Western Civilization and Its Discontents: Part 3
Probably the most common explanation for Left radicalism, and its program to overturn and level American society, is “Liberal guilt”. Though this attitude has had a lot of brilliant and witty fun poked at it, it at least concedes the good intentions of the bearer.
The thesis is that the fortunate children of wealth and privilege, upon encountering the reality of the poor, unprivileged and oppressed, feel guilty at their unearned fortune and embrace redistributionist and leveling ideologies, even if they are ineffective or downright counterproductive.
This model doesn’t really work for me, based on an impression that cannot be empirically verified but also on behavior, which can.
The impression I get from these people is not guilt, but smug. A condescending, patronizing, self-satisfied, holier-than-thou attitude that just grates on the nerves.
On the Left this is exemplified by one of the most irritating bumper sticker I have ever seen; “Democrats care” – with it’s implied self-righteous moralizing that you don’t, because you disagree with their obviously pure and holy plans to set the world to rights.
What’s odd is that they don’t see that their attitude is the exact equivalent of the more obnoxious elements of the Religious Right, who like to introduce themselves at the earliest opportunity with, “I’m a Christian.” - implying that you are obviously not. The difference is that you are scarcely going to be offended if you are in fact not a Christian.
Clearly, most people do not see it that way. The majority of African-Americans for example, do not seem to agree with my impression that they are being talked down to and patronized by White Leftists who see them as incapable of achieving better things by their own efforts without massive intervention on their behalf by their (White) betters. To me these ideologues possess much the same attitude as the pre Civil War slave owners who professed to believe that their “peculiar institution” was actually for the benefit of their childlike charges.
Questions of motive are always speculative. What is not speculative is behavior. Wealthy leftists are not known for redistributing their own personal fortunes but for voting to redistribute those of others. Nor are they less likely to take advantage of the many perfectly legal loopholes in the tax code to avoid paying any more tax than they have to. Writers who profess a loathing for American culture and foreign policy have yet to organize a boycott of US government grant money for the arts.
Where their private, voluntary charity mostly seems to go, aside from funding institutions dedicated to promoting their political and social agenda (which means in effect, paying the salaries of intellectuals of their own kind), is to the traditional pursuits of elites throughout history: funding high culture and scholarship that is of little immediate interest or benefit to the struggling masses, except insofar as it goes to the worthy end of finding and helping gifted artists and scholars from the lower classes. This is a not inconsiderable contribution to the overall welfare of society but I've seen no evidence that this behavior correlates with political opinion, (If there were, it surely would have been trumpeted from the housetops by now, the fact that it has not might make it worthwhile to look into whether there is a negative correlation.)
Historically, members of elites distressed by the conditions at the bottom of society would follow the tradition of a life of service. In England surplus sons of the aristocracy often found meaningful work in the civil service, army or ministry, working at socially useful but low-paid employment. For Catholics a more rigorous life could be found in monasteries and convents dedicated to good works. In America well-off people with a social conscience have at various times staffed voluntary organizations dedicated to social work in the slums, educating newly-freed slaves, doing Ethnographic recording among American Indians etc.
Modern American elites who profess a dedication to service to humanity do their good works from corner offices, not monastic cells or Settlement Houses. There is rarely if ever, any permanent sacrifice of comfort and lifestyle perks. One sees condescension without a trace of noblesse oblige, conspicuous professions of concern for the lower orders without any attempt to make the actual acquaintance of any of them.(1)
The Disappointed Idealist Explanation
“The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.”
Most of us of my generation who have worn the “radical” label, at some point in their lives have had a disillusionment experience. That is, after being taught in school what a great country this is, they discover that the reality does not live up to the ideal.
This is the disappointed idealist explanation, that the shock of finding out about the reality of poverty, ongoing injustice, abuse of power, corruption in the institutions etc, enrages the youth and transforms him into a radical.
This explanation may have been useful in Mencken’s time, but it fails on several points in ours. In the first part of the 20th century there was far more of a broad-based working class radicalism. We can trace how it faded as economic conditions improved and as foreign radicals, such as gravitated to the Wobblies (2), became naturalized and discovered that they could vote their convictions.
And among those of us who experienced that shock, the resentment against the culture that bred us was usually short-lived, fading with age and experience as we developed a tolerance for human nature and its imperfections.
