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March 12, 2002

Pure politics for now people Teresa’s at the kitchen table, reading the Michael Walzer article on her Mac. I’m getting a drink. “It’s a great piece,” I say unnecessarily. “He’s terrific on the oxygen-starved alienation of a certain kind of left intellectual from their own neighbors. The one thing he doesn’t get at, though, is the extent to which a certain kind of smug, above-it-all, cynical-about-everything leftism has simply become a pre-fab politics for people who would be unhappy misfits no matter what.” I gesture broadly, tossing ice from my glass to the floor. “Because they’re screwed-up people. It’s actually got nothing to do with ideology, much less ideas.” I bend over to reach for the ice, which scatters under the kitchen table.

“Oh, goodness, yes,” says Teresa with perfect absent-minded poise. “If they couldn’t be leftists, they’d have to be Anabaptists or something.”

Essay question: Are Teresa and Patrick suggesting that all “left intellectuals” are “screwed-up people”? Under your desk you will find 20cc of elementary logic for your use in deriving an answer. Be prepared to defend your conclusion. [12:29 AM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Pure politics for now people:

bill hedrick ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2002, 12:41 PM:

"The unexamined life is not worth living." Both leftists and rightists who reflexivly react without consideration are whom you are talking about. It is quite possible to be a hard leftist or rightist and think, but generally you need to have some years under (or over) your belt. Unfortunately you have to listen hard to realize if you are dealing with a person or a chatty cathy (TM) doll.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2002, 12:55 PM:

Nah, only that some "left intellectuals" are "screwed-up people", which isn't nearly as entertaining or inflammatory a suggestion.

Walzer's come up with a psychological profile of a certain kind of leftist thinking, but he doesn't realize that's what he's done. Ideological rigidity, powerless, alienation, self-hatred, self-righteousness, reluctance to criticise others -- it's not like these are tactical decisions that leftists have made. Walzer can argue that thinking like this doesn't work, but that's not going to stop anyone from doing it. That would probably take therapy.

I'm reminded of Alan Sokal's comment on postmodern critical theory: "I'm an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class." A lot of the left's intellectual voices aren't necessarily deconstructionist, but they have the same talent the deconstructionists have, for describing problems in great detail in ways that not only don't suggest solutions, but cast the problems as incapable of solution. (As a linguistics major who still thinks in transformational grammar I have immense respect for Noam Chomsky, but whenever I read his political writings I come away wanting to grab him by the shoulders and yell: "Fine, Noam! I'm with you! 100%! Now what do you want me to do about it?")

I think this is a case of Teresa's "just because you're on their side doesn't mean they're on your side." Those of us who are on the left because we believe in the left's values (Walzer lists "secular enlightenment, human rights, and democratic government" -- I'm pretty much okay with those, though I'm not sure they really are "the left's values", and I'd like to see some materialism in there somewhere) rather than because we find it psychologically enticing maybe need to take a step back and figure out something positive we can do to defend and advance those values. But Walzer's logical arguments aren't going to get the psychological left to do that, because (in Walter Jon Williams' words) they're in for the ride, not for the cargo. "Defend and advance" aren't in their psychological makeup.

I do like the bit in Walzer's article about "the Americanism of the popular front in the 1930s and 1940s". Why isn't there a "fun" left -- for grownups -- any more?

Maybe we should start one.

Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2002, 01:54 PM:

I'm not even sure that it's exclusively a left thing. The most anguished, meandering left-wing screeds I've read lately about the evil that grips Washington sound almost exactly like the stuff that some people on the right wrote all through the Clinton administration.aaIf you read Usenet you saw a lot of this. Scary, crazy people were in control, they said. Janet Reno was coming to round up gun owners in concentration camps. Clinton played up the threat of some nobody named Osama bin Laden just to distract people from his sexual misbehavior. Clinton had had all sorts of people murdered and sabotaged Ron Brown's plane.aaThis is how a fraction of the despairing Outs always behave. Live through enough political cycles and you get used to it.aaThe problem is, of course, the old menace of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Nixon really was a scary creep. Scream this about every administration and you might not be able to catch when it's really happening.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2002, 11:56 AM:

I'm not sure that this is indeed "how a fraction of the despairing Outs always behave."aaFirst, the problems that Michael Walzer is trying to talk about, problems of the Left's own subculture, aren't really a function of any electoral cycle. Although you're right that political despair makes people nutty in some pretty recognizable and characteristic ways.aaSecond, I think over time we've seen development and change in how groups that perceive themselves as political "outs" behave, because the modern apparatus of media and marketing has begun to figure out that such people are a niche market and that money can be made by deliberately cultivating and catering to this sense of dispossession.

Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2002, 10:52 PM:

Yes, it manifests in ways specific to the ideology and its history. I agree particularly that the fixation on economic motivations to the exclusion of all else is characteristic of the left.aaAll things considered I'm more a centrist-liberal Democrat than what anyone would call a leftist, and even for a while after Sept. 11 I clung to this idea that terrorism, at least in the Middle East, is primarily a product of *economic* desperation. It was eye-opening to see that so many of the prominent Qaeda guys had education and came from families with some money. They sounded almost like American terrorists! Of course, the chaos and poverty of Afghanistan provided them with a ready playground, but they weren't from Afghanistan. Something else was going on here.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2002, 01:02 PM:

The individual terrorist, at least of the al-Qaeda yuppie type, isn't directly motivated by economics any more than the campus activist handing out Trotskyite tabloids. But don't underestimate the value of the "ready playground". Don't underestimate the effect that economic and political desperation has on the level of support these guys receive from the general public. I think the main reason our home-grown terrorists aren't any more dangerous than they are is that the average American in the street is fairly content with the status quo.a

aI wish I could figure out how to make this argument to the kind of people who call up talk shows and ask why the US is supposed to pay to rebuild Afghanistan when the Afghans didn't offer to pay to rebuild Lower Manhattan, but there's just too much ground to make up, there.a

aGood point about dispossession as a market niche, Patrick. The revolution may not be televised, but it'll certainly be merchandised...