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Left, Right, & Wrong

What?s missing from the debate over values in America

WHETHER YOU CHOOSE to call it evil or simply the truth, the widening inequality fostered by the social policies of the right effects the very same "erosion of moral values" from which the right promises to defend us. This is an ancient insight and the one I believe is in the greatest need of restoration. The biblical Book of Deuteronomy forbids the flogging of offenders beyond 40 lashes "lest ... thy brother should seem vile unto thee." Nihilism begins with the spectacle of people who have been so badly flogged by the system that they can inspire only compassion or contempt but never comradeship. You might take a food basket to the doorstep, but you wouldn't think of stepping through the door.

To be honest, I have begun to lose patience with "compassion," be it the conservative version that sees poverty as a moral disease to be cured with a benevolent dose of 19th-century rectitude, or the liberal version that views poverty as an exotic culture to be scrutinized through the kindly lens of tolerance. Poverty is not a culture to be understood; it is a condition to be eradicated. The only people who think otherwise have never sat down in the places where I've sat down, including the house with all the dogs (and the mold and the burns and the bruises and the blank-eyed toddlers and the interminable cough).

But "compassionate conservatism" is now the ascendant and thus the more insidious form. Like other kinds of demagoguery, it is based on a partial truth: the idea that individuals and civic groups can meet needs that no government can. This is a claim guaranteed to resonate in any place where the fire department is staffed by volunteers.

But none of us lives entirely in a small town (no more than a city dweller lives exclusively in Chicago or New York). We live as beneficiaries of a society that is complex, affluent, centralized, and -- when it operates as intended -- democratic. This is the level on which compassionate conservatism becomes completely disingenuous. It is also the level on which it wouldn't hurt to borrow some "faith-based" language. How can you practice the Golden Rule or obey the injunction to "love your neighbor as yourself" without wishing your neighbor a standard of living on a par with your own, a standard that can be achieved only through the apparatus of the state, including the apparatus of progressive taxation? Once the Good Samaritan starts to vote and his money starts to earn interest, his charity must become either political or quaint. He may still choose to engage in freelance philanthropy, and we hope that he will, but he cannot relegate the welfare of his neighbor to the whims of good-hearted volunteers without loving that neighbor considerably less than he loves himself. The privatization of social welfare advocated by the right is not compassionate conservatism; it is anemic compassion.

The challenge is to make this point both forceful and clear. This is where the left may be at its greatest disadvantage. Reactionary politics work well with electronic media because reaction is electric; that is, immediate, automatic, and superficial. Revolutionary politics, on the other hand, have always been tied to a dogged willingness to teach: to raise consciousness, to show how the ties that bind include those invisible economic cords that bind the disadvantaged to their fates. You may ask who would go to the trouble of writing up the lesson plans; it might be better to ask who's writing them now.

Last week I decided to attend a large evangelical church headed by a politically conservative pastor. I spent a while hunting the crowded lot for a space to park, so I had only a few moments before the start of the service to look around. The congregation put me in mind of a local high school commencement, with the social classes mixed promiscuously and the working classes predominating. Ruffled baby bottoms perched on logger-gauge forearms. Conscientious, bank-teller faces, but only a few banker suits. So, these were evangelicals. I remember when some of these people would have been called proletarians. I am not old enough to remember when some of them might have been called abolitionists, but it is in this kind of righteously rocking cradle that a John Brown is born. (By contrast, many of my Episcopal forebears advanced a more "tolerant" view of chattel slavery.) Tambourine time would come, but first the pastor walked to his pulpit and switched on an overhead projector that literally illuminated his talking points on the wall. The sermon was not in any way political, not on that Sunday at least, but the political potential was obvious -- especially when people in the congregation took out pens and pencils and began to take notes in the spaces provided on the backs of their pew bulletins. Apparently no one had bothered to tell them that owing to the short attention span of the American electorate they were impervious to instruction.

THE ESSENTIAL PROBLEM of the American left is not that it uses the wrong language or doesn't read the Bible or doesn't know how to relate to just-plain folks. The essential problem of the American left is that it has been displaced. Its current position in the liberal imagination is that of a dumped first wife.

What now sleeps on her old side of the bed is a purportedly leftist solution to the same bourgeois conundrum that faces the right: namely, how to maintain a semblance of moral decency while enjoying the spoils of a winner-take-all economic system. Or, put another way, how to maintain the illusion that you can be a good person and want a good society without either kind of goodness costing you a dime.

