The three lefts

It is a tragicomic spectacle to watch the left descend ever deeper into a pit of insanity — and more recently to see them “eating their own”. Case in point: this blog post this blog post (via Nicki Kenyon) about how a left-lib professor at Evergreen State U. had to go into hiding after criticizing some of the latest hard-left lunacy. Or the HuffPaint blogger who cheered North Korean mistreatment of Otto Warmbier (RIP) because at least in one place his “white privilege” didn’t help him. (No, I will not link to this evil spew.)
But of course, “the left” is no more a monolith than “the right” is. Leaving aside nuances of social/economic/religious/… left (some of which are specific to local contexts), at a more abstract or “meta” level, we can see three large streams within the left, distinguished by their epistemology (approach to knowledge).
The first, and the oldest, is the rationalist/constructionist left, or what I might call “the gnostic left”. Here we find the orthodox Marxists and the like. Like some hardcore theoreticians in the physical sciences, they are so in love with theoretical purity and logical consistency that they cannot be bothered with inconvenient “experimental” observations (cf. the famous story of Engels offering to show Marx around a factory, and Marx declining). Indeed, they remind me of the Gnostics of old, who considered the physical world intrinsically corrupt and thought truth could only be found in proper doctrine. How ironical, for a movement that waves the flag of “dialectical materialism”.
There are few people who despise communism and its fellow travelers more than I do—yet at least in principle, the old-school hard left still subscribes to rational thought. Hence a hard leftie like physicist Alan Sokal (a onetime Sandinista) may find himself a strange bedfellow with conservative critics of postmodern flimflam after thoroughly punking a postmodern “scholarly” journal.
The second kind of left is what I would call the “empirical, pragmatic left”. Historically, this is where you found social-democratic parties in Europe, and to some degree the labor movement in the USA—these are the kind of people we might think of as “old-school liberals”. They had little patience for theoretical mumbo-jumbo or any messianic visions of class struggle followed by perfect society: they arose against specific perceived injustices and proposed concrete solutions. This is the kind of left the liberty-minded among us have a common language with. In many cases, we may actually agree about the disease if not about the cure–and many of the solutions proposed by that left seem oblivious to the Law of Unintended Consequences, or to Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy. Still, this is the wing of the left with which a dialogue is possible. It is also the part of the left from which people most readily cross over to the populist right. Their natural home is the Democratic Party, but an increasing number of them have become ripe pickings for Trump-style populism—some of us may argue about whether this is a good or a bad thing, but again, we speak the same language to some extent. For example, I can read this essay by Camille Paglia and nod in agreement much of the time, with only the occasional eye roll at which candidate she supports.
Then finally there is what I call the “irrationalist left” or “postmodern left”. While even the most cynical members of the first two waves will pay at least lip service to the concept of objective truth, the postmodern left explicitly parts with the very concept, even as a platonic ideal — everything becomes a struggle of competing narratives, and of asserting the primacy of one narrative over the others. (Devout Christians might think of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilatus as the first postmodernist?) Logical consistency is wholly irrelevant to the irrationalist left, which leaves them free to seek alliances that even the most jaded old-school leftie gags on. “Feminists for Sharia” (seriously, an article in the PuffHo the other day sold that line #singularityOfStupid) , “Qu**rs for Palestine” (seriously, when actual homosexuals there seek refuge in Israel?), … you name it.
If a policy to “help” a marginalized group, in fact, ends up hurting said group, that might give an empirical leftist pause, while a gnostic leftist may try to gainsay your evidence, cherry-pick data, or twist himself into rhetorical knots to prove black is really white. The irrational left simply does not care. “Peacock issues” that are great for grandstanding while benefiting very few people (preferably checking as many “oppressed group” boxes as possible) also have great propagandistic value for them—the more disruptive on others, the better.
Peel away the postmodern verbiage, the Gramscian tactics, and the virtue signaling — and at the dark heart of the irrationalist left, you will find but one thing — a raw, mutant-Nietzschean “Will To Power”. With this wing of the left, dialogue resembles the proverbial chess game with a pigeon — except that pigeons are content with strutting on the chessboard and defecating on it, rather than engaging in vicious tactics (professional blackballing, character assassination, no-platforming speakers, outright violence) not just against adversaries, but even against people who see themselves as their allies.
Anyone who wants to successfully fights a war for any length of time cannot help adopting some of his enemy’s successful tactics. It was therefore inevitable, for good or bad, that some activists on the right would end up adopting mirror-image SJW/SJZ tactics, such as we have seen with the latest “D. Julius Trumpcaesar” kerfuffle. However, it behooves us to heed Nietzsche’s warning (in “Beyond good and evil”):
“He who fights monsters must watch out that he does become a monster himself. And when you stare into an abyss for [too] long, the abyss also stares back at you.”
(Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.)
As for the “will-to-power left”:
wages of overreach are Trump 2

