Friday, 6 May 2011

“Right becomes wrong and left become right”

I am still immensely enjoying Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, as I blogged about last week. As I continue to read, however, I am struck by a recurring theme regarding the makers of Western culture about whom James writes.
Many of them have been victims of one, or sometimes even both, of the two secular ideologies which dominated so much of the last century — to the right, Nazism, and to the left, Marxism. Almost inevitably, these individuals come across as tragic, and indeed are often heroic.
Yet at the same time there are others, for the most part no less talented or dedicated to their particular field, who have actually lent their support precisely to these ideologies. And this surely raises some interesting questions about the whole ‘cultural’ enterprise.
Here we have people who can rightly be regarded as cultured intellectuals. Indeed, they are themselves culturally creative. Yet sometimes they are entirely blind to movements and forces inimical to human, and therefore cultural, flourishing.
It has to be said, moreover, that this is particularly noticeable regarding attitudes on the ‘left’. Here, it seems, people of considerable intellect have, nevertheless, been constantly willing to justify self-evident wrongs and to deny every allegation of moral deviance, in a manner that seems entirely at variance with their own evident capacity for understanding and analysis in other respects.
Thus people who really should have known better have supported, at various times, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong and even Pol Pot.
To go beyond James’s own examples, many of us remember Jane Fonda’s visit to, and endorsement of, North Vietnam in the 1960s. And what of the World Council of Churches’ support for violent ‘liberation’ movements in the Third World?
Part of the picture is, of course, that the political left tends to align itself with causes that appeal to the best of human instincts — the desire to help the physically poor and the socially oppressed.
The problem is that organizations and individuals who have been able to talk the right talk in this regard have often walked a very different walk. There may even, as seems to be the case with Mao Zedong, be a transition from a good start to a truly disastrous finish.
Nevertheless, it is a lesson of history that intellectual and cultural brilliance is by no means a guarantee that the individual will possess an accurate moral compass, or pay any attention to it even if they do.
It should also, however, be an encouragement to the rest of us, who do not possess such brilliance, not to be intimidated into silence. Sometimes it is possible to wonder whether, given the mental abilities of those who lend their support to one dubious-looking cause or another, the Emperor for whom they are cheering really is wearing the fantastic outfit they describe, rather than being as stark-naked as the objective evidence suggests.
Reading through the ‘broadsheet’ media today, the Western intellectual opponents of the West, for example, seem to be overwhelming both in their numbers and in their evident learning. “Surely,” we find ourselves thinking, “they must be onto something.” And so we go on listening to the argument that the real threat to human flourishing today comes not from the radicalization of Muslims or the growing brute economic power of China, but from America, or from our own history.
It is said by clever people, and it is said well — so who are you, or who am I, to contradict it?
At times like this it is good to remember that clever, erudite people have been notoriously wrong about such things in the past. They really have done the same for mass murderers and political sociopaths. And sometimes what we need is common sense, not intellectual brilliance.
The title for this post comes from the Dire Straits song, Ride Across the River. There is another Dire Straits line I am fond of quoting as an antidote to the modern mindset, which comes from Industrial Disease: “Two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong.”
Of course, it is possible that they are both wrong, but certainly during the 1990s it became possible to scandalize quite intelligent people with the first suggestion: “Who are we to say who is wrong?” became the typical response, even when it was self-evidently true that someone was.
But it is this same moral certainty about the uncertainty of our moral judgement that allows perfectly sane commentators and journalists to condemn ‘Islamophobia’, for example, without ever coming down hard against Islam, or to judge the West by ‘Western’ standards whilst excusing the otherwise unpardonable when it is part of a non-Western ‘culture’.
There is, however, a third Dire Straits line, again from Industrial Disease, that comes to mind at this point: “Philosophy is useless, theology is worse.” When the intellect fails us practically, then only the truly practical person can help us. The wise person in such circumstances may well not be the clever one. They will just be the one who can accurately see and declare what is going on.
John Richardson
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  1. I will take this opportunity to protest your classification of Nazism as "to the right". National Socialism was the embodiment of a totally state-controlled economy and the sacrifice of rights, process and peoples on the altar of the left's victim psyche.

