Left, Right, & Wrong

What?s missing from the debate over values in America

Photo: Steve Simon

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and the equivocal Thanksgiving that follows, I receive a call from a woman in my community, the kind of troubled, searching- for-some-answer call I used to get when I worked as a minister, though I am not doing that work now, and the woman never came to my church when I was.

The woman is not dismayed over Blue States and Red States. The woman is dismayed that yet another local kid has died in an alcohol-related car crash. By my count, this makes five in seven years, an alarmingly high number for one rural county in northeastern Vermont. The woman is dismayed by people who want the surviving driver, a young single mother who’s “come a long way” since the accident, to serve a stiffer jail sentence than the one she received. The woman is also dismayed by neighbors who neither know nor seem to care about what their children do on the weekends. Finally, she is dismayed because this annual blood sacrifice has come to seem like a basic fact of life, another form of the “shit” that “happens.”

I share all of the woman’s concerns — in addition to one of my own: the way the current Republican rhetoric of “traditional values” speaks to tragedies of this kind, to that gut need we all have for a palpable catharsis and a culpable face. Not least of all, to the need we feel for order when our world starts falling apart. I try my liberal best to speak to the larger picture, the corporate policies that have decimated agricultural communities like our own, the connection between the low price of raw milk and the high sales of cheap beer. But I am speaking a language of things unseen. The woman is speaking of what she sees with her own two eyes on her own dirt road. Most of all, she is speaking of her struggle to protect what she values, which is partly her community and partly its youth and absolutely her teenage son.

If there is anything the left fails to appreciate, and that politicians on the right exploit with unerring tact, it is the nature of that woman’s struggle. I mean the class nature no less than the moral nature. You may call it universal if you wish, because it is common to parents everywhere and, in fact, to anyone who loves anything at all, but the struggle to preserve what you cherish becomes especially acute when you live in poverty, or close to poverty, when your well-kept prefab sits on its half-acre lot a quarter mile up the road from the shack with all the dogs. Or, tougher still, when you live in the shack with all the dogs and try to teach your kids not to treat animals like the little sadists up in the prefab house. Sophisticated people of independent means can afford to be disdainful of lower-class attempts at “respectability,” chalking it up to religious prejudice or provincial narrowness, but when their own kids come anywhere within the smell of social dysfunction, they have the private-school applications in the mail. To be sure, the private school they choose will be very “diverse,” which is to say, diverse according to every criterion but class. There will be that very nice boy from the Philippines, but there won’t be any rough boys from Podunk.

Those without the privilege of mobility must learn instead the rigid disciplines of standing still, that is, of making a stand. There are things we do in this house and things we don’t do, things the rednecks do or the gringos do that are not for us. Often those engaged in this kind of struggle will turn to religion. Though I served a small and not very moralistic (Episcopal) church, I saw this more than once. People go to church for all kinds of reasons, but the main reason that people of a certain age will start going to church is that their kids are starting to overdose on the dominant culture. They go to church hoping to find solid ground. Sometimes they go to the polls hoping for the same thing.

“You know where I stand,” George W. Bush said any number of times before his 2004 electoral victory, and I certainly did: on the wrong side of every issue. But did voters know where the Democratic Party stood or, more to the point, on what it stood? Did it stand on anything? If the question offends you, permit me to ask another. Had Howard Dean been an evangelical Christian with an evangelical Christian base, would his followers have deserted him because his Iowa holler made him “unelectable”? Or would they have closed ranks behind him because his stand on the Iraq war made him right?

“THE REAL PROBLEM OF OUR TIME,” George Orwell wrote in 1944, “is to restore the sense of absolute right and wrong when the belief that it used to rest on — that is, the belief in personal immortality — has been destroyed. This demands faith, which is a different thing from credulity.” It also demands conviction, which is a different thing from wanting to win at any price. The real problem of the left in our time is to restore those absolutes and to find that faith.

Of course, Orwell was not talking about religious faith. Nor am I. Ironically, one of the treasures bequeathed to us by the world’s ethical religions is the self-effacing hint that the basis of morality does not have to be religious. “Whatever you would have others do to you, do to them.” In other words, the most reliable sense of right and wrong comes from your own skin, your own belly, your own broken heart.

That said, religion can provide some useful insights, if only to debunk a few of the notions that are being foisted upon us in the name of religion. The Christian right preaches an extremely selective version of its own creed, long on Leviticus and short on Luke, with scant regard for the Prophets and no end of veneration for the profits. Its message goes largely unchallenged, partly through general ignorance of biblical tradition and partly because liberal believers and nonbelievers alike wish to maintain a respectable distance from the rhetoric of fundamentalism. This amounts to a regrettable abandonment of tactics. One of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” was “Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules” — a tough act to pull off if one doesn’t even know the rule book.

To be sure, we have good reason to be leery of moral absolutes in political discourse and of religious language in a secular democracy. Thoughtful people were justifiably appalled at Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, but the reaction itself bears witness to the enduring relevance of moral language. In other words, it bears witness to the laudable belief that it is evil to speak of nations or persons as though they were embodiments of evil. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas said that nothing in existence is evil because everything God created is good. Like Augustine before him, Aquinas defined evil as an utter absence of good, basically as a dangerous nothingness. Name one good thing about the utter absence of love that is racism, and I’ll never use the word evil again.

