Friday, December 09, 2005

The Ameliorative Left

Thank goodness! Lots of people have been saying that the left needs to improve itself greatly, to move past the Rousseauian psychodramas that have increasingly characterized it since the 1960s, a pose that seems to translate perpetually as "Well, we have no hope of ever changing anything, but at least we can be satisfied with ourselves for having troubled law and order, however slightly."

Now, someone else has said all of the same things. Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter have written Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became a Consumer Culture. Apparently, they blame the "transformative left" for turning away from actual political work in favor of a self-satisfied pose that amounts to little more than another "consumer choice". To quote the article, amusingly written by conservatives who don't know what to make of liberals who get that protest culture is self-defeating and narcissistic:

"The answer requires distinguishing the ameliorative Left from the transformative Left. Heath and Potter want to build the former as an intellectual and political force. To do so they must show that the latter is not a viable alternative, just a bad joke."

To quote myself: "They don't want to change the world, so much as to pretend that they don't live there." In Oregon, I saw this mentality played out- every store seemed to praise us for our "compassionate" consumer choices. "This soap is 100% organic- you are making a very important choice!" I was literally told at one point that I should be proud of myself for buying some damned thing. Wow! So, political change just requires more shopping? We can overcome the problems of consumerism by consuming more? Awesome! I decided then that Hell is a place where you are endlessly and meaninglessly praised for doing nothing.

As the authors put it: "The hippies did not sell out. Hippie ideology and yuppie ideology are one and the same." Precisely. Let's throw in the punks for good measure. Buy, buy, buy... but do so in an "aware" way- opt out of the political process, and opt into consumer culture.

I think most lefties are deathly afraid of being called "cultural conservatives". For me, I've decided that it's impossible to be a teacher and not be a cultural conservative, at least in the sense of wanting to preserve the higher aspects of culture from the flood of lower aspects. We have to be elitist in that we have to understand why Dostoevsky is worth saving and John Grisham is not.

But, we also need to get past this idea that the social order is irredemable and oppressive, when quite often it is just the opposite. To quote the authors being quoted:

"[The] only way we are able to go about our business in society is by trusting other people…. One way in which people establish the requisite trust is by demonstrating their willingness to play by the rules in small symbolic ways. This is the core function of courtesy and good manners." At one point Heath and Potter say to their allies on the Left, "[We] really need to stop worrying so much about fascism. What our society needs is more rules, not fewer."

Exactly. What we need is a leftism rooted in civic participation, not in endless attempts to "transgress" authority that is largely illusory at this point. We need to take part in the system- I would love to see young kids wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with John Kennedy instead of a proto-fascist like Che.

Ultimately, as the right slouches into the future, the left needs to reorganize in a way that abandons both angry ever-losers like Howard Dean and wannabe-Republicans like the Clintons. The right is falling apart, but the left is not able to enter the fray in any serious way. Remember the disaster of the Carter presidency? Reagan was able to capitalize on that because he had a coherent, if ultimately unworkable, vision. The left doesn't. Which is why we need people like this working on the problem.

1 comment:

P-BS-Watcher said...

From a view of Heath and Potter from the right, see What If You Are Wrong?