Francis Bacon observed that “A little study of philosophy inclineth a young man towards Atheism, but deep study inclineth him back towards Religion.” Likewise, a little study of American history may repel a young person with its stories of slavery, intolerance, bigotry and war, but a deep study of world history puts it into perspective and shows how much progress has been made in comparison with what has passed elsewhere.
However, Left radicalism among the intellectuals persists, no matter how much economic and social conditions have improved in America, no matter how murderous attempts to create the good society turned out abroad and even seems to have become more and more hysterically high-strung.
Most people grow out of the shock of finding that the people and institutions they revere have feet of clay and come to a mature acceptance that judgment must be based on what people and institutions are on balance, taken as a whole over time, with due appreciation for the weaknesses of human nature.
Further, at the core of the America-hating Left are a group of “red diaper babies” who grew up in households steeped in Marxist thought. America-hating is not rebellion at all in this group, but rigid conformity to the subculture they were raised in which has far stronger social sanctions against deviance than exist in Middle American society(3). The true rebels among them are people such as the “Second Thoughts” group who have re-examined their experience of America and found it better than any alternative available.
Furthermore, today public education more often teaches a view of America as a seriously flawed country (as opposed to the view of a great country with serious flaws that prevailed a generation ago) even to the grade school level. Anti-American Americans of this generation are not rebels but the thoroughly indoctrinated.
And the notion that American schools and institutions previously portrayed America through rose-colored glasses was always an oversimplification. There were indeed history textbooks that gave a Margaret Mitchell “happy darkies” view of slavery for sure, I remember them – but there was also Huckleberry Finn in every English class with its vivid portrayal of the anguish of a man reduced to a state of property. (For that matter, I read Langston Hughs in grade school, only nobody thought to point out that he was a Negro. I didn’t even realize this until years later.)
Furthermore, the disappointed idealist model cannot explain why someone distressed by the failures of America would embrace the vilest bloody-handed tyrannies as a better alternative and deny, excuse or actively justify their crimes against humanity. It does not explain Xenophilia.
Nor can it explain why, if nobody would think it strange that a Russian could love his country, it’s history, literature and art, while loathing communism and the anguish it brought to his country, that an American should condemn his country as irretrievably base because of crimes that are certainly not worse than those of the Soviet Union or Maoist China.
Thomas Jefferson loved America passionately, while being acutely aware of its crimes and injustice. “When I know that there is a just God, I tremble for my country.” is inscribed on his monument opposite the Declaration of Independence.
With all due respect to a great writer, this explanation fails for me on several counts, an important one being the example of Mencken himself. On seeing the dark underside of America close-up, he did not become a radical he became a cynic.
1) Example abound in history: There is no evidence that Karl Marx ever visited an actual factory, in spite of repeated invitations from his partner and patron Engels to visit some of his properties. Jane Fonda went on record claiming widespread local starvation on a visit to Louisiana, without ever having had a look at the area she was describing, or for that matter offering to help set up a soup kitchen.
Even weirder, when I was living in Sofia, Bulgaria there was (and I believe still is) a problem with large numbers of wild dogs that roam around the city in packs, begging at outdoor cafes and raiding trash cans. I was told there that a woman had been elected mayor of the city on the platform that she would establish an animal control department which would catch the female dogs and sterilize them by injection – a process cheaper and easier than surgical sterilization, but inherently more dangerous for the animal. According to my informants, Jane Fonda somehow got wind of this and mounted a protest against the “cruelty” of this measure, ultimately pressuring them to drop the plan leaving Sofia with it’s dog problem unsolved, all without ever having visited the country or witnessed the inconvenience of living with its problem.
I was told though that, "The problem was a lot better when we had all the Vietnamese workers living here." (For a short-lived plan to build a subway.)
2) IWW or Industrial Workers of the World, a largely Anarcho-syndicalist organization.
3) In 1992 in then-Czechoslovakia I met a Slovakian immigrant to the United States who told me the story of his wife, an American-born “red-diaper baby” raised in a Communist household. Upon graduation from college her family gave her a graduation present, a trip to the Soviet Union. Within two weeks she realized that the USSR was anything but the “workers’ paradise” and attempted to tell her family this when she returned. They cut her cold and have not spoken to her to this day.