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The Right and the Left are butting heads. Perhaps it's for the best. You decide!

The Hidden Dimensions of American Politics, Part III

If a certain sense of justice and fairness with respect to how we ought to treat other cultures and nations characterizes the Left’s main position as regards its outreach toward the world at large, what is the issue, we may ask, which exercises it most on the domestic front? Aside from any number of discrimination or justice-related issues appertaining to gender, race, and civil rights, I’d have to say that potential abuses from the private sector figure among the most prominent of the Left’s ongoing concerns, and I think that's only right. Unlike many others who view the capitalist system and free-market economies as a necessary outgrowth of, and therefore complementary to, our liberal and democratic institutions, I think (without disagreeing with the first-mentioned claim) that, when taken to the limit, they’re essentially inimical.

But therein lies the rub. Our democratic institutions, which provide for the freedom of the individual to enrich themselves (even to the point of creating gross inequalities and injustices, internally and worldwide), are the very same institutions which are also the ultimate guarantors of all other freedoms which we’ve learned to cherish and take for granted. You can’t have one without the other, it seems, which is to say that all freedoms must be guaranteed -– including the freedom of economic pursuits. We can't just pick and choose.

Consequently, if those institutions are dear to us (and I can’t think why a reasonable person would hold it otherwise), then that freedom must be guaranteed as well -– both in principle and on empirical grounds, if only as the major enabler of the remaining freedoms (and if not to most, then at least to some). The question then is: how far can we go or ought we to go in order to prevent potential abuses, which, admittedly, may create widespread injustices, without infringing on our economic-related freedoms? It’s a touchy subject and the perennial problem for all liberal democracies.

There is a larger issue at stake, that of culture; and Howards End, by E. M. Forster, is extremely relevant here, some have argued, in providing the most comprehensive picture of liberal guilt in this century.

From the introduction by David Lodge:

The issue it addresses, and dramatises in an absorbing human story is whether culture – in the large sense defined by Matthew Arnold as the pursuit of ‘a harmonious perfection, developing all sides of our humanity; and as a general perfection, developing all parts of our society’ – is an attainable ideal. If culture at the personal level depends ultimately on the possession of money (and Forster insists that it does), can it be shared equally in society? And what stance should the advocates of culture adopt towards those who have little or none?

Ironically, the very emergence of the Left (and of the counter-culture, if you will) is one of the fruits of liberal democracies and the freedoms guaranteed thereby. Without liberal education and leisure time – afforded by none other (and that’s the paradoxical thing!) than the economic well-being of the many – I very seriously doubt whether the Left could have grown to its present dimensions or stature. For better or worse, it’s a movement drawn mainly from the middle- to upper-class social strata, predominantly whites, and therefore elitist in a sense. The fact that it grew and spread beyond its original configuration to include and ignite other minds and elements initially extrinsic to it, is only a testimonial to its ideological appeal -– its values-ideas system. But initially at least, the typically idealistic stance of the Left could find fertile ground only in the higher strata of society -– young and upwardly-mobile, well educated and well-to-do whites.

David Lodge reiterates this paradox but within a larger, societal and global framework:

Richard Rorty has observed, in a passage that seems to recapitulate the intellectual quandary. . . [posed by Forster], ‘We should be more willing than we are to celebrate bourgeois capitalist society as the best polity actualized so far, while regretting that it is irrelevant to most of the problems of most of the population of the planet. One might query the ‘irrelevance’, but since the collapse of Communism, it has become harder to deny Rorty’s assertion that ‘there is no way to bring self-creation together with justice at the level of theory.’ Forster’s yearning to make such a connection, however, is still an aspiration with which many readers will identify.

I have a proposal to make to my colleagues on the Right. Let’s face it, we need each other. The Left needs you in order to stay honest and not to overextend its reach. Further gains might lead to statism or worse yet, to a totalitarian government, with the undesirable effect that the Left’s position would become the "official" position (which would effectively terminate its present role and function as an ideology and a movement). But you need the Left, too, if only to keep you on your toes and to allow you to refine your own views and reasoned arguments. More importantly, however, the country needs you, for I think we can all agree that the institutions and freedoms which come with our liberal democracy are worth preserving at all cost. That ought to be our utmost concern.

So perhaps this tension, this ideological strife between our two camps, this dialectic is all to the good. Granted, it calls for extreme tolerance of stress and ambiguity, not to mention saintly patience, never to have our differences resolved. It’s like walking a tightrope, for we all strive for a resolution of sorts, a sense of closure, the coming together. But perhaps the Hegelian notion of synthesis doesn’t apply here; perhaps it’s not meant to be. On the contrary, perhaps that’s just what the country needs in order to keep our politicians in line and our fragile democracy intact.

The politicians will, of course, do what they will; their job is not easy, having to navigate between these ideological crosscurrents, which is perhaps why so much of what comes out today by way of legislation from both Houses or as public policy strikes us as a compromise and a far cry from what either of us might regard as a viable solution. As to democracies, they’re always fragile, and ours is no exception. So we may just have to live with our angst for the good of the country. It’s just a proposal. If you have other ideas, I’m open to suggestions.

Lastly, I’d like to reiterate that we’re all patriots. It serves no purpose to accuse one another of bad faith. Let’s just say that our visions for America (and for the world at large) differ. Understand our idealism and the aspiration we all share to make the connection between freedom and universal justice. It’s a powerful idea, and you shouldn’t blame us for being beholden to it, for if freedom doesn’t result in some such consequence, we must view it as being somewhat tainted . In turn, we’ll do our best to understand your adherence to olden values and vision. Above all else, let’s keep it in mind that we’re in the same camp: we’re Americans. It’s our institutions that must be preserved, may the devil take the rest.

A closing statement:  in Part I, I identified the Vietnam experience as the key event which precipitated the rise of the Left. I stand by this analysis, though I realize now it’s incomplete, a more complete rendition would be as follows:  if Vietnam was the trigger, then the liberal guilt alluded to earlier was the psychological mechanism, and JFK’s youthful and charismatic persona provided the remaining element -– the example, the pattern, the image. Statements like “Ich bin ein Berliner” or “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” were forever ingrained in the memories of the idealistic youth and remained the guiding light, the beacon, for generations to come. Now there’s Obama to carry the torch. So for the immediate future at least, it looks like the Left is here to stay. And so is the Right, I should hope.

As to what Israel could do alleviate the weight of public opinion against it, it’s a rather simple proposition. I’d say that disengaging itself from the U.S. -– so long as we’re being perceived by the world at large as an aggressor and bent on our imperialistic ways –- would be the first step. It’s no good saying that Hamas is a terrorist network whereas the state of Israel is not, for one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. But even that, I doubt, would result in any significant improvement in Middle East relations. The very history of Israel as a modern state -– not to mention its biblical or ancient history -– is so riddled with conflicting narratives and disputed accounts, each side blaming the other, that I don’t expect to see any peace in the region for a long time.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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