Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tough-Minded Liberals

Full disclosure: I spent 7 years trying, with all my heart and soul and strength, to get ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church before our local bishop had the decency to tell me that it wouldn't be worth my while to keep trying--and that I would simply be wasting the time of the Commission on Ministry if I tried again. They were right to turn me down, given what I discovered they were looking for in clergy, but I do wish they'd played it straight and given me a better idea how things worked before I compromised my career and neglected my family to become "involved in the church" in order to build my ordination vita.

When I first inquired about ordination I was told that they key was to be "involved" so I diligently participated in activities, joined organizations and got on committees. I liked choir, but detested everything else. The worst was the Daughters of the King. Once a month we met to tweek the Daughter's Prayer List, adding members of the parish who were sick or had other "needs" and striking those whