds both ends of the
conventional spectrum about
equally repugnant
. My tradition is the free-market classical liberalism of Locke and
Hayek. I utterly reject both the Marxist program and the reactionary
cultural conservatism of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and (today) the
Religious Right. Conservatism is defined by a desire to preserve
society’s existing power relationships; given a choice, I prefer
subverting them to preserving them.

One advantage my libertarianism gives me is that while I disagree
violently with a lot of right-wing thinking, I understand it much
better than most leftists do. The reverse is not quite as true; while
I do believe I understand left-wing thinking pretty well, most
right-wing intellectuals are not so ignorant of leftism that I have an
unusual advantage there. They can’t be, not after having passed
through the PC indoctrination camps that most American universities
have become.

A right-winger, noting the concentration of philosophy and
humanities professors in the Left2Right bios and the number of them
who list topics like “race and gender issues” as interest areas, would
say that the contributors are typical members of the elite that runs
those camps. But one of the things that Left2Right suggests to this
libertarian is that even these people are prisoners, locked in by
their own group-think. The toughest challenge they face in reaching
out to right-wingers is not a problem with right-wingers — it is the
unexamined premises and lacunae in their own reasoning.

The post
that is at the top of the blog as I write is a subtle but perfect
illustration of this point. J. David Velleman, writing on Bush
administration strategy about the liberation of Iraq, argues that they
fell victim to a philosophical error, believing that giving the Iraqi
people freedom would be sufficient to pacify the country. He writes
“These decisionmakers seem not to have considered the possibility that
freedom alone may not induce people to do wonderful things if they
lack a shared sense of confidence in the legitimacy of the social
order”.

This is a refreshing change from the dimmer sort of left-wing
narrative, in which Bush and Cheney head a sinister cabal who dream
of an American empire that enslaves the Iraqis and steals their oil
for Halliburton. It’s an intelligent criticism; possibly even a
correct one.

But…and this is a large ‘but’…the when Velleman goes on to
imply that “shared confidence in the legitimacy of the social order”
is one of the “values of the left” without which the “values of the
Right are simply not viable”, he reveals himself to be inhabiting some
sort of ahistorical cloud-Cuckoo land. He is making an archetypally
right-wing sort of argument here, one which would sound far more
likely from Russell Kirk or an eighteenth-century clericalist than from
anyone who purports to be part of the tradition of Karl Marx or
Mikhael Bakunin or Emma Goldman.

Velleman’s blythe unawareness of the reactionary tenor of his own
argument suggests more than just a ignorance of right-wing political
thinking that is crippling for anyone engaged in Left2Right’s project;
it suggests that Left thought has become so empty of any content of
its own, so stuck in reflexive oppositionalism, that all that remains
to it is to grab at any concept that can be used to oppose George W.
Bush.

In fact, this model of a Left stuck in reflexive oppositionalism is
exactly what conservative intellectuals believe about it. Their
narrative goes like this: once upon a time, Left thought was a genuine
world-system, a coherent if tragically mistaken competitor to
classical liberalism and capitalism. The Soviet Union used this
theory for evil purposes, to seduce the intelligentsia of the West and
foment among them anti-American, anti-capitalist hatred. When the
Soviet Union collapsed, the Left’s world-system collapsed with it.
All that remained was a catalogue of resentments clothed in the
tattered remnants of Marxist theory, but the Left intelligentsia never
let go of this. As the theory crumbled, the resentments
became the theory. So we are left with a Left that is more
hysterically anti-American than ever, and willing to suck up to
monstrous dictators like Saddam Hussein, precisely because it no
longer knows what to be for.

Now: reread the above paragraph, then ask yourself what Velleman’s
rhetoric will inevitably sound like to a conservative intellectual. You
will know you have gotten it when your hair stands on end.