For now I refuse to give it up simply because Bush uses it. Tell me what else you would call the predicament of 9 million American children with no health insurance? An oversight? Is a preemptive war in which thousands of innocent people get blown to pieces simply “a mistake”? Are the annual and largely preventable workplace deaths of nearly twice as many Americans as died on September 11 merely a glitch in human evolution? Does anybody do anything wrong anymore — or is everybody just doing the best that they can, in which case isn’t the most progressive course simply to go with the flow? Perhaps if we wait a billion years, Dick Cheney will be the Dalai Lama.

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?

OR SHOULD I SAY, “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” That is the name of the film my wife and I have come to watch at the artsy theater in the closest big town off the interstate. It is roughly 10 days after the Bush victory. The place is packed; people are dragging in extra chairs. My wife says that she hasn’t seen a crowd like this since they showed Fahrenheit 9/11.

The theater has the feel of a progressive ark: saint-faced boys in dreadlocks, Trotsky look-alikes in denim shirts passing yeast-dusted popcorn to Susan B. Anthony wives: a Blue State’s blue bloods, as it were. There are Kerry stickers on the bumpers of the Subarus parked outside. Darwin’s name inside the chrome Jesus-fish-with-feet. I have a sense of being in church, not only because this is my tribe, but also because I have come here disposed to hope.

I admit to having some trouble following the film. Ostensibly it is about recent discoveries in quantum physics and how they might be applied to personal life. There are interviews with scientists and esoteric teachers. There is something about water molecules assuming mandalalike shapes after being blessed by a Zen Buddhist monk, which greatly surprises me, not because I have any trouble believing in the transformation, but because I haven’t ever heard that Zen Buddhists give blessings. I thought Zen masters were known mostly for administering salutary dope slaps to fools.

Near the end of the film, its themes become clearer as two of the gurus on screen (neither of them physicists, I ought to say) inform us that we need to evolve past the outdated categories of “right and wrong.” There’s a scary shot of the flickering interior of a Catholic church, an edifying close-up of a serene chiropractor in front of a fireplace. I keep expecting an altar call. All around me people sit in rapt silence, their faces in the movie light recalling that prescient line of Emerson’s (which every progressive needs to learn by heart): “we … acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression.”

And I am aware of a bitter and I would have to say reactionary sentiment welling up in my throat: “If the only viable choice is between people who can blithely affirm the obsolescence of good and evil, even while standing in the shadows of Rwanda and Dachau, and people like John Ashcroft and George Bush, who can at least…” I don’t allow myself to finish the thought, but I recognize it for what it is: a thought perhaps not unlike the one that a number of Americans took to the polls this past November.

As my wife points out to me, it is also a thought based on questionable assumptions: that the other people in the theater have lesser capacities for moral indignation than I do — or, for that matter, that the people in the movie are any less moral than I am simply because of the different weight we give to certain words. These are precisely the kinds of assumptions that the right loves to foster. True enough, but this is also true: The one thing more insufferable than a pretense of moral superiority is a pretense of superiority to morals, as if the task of an “evolving” woman or man is to stand above the struggle instead of on the right side.

I NEVER REALLY ANSWERED the woman who called me that morning and with whom I have been talking in my head all the days since. The fact is, I can think of no satisfactory progressive answer to the questions she raised about what is happening to our community and to our children. Rich kids also drive drunk and die. The fact is, the right is right when it says that certain problems cannot be addressed by what we on the left like to call “systemic change.” The right is right when it says that certain social problems can be addressed only by a change in our cultural values.

Where the right is wrong is in trying to impose a single set of cultural values on a pluralistic society. Where the right is also wrong is in failing to keep faith with its own professed values. If the right truly believed in the primacy of family, it would rejoice at the number of gay and lesbian couples who wish to form stable, monogamous unions and provide homes for unwanted children. For that matter, if the right truly believed in “Judeo-Christian” values, it would oppose the idolatry of “market forces.” At the very least, it would oppose relativistic arguments in defense of torture.

But an alternative set of values cannot be forged in a seminar or welded together from various cross-cultural scrap like a work of found art. Values are a codification of the experience of shared struggle — be it in the Sinai Desert or the coalfields of Appalachia. If I am in danger of forgetting that, I need look no farther than the snow that begins to fall as we drive home from the bleeping movie. Around here it falls for a good six months. I don’t know if a drunk driver is going to kill us on the road, but I do know that if we go off the road for any reason, someone will stop to help. It is one of the ways we have learned to survive as a community. It is one of the values that have come of our shared struggle against the formidable powers of cold and ice. It is one of the things we know for sure.

So what am I saying? I am saying the best way for the left to discover the values suitable to a pluralistic society is in a committed struggle with those forces that are hell-bent on reshaping America as a sentimental Victorian empire where Mammon is Lord and compassion is king and all the luck that any poor person needs is for a rich man to be visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve. This is a struggle that promises to be hard and protracted. It promises that we will live through a formative time, a potentially glorious time — but only if we can accept what Martin Luther King Jr. told us, that a person who has nothing to die for has nothing to live for. If we on the left can conceive of no value worthy of sacrifice, then we live for no worthier purpose than to grouse and grow old. I am finished with the politics of incest and retreat, with wayward glances at Canada and nostalgic mooning over the ’60s and the cyberspace Rapture of the virtual Elect. I am done with equivocal thanksgiving. This is a good moment in which to be alive, or as a Lakota warrior is supposed to have said before riding out to meet a man named George at a river named the Little Bighorn, “It is a good day to die.”


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Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

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And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

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