Thursday, June 05, 2008

Do knowledge and reason make you "right-wing"?

Well, maybe. Depends on what you mean by knowledge - and by "right-wing."

I have that feeling sometimes when I look around at the state of politics in the most "liberal" (leftist) parts of American society, or of Europe. But then I wonder: are these people and their politics really "liberal"? And the paradox is even more apparent looking the (supposedly) other way: people who accept economic reasoning, oppose Islamic jihad, accept and tell the truth about the Middle East, and find much of environmentalism underwhelming from a rational point of view are routinely labeled "right-wing." Why?

I've mentioned here a smattering of causes and views that have, by mindless convention, come to be accepted as "liberal" without anyone really thinking about it. Accepting economic reasoning is accepting the facts of life. Islamic jihad is profoundly illiberal, and it is what it is by virtue of nothing that the US does. It's one side of an elemental clash of political values. A lot of environmentalism is actually a religion with only a flimsy relationship to science. The radical wing of the environmentalist movement is useful, if for no other reason, because it pushes environmentalist assumptions to their logical conclusions: civilization, progress, and science are crimes. Humanity is a blot upon nature, and the results of human progress need to be offered up on a altar of sacrifice to placate whatever's out there angry at us. Much of the movement is a search to recover a pre-modern, pre-scientific authority to forcibly order society the way aristocracies, monarchies, and churches once did.

There was a time, forty or fifty years ago, when reason and knowledge were supposed to be monopolies of liberals and others leftward. Conservatives were supposed to be mindless preservers of the status quo or blind worshippers of tradition for tradition's sake. Obviously, something big has changed since then.

Part of it has to do with the recognition of conflict and trade-offs. Liberals were once able to accept this reality. Perhaps such acceptance is "conservative" if, using language I'm not completely comfortable with, we view such possibilities as an aspect of a "fallen" world, one that doesn't allow us to have everything we'd like, all the time, all at once. Awareness of a world outside one's comfortable middle-class existence, within a very narrow range of assumptions, also seems weak among today's so-called "progressives." The fact of unresolvable conflicts of political values and claims prompts them either to denial or to an automatic assumption of guilt. But such conflicts are usually about something much more basic, so basic that people living in liberal societies are usually unaware of it. Narcissism is not the answer: these things are rarely about you and me. And even faced with such conflicts, we still have choices. Knowing what any experienced and honest person knows about the Middle East, for example, will lead one to accepting its reality as fact (which by itself implies neither guilt nor moral approval). But it also leads to skepticism about, say, the Iraq war and its purposes, as being in conflict with what is feasible and prudent. The war has proven it's easy to topple a dictator, but very hard and costly to transform a culture, especially in time for the next election here at home.

The use of the term "right-wing" to describe perfectly rational views and people is more like the emotionalistic use of the word "fascist" - it's just something incompatible with whatever the current leftist mindfad is. Leftists are not liberals. Liberals value individual freedom, self-interest, and reason. Leftists are coercive, revolutionary, utopian, motivated by an apocalyptic vision. As the "cultural" or "new" left has spread in American society and become dominant in certain American institutions, self-described "liberals" and "progressives" have caved in to it, coming to half-accept its assumption of unearned guilt and mindless self-hatred. This puts them on the way to rejecting precisely what made them liberals in the first place. The results are visible all around us, especially on campuses and in the media.

So maybe reason and knowledge do make one "right-wing" - but that's only by way of twisting the language. Those who created and propagated political correctness, hostility to economic and technological progress, and a general denial of facts of life are the ones who need to re-check their "liberal" and "progressive" bona fides.

Although there's nothing dumber than a willfully uninformed decision, knowledge and reason alone can't make our decisions for us. We have a range of choices of how to response the facts of life. Such choices are actions, but also statements of our values. Reason, knowledge, freedom, critical thought, and skepticism are liberal in any meaningful sense of that word. But that "L" word! It's been twisted in strange ways, almost out of recognition. (June 2)

POSTSCRIPT: Rick Hills at PrawfsBlawg makes and elaborates on an important distinction, which he phrases as "anti-intellect vs. anti-intellectual." He finds self-labeled "intellectuals" often guilty of being "anti-intellect"; that is, strong on preconceived, poorly founded opinion and groupthink, and weak on knowledge. Not a new insight (and he doesn't claim it as one), but relevant to the point I'm making here:
Being anti-intellectual is not the same as being anti-intellect. My beef is with a particular social class - the "intelligentsia" - and not with the practice of using one's intellect to reflect on experience. In my experience, intellectuals (as a class) are ideologically intolerant, easily offended by ordinary humor, and pretentious in their prejudices, which they disguise as universal truths ....

Moreover, I find a direct relationship between the academic obscurity of self-consciously "intellectual" writer's prose and the willingness of that writer to justify the unjustifiable.

It takes the convoluted abstractions of a Carl Schmitt or a Heidegger to offer apologetics for Hitler; a Sartre, to temporize about Stalin; a Foucault, to defend Khomeini. In this respect, I stand with George Orwell who spent the 1930s and 1940s denouncing the obscurity of intellectuals' prose as a cloak for tyranny (and, incidentally, who was also accused of being an anti-intellectual). Intellectuals spray polysyllables like squid ink, to evade the democratic decencies of conversation.
(Hat tip to Instapundit.)

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