We continue with a post
by Jeff McMahan on “Support our Troops” bumper stickers. McMahan
appears to mean well, but when writes as though he thinks that the
owners of SUVs and vans who bear these stickers are performing some
kind of Machiavellian calculation about oil-shock risks he is merely
proving that he is laughably out of touch with the thinking of
ordinary Americans.

A gentle hint for Mr. McMahan: People who own vans and SUVs
live in the suburbs. People who live in the suburbs
predominantly vote Republican; this is a cold demographic
fact known to almost everybody whose horizons are wider than those of
an average NPR radio-show host. The fact that you don’t know this, and
instead chase after paranoid all-about-the-oil theories, makes you the
sort of person conservatives laugh about and and point out as a
paradigmatic example of left-liberal cluelessness.

The ahistorical J. David Velleman speaks some good sense in

debunking a dead horse
. He may be dead-ignorant of right-wing thought
but he clearly isn’t stupid. Like all the contributors he radiates a
sense that he is honestly trying.

David Estlund’s The
First Data Point on Anti-Terrorism
starts as fairly standard-issue
Bush-bashing; he ignores the fact that, if the Bush administration was
culpable, the Clinton administration was even more culpable on the
same “knew or should have known” sort of argument. The intelligence
estimates that made al-Qaeda out to be imminently dangerous long
predate the 2000 elections.

The more interesting part of his post is his repetition of the meme
that Republicans won’t listen to arguments or evidence from
intellectuals like him. He is so full of self-congratulation about
the Bushies’ alleged inability to let the evidence lead them where it
will (and by implication, his own superior ability to do so) that he
completely misses the real reason conservative policy makers tune his
kind out.

Mr. Estlund, how can I break this to you gently…the Bushies ignore
advice from left-wing academics because they believe the source is poisoned.
They believe you hate America and want to destroy it. Given
that belief, it would be their duty to listen to your advice only with
the determination to do the exact opposite of anything you recommend.

Now, mind you, in pointing this out, I am not alleging that you
actually do hate America and want to destroy it. My claim is
that from the point of view of most conservatives, that is the only
model that plausibly explains your speech and behavior. They do not
merely pretend to believe your kind is evil as a matter of rhetoric or
tactical positioning, they actually do believe it. With the
best will in the world to listen to critics and weigh evidence, they
still wouldn’t take policy advice from you any more readily than you
would accept it from a Nazi.

(Allow me to contrast this with the position I think more typical of
libertarians, which is that left-wing academics are not evil per se
but have been so canalized by Marxist-derived ideology that on most
politico-economic issues they should be ignored on grounds of
irremediable incompetence.)

So, if you want to be listened to in Washington, your problem (one
which is general to left-wing intellectuals) is how to falsify
conservatives’ belief that you hate America and want to destroy it.
This is not going to be possible at all as long as you express
contempt for the values and reasoning ability of the majority of
Americans that voted for George Bush.

But your problem runs deeper than that. To be listened to, you
will need to demonstrate that you share what present-day American
conservatives think of as their core beliefs, including but not limited
to:

  • The practical and moral superiority of free-market capitalism
    over socialism and all other competing visions of political economics.
  • American exceptionalism — the belief that the U.S. is uniquely
    qualified by history and values to bring liberty to the oppressed of
    the world.
  • Islamic terrorism is an unqualified evil which cannot be explained
    or excused either by “root cause” analysis; further, that laying it
    to past failures in U.S. policy is a form of blaming the victim.

(Note that I am not endorsing these beliefs, simply pointing out that
conservatives generally hold them.)

As long as conservatives believe that you do not share these core
beliefs with them, they will conclude that your policy “help” on Iraq
or the War on Terror would be an active detriment. And — here’s
the hard part — they will be justified in that belief
(which, as you doubtless know, is not the same as the assertion that
the belief is confirmably true).