The solution of the right, which now masquerades in the costume of "values," is to locate a domain of bogus moral absolutes at the gray zones of moral decision -- e.g., those having to do with prenatal life, terminal illness, matrimonial law, and Oval Office blow jobs -- while pursuing a foreign policy based on preemptive violence and a domestic policy based on theft (or whatever is the preferred value-neutral term for the disinheritance of an entire country unto the third and fourth generations).

The current liberal solution is slightly more subtle and perhaps more benign: a multicultural caste system in which people of all races, creeds, genders, and sexual orientations eat dinner at the same upscale restaurant (where I eat, too), while people of all races, creeds, genders, and sexual orientations eat dinner out of the garbage Dumpster out back. And the only thing more global than the menu is the crew scrubbing the pots.

Both solutions are marked by a wily propensity to talk about any kind of conflict except class conflict. Having duly explored the polarities of black and white, male and female, gay and straight, we now distract ourselves by talking ad nauseam about Blue States and Red States, a construction that wants only a Dr. Seuss or a special edition of Dungeons & Dragons to achieve its final apotheosis in the realm of Whoozits and elves. The true enemy of progressivism is not the Red State Voter. The true enemy of progressivism is preciousness.

Of course, liberals are no worse than conservatives in skirting the politics of class. But conservatives have gained an edge on liberals in exploiting the surrogate politics of identity. In other words, they have succeeded in beating liberals at their own game. The winning strategy is based on two principles: First, the mastery of identity politics depends on gaining the allegiance of the largest possible minority (in the case of "born-again" Christians, about 42 percent of the country at last count). Second, the most committed minority is the one defined not by the "givens" of ethnicity or gender but by the "chosens" of common belief.

The left was once an identity of that sort, and its common belief was a classless society in which no identity trumped that of a human being. Its common belief was that a condition of equality and solidarity was the destiny of humankind. There is no language that the left needs to recover so badly as it needs to recover that faith. This does not mean that the left should not engage the racism, sexism, homophobia, and environmentally inept futurism to which the left itself has not always been immune. It does mean that a truly progressive agenda has to consist of something more radical than reminding the minimum-wage custodian to sort the recyclables when he takes out the trash or the Latina housemaid to dust Che's portrait when she does the den. It might mean that we have to relinquish more of our disposable income in order to reduce the numbers of disposable people. It might mean something as radical as saying so.

Conventional wisdom will claim that what I'm talking about is hopelessly outdated, regressive rather than progressive, as if the historical dreams of humanity were so many software programs that cease to function whenever some Newsweek pundit declares them obsolete. Conventional wisdom will also claim that a recovery of the original vision of the left is politically unrealistic. That is bunk, and for two reasons.

The first is that it relegates the left to its assigned role in the morality play of the right. If the prevailing left-liberal response to the 2004 election is yet another change of position, another revisionist move toward centrist policies, we will have done nothing more than to demonstrate that our theocratic adversaries on the right are right: namely, that the secularist tradition of democratic liberalism lacks a moral core. Democrats seem prepared to subordinate every value to that of winning, failing to realize that they can never win -- especially in a time of international terror and domestic disarray -- until they subordinate winning to conviction. This is where jabs at George W. Bush's intellect prove to be every bit as lame as their target. Nobody thinks Bush has a brain. They think he has a backbone.

The second problem with the case for "political realism" is that it's often advanced by people with a very limited experience of reality. I don't live in a pollster's PowerBook; I live on a road. One defining feature of a road is its unexpected turns. When I was serving as a small-town priest, I had supper one evening with four of my parishioners. These were conservative people by any liberal's estimate: Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Eastern Star, color guard on Memorial Day, deer camp come November. The conversation began to take a political turn, at which point the young padre felt some obligation to interject a meek word or two on behalf of peace and justice. But before I could finish my thought, a woman declared that there was a wonderful politician who was going to hold the federal government to account and speak for the people. Then, in a tone of voice women her age usually reserve for sons who dote on their mothers, she invoked his name (to the obvious approval of everyone at the table): Bernie Sanders.

I have this bad habit of tilting back in my chair, and it could have proved disastrous right then. These days I take it in stride when Congressman Sanders gets the overwhelming mandate that Bush thinks he got last November. This is in a state where a Republican governor has just begun serving his second term.

The people sitting at that kitchen table may not have known for sure what a socialist is, but they knew for sure that Bernie Sanders is a socialist. More to the point, Bernie Sanders knows for sure that he is a socialist. But that isn't the main point either. The main point, which is always the main point, is this: What do you know for sure?

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