Friday, February 18, 2005

An Ideological Funeral

In his autopsy of modern liberalism in the most recent issue of The New Republic (registration required), Martin Peretz briefly cites the dishonest motives and lack of foresight that motivated European intellectuals to advocate massive immigration from the Middle East. The influx of immigrants openly hostile to Western ideals like tolerance and secularism, and the violence and social tension produced by those immigrants, has erroded the left's credibility among increasingly frightened Europeans.
Europe is also making the disenchanting journey from social democracy, but via a different route. Its elites had not foreseen that a virtually unchecked Muslim immigration might hijack the welfare state and poison the postwar culture of relative tolerance that supported its politics. To the contrary, Europe's leftist elites lulled the electorates into a false feeling of security that the new arrivals were simply doing the work that unprecedented low European birth rates were leaving undone. No social or cultural costs were to be incurred. Transaction closed. Well, it was not quite so simple. And, while the workforce still needs more workers, the economies of Europe have been dragged down by social guarantees to large families who do not always have a wage-earner in the house. So, even in the morally self-satisfied Scandinavian and Low Countries, the assuring left-wing bromides are no longer believed.
Actually, Mr. Peretz completely overlooks (perhaps deliberately?) the antipathy for Western civilization that has become the hallmark of leftist thought over the last few decades. Many leftists find very notion of Western civilization inextricably entwined with racism, sexism, imperialism and - worst of all - capitalism, the fountainhead of all evils. Since the West - and by extension all people of European descent - are by their nature corrupt, there can be no defense of Western identity or Western culture that is not racist, sexist and imperialist. Thus, whenever anyone objected to the mass importation of non-Western peoples into a Western nation, they were immediately denounced as racists or worse. Western guilt - the result of Western universalist morality, which grants equal moral standing to all human beings - over past exploitation of non-Western peoples made this an effective bludgeon with which to silence critics of immigration. This lasted until militant Muslims made their bloody intentions known. Now that Europeans perceive an immanent, mortal threat to their societies, the left's rhetorical weapons have lost their effectiveness.

The intensity of the left's hatred of Western civilization explains why so many leftists have turned with unalloyed savagery on the US, which they rightly view as the West's pre-eminent state. The US as exemplar of the capitalist idea thus becomes the primary purveyor of racism and imperialism (capitalism's eternal children, according to the left) in the world. Since America is racist and imperialist by nature, anything it does is racist and imperialist, and evil. Following this line of thought, anyone who stands against the US is automatically fighting racism and imperialism, and can be considered good. This view explains the open support of al-Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgency by many leftists and the cruel condemnation of the victims of September 11th by radical leftists like Ward Churchill. British Marxist Norman Geras observes a similar point in a recent article in the leftist journal Dissent:

In affecting the general alignment of most of the socialist left in the conflicts that have preceded and followed the events of September 11, 2001, all this effort that I have tried briefly to characterize might just as well not have taken place. For even if more advanced models of theoretical explanation are now available to the left, it nonetheless seems to suffice in any given international conflict to know that on one side is the United States, and that the United States is a capitalist power that always has designs on the natural and human resources of the rest of the world. If you know this, everything else falls instantly into place; all other levels of analysis, all other considerations, are superfluous. They can either be ignored altogether, or they can be conceded in passing, but as merely secondary and hence ignorable in practice. The political alignments are always defined by the primary determinant-imperialism. But how does this differ from imperialism's being the only thing, with every other social, political, or ideological reality merely epiphenomenal, taking its place and meaning within the whole from the one true cause?

This, in any case, is how the would-be correct left alignment seems perpetually to establish itself. Knowing what the United States is - hegemon of global capitalism - and knowing what it must be up to, you have no need to allow any explanatory or strategic weight to other social, political, legal, or ideological realities. No need to give any decision-making, choice-determining weight to mass murder, or torture, or the fundamental rights of human beings; to the laws of war, the effects of specific political structures and belief systems, or the effects of the operational and moral choices made by movements cast by part of the left in an anti-imperialist role; to the character of the regimes opposed to the United States and its allies, however brutal those regimes might be; to the illegalities and oppressions for which they are responsible, whether at home or beyond their own borders; to genocidal processes actually ongoing and about which something cries out to be done; to the threats posed to democratic societies by movements that have already shown their deadly intent.
Mr. Geras concludes that this obsessive hatred of capitalism has blinded the left, rendering it incapable of distinguishing between those who fight for Western ideals and those who seek to destroy them.
The Taliban in Afghanistan; Saddam's Iraq; the reduction of a human being by torture; the use of terror randomly to kill innocents and to smite all those by whom they are cherished; mass murder; ethnic cleansing; all the manifold practices of human evil-to look upon these and at once see "capitalism," "imperialism," "America," is not only to show a poverty of moral imagination, it is to reveal a diminished understanding of the human world. A social or political science, or a practical politics, that cannot rise to the level of what has been understood, in their own mode, by the great religions - and I say this as a resolute and lifelong atheist - and what has also been understood, in their own mode, by all the great literatures of the world, is a science and a politics that can no longer be taken seriously. It should not be taken seriously by anyone attached to the democratic and egalitarian values that have always been at the heart of the broad socialist tradition.
Mr. Geras's plea to his socialist compatriots will largely fall on deaf ears. The intellectual demise of socialism is at least a decade old at this point. Moreover, socialism's embrace of democracy proved mostly rhetorical, and the egalitarianism delivered by socialism usually meant equality in poverty. Nevertheless, Mr. Geras, like Mr. Peretz, has perceived the intellectual bankruptcy that has cripppled the left and threatens to bury it.


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