But you have yet another problem, which is not about the beliefs of
conservative intellectuals or policymaking elites. It is that in
rejecting the core beliefs I have pointed at, you are not merely
defining yourself out of the policy conversation conservatives are
ready to have, you are also out of step with the majority of the
American people. The voters. As long as that continues to be the
case, the Left will continue to lose elections.

Estlund’s posting responds to the previous one, in which Gerald Dworkin
says intelligent things about the Bush administration’s apparent success
at preventing major terrorist acts in the U.S., and the electoral ramifications
thereof. Excellent; if the Left is prepared to face reality this squarely,
there is hope for them yet.

J. David Velleman has more sensible things to say about the
politics of homosexuality. His distinction between the respect that
we owe “gay rights” and the problematic status of “gay pride” is
astute. I think leftists also need to understand that many
conservatives (and libertarians like myself) feel a deep and
principled revulsion not just against “gay pride” but against all
forms of manipulative identity politics, and are heartily fed up with
having leftists construe that revulsion as bigotry.

Stephen Darwall’s School
Resegregation and the Exurbs
, on the other hand, feels like an
attempt to force new wine into old wineskins. The Left’s tendency to
turn every policy argument into a diatribe about racism (too often,
racism that existed nowhere but in the Left’s imagination) was always
one of its least attractive traits. We could do without a
revival.

Again, I am not just discussing elite opinion here. If you go to
the voters with the argument that wanting to live in exurbs is
evidence of racism, they will stiff-arm you. Actually, I think it is
only the hothouse atmosphere of the academy that has kept racism alive
as a topic in American thought for the last fifteen years or so.

In Being
Forthright
, Seanna Shiffrin says nothing at all that has any
chance of increasing understanding between Left and Right, and does so
at some length. Her screed reads, to any conservative (and even to a
libertarian like me) as extended self-congratulation about how Left
convictions are so obviously correct that if leftists trumpet them
loudly enough the people will come.

This is a perfect example of the wages of groupthink. In fact, if the
six election cycles since 1980 demonstrate anything, it is that being
more “forthright” about left-wing positions is a recipe for electoral
disaster.

Kwame Appiah takes
the opposite tack
: “In these circumstances I think it would be
better to show up first with an offer to listen than with an offer to
talk.” A commenter correctly observes that this may be the most
useful thing we have heard a Democrat say since the elections.

Unfortunately, the rest of the posting is yet another narrative about
left-wing superiority, though Mr. Appiah gives it the novel twist of
ascribing this belief to right-wingers! For this he is quite properly
taken to the woodshed buy some conservative commenters.

Speaking as an observer who is (once again) not a
conservative, I salute the commenter who said “I think you go
profoundly astray in this understanding of why conservatives rail
against the liberal media. It isn’t about being liked. It is about
believing that the liberal media distorts the truth and manipulates
beliefs by using such distortions. They rail against the political and
social power which they believe is being corruptly used.

I’ll go further than that. I resent the way that the Left uses its
effective control of the mainstream media to manipulate belief even
when the manipulation advances causes I agree with —
for example, abortion rights. I don’t like “pro-lifers” and I don’t
agree with them — but that doesn’t stop me from noticing that
they get stigmatized as all being yahoos and routinely associated with
clinic-bombers by the same media that is very painstaking in
separating the Left’s violent crazies from allegedly more
“respectable” organizations like Greenpeace or PETA.

It is wise of Joshua Cohen to have noticed
that gay-marriage initiatives probably actually hurt Bush rather than
winning him the election. If the Left continues to comfort itself by
believing its only real problem is with Christian evangelicals, it will
slide further into denial and irrelevancy.

The American rejection of what Cohen calls “progressive values” is
much, much broader based than that. As an agnostic Wiccan who thinks
the War on Drugs was a huge toxic blunder, I am not personally
thrilled about this development, but I recognize it as fact
nevertheless. Mr. Cohen is to be commended for urging this unwelcome
news on the Left.