  2. Might I venture to suggest John (from the perspective of a far-left socialist), that your conclusions have the benefit of hindsight.
    Many who espouse a cause of whatever political or philosphical complexion, do so in the (often mistaken) belief that it is the best path currently on offer, only to discover too late, that their chosen guru has feet of clay, and his aims are fatally flawed.

  3. Welcome Nickie. Of course as someone else observed to me, when you go far enough in either direction you basically meet your opposite number coming the other way. Strictly, the title "National Socialist German Workers' Party" has all the hallmarks of being 'Left Wing'. It is also interesting to read Hitler's concern for the impoverished working-class in Mein Kampf.

    However, historically Nazism positioned itself 'over against' Bolshevism (despite the obvious similarities) and that characterization has tended to stick.

    Incidentally, I wonder if it might be possible to construct a different political spectrum where 'extreme' left and right are actually in the middle, whilst the opposite ends shade of into Liberalism?

  4. Ray, my point is really that hindsight is precisely what we ought to be using - "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me."

  5. "Might I venture to suggest John (from the perspective of a far-left socialist), that your conclusions have the benefit of hindsight."

    No, people like Churchill in Britain in the 1930s could see exactly where Germany was going, and he had no allusions about Stalin either (unlike Roosevelt). It's not a matter of hindsight but clear sight. In the 1930s plenty of leftists went to the USSR (when millions were dying in the Ukraine) and came back with glowing reports - G. B. Shaw, Durante of the NY Times etc etc. Why so? Well, in the song-quoting idiom of the posting, maybe Simon and Garfunkel had it right: 'a man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.'
    The default position of western intellectuals has generally been leftish. I'm not sure why this is so, but perhaps it has to do with the nature of the modern universities, which are so often citadels of cultural dissent, while equally bright people of different political persuasion go instead into law or business. There isn't much rightwing sociology or cultural studies, is there?
    But I would also speculate that leftwing or "progressive" politics is also a kind of ersatz Christianity for people who no longer believe in God. If you secularise the idea of the Church (a brotherhood of love), you could easily end up with a soft socialist ideology. Conservative thinking, as articulated by Edmund Burke, has Christian roots as well but is more intricate and subtle than socialism. Socialism always comes undone by its utopian, prelapsarian view of man.

    Mark B., W. Kent

  6. John said,
    "Incidentally, I wonder if it might be possible to construct a different political spectrum where 'extreme' left and right are actually in the middle, whilst the opposite ends shade of into Liberalism?"

    Yes, it's called Libertarianism.
    Revd John X. Leal

  7. Perhaps a useful add-on to this classification system would be to have another axis to go alongside the left/right axis. The political compass site suggests adding a Authoritarian/Libertarian axis.

    So for example, both Stalin and Gandhi were left wing (i.e. they believed in collectivism/communism), but Stalin was strongly authoritarian (fascism) whereas Gandhi was weakly libertarian. Hitler was only slightly right wing but he was very authoritarian (fascism) just like Stalin. Thatcher and Friedman are both very right wing, but Thatcher was very authoritarian while Friedman was weakly libertarian like Gandhi.

    The political compass site explains the idea much better than I'm doing here, and has a test you can take where it gives you an idea of where you are on the chart :-)

  8. The political compass and the moral compass can be different things. One of the annoying things about Christians (for the modern world) is to insist that institutions such as marriage, the family and sexual relations are pre-political or that they transcend left-right divisions of the political economy. "Cultural conservatives", though, have little say in British poltics today, where homosexuality, illegitimacy, abortion, pornography etc are made no-go areas, (whereas drugs and alcohol are in focus - but whast do libertarians say about these?). Yet it is precisely the personal fallout of these questions that impacts on the body politic. It is usually forgotten that Wilberforce cared as much about the moral degradation of England's poor as he did about the slave trade.

    Mark B., W. Kent

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