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« Aesthetics and Dogs | Main | Chaos of History: Art in 1930 »

November 29, 2002

Free Reads -- Why leftists?

Friedrich --

Why would a rational person with some knowledge of the world choose to be a leftist? It's a puzzler. Thomas Sowell and Michael Oakeshott have written brilliantly on the topic. Online, the best musings seem to me to come from Jim Ryan at Philosoblog (here), and John Jay Ray (here).

In a recent Philosoblog posting, Ryan brings together several strands of thought, which combine to throw off a lot of sparks. (He too graciously credits me with setting some of this thinking off.)

Sample passage:

The adolescent without direction suddenly gets direction: to prove the conservative to be effete, pretentious, and, even vacuous in his tastes. The young liberal will show that profoundly rich experiences are there to be had precisely by those who are not so controlled and discriminating ... So, the anti-establishment aesthetic is cast sometimes as a spiritual mysticism (usually Asian kinds, since those involve profound aesthetic experiences and ‘not making distinctions’), but usually as an avante garde, rule-breaking aesthetic elitism to rival that of the conservative establishment.

"Dissecting Leftism" is the name of John Jay Ray's blog, and it's an ongoing conversation about the mystery that is leftism, worth checking in with regularly. From time to time he even gets in a welcome dig or two at the art scene.

Sample passage:

I have argued elsewhere at some length that Leftists are basically unoriginal people who are desperate for attention, and postmoderns are clearly an extreme example of that. They are people driven to desperation by having nothing to say or contribute yet also having a great longing for attention -- and in that situation any attention will do, even if all they manage to do is to disgust people.

Coming one of these days: a grand unified theory of leftism. Till then, the thing to do is to keep in touch with Philosoblog and John Jay Ray.



posted by Michael at November 29, 2002


"Coming one of these days: a grand unified theory of leftism."

At the risk of sounding simplistic and reductionist, the kernel and animating force of such a "grand unified theory" can be expressed in but a single, hyphenated word: Self-contempt.

Do think about it.


Posted by: acdouglas on November 29, 2002 8:13 PM

Thanks, Michael. Yeah, ACD, Self-contempt, which, as Aristotle would say, can be avoided by the youth's learning to take pleasure in fine activities. This might mean being raised well (though I think John would be more genetically deterministic about it).

Posted by: Jim on November 29, 2002 10:24 PM

I've been thinking recently that opponents of leftism (let alone the tyranny of modernism and postmodernism) might do well to ask themselves why, in a Darwinian sense, leftism survives and even semi-flourishes. In evolutionary terms, it's been a remarkable success, persisting long past the time when you'd have thought it would die off. How to explain this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 29, 2002 11:46 PM

"I've been thinking recently that opponents of leftism (let alone the tyranny of modernism and postmodernism) might do well to ask themselves why, in a Darwinian sense, leftism survives and even semi-flourishes."

Off the top of my head, and without actually working it out, it occurs to me that Maynard Smith's concept of an evolutionary stable strategy (badly named, I think -- a more proper name being evolutionary maximal strategy) might be at work in this phenomenon. Stranger ESSs (EMSs) can be thought of which are nevertheless in _seeming_ operation.

But, again, that's all just off the top of my head.


Posted by: acdouglas on November 30, 2002 12:35 AM

As someone who thinks of himself as a leftist, I find it interesting that you pose the question in the way that you do. First, you write in terms of "choice", but I doubt that anyone *starts* by weighing up all the evidence and the competing theories and deciding to be a socialist or a liberal (or a conservative or a libertarian for that matter). It isn't really about choice, it is about a feeling of instinctive sympathy for one bunch of people as against another bunch of people (which usually requires one to screen out some of the more embarassing representatives of one's own "side").
Second, there's the catch-all category of "leftist". Given the diversity of people to whom this label applies, and the range of their beliefs, why do you assume that a common explanation underlies their leftism? Are Chomsky, Orwell, Stalin, Einstein, Rosa Luxemburg and Martin Luther King all susceptible of a common explanation? (I bet you want to reserve the "leftist" label for the ones on the list you dislike!) Third, you assume that leftist beliefs are not rationally justified. That may or may not be so sub specie aeternitas, but the world is a complex place and we all have finite cognitive capacities. Weighing reasons, criteria and evidence and updating one's total belief set over time may reasonably lead one person to endorse a view that another reasonably dissents from (and may reasonably lead people to views that you consider "leftist".