On the other hand, J. David Velleman’s post
on the Academic Bill of Rights does not go nearly far enough. His is
a more sophisticated form of defensive crouch than the outright denial
we usually see, but merely admitting that “large regions of the
humanities and social sciences have become increasingly ideological,” doesn’t
even come close to addressing the actual magnitude of the problem.

I am, in an important sense, an applied humanist/sociologist. My
analysis
of the anthropology and sociology of open-source software development
has a significant reputation in academia; it has been cited with the
coveted adjective “seminal” and spawned quite a number of master’s and
doctoral theses. My work has required that I enter the conceptual
world of modern “humanities and social sciences” — not merely to
theorize about these disciplines, but to use them in ways
that have helped trigger transformative changes in the software
industry.

I have immodestly set forth these qualifications here because my
experience requires an even stronger indictment than David Horowitz’s,
let alone the mild one that Mr. Velleman will admit. I have
encountered entire academic fields that have been effectively
destroyed by Left politics, in the sense that they can no
longer talk about anything other than power relations. Postmodern
literary criticism is only the most obvious example; for that matter,
postmodernist anything is reliably a nihilist swamp obsessed
with ‘agendas’ and ‘power relations’ to the exclusion of its
ostensible subject matter.

Here’s one that affects me particularly: the damage done to
cultural anthropology has been horrific, with the perverse effect of
making my amateur and tentative essays in it look far stronger than
they would have if the field were actually healthy.

I don’t have a fix for this problem. But I do know that more than any
mere housecleaning is needed. Some of these dwellings are so rotted out
that they will have to be razed and rebuilt before they are habitable
by anything but political animals.

Don Herzog is right to ask, in
Religion and politics
, exactly what conservatives want when they say
Americans should agree that we a “Christian nation”. This is exactly the
sort of question that the Left, if its continued existence is to mean
anything useful, should be pushing.

J. David Velleman makes the surprising concession
that Roe V. Wade was bad politics and bad law. As a pro-choicer who
nevertheless agrees with conservatives on this point (and largely for
the reasons Velleman states), I have been wondering when the Left
would begin to wake up on this point.

Groupthink shows up again in Gerald Dworkin’s Less
contempt; more mutual ground
. I’m thinking in particular of his claim
that “Both those who advocate gun-control and those who oppose it can
agree that trigger-locks and other safety devices are desirable.”

It is evident here that Mr. Dworkin has no idea what pro-firearms
activists like myself actually believe. It seems likely he has never
actually spoken with one; otherwise he would know that we regard
trigger locks as bad things, because they reduce the utility of
firearms for one of their principal purposes — self-defense. If
your friendly neighborhood junkie breaks into your home and menaces
your family with a knife (or, as in one recent case, a branding iron)
you need to be able to get the weapon into play fast.
Trigger locks and soi-disant “safety devices” primarily benefit
criminals by reducing their risks.

In fact, we regard the push for trigger locks as an underhanded
attempt to make self-defense impractical so that popular support for
firearms rights will lose a major prop. If Mr. Dworkin had ever discussed
this issue outside a UC Davis faculty meeting, he would probably know
this.

In Not
Too Bright
, J. David Velleman misses a central point about
American hostility to the “intelligentsia” because he falls back into
the comforting Left groupthink about the Christian evangelicals and
“moral values”.

I’m an intellectual myself, not a Christian, not a conservative.
Yet I understand the emotion Mr. Dworkin reads as
“anti-intellectualism”; I even sympathize with it to some extent. It
is a folk reaction to what Julian Benda called le trahison
des clercs
. The West’s intelligentsia — not all of it, but
enough of it to tar all of us — was a willing accomplice in the
terrible totalitarian crimes of the 20th century. Today, the same
segments of the intelligentsia that cooperated with Stalinism are
issuing apologetics for al-Qaeda. (This is not just metaphorically but
literally the case, as the pedigree of A.N.S.W.E.R. and the
“Not In Our Name” organizers shows.)

