Monday, August 13, 2007

The Debate Continues

Not satisfied with my response to his last letter (see the previous post), my left-leaning comrade saw fit to write a reply to my reply. An edited version follows:

Firstly, I’m happy that my definition of leftism meets with your approval. However, I’m still curious if these are standard ways of defining left and right within political science, or if political scientists even discuss things on such a level. Although these definitions appear accurate to me, I wonder how right-wing people define the right and left, for to say that the left is that force in history that promotes equality and the right is the force that attempts to preserve inequality sounds like characterizations that right-wing folk might not accept. But maybe they would? What do you know about these things?

Secondly, I think of the left and the right as having to do with values. The left values equality, the right values hierarchies of one sort of another. The right appears to me to be very culturally relative and constantly changing its mind as to the basis of the hierarchies that it accepts. It used to be bloodlines that justified superiority, or sex, or race, or religion, or sexuality. Now, although traces of all of these prejudices remain, they seem to favor the idea of meritocracy…

So if you are criticizing leftists for advocating violence, I think you need to criticize their tactics, but not the values of leftism in general. Personally, I’m for attacking any ineffective, unpractical tactic. Sometimes what is not practical is violence – but sometimes violence is exactly what is called for. Sometimes what is not practical is non-violence – but sometimes that is exactly what is called for…

You wrote, “I think our main point of disagreement is on the historical record of radical leftism. You seem to see it as generally positive. I would describe it as uniformly dismal.” I’m going to need more evidence to accept this… for it seems quite appropriate to me to refer to Quakers, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to cite a few examples, as “radical leftists.” And I guess Gandhi’s and King’s actions were surrounded by violence, but they were not causing violence so much as simply exposing to the world a hidden but very real violence so that it could no longer be ignored and thus accepted.

So anyway, I do not have any problems with “extremism.” Extremism more often than not seems to be a word that refers to logical consistency or the ability to see past the prejudices of one’s culture… Usually when I hear people advocate moderation or a middle ground, they appear to be doing so out of laziness. They don’t want to go to all the trouble of figuring out the merits of various ideas on their own ground, and just seek an easy and thoughtless compromise that would appear to be the least offensive or controversial position to take. In fact, a moderate position is usually one that accepts any number of unjustifiable cultural prejudices. Moderates make me angry as they seem to embody sloth and bigotry, and uphold that as some sort of supreme value that trumps the evil extremism of people who are actually going to the trouble to think things through.

So, to the extent that extremism is relative, it is mostly a meaningless term but tends to indicate people who are more willing than others to think deeply through things and try to be logically consistent. The term, “purist,” however, is not relative and generally indicates very dangerous and simple-minded individuals. A purist is unable to distinguish their heart from their head, their ideals from the practical limitations of the real world. Teenagers tend not to be able to do this and thus you find a lot of dangerous purists among them. Some people never grow out of this stage… Purity is bad, bad, bad. It is counter-productive. It refuses to change its mind, to look at the actual real world around it, to compromise. It could also be called “absolutism.” Those who call for either violence or non-violence at inappropriate times would tend to be, I believe, purists. People who are anarchists because they have leftist values, but refuse to take advantage of the revolutionary power that leftists have given them in the form of a vote, are purists who defeat their overall value system…

One more quick thing: it seems to me that you will never find a categorizable group that does not contain members who make atrociously stupid statements. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Atheists, Agnostics, Pagans, Right-Wingers, Left-Wingers, Moderates, Whites, Blacks, Women, Men, Humans – every one of these groups contains blithering idiots. In other words, the category, “People Who Do Not Make Atrociously Stupid Statements,” is probably a completely empty category. Conversely, there are probably members of any conceivable group who have occasionally made profoundly wise statements. Just because you find someone who says something stupid and places themself on the left is no reason to turn in your leftist membership card.

I, having been challenged intellectually once again, felt compelled to respond with a retort of my own. And edited version appears below:

…. Let me start off by noting a problem common to both the fields of political science and philosophy: that being the problem of defining terms. It seems to be the curse of us intellectuals to spend as much time arguing over what various terms mean as we do arguing actual philosophical and political points. Take “extremism”. What does it mean? You would use the term to describe any person whose beliefs fall outside of the mainstream. My own definition is a bit more complex. I refer to a person as an extremist if they are a monist (a person who believes they are right and all other viewpoints are wrong) who seeks to stifle or even prevent others from expressing opposing viewpoints. If you look at the actions of anarchists at anti-immigrant rallies, they clearly qualify as extremists under this definition. Obviously, Marxist-Leninists and neo-Nazis would be considered extremists as well. However, persons like Martin Luther King and Gandhi would not seem to be included. This definition seems to be somewhat close to your term “purist”. But while you include anyone with inflexible positions, I narrow it to people who want us all to think as they do and would forcibly silence dissent.

This brings us to moderateism, that bane of the far left and right. Perhaps you’re right in that moderates tend to use their beliefs as a rationalization for their own extravagant lifestyles. But in a democracy, it is rare for any one political group to ever completely get its way. One will always have to compromise with the opposition in order to get things done. It’s fine to advocate an extreme position, such as the idea that animal life is just as valuable as human life. But you may come to the painful realization that most other Americans simply do not hold this view. In such cases, non-purists will find it necessary to moderate their positions if they want to make any advances at all. Of course, the risk of moderation is that you can compromise your positions to the point were it become unclear what you actually stand for (look at the current Democratic Party). Perhaps persons with extreme viewpoints and moderates need each other: The radicals propose unobtainable positions that the moderates water down to something that can actually be implemented.

As for the question of whether political violence is ever justified, I would have to answer in the affirmative. When struggling against a brutal, oppressive state, violent action may be necessary. However, even here we can differentiate between insurrectionary forces that seek to implement or restore democracy (the resistance movements in Europe during WWII) and those which have monist agendas of their own (the Chinese communists under Mao).

You also pose some interesting questions regarding how the right sees the left as well as questioning whether conservatism is time-relative. Firstly, conservatives tend to have a rather warped view of history. Many of them seem to honestly believe that conservatives were at the forefront of the civil rights and suffragist movements. I expect that in a couple of decades they will claim that gay rights have always been a conservative principal. They see liberals and leftists as being well meaning but deluded people who fail to understand that a strict social code is necessary to maintain social order. At the same time, leftism tends to be rather time-relative itself. During the French revolution, the new government passed resolutions condemning the idea of equality for women on the grounds that “natural law” obviously mandated that women be subservient to men. During the debate over slavery in the U.S., some southerners made the argument that to free the slaves would be as ridiculous as feeing their livestock. At that time, not even the most radical liberal advocated actually stopping the killing of animals for human comfort. My point is a hundred years from now leftists will be advocating a level of freedom and equality that would seem absurd to even you today. So as society moves steadily to the left, people on both the political right and left readjust their positions to match the changing times.

You also note that I sometimes pick the stupidest quote I can find by an individual extremist as a way to criticize an entire movement. Your criticism is quite valid. Along with some serious political discussion, a lot of what I do on my blog is shock value entertainment. I often take the “look at what a freak this person is” approach to get a quick laugh or horrified reaction. When I suggested that lefties turn in their membership cards after some stupid statements by anarchists regarding the 9/11 attacks, I was not making a serious suggestion. Rather, I was making a reference to a leftist writer who suggested she would stop being a leftist when she started reading lefty opinions supportive of the attacks. That day has unfortunately come…

OK, enough heavy political theory. Next week I’ll be back with a new update on the world of those weird, wild, and wacky radicals.


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