The Left Has One Principle

In a piece for The Federalist Robert Tracinski asks “Why Does the Left Kowtow to Islam?” He asserts that they operate from a lone principle informed by a broad dissatisfaction with the West, with America and with capitalism above all.

“The point is that the left doesn’t kowtow to Islam because they actually love Islam, but rather because they hate our own culture. They have been steeped in a narrative about how American and Western culture is racist and “imperialist,” and they’ve been trained to see anyone with a dark complexion and a non-Western origin as the victim of our crimes. When they see criticism of Islam, or deliberate attempts to defy Islam, they filter it through that narrative. They see it as: there go those bigoted right-wing Christians, demeaning dark-skinned foreigners again. So they reflexively oppose it.”

Fortunately some on the left reject multicultural dogma. Bill Maher deserves praise for hosting Ayaan Hirsi Ali last week even if he has already established his common sense bona fides on this issue. (It is too bad that Maher remains hopelessly wedded to the rest of the progressive agenda, but hey, baby steps). For all his clarity and bravery in bucking his tribe and challenging its premises though, Maher would likely not accept Tracinski’s offering as an answer to the question he posed to Ali: “why don’t liberals get this?”

Maher often says that it is the job of liberals “to stand up for liberal principles,” an undoubtedly true and worthy sentiment that applies more accurately to classical liberals than modern ones, who are progressive and not liberal. Progressives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century came from the collectivist tradition aimed at cultivating an ordered and egalitarian society. Constant efforts to mobilize “workers” or “the masses” in solidarity against their supposed unequal conditions implied a deep dissatisfaction with the times, and because the most ardent collectivist movements emerged in sync with the rise of industrial capitalism, the status quo against which the rebels railed was the idea of market capitalism. And while it is true that the halcyon days of laissez faire in the libertarian imagination were not perfect and should not be represented as any sort of beau ideal, it bears mention that the wealth created by western capitalism was unlike anything seen before. Because the nature of this phenomenon involved rapid and profound change, not everyone was keen to consent to the uncertainty that comes with economic dynamism. The “creative destruction” that fueled economic growth was not without tradeoffs (TANSTAAFL), meaning new inventions and technologies were rapidly and broadly displacing workers from their accustomed employment, setting the stage for widespread unhappiness. Some things never change: the Luddites of 1817 England who famously raged against the machines by sabotaging looms and mills for eliminating the need for hand-woven textiles are not very different from today’s anti-free trade crowd decrying the absence of protectionist measures. “They took our jobs!” is neither new nor exclusive to an ideology, as a growing segment of the right is unfortunately in thrall to such voguish anti-free trade bromides like “race to the bottom,” a suggestion that by opening up markets with countries that offer lower wages than us, we condemn our workers at home to a competitive disadvantage that affects jobs. It’s a seductive argument that leans heavily on emotion and grievance but which neglects (or mocks when it deigns to acknowledge they exist) any mention of the wonderful benefits of trade – lower prices and more goods to choose from the most obvious among them.

“Disruption” is a positive term only in economics, and even here it is really only among free marketers that the idea has purchase. Nobody welcomes disruption. Uber has thoroughly disrupted the taxi regimes and yet no one is writing sad songs for the cabbies because they’re too busy enjoying the cheaper, better, faster service Uber provides. Same with AirBNB, Expedia, Netflix and a host of other niche service providers finding ways to out-compete legacy brands. With every disruptive innovation comes anxiety, fear and confusion over what the new landscape will look like. Successful companies and individuals focus on adapting while the vengeful concentrate on the disruption to their own lives. It is hard to fault the angry individual out of a job due to technological innovation but the simple, harsh reality is that this is inevitable in a market economy; not only inevitable but desirable. From the Weavers of 1817 to the union marchers of 2015, large factions of dissidents uncomfortable with capitalism are with us always. It is human nature to wield your fist in response to large forces seemingly arrayed against you and over which you have no control. That these factions are not exclusively but primarily located on the left is instructive.

The “narrative” Tracinsky speaks of is real. Anyone who has matriculated through our public education system will have heard at some point a diatribe from a professor or student about how “the West” and especially the United States is inherently corrupt due to our original sins of slavery and imperialism. We stole the land, we put people in bondage, we oppressed women, we are the worst. And indeed, no educated American should ignore the uncomfortable facts of our history nor should he comfort himself with fairy tales of our infallibility. But there is a fundamental problem with an attitude that disqualifies out of hand the world-historical achievement that is the American founding. Yes, there is a lot not to like about Earth in the late 1700s, not least the existence of a worldwide industry fueled by a belief that a given race of people were nothing more than property, but so too was there a lot to like, particularly in the English speaking world. The best products of the Enlightenment were given voice in the Declaration and Constitution. Even though our practices did not live up to the promises of these documents for a long time after their conception, the enduring legacy of these ideas would bear out. In a poetic denouement, a man named Martin Luther King came along to enlist the very same documents to his cause in a mission to extend the guarantees of liberty and opportunity there enshrined to all men, at last. The inspirational story of Dr. King and his appreciation for the ideas embedded in our founding has unfortunately been whitewashed or else simply forgotten.