Until the academic Left faces up to the evil at the center of its
own history, it will completely fail to understand why
“anti-intellectualism” is common even anong people who find Christian
“moral values” argument as off-putting as I do.

We could ask for no better illustration of the blindness induced by
comforting groupthink than Elizabeth Anderson’s
What Hume can teach us about our partisan divisions
.

She writes “If interests were all that divided us, the Democratic
Party (what there is of the Left that has institutional power) would
enjoy an overwhelming majority, since it represents the interests of
the bulk of the population, while Republican policies favor mainly the
rich. Most people understand this, and the Left can offer sound
arguments and evidence to persuade those who disagree.”

I am not a Republican. I have never been a Republican. But claims
like this, presented as though they are unassailable fact, utterly
infuriate me. And if they infuriate me, imagine how they
would affect an actual conservative!

As a matter of political economics, I believe that the high-tax,
high-spending policies of the Democrats benefit nobody except
a small class of elite parasites and a slightly larger one of welfare
clients; the “bulk of the population” gets shafted, forced to pay the
bill for redistributive programs that wind up doing net damage to
society. Nor is there any reason, given that the Democrats now rely
more on wealthy contributors than the Republicans, to credit the
worn-out canard that Republicans are tools of the rich.

It is not, however, the factual falsity of Ms. Anderson’s claim
that is most infuriating, but its smugness, its blind arrogance,
its casual assumption that no reasonable person could possibly
disagree with the premises. Anyone who decides to reject Julian
Benda’s analysis need look no further for an explanation of
American anti-intellectualism than this. After reading it, I’m
almost ready to torch the nearest ivory tower myself.

It is a good thing that the skein finishes (actually, begins) with
David J. Velleman’s honest puzzlement about conservative notions of “absolute
evil”; otherwise, with the taste of Ms, Anderson’s purblind parochialism
in my mouth, I might have to conclude that Left2Right’s project is
unsalvageable.

What can we conclude from Left2Right’s first three weeks of
postings? My own evaluation begins with praise: comparing with what I
read elsewhere, I think these writers truly do represent the best of
the modern Left. I see more willingness than I might have expected
to honestly question some of the Left’s sacred cows.

Unfortunately, the news is far from all good. Too many smug
shibboleths are also being repeated here. There is too much talk and
not enough listening – not enough attempt to engage the Right’s
beliefs (as opposed to a comforting left-wing parody of those beliefs).

Kwame Appiah is right. If you really want to build a healthy
dialogue with the right-wing majority in America, you need to approach
them not to teach but to learn.

18 thoughts on “Left2Right – a critical appraisal

  1. What do you mean by the “reactionary cultural conservatism of Edmund Burke”? The fellow was a Whig, helped to limit the power grabs of George III, and attemped consiliation with the American revolutionaries … where is Burke considered a cultural conservative icon?

  2. Now, this might be a bit of an ad hominem, but in what way are you less of an elitist than a typical contributor to Left2Right? This particular entry seems both patronizing and self-aggrandizing.

    I mean, “As a Libertarian, I am uniquely suited to blah blah blah blah blindness of the Left elite blah blah blah blah Locke is 100% behind me blah blah blah blah blah”, really.

  3. I was unclear. I’m sure the Left will easily say that Eric’s a pompous ass. What they can’t conceive of is the possibility that they, themselves, are.

  4. Howdy Eric, it was nice meeting you again in Austin.

    I like the essay, though my strongest reaction reading it was ‘Left? There’s a Left anymore?’. I certainly didn’t get indoctrinated with it at UT Austin when I went through school, even with the lack of experience of youth. Perhaps things are different in the humanities, but there wasn’t time or interest in such social theories in my programs.

    For all of the talk of liberal mainstream media, I can’t think of many instances of America-hating broadcasts. Dumb broadcasts, like Dan Rather’s documents, sure, but pointing out that an emperor has a couture problem doesn’t rise to that level. Fox News is the Zeitgeist.

