Sunday, June 14, 2009

James von Brunn, Left, Right, etc.

A white supremacist, who has long been convinced that the U.S. is being taken over by Jews and non-whites, attacks the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Some liberals and leftists suggest: everyone on the right, even the moderate right, either is racist or harbours and legitimizes racists--just as respectable pro-life groups harbour anti-abortion murderers like Scott Roeder (who killed Dr. Tiller in Wichita).

Conservatives respond: it is possible, and morally superior, to defend traditional practices without defending the racism and other forms of prejudice that went with them. Libertarian conservatives, in particular, can say the violent racists and anti-abortionists always seem to want strong government control to support their cause (even though their lawlessness threatens to undermine the law-abidingness they presumably want to sustain). Libertarians want less government control, not more, so they are not in league with the violent nuts.

Jonah Goldberg, some kind of libertarian Republican with a lot of respect for traditionalists, digs out his argument about fascism again. If fascism means something like populism combined with authoritarianism, this has appeared on the left at least as much as the right. Leaders who were identified as fascist in hindsight often identified themselves as socialist. Of course, Hitler is an example. Goldberg may be building an entire career out of the fact that people in high school and college called him a fascist, and he didn't like it. In fact, he gradually learned some sophisticated arguments to turn it around and say it is so-called liberals and socialists, who want state control for social engineering, who are the fascists.

I think some old-fashioned talk about left and right, and indeed racism vs. non-racism, can clear some of this up. The left wants to benefit those who have not benefitted before: re-distribute wealth, and weaken or break down the old elites. Moderate or soft leftists are prepared to settle for gradual, peaceful re-distribution, and may think it wisest not to threaten the old elites too much. More radical leftists are prepared to escalate the violence and see what happens. But the hope of re-distribution away from old elites, and by implication the creation or empowering of new elites who will do this work, is clear. Of course, both left and right are prepared to condemn elitism in order to speak in a populist voice.

The right somehow, often incoherently, opposes this. We've had a left-leaning world in the West for centuries, so the right keeps giving up ground. Throne and altar? Hopeless, but maybe show some kind of admiration for aristocrats and priests as role models--a refreshing contrast to modern conformism. Entrepreneurial capitalists, who were ruthless not only in building their own fortunes, but in creating vast wealth for society and, as Marx says, saving multitudes from the idiocy of rural life? Well, the progressive income tax may be a necessary evil, but many Republicans have not given up on opposing it. How about a system of opportunity, which so far still presents mainly white males at the top of the hierarchy, but which gradually comes to show more and more visible minorities? The right generally favours leaving it alone, the left wants to speed up the reality of diversity by means of affirmative action and perhaps simply spending on the poor.

The left is often forced to ask the existing elites to make changes in laws, etc. They also try to work and identify with new elites--a few decades ago, union leaders; for many decades, people who work in the public sector--teachers, social workers, humanities professors.

Often radical, violent people are not coherent as to what exactly they want, or what is most important. They are enraged that "people like them" are losing out, and they claim to identify with others who are even more victimized then themselves.

It is a cliche on the left that racism is evil, it belongs to the past, and it can be eliminated. In a funny way, leftists are forced to argue that it is not very difficult to eliminate racism, even though it has remained stubbornly resilient for a long time. Apparently among bad, weak people like everyone before the boomers, it was resilient. But we live in a new day in which everyone with a BA is probably free of it, and these people will both spread the word and use government programs to make others smarten up.

The right doesn't exactly want to defend racism in the modern age. There is likely to be a backlash. Pat Buchanan is unusual; he has apparently said in the last few days the he thinks the old, old-fashioned bigotry was morally superior to the racism that often underlies attacks on the alleged white establishment, or defences of affirmative action, today. ("Old whites will never be enlightened enough on their own--their racism is too inbred; but we will appoint some visible minorities who know they are superior to whites, and who are completely free from racism"). I think Buchanan has said in a book that he misses the Washington, DC of Jim Crow days.