Paul Berman on “The flight of the intellectuals”

Michael Totten has a long, fascinating interview with Paul Berman entitled “The flight of the intellectuals”. (The title is a nod to the book La trahison des clercs/”The treason of the intellectuals” by Julien Benda.)

Much of the interview focuses on the mental contortions of the modern intellectual left that dismiss Arab liberals while they regard a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” like Tariq Ramadan as an authentic moderate.

The interview should be read in its entirety, but let me quote a few passages that stand out:

In regard to the Soviet dissidents of the past, at least nowadays there is a consensus of opinion that, yes, the dissidents were correct and we should have listened to them. So why didn’t we? When I say “we,” I mean the intellectual community as a whole in the Western countries. And it’s for a whole set of reasons.An outright sympathy for communism and the Soviet Union itself was only one of those reasons. This only accounted for one set of people.

There were other people who dismissed the dissidents for what you might call conservative reasons. They wanted to assume the Slavic world was hopelessly steeped in traditions of autocracy and ignorance and habits of obedience and deference — the traditions of tsarism. They could see very well that communism in the Soviet Union had replicated the whole tsarist system, in a new version. There was a leader at the top whose rule was uncontestable. There were the masses at the bottom who had to proclaim the wisdom of the leader at the top. And a lot of people looked at this and said, yes, this is what the Slavic world is supposed to be. This is the authentic thing. Slavs are inherently inferior to Westerners. They aren’t capable of being free people. They aren’t capable of thinking for themselves.

So when the dissidents rushed out and told us that the Soviet Union is crushing individual liberty or doing other oppressive things, our response to them was to pat them on the head and say, well, it’s nice that you got out, and you are welcome to stay, but you’re not talking about the real world. The real world is one where Slavs are destined to remain forever victims of oppressive tyrants, and this is because Slavs enjoy being victims, so we’re not going to take people like you, the dissidents, all that seriously.

The logic behind that kind of thinking is very appealing, to some people. It pictures a world that is dominated by cultures that we like to regard as authentic — cultures with unchanging deep qualities that go back thousands of years, and may be rich with cultural jewels, but will never produce anything more progressive and will certainly never embrace the kinds of freedoms and advantages and dynamism that we celebrate in our own culture. So that’s one idea.

Then there’s another idea that appeals to many people, which is based not on our own feeling of superiority, but on our own inferiority. We look at ourselves in the Western countries and we say that, if we are rich, relatively speaking, as a society, it is because we have plundered our wealth from other people. Our wealth is a sign of our guilt. If we are powerful, compared with the rest of the world, it is because we treat people in other parts of the world in oppressive and morally objectionable ways. Our privileged position in the world is actually a sign of how racist we are and how imperialistic and exploitative we are. All the wonderful successes of our society are actually the signs of how morally inferior we are, and we have much to regret and feel guilty about. So when we look at the world, we should look at it in a spirit of humility and remorse, and we should recognize that other people have been unfairly treated.

We should recognize the superiority of those other people over ourselves. Money-wise, we may be richer. But, morally, the other people are richer. And so, we should despise ourselves, and we should love the other people — the people who possess qualities so superior to our own as barely to be human. And then, filled with those very peculiar ideas, we set about looking for messianic figures who might express the superior culture of the other people, and might lead the human race to a higher stage of development. And if someone objects to this analysis, we say, oh, we inferior Westerners are incapable of understanding the mysterious thought-patterns of those other people, so who are you to judge?

MJT: I think you have it pretty well worked out.

Paul Berman: I assure you, I don’t.

MJT: This all sounds right to me. You just described two very different, even opposite tendencies, one which you’ve described as conservative, the other which could only be described as leftist. Lately, though, it seems what you describe as the conservative view of the Slavic world is now, in some ways, a left-wing view of the Arab world.

Patronizing and condescendence, thy name is leftism.