But why? Because to affirm that the Civil Rights Era was but an overdue expansion of a transcendent set of values is to insist we are a society built on greed and graft with nothing virtuous about us, aka the lone progressive principle. When a progressive looks at the market economy and what appears to be chaos and disorder his first and only inclination is to install someone at the center of it with a bullhorn to direct and oversee everything lest there be chaos. This manifests in the progressive’s urgent desire at all times (“the fierce urgency of now“) to regulate and involve “experts” in the economy. They shrug off objections to their zealousness for planning the commercial comings and goings of so many people they don’t know by suggesting that everyone in favor of the market economy must be benefiting personally off it, another example of its inherent unfairness. Thus, the only conclusion can be that proponents of capitalism are not just wrong but greedy and perhaps evil. Therefore, anything the evil ones view with suspicion is to be reflexively supported. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. And that is the key point Tracinsky hits on regarding progressives and Islam. Higher than any other supposed principle the left espouses, the highest one centers on a desire to cultivate identity via an adversarial stance on capitalism. Their automatic impulse as relates to Islam is to see a culture of victims who only lash out in reaction to the harsh conditions they’ve been made to live under by the rapacious West. Imagine how strong must this impulse be for someone (see: Chomsky, Noam) to consistently ignore real life horrors and human rights practices of a (numerically not small) minority of Muslims while in the same breath expressing their deep moral discomfort with all the “Islamophobia” infecting the ranks of the white privileged. Tracinski:

“In fact, a running theme of the left’s arguments, repeated with a great deal of apparent sincerity, is the notion that it is irrational to fear Islam, that describing the religion as violent and dangerous is “Islamophobia.” They seem to have largely talked themselves into believing that they have nothing personally to fear from Islam. Jihadists may throw gays off of buildings in Syria, but it can’t happen here.

This is nonsense, of course, but it is revealing of the mindset. They actually talk themselves into believing that “censorship of LGBT artists” is an equal or even greater threat, far more urgent than anything having to do with Islam. For the left, the main source of evil in the world always comes from within America and from within the West, never outside of it.” (emphasis mine)

We are now better able to address Maher’s question “Why don’t liberals get this?” It is impossible for liberals who traffic in moral relativism or multiculturalism to let go of their hardened convictions about America’s truly evil nature and to examine reality objectively. Everything must first fit the preconceived narrative. Whatever the horror, be it a massacre at a Parisian magazine or an explosion at the Boston Marathon, the first instincts of a whole set of brainwashed idiots is to look to their true enemies as the culprits. Rather than grapple with insanely difficult questions like how to live in this time of growing terrorism, progressives prefer to cozy themselves with comfortable stories about how this is just more evidence of the tolerance deficit among the knuckle-draggers.

There is great value in Tracinsky’s essay because it comes at a particular time when not just conservatives and libertarians are up in arms over the left’s abandonment of free speech convictions in the face of Islam. PEN America recently recognized the survivors of Charlie Hebdo with an award for courage in protecting free expression, but over 150 Western writers boycotted the event and signed an open letter to the organizers expressing their great chagrin that a coveted award could go to those who deign to criticize Islam. Thankfully, this was met with much mockery and derision, including by many on the left who realize that it will be an irreversible error if they turn their backs on the 1st amendment and allow hecklers vetoes and soft censorship to reign in its place. But those who signed the noxious letter to PEN are not without legions of supporters in lockstep with multicultural dogma that says no culture is better than another and therefore has no grounds to criticize. Beheadings and blasphemy laws punishable by death are just like a cultural difference, man. Progressives can’t bring themselves to defend their own culture against Islamists explicitly fighting to restore a culture reminiscent of the seventh century, proving again the wisdom of Robert Frost’s line about how “a liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.”

Perhaps another way of putting it is a progressive is so self-loathing and contemptuous of his domestic opposition that he can’t even see us as on the same side against external threats. This was true during the Cold War and it is true now. The deep, unspoken belief of many Western progressives holds that the enemy is within and can be identified by its proud defense of American tradition. The irony of this focused contempt for the American right is that a hundred years since their emergence progressives have sewed discontent and showed their cards for so long that it is the right who now believe the great existential threat to our liberty comes from within, not without. I am definitely more concerned with petty bureaucrats than the caliphate because liberty tends to be lost gradually and a step at a time.

It may not ever disappear but American progressivism has jumped the shark, especially in this modern era of safe spaces and trigger warnings. One of the many reasons the futility of their project has been laid bare is the intensity and consistency with which they take the illiberal side of arguments on everything from speech to association to thought crime. One explanation for such overwrought emotionalism is the conviction that they are always right and (more importantly) the right is always wrong. Anyone confused by the rapidly shifting goalposts or the insults and sneers that masquerade as arguments should understand that this is the inevitable outcome when your only principle for political engagement is that the other side is always wrong, and willfully so. That is how you get a bunch of otherwise decent Americans apologizing for terrorism and looking for root causes that confirm America’s ultimate culpability.

I guess the endgame is if enough people come to believe them and conclude that American and Western values really are the worst, the only course will be for the newly enlightened people to insert into permanent power the wise sages and experts who had been saying it all along.