    I hear far more people identifying themselves as Conservatives (as Movement Conservatives, or as Christian Conservatives) than I do people identifying themselves as Liberals. To hold Liberal views these days seems pretty terrible, after all. To be a Liberal is to be for (as you mentioned) Equality, and forced equality at that.

    I understand how Evil *that* can be, but I wonder if it is Evil to be for equal treatment or equal opportunity, or how Evil it is to point out populations (even including non-American ones) that seem to get treated to the shitty end of the stick for improper reasons.

    This all gets tied into some heavily tribal cultural memes as well, prominently including Christianity and, yes, anti-intellectualism that is anti-intellectual without regard to the Liberal/Evil character of the argument.

    I miss Robert Heinlein.

  5. That was a great read, Eric.

    As I mentioned in my own blog just after the election, it’s high time the Left stopped preaching and whining, and started listening. In a nutshell (where only the most sweeping of generalizations can fit), the Republicans took the election because they understood their opponents, while the Democrats did NOT understand theirs.

  6. Burke is often considered reactionary by those who focus exclusively on the later portion of his life (for instance, his massive criticism of the French Revolution in _Reflections on the Revolution in France_, which pretty accurately predicted the hellhole in which things were going to land, and did so well before the Reign of Terror.)

    In both cases, of course, Burke was arguing for the same thing: do not lightly cast aside the hard-earned wisdom of the past, whether that be the rights of Englishmen or the rights of Frenchmen.

    I would call this “conservative” rather than “reactionary” (which I would define as “stop everything new and never abandon anything past”), but from a viewpoint full of excitement about the new and glorious hope of mankind, someone reminding you of the Gods of the Copybook Headings can look an awful lot like a stuck-in-the-mud reactionary

  7. You’re right about the vacuity of modern social sciences. It extends to the field of Economics as well. By doing hard (difficult) mathematics, it aspires to be a hard science. And yet by never bringing that mathematics back to the real world, it is all an exercise in intellectual masturbation. In order to find valuable economic insights, you have to go back to Hayek and von Mises. Most of what is done today in the name of Economics is utter and febrile crap.

  8. Further, the love for trigger locks is predicated on the notion that guns are often used by family members to kill other family members. Guns are used for that purpose no more often than are cars (which they are, and which is no argument against cars, nor should it be against guns).

  9. What if you *asked* ESR, “Is it possible that you could be a pompous ass?”

    I think he would say no.

    I think he would explain to you that he is a libertarian.

  10. Pingback: Sepia Mutiny

  11. Have you read Locke’s constitutions? blech. Almost Monarchist. Sure, 2nd treatise is all about undercutting the divine right of Kings, but that doesn’t make him a liberal.

    There is only one classical liberal political philosopher, praised by Adams, Hamilton, ultra-conservative John Jay, Madison and Jefferson, and that simply is Charles de Secondat.

  12. Enjoyed your analysis tho parts of it were a bit over my head! Keep up the good work. How about going back and spending 20 hours or so at L2R and telling us what you think? I have read much and commented some there…the commenters are mostly libertarians and cryptomarxists…nobody is willing to have a dialog about practical problems or public policy. None of the commenters has repudiated any of the liberal interest groups that are stifling progress toward solving the crisis in K-12 education for example and I am not holding my breath.

  13. The 3 points – moral superiority of capitalism, American exceptionalism, and the “unqualified evil of Islamic terrorism” are the most concise expression of what I believe is the gap between european and American political ideas (especailly vis a vis the “War on Terror” and Iraq). Very nicely put.

  14. Greetings,

    I’ve tried (without success) to trackback to you, so I’ll leave a comment instead.

    Good stuff, Eric… and at least as timely today as when you (and they) wrote it.

    respectfully,
    Daniel in Brookline

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> <pre lang="" line="" escaped="" highlight="">