Sunday, April 04, 2010

The cultural Left, the paper Left

Although I have long held that professors in the humanities and social sciences are overwhelmingly Leftist because utopian visions mirror their idealized image of themselves, Jeff Goldstein of Protein Wisdom complicates things with a brilliant argument, which demands further reflection.

Goldstein points out that, in the modern academy, politics is identified with the politics of the modern Left. Since politics is conceived as a “system in which the State is guarantor of rights and ‘justice,’ ” and since the Right is anti-statist (vide Nabokov’s dystopian novel Bend Sinister, for example), the Right is therefore “outside politics.” “Being on the ‘right,’ ” Goldstein elaborates, “is not considered being ‘political’ at all—except in the pragmatic sense that those on the right somehow, maddeningly, are still allowed to vote, and so upset the inexorable path of ‘cultural evolution’ toward a progressive singularity.”

By the logic of the contemporary university, then, to be on the Left is to be political, Goldstein concludes, “and being political carries with it the heady suggestion of being a serious thinker” (his italics). Since “right wing” or “far right” views are not the product of serious thought—since, as Lionel Trilling famously said in the Preface to The Liberal Imagination, they are not ideas but “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas”—they must be the product of something else, something base: racism, nativism, homophobia, xenophobia, what have you.

So far, so good. But what about non-university intellectuals and cultural types who are beyond the university’s logic? I have suggested before now that they belong to the “throng of fashion,” which is currently Leftist. And one of Goldstein’s commentators seems to confirm my suspicions. “Where are the conservative professors, filmmakers, comics, scientists, actors, artists?” she giggled. “[T]hey don’t exist.”

But I have another idea. In his cover story in the April 12th Weekly Standard, Yuval Levin says that Left and Right agree on the fundamental problem with health care in America: costs are rising too quickly, leaving many unable to afford health insurance. “The disagreement about just how to fix that problem has tended to break down along a familiar dispute between left and right,” Levin says: “whether economic efficiency is best achieved by the rational control of expert management or by the lawful chaos of open competition.”

Nothing perhaps divides Left and Right more exactly. The Left prefers coherent and comprehensive systems that can be worked out ahead of time in careful detail and then written down in black and white; the Right prefers the messy and ear-splitting reality of individual human choices, operating at cross purposes with one another, creating more human opportunity. Once upon a time novelists plunged into the human reality, but ever since literature has retreated into creative writing, our literary intellectuals have resembled professors. They too prefer theory, the elegance of an abstract design, the perfectly intact self-referential system, the paper whole. They drift to the Left, because that is the side of rational control, which is precisely what they seek to apply to their art. Their cultural desires mirror the Left’s political ambitions.


Busta said...

Bromides, anyone? Or maybe a "Lefties, they talk like this, while Righties, we talk like this" stand up routine?

Although I guess my nostalgic side likes to see someone actually take seriously the old "Left = statist idealist systemisers verses Right = canny realist individualist" cant. I mean, no one who's actually spent five minutes looking at 21st century political realities could still believe this is the case, but still, old illusions are the most comforting.

Right and Left are now merely divided by their own brands of statist apologies. More state influence in health care and education? Go Left. More state influence in marriage and religion? Go Right.

As for the academy - well, the only thing more pathetic than the old Lefty clinging to the dead ideological corpse of yesteryear is a Righty doing the same.

Kauders said...

There is of course the possibility that if you have a sound knowledge of history, faith in right reason, and a good will you are compelled to tend leftward

Lincoln Hunter said...

I believe you do an injustice to Trilling by placing him in the middle of a paragraph that includes a truncated quote from The Liberal Imagination.
The full quote is: "But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas."
He is nowhere near deserving the charge of finding 'something base' in the Right.
The thrust of the Preface was the need for a vigorous conservatism to keep liberalism strong, as I am sure you must know, because he saw liberalism as "a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine".

R/T said...

There is, I think, one preferred solution for the chaos to which you refer, but it cannot be imposed successfully or viably by rational liberalism; I believe a higher power is the appropriate "turn to" solution. Of course, that "higher power" talks also smacks of conservative "group think" (i.e., an opiate for the masses) according to many intellectuals on the Left.

PMH said...

There is also the psychological or developmental theory of liberalism versus conservatism. Liberals love rational systems (1) because there is the illusion that these systems will care for them. Liberalism appeals to the child in us that wishes safety and indulging. Liberals also prefer systems for (2) they feel safe to act freely (indulge themselves) within a circumscribed context, but only within that context. Of course, these liberal systems have many people who use their structures to empower and enrich themselves. Conservatives fancy themselves as part of the rough-and-tumble "adult" world of competition and choice. They operate under an illusion of freedom. There are times (or situations) that inspire the child or adult in each of us, of course, and causes and effects are tangled. Are the psychological and developmental contexts the cause or the effect of liberal or conservative thinking? And are either of these positions truly honest or (following Nietzsche)are they simply the masks and methods of "mastery"?
We can't forget, for example, that both Hitler and Stalin adopted liberal systems of rationality within which to exercise extreme tyranny. Both of them also were considered "fathers" to their childlike populations (populations encouraged to think of themselves as children).

Anonymous said...

i like to think i have no interest in, or even understanding of, politics, and so am apolitical. However, it seems that this just means i'm right wing - on David Thompson's blog a few academics have left comments on the lines of "a student said I was the only right-wing professor in faculty, I asked how he knew, since I never talk about politics, and he said everyone realised I was on the right, precisely because I never talk about politics."

Curiously, William Burroughs of all people said the mark of a "shit" is that he sticks his nose into other people's business, whereas a decent man minds his own business and doesn't try to run other people's lives for them. i guess one could apply the shit/decent chap dichotomy to political orientation too, if you like.

D. G. Myers said...

There is of course the possibility that if you have a sound knowledge of history, faith in right reason, and a good will you are compelled to tend leftward


That never occurred to me.

You mean, if you are a better person, you just naturally end up on the Left?


And so like if you’re a lesser person—you know, of unsound knowledge, spotty rationality, and ill will—you end up where? On the Right?

I gotta switch sides. At least people will think better of me.

D. G. Myers said...

More state influence in marriage and religion? Go Right.

It is going to take more than “five minutes looking at 21st century political realities” to find any evidence of that, Busta.

As it happens, I am a conservative who supports gay marriage.

That is, I support any two adults who wish to enter into any consenting relationship they wish, as long as it is not incestuous. The state, in my view, ought not to interfere.

The only ones that I see demanding the force of the state to interfere in marriage, however, are those who insist on an arbitrary and self-elected redefinition of it, at the eleventh hour of human history.