The Philosophers' Blog
From the January 3 / January 10, 2005 issue: Where condescension is king.
Jan 3, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 16 • By ROSS DOUTHAT
OF ALL THE LEFT-wing responses to Bush's reelection--the crying jags, the applications for Canadian citizenship, the bulk orders of Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint--perhaps the strangest of all can be found online at left2right.typepad.com, where a roster of academic all-stars have embarked on a mission to save American liberalism, one blog post at a time. There was no shortage of volunteers for the job: Left2Right, as the site is dubbed, boasts an astonishing 26 co-bloggers, representing 19 American universities and including such luminaries as Princeton's Kwame Anthony Appiah and Stanford's Richard Rorty (who has not yet, alas, contributed a post).
What exactly the job is hasn't been entirely hashed out. They seem to want to win national elections, and to have figured out that this means appealing to at least a few conservative-leaning voters. The blog was launched in November with the subtitle "How can the Left get through to the Right?" which had a certain pithy appeal. But apparently someone pointed out that "get through to the Right" might be construed as insulting thick-skulled Bush voters, and it was recently announced that the earlier subheading had been "superseded" in favor of a "tentative re-statement" of purpose.
So instead of brisk condescension, we now have Mission Statement 2.0, in which the assembled professors announce their intention
to consider whether liberal ideas should be somehow reconsidered--in some respects revised, in others perhaps merely re-stated--with the aim of increasing the overall ratio of dialog to diatribe in the American political forum. Some of us will be trying out various ways of re-thinking and re-formulating those ideas; others may end up arguing that such attempts are unnecessary, even counter-productive.
This sounds almost sensible, even if the writer couldn't resist the temptation to spell "dialogue" without that oh-so-plebeian "ue." But it turns out that when academics gather to consider revising and restating liberalism, the "revisions" have the feel of deck chairs being reshuffled on the Titanic. These are thinkers, after all, who have given their lives to left-liberalism in its purest, most theoretical form, in which all the significant questions have been settled and the only remaining difficulty is determining how many sexual identities can dance on the head of a Rawlsian pin. Asking this collection of thinkers to "get through" to the right by "restating" their beliefs is like putting the Holy Office of the Inquisition in charge of missionary work.
The first wave of posts from Left2Right's contributors--no great surprise here--were thus concerned less with reformulating liberalism than with re-shouting its most strident talking points from the political rooftops. For Seana Shiffrin, of UCLA's philosophy department, the lesson of November was that Kerry should have made Abu Ghraib the "centerpoint" of his campaign; for Elizabeth Anderson, who teaches philosophy and women's studies at Michigan, the best way to "get through to the Right in the face of its mass mobilization of individual and group antipathies" was "by standing up for ourselves, proudly defending our positions, ideals, and identities, and exposing the Right's tactics for what they are: ugly, nasty, small-minded bigotry. . . . It is time for the Left to make the Right feel ashamed of its nastiness."
So it's going to be tough love for red America once the philosopher-kings finish revamping American liberalism. But at least the Left2Righters weren't falling into the trap of talking down to conservatives--except when Anderson called the Right's ideas "benighted," or when J. David Velleman of Michigan explained that the religious publishing industry feeds off people who feel a "widespread sense of personal disorientation and directionlessness."
Those lapses aside, there was no condescension at all. Except, perhaps, for this explanation, courtesy of K. Anthony Appiah, for why so many GOP-voting types seem to resent academic elites:
Some of those right-wing evangelicals apparently care whether or not we have a good opinion of them. (If they didn't, the resentment they display toward the "liberal media" would make no sense.) Whereas I know no one among the liberal media elite or among liberal academics who cares very much that many right-wing evangelicals have contempt for us. We care how they vote--for instrumental reasons; we may even care that they are mistaken, for their sakes; but we don't feel diminished by their contempt. . . . (The situation is analogous to the one that obtains with respect to social respect in class-and status-based hierarchies: a peasant can spit when milord walks by, but it won't damage his lordship's self-esteem. But when milord brings his handkerchief to his nose as the peasant approaches, the peasant is stung.)
It's just an analogy, right? It's not as if Appiah is saying that evangelicals actually are peasants, and that he and his co-bloggers actually are noblemen, is it?
As Left2Right's blogging has picked up steam, the MoveOn.org-style "shout louder" theory of political engagement and the crushing condescension have both diminished (maybe changing a mission statement does make a difference). This has had the unfortunate side effect of making the site less entertaining. As anyone who reads or writes a blog soon learns, a mix of outrage and arrogance is preferable to what's replaced them on Left2Right--a wearying combination of earnest bewilderment and political naiveté.
The latter is epitomized by the recent suggestion, from Michigan's Velleman, that because Roe v. Wade hurts Democrats politically, the Left should shift its energies to passing a constitutional amendment enshrining first and second-trimester abortion as an enumerated right, rather than one that emanates from a penumbra. (Presumably they could pair this amendment with the ERA, and maybe throw in some price-control legislation for good measure.)
Velleman, at least, is trying. Mostly, Left2Right is thick with intellectual exhaustion--with writers bemoaning the ignorance of the American voter, or the decline of American education, or the plight of the American city, and then throwing up their hands and hoping that some new John Dewey will crop up in the comments page. Combine this torpid politics-of-despair with the self-satisfaction that tinges every mention of conservatives, and you have a spectacularly unappealing political movement--and what's worse, a deeply tedious blog. The Republican National Committee could no doubt add to the GOP's 2006 totals by encouraging wavering liberals to visit Left2Right.
Still, there are enough bright, theater-of-the-absurd moments to repay an occasional visit to the site. Consider the post in which Jeff McMahan, professor of ethics and political philosophy at Rutgers, seems to discover "support our troops" bumper stickers for the first time:
Vehicles in New Jersey are covered with decals representing little ribbons inscribed with the legend: "Support Our Troops." I have done a lot of driving recently and have noticed geographical disparities in the distribution of these symbols. . . . They are also disproportionately displayed on SUVs and vans, which isn't surprising given that the owners are disproportionately reliant on the oil supplies that our soldiers are in Iraq to protect (among their other purposes). . . . What is it exactly that these decals exhort us to do? How can I, or anyone, support the troops themselves? What can we possibly do for them? It seems that the message is really an exhortation to support the war.
Having cracked the peasants' code, presumably Milord McMahan will turn his attention to the implicit warmongering in The Star-Spangled Banner. With intellectual enemies like these, do conservatives really need friends?
Ross Douthat's Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion) will be published in March.