Intelligent conservatives may say that love of one's own is, as far as we can tell, natural. If it is based purely on skin colour, it can be shockingly stupid, but very prevalent nonetheless. It is not clear that left-wing governments have been shining exemplars of freedom from such feelings. A more intelligent love of one's own has to do with ways of life, including religion, what one thinks is funny, attitudes to money and the military, etc. Shakespeare's Othello comes close to focussing on racism as we know it. But even this play presents Othello as having had such a different life from the people around him that there are indeed real differences, that make him almost incomprehensible to them, going far beyond skin colour. Religion may even be an issue--he may be a convert to Christianity. Of course when he gives in to jealousy, he shows us a universal human weakness--we feel our common humanity in the play. But his marriage to Desdemona seems to have been highly artificial--there is even some doubt as to whether it was consummated. She fell in love with the exotic life, and didn't really know the man; he was enormously flattered to be rising so far, so fast, and lost his head.

The Merchant of Venice, another "Venetian" play of Shakespeare's, is probably even more important today. Venice is a cosmopolitan city, Christians and Jews among other groups can live in peace, and it is at least possible to contemplate inter-marriage--the ultimate taboo for all love-of-one's-own human beings. Among old-fashioned folks, who wants foreign grand-children? But as it turns out, Shakespeare's optimism is qualified. It seems that Christians and Jews can build a tolerant society only insofar as they cease to be observant or clear-sighted Christians and Jews. Indifference to points of doctrine and daily practice--even to matters such as lending money at interest--comes first logically and temporally; toleration comes second. Presumably acceptance of diversity, the goal we hear about today, comes third. Some conservatives worry that the traditional beliefs of some accepted minorities will be regarded as acceptable--in no way in need of being modernized--so it is only the old majority that has to move from belief to indifference to progress. More likely, it is generally understood in the world as a whole that to enjoy the benefits of progress, one must give up old beliefs and practices.

Love of one's own isn't all bad. It may even be that old-fashioned prejudiced people, as a rule, really care about a few individuals, such as family, and even about their own souls, in a way that progressive people, open to an unknown future, do not. Of course suffering minorities tend to see the majority as both prejudiced and arbitrarily cruel.

So: the left claims to be not only free of racism, but actively opposed to it. With the usual grain of salt needed for dealing with partisan claims, there is a lot of truth to this. The right somewhat uneasily tends to defend not only pristine non-racist practices from the past, but the love of one's own that they say is natural, and partly good, even if irrational--so the left, in trying to get rid of it, is in a way acting irrationally, and undermining things that are desirable.

The right may favour socialist methods--if they are in an emergency of some kind--but if their main goal is to oppose the rising newcomers, or defend past elites and practices, or indeed, at their crudest, the past privileges of whites, then it is fair to say they are on the right. If they combine populism and authoritarianism, it is fair to say they are fascists.

Socialists believe in socialism not only as a means or temporary measure, but as a better society in which the old elites have been weakened or eliminated, and new elites flourish. They expect racism to be much less in evidence, and they probably work to bring this about. If they combine populism and authoritiarianism, is it tendentious and not very helpful to call them fascists. Why not just radical or demagogic socialists? Why not say some leaders and movements are so eccentric, they are hard to classify?

Meanwhile, respectable pro-lifers do bear some responsibility for anti-abortion murderers. If Lincoln were persuaded of the evils of abortion, as he was of the evils of slavery, presumably he would have wanted all violent anti-abortion activists prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and he would have expressed doubts about the wisdom of a pro-life movement that does anything other than prepare legal briefs for future Supreme Court cases. Lincoln condemned John Brown for using violence to free a few slaves. As far as I know, Lincoln never attended an abolitionist meeting. He presumably thought those people had too many contradictory goals, some of them lawless and therefore likely to undermine the rule of law. Lincoln's path was simpler. He was on the way to being the Great Emancipator.

And finally, there is something funny about defending the old days when white Christians were in charge. I guess from the days when the Moslems conquered the Middle East, there were very few non-white Christians (although ancient Christian communities survived in Arab countries and Turkey until very recently). Having been reduced to a small population, Christianity then grew primarily in Europe, North America and Australia. There were the white Christian countries on the one hand, and everybody else--the majority of the world's population, but less modern and less wealthy--on the other. But: Christianity presumably had to change to make its peace with modernity. In a way many of us are hoping that Islam continues to make a similar change. And: there are no white people in the Old or New Testaments. Both the ancient Vikings and the ancient Greeks must have been more like today's Hindus than anyone else one can think of.

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