Hidden Dimensions of American Politics, Part IV: Conclusion

Hidden Dimensions of American Politics, Part IV: Conclusion

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on January,, 2009)

I

If a certain sense of justice and fairness concerning how we ought to treat other cultures and nations characterizes the Left’s central position regarding its outreach toward the world at large, what issue exercises it the most on the domestic front? 

Aside from any number of discrimination- or justice-related issues appertaining to gender, race, sexual orientation, 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.

II

I think it’s only fitting. Unlike some who view the capitalist system and free-market economies as a necessary outgrowth of (and complementary to) our liberal and democratic institutions, I think 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 that are also the ultimate guarantors of all other freedoms we’ve learned to cherish and take for granted. You can’t have one without the other, or so it seems, which is to say that all freedoms are thus guaranteed – including freedom in economic pursuits. We can’t just pick and choose!

Consequently, if those institutions are truly dear to us, then that freedom must be guaranteed as well – both in principle and on empirical grounds!

And so, the question remains: How should we go to prevent potential abuses, which, admittedly, do create widespread injustices without infringing on our economic-related freedoms? It’s a touchy subject and the perennial problem for all liberal democracies.

III

There’s another issue at stake — of culture!  And here,  Howards End, a novel by E. M. Forster, is highly relevant in providing what’s perhaps the most comprehensive picture of “liberal guilt” to date. I’m citing from the introduction by David Lodge:

The issue it addresses, and dramatizes 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?

IV

Ironically, the very emergence of the Left — and the counter-culture as well –is one of the fruits of liberal democracies and the freedoms guaranteed thereby. Without liberal education and sufficient leisure time – afforded by none other (and that’s the paradoxical thing!) than the economic well-being of the many – I doubt whether the Left could have grown to its present dimensions and stature. 

Indeed, for better or worse, the Left is 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 stratum of society – young and upwardly mobile, well-educated and well-to-do whites.

V

David Lodge reiterates this paradox but in a larger, societal if not global framework:

Richard Rorty has observed, in a passage that seems to recapitalute the ideological 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.”

VI

I have a proposal for my colleagues on the Right. Let’s face it; we need one another! 

The Left needs you 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. Such an outcome would effectively terminate its current role and function as a vibrant ideology and movement. But you need the Left, too — if only to keep you on your toes and allow you to refine your positions and reasoned arguments. 

Most importantly, however, the country needs you, for we can all agree that the institutions and freedoms that come with our liberal democracy are worth preserving at all cost. So this ought to be foremost on our minds!

VII

Consequently, perhaps this tension, this ideological strife between our two camps, this dialectic is all to the good. Granted, it calls for unusual 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 is too much to hope for in this imperfect world. On the contrary, maybe some stress and ambiguity are precisely what the country needs to keep our politicians in line and our fragile democracy intact!

The politicians will, of course, do what they will, having to navigate between these ideological crosscurrents. That’s why so much of what comes out today as legislation or policy from either chamber is a far cry from what we might regard as a viable solution. And as to democracies themselves, 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.

VIII

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 the world at large are different. Understand our idealism and the aspiration we all share to make a vital connection between freedom and universal justice. 

It’s a powerful idea, and you shouldn’t blame us for being beholden to it. For indeed, if freedom doesn’t result in some such consequence, we must view it as being somewhat tainted. In turn, we’ll try to understand your adherence to traditional values and vision. But, above all else, let’s keep it in mind that we’re in the same camp: we’re all Americans. It’s our institutions that we must preserve, may the devil take the rest!

IX

In Part II of this series, I singled out “Vietnam” as the key event that had precipitated the phenomenal rise of the Left. I still stand by my analysis, though I realize now that it’s incomplete. A more accurate rendition would run 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, the remaining element – the example, the pattern, the image!

Statements such as “Ich bin ein Berliner” or “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” were forever engrained in the memories of the idealistic youth. And they remained the guiding light, the beacon, for generations to come. And now there’s Obama to carry the torch. So for the immediate future, at least, it looks as though the Left is here to stay. And so is the Right, I should hope.

X

What remains is to make good on an earlier promise. So here’s a word or two on “what the Israelis could do to alleviate the weight of public opinion against them [again, see Part II, subsection xii].” 

It’s a simple proposition, really. I’d say that disengaging itself from the US – 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 serves no purpose saying that Hamas is a terrorist network whereas the State of Israel isn’t. For indeed, one person’s “terrorist” is another’s “freedom fighter.”

But even that wouldn’t 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 that I don’t expect to see peace in the region anytime soon.

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