Monday, August 27, 2007

Ruling by political self-image

How is a complacent political orthodoxy shaken up? I've previously described the effect of crime on two English left-liberals. One of these men, Andrew Anthony, was also influenced by the events of September 11. For years he had gone along with the idea that America was the most malign force in the world. After September 11 he recognised that Islamic terrorism was the greater threat.

He then began to doubt other aspects of the left-liberal orthodoxy:

If I had been wrong about the relative danger of America, could I be wrong about all the other things I had previously held to be true? I tried hard to suppress this thought, to ring-fence the global situation, grant it exceptional status and keep it in a separate part of my mind. I had too much vested in my image of myself as a 'liberal'.

I had bought into the idea, for instance, that all social ills stemmed from inequality and racism. I knew that crime was solely a function of poverty. That to be British was cause for shame, never pride. And to be white was to bear an unshakable burden of guilt.

I held the view, or at least was unprepared to challenge it, that it was wrong to single out any culture for censure, except, of course, Western culture, which should be admonished at every opportunity. I was confident too that Israel was the source of most of the troubles in the Middle East.

These were non-negotiables for any right-thinking decent person. I couldn't question these received wisdoms without questioning my own identity. And I had grown too comfortable with seeing myself as one of the good guys, the well-meaning people, to want to do anything that upset that self-image. I viewed myself as understanding, and to maintain that self-perception it was imperative that I didn't try to understand myself.

What had kept Anthony in line wasn't just the force of left-liberal argument. It was also the success of left-liberalism in forming the personal identity of members of the political class. If you held to left-liberal ideas you then got to identify as one of the good guys: as someone who was right-thinking, decent, well-meaning and understanding.

It's not an easy thing to persuade someone to give up on their self-image. Anthony himself describes his resistance to even considering alternative views: he suppressed certain thoughts, tried to "ring-fence" areas of doubt, and avoided attempts at self-understanding.

When the left has the power to fashion self-identity, it has a stranglehold over politics. I can still remember thinking in the late 1980s that if the left in Australia played its cards right it could continue to dominate politics for decades.

As it happened, the left threw away its tremendous advantage. It was so dominant that it was able to do two things. First, it intensified the portrayal of men and whites as privileged oppressor classes. Instead of enjoying a sense of comfort and superiority in belonging to the left, white men had to accept a negative, inferior role in the leftist hierarchy.

Second, in the early 1990s third-wave feminism reached a peak and seriously disrupted relationships between men and women. The disruption was particularly acute if you were a man who normally socialised with uni educated, political women.

In the mid 1990s there was a backlash. A lot of younger men began to identify with the liberal right rather than the left. This created a situation in which the left, whilst still retaining overall numbers, was no longer able to project a complacent, superior self-image.

By itself, this hasn't led to a political breakthrough for traditionalists. It has, though, permitted a more open political discussion in which traditionalists can participate (there are certain feminist websites which have tried to maintain the old conditions by simply declaring their own positions to be self-evidently moral and therefore not open for discussion).

My impression is that the connection between left-liberalism and personal self-image was not as thoroughly ruptured in England as it was here. This possibly explains the relative weakness of traditionalism in England compared to the US or Australia.


  1. In considering the difficulties of liberals in allowing realities to impinge on their sense of identity, notice the social membership aspect. This would seem to flatly contradict their supposed core values of personal autonomy and exaltation of choice. In fact, their personal autonomy turns out to be no more than a formula for abject conformity to prevailing opinion. What is interesting is that once reality starts to break through on some one issue, the whole structure tends to unravel, in spite of efforts at compartmentalization. Perhaps having broken with the group, the individual suddenly becomes aware of just how unrealistic the whole belief system is. My guess is that such a person will quickly look for some new group to join, perhaps suddenly deciding to see the wisdom of the neo-con position, which after all, retains most of the underlying assumptions that were behind his original liberalism, but results in somewhat different policy formulations. The adoption of traditionalism is much less likely to occur, since that involves acceptance of a completely different understanding of human nature and of the human condition - one that accepts human beings as flawed, human institutions however imperfect as civilizing rather than oppressive, and dreams of overhauling society as hubristic and utopian.

  2. People who wear their leftist orthodoxies on their sleeves are like well-off medieval Christians who used to fund stained glass windows or elaborate pews for their favorite church, with the donors' names prominently inscribed of course. They get off on displaying their moral pieties to the world and one-upping those who do not share the same moral pieties.

    The key is to realize that most of their stances are not at all moral: these people will often do very evil things, such as covering up the gang rape of a child (and thus enabling more rapes of children) in order to fight "racism." I've had some success in confronting a few of these people with the moral evil of their beliefs, though yes indeed, it is a very hard slag to get through. The trick is to never concede the moral high ground, to never let them set the terms of the argument.

  3. Thucydides, I'm really glad you made that point. You have to wonder if "individualism" is really a value held by anyone in practice, or only in theory. That would be because in practice it is inseparable from the "alienation" that liberals complain about just as much as everyone else.

  4. The liberal celebration of personal autonomy turns out to be mostly illusory. It is a degraded form of Kant's idea that only conduct carried out pursuant to the free exercise of one's mind can be considered morally worthy. In fact most of our conduct is of necessity a matter of habit, manners, and yes, traditions. We simply can't stop to think about everything we do. Even in the case of major decisions where careful consideration is called for, how many people really have the character and intelligence to independently evaluate moral questions? They usually go immediately for the superficially acceptable answer, which given the complexity of human affairs, may well prove to be a bad answer. In practice, appeals to autonomy are often used to evade conventional moral prohibitions and excuse conduct undertaken for immediate hedonistic reasons which falls short of what we owe to others by reason of being in a community. For the liberal, the question is always: "why shouldn't I do whatever I feel like?" For persons of better moral character, the question is "what is it that I ought to do (given my connections and obligations to others)?"