Posted by: Chris Bertram on November 30, 2002 4:30 AM

Why it is interesting that some people become leftists confounds me. Why some leftists chose to be apologists for Stalin or other discredited regimes may be interesting but this broadly ad hominen pseudo psycho study is really beside the point. Why are some people Catholics? Why are some people short fingered vulgarians? I mean this stuff makes for good sport and lively dinner table conversation but it hardly qualifies as a rigorous investigative pursuit. I dont't think that this warrants anymore credibility than the claims—at the time— that Richard Nixon's hawkishness had to do with his unconscious concerns about the size of his genitals

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on November 30, 2002 9:38 AM

I'd like to respond, but first I'd like someone to take a stab at defining leftism, just so's I know I'm not tilting, as it were, at straw men. Michael? Friedrich? Do you have anything beyond "people who disagree with me"?

Posted by: Felix Salmon on November 30, 2002 11:09 AM

Robert, don't worry. I'm not sending my rant the most rigorous journals. I am, however, in possession of a wealth of close personal experience about which I'm trying to develop the best explanation. If you take your view too far, only scientists are in a position to explain human behavior. But clearly I know I went to the store this morning because I wanted to get milk.

Felix, if I may: leftism is the view that (1.) gaps in wealth are intrinsically unjust (i.e., there should be a massive redistribution of wealth) and each such gap should be treated as unjust unless there is a strong reason that overrides; and/or (2.) no way of life or culture is better than any other; finally (3.) the state should enforce 1 and/or 2. (The and/or reflects variety among leftism.) But don't take my word for it. Others may have different ideas.

Posted by: Jim on November 30, 2002 11:37 AM

Hey Chris,

Delighted to see you stopping by. As I'm sure you're aware that my come-on in this posting was more an impish provocation than a reasoned argument, I'll pass on much of what you've raised.

Two points, though. I certainly agree that a big part of what goes into political preference is temperament and sympathy, which aren't subject to choice. But don't experience, reflection and learning also enter into political preference? And doesn't political preference thereby become, to some extent, a matter of conscious consideration and thus choice?

As for "leftist" being a catch-all label -- sure, absolutely. Does that make it invalid? I wonder. "Scientists" and "New Agers" can also be catch-all labels, yet can certainly be useful ways of classifying and discussing people. I contend that big baggy clusters of people exist, and I also contend that it can be amusing and even helpful to make big, baggy observations about them. Do you disagree?

In any case, in my experience lefties have been less likely to be aware of the varieties of rightie thought than righties have been of the varieties of leftie thought. This obviously isn't the case with you, or necessarily the case with anyone. But among my most sophisticated and educated leftie friends, only a few have even the dimmest idea who the interesting rightie thinkers are, or what rightie thought even is.

I've also found that educated leftie friends are quite prone to flat-out demonize the right. I have no idea whether this is the case in England, but it's striking in America how deep a leftie belief it is that all righties want to screw to poor, ban all art, rape nature, and go to war whenever possible. Object to this caricature of righties as devil-figures, and you bring castigation down on yourself.

A typical example: over dinner a week or so ago with a very bright, otherwise civilized and super-educated leftie friend, I let slip a reference to something I'd read in City Journal. My friend was horrified; the conversation came to a screeching halt. He wasn't horrified by what I'd said, by the name of the writer, by the article I cited. He was horrified that I'd looked at City Journal. Good people, apparently, just don't do that. Yet I could find no evidence that he knew what he was talking about -- that he'd ever actually handled or read City Journal himself.

These responses to rightieness seem to me examples of a near-religious fear and rage, and certainly demonstrate quite a lot of ignorance. I'm not really sure why lefties are so reluctant to open themselves to the possibility that perhaps, maybe, somewhere, now and then, a rightie or two might have a contribution to make to civilized discourse. Ideas about this, anyone?

Such is, by and large, my experience of lefties. And such is why I think it's perfectly OK to speculate out loud about what might be going on here. I'm reflecting on my experience. Is this pointless or invalid?

Hey Felix,

What do you think of Jim's definition of leftie-ism? Do you want to tweak it further? Do you object to the very idea of defining leftie-ism? I'm curious to know.

I can't resist taking the opportunity to sigh over a familiar leftie ploy, which is (when challenged) to refuse to participate in the announced topic of debate and instead channel all energy into questioning the nature of the debate. It can be an effective move, if only in the sense of deflecting attention away from something they don't want faced or wrestled with. Me, I'd rather see the debate proceed.

But all this hot air from l'il ol' me. I'd rather see the pros have a go at each other. I enjoyed Philosoblog and John Jay Ray on "whence leftism." I'm looking forward to Chris, Robert and Felix on "whence rightism."

By the way, anyone who hasn't visited Junius, Chris's website, is missing the best leftie-ish (Chris, can you tolerate this as a label?)blog around. It's readable here.

Oh, I forgot: this is a cultureblog. Hey, anyone see any good movies recently?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 30, 2002 3:07 PM

Thanks for the welcome Michael. I rather agree with the points you make, although such reactions are not restricted to the left. I can well imagine the Bateman cartoon of "The man at a warbloggers convention who said he'd appreciated a Robert Fisk column." (Fisk often writes interesting and well-informed commentary, so it seemed a good example. But he has a particularly stupid column in today's Independent.)The left can be full of little tests of correct views, attitudes and associations: I appalled someone (to my surprise) the other day by saying how much I enjoy listening to Wagner.

I do find somewhat odd the view that people with moral virtue must only be found on one's own side. After all, most people have colleagues and relatives and such groups usually contain a selection of people who are (a) likeable, trustworthy, decent and (b) not of one's own opinion concerning politics.

I struggled a little with Jim's definition of leftism. Since left and right are relational terms and the dividing line is liable to shift over time, I suspect that elaborations of necessary and sufficient conditions for being a leftist (or a rightist) are doomed to failure. There's also the difficulty of what people believe and what people believe they believe: by his own account of himself Karl Marx fails to meet Jim's test!

Posted by: Chris Bertram on December 1, 2002 4:23 AM

To engage in intellectual fencing is to understand that one’s remarks will be trivialized and/or subjected to unrecognizable reiteration. It seems to me to be quite appropriate to ask for a certain rigor when one is presented with a theory in the guise of an argument. What I was not calling into question were common sense, ordinary language epistemological assertions. To say I know what I did yesterday is not the same order of assertion about the world that identifying leftist character defects is.

One thing, though. I am not aware of the meaning of ‘leftism’ . perhaps there is a commonly understood usage of that word but I must confess I am not aware of it. I am aware of Marxism, communism, socialism, anarchism, Maoism, Stalinism, Leninism and some others.On the face of it, ‘leftism’ seems to me to be a categorical error of the type exemplified by "a Catholic is a ‘religiousist’" as "a socialist is a leftist." Which is the confusion that seems to be rife in the commentary responding to "Dissecting Leftism"

That there are rude and unintelligent leftists whose discourse is self righteous and impenetrable is, of course, hardly news. That there are pederasts and child abusers and adulterers who are Catholics may be news to many but that still is not news about the tenets of Catholicism. And it would seem to only have relevance if one is arguing that there is something about a doctrine or belief system that causes pathological behavior or political deviation.

What I would be looking for to shed some helpful light here is an elegant and —dare I say it?— rigorous explanation that exhibits some concern for causal linkage. As articulate and imaginative as the following passage is, it is not an argument for necessarily and sufficiently identifying leftists:

The adolescent without direction suddenly gets direction: to prove the conservative to be effete, pretentious, and, even vacuous in his tastes. The young liberal will show that profoundly rich experiences are there to be had precisely by those who are not so controlled and discriminating ... So, the anti-establishment aesthetic is cast sometimes as a spiritual mysticism (usually Asian kinds, since those involve profound aesthetic experiences and ‘not making distinctions’), but usually as an avante garde, rule-breaking aesthetic elitism to rival that of the conservative establishment.

Psychohistory has its attractions and adherents (as did alchemy) and its presence in public discourse is due in part to the ramshackle state—with Fox Network as the leading exemplar—of public dialogue. Talking heads shouting slogans at each other would be the model for political conversation these days (unlike the civilized and smart discussion we are all engaging in)

As uncomfortable as I am with labels I am proud to be identified as a person of the Left. And that identification has come mostly from the rancorous public debates of the last forty years, which is to say that being against the Vietnamese War and against Jim Crow early branded me a ‘leftist’. But I am also not a political theorist and like most people my politics flow from my sense of right and wrong. I believe in social and economic justice. What does that mean? I am against people starving in the midst of plenty and of not having adequate medical attention and medications. I am against the poisoning of our air and our water and our land by careless or greedy individuals or corporations. I am for protecting and educating our children. I believe in human rights and am against the deprivation of those rights by governments and global corporations. It may certainly be a triumph of hope over experience but I believe in the perfectibility of man much in part because I share Mark Twain’s belief that we —each of us—contain some "secret kindness".

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on December 1, 2002 8:18 AM

Well, now I'm totally confused. May I say this... I'm all for a positive definition of both the left and the right. Why we spend time vilifying one side or the other is beyond me. I'm sure we can all cite individuals who have behaved ridiculously on either side. It's all a sort of a continuum to me. Is this off base? Let's create definitions for the extremes and work inward.

Hmm... I'm also confused because the South seems to have its own type of rightist thinkers that would throw off the balance of any definitions if they were ignored. And may I add, what to do with concept of "isolated communities" that create their own concept of right and left? I hold firm to my leftist thinking here where I live, but in a different environment such as some I've read about in these comments, I might flee to the right. Maybe this proves the need for this sort of dialog.

Ahh, but here I am talking about the discussion instead of diving in myself- such a leftist tactic. Let's just back-flip into water before checking for hidden rocks. Snicker, snicker.

Posted by: laurel on December 1, 2002 8:22 AM

Robert, I agree with everything you wrote (except that not _everyone_ has kindness; a small minority are simply wicked). Your statement of economic justice is not leftist. It's moderate and conservative. So, I might rather conclude that you and I are both moderates (which is the same as "conservatives," as I've argued on my blog). But I guess you must believe other, more inalienably leftist, things you don't mention, since you say your are a "leftist".

As for causal rigor, I will be unable to supply it. I do not have the funding for such research (it would cost millions, I'm sure). My hope is that the intense, close, daily observations of myself and my acquaintances, which I made during my time from 18-26 years old will produce at least some grain of truth when I utter an explanation for these observations. I hope that what I say rings true with others and that someone, somewhere notices that he is a 22-year-old with exactly the psychological flaws I diagnose and then makes salutary changes in his life. No one ever bothered to help me. Your objection on the grounds of lack of rigor would disallow countless, wise conversations about moral psychology, occuring right now around kitchen tables everywhere. No, the topics are not as mundane as "why one went to the store," but the conversations do hit pay dirt often enough. On the other hand, if I write too stridently, such that I dress up what I don't know as though I do know it, I should be more careful. But theory development takes energy, and this sometimes leads to the strong statement, the "rant".

Chris, Robert, Laurel, I invite you to read my blogs of the last couple of months. "Villifying" Paul Wellstone is not exactly what I did. He's not "on my side", Chris, but I held him up as a paragon of virtue. Robert's "secret kindness" is exactly what I posit as the basis of all moral behavior (I'm a Humean, a sentimentalist).

Anyway, I'd love to have you all over at my blog. Only, Chris has to get off this Rawls thing before it drives him 'round the bend;)

Posted by: Jim on December 1, 2002 12:02 PM

OK, not enough time to respond in a full manner here -- soon! honestly! -- but I do appreciate the attempt to define leftism, and I'm perfectly happy, in the absence of any competing definition, to accept it. I do note that it excludes nearly all members of Congress, be they Republican (duh) or Democrat. Which is probably about right: few self-described socialists would want, say, Joe Lieberman as a brother-in-arms.

I would also note, in case any of you have missed it, that the cover story of the latest Harper's is a wonderful piece by George McGovern (remember him?) defending liberalism. Which is not the same as leftism, natch, but it's germane to this debate, I think, all the same.

Posted by: Felix on December 1, 2002 6:01 PM

Can I wind up this thread with a corny, but heartfelt, expression of gratitude and pleasure? What a wonderful conversation -- I've really enjoyed, and learned from, everyone's contributions.

For all the flare-ups and arguments to be encountered on blogs, I've found blogdom to be an open and civil arena -- to my mind, quite unlike the major-media world (let alone, to my regret and chagrin, the world of the arts), where people stake out positions and struggle over egos, careers, and reputations. Snoozola.

Is anyone else as delighted and amazed as I am by the way that so many people in the blog world turn out to be interesting, tolerant, worldly, appreciative, and well-behaved?

I've thought for years that what poisons the traditional media and art worlds is the egomania (narcissism, vanity, "entitlement," etc) of the people in them. It affects what's done, talked about, and sold in ways that horrify and dismay me.

One consequence is that, in the traditional media and arts worlds, the normal range of human experience -- the complications, the ironies, the practicalities, and the confusions we live with every day, and the range of feelings and thoughts we have in the midst of that -- is often barely acknowledged. And when it is, it's demonized.

It seems to me that with blogging, this normal range of experience is finally finding a means of expression. Thank heavens for that. And what a pleasure to discover, in blogdom, such a great range of brains, voices, experiences, and personalities. So, many thanks to all for dropping by and sharing.

I said I was going to be corny...

Anyway, please do check in with ACDouglas and Philosoblog as well as with Junius. Felix's blog too -- but Felix, why don't you post more often? Robert and Laurel: you're born bloggers. Why not get started?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 1, 2002 11:39 PM

[Whistles, applauds.] Yes, I'm struck by blogdom's vibrancy, too.

Posted by: Jim on December 2, 2002 12:13 AM

"Why would a rational person with some knowledge of the world choose to be a leftist?"

quite simple, that.

A: So as to never become as profoundly addled or arrogant as the likes of you and your ilk.

Posted by: s. melmoth on December 4, 2002 10:55 PM

Ooo! "Ilk" - that's a good one! And "addled" is quite popular these days, too.

Posted by: Jim on December 7, 2002 8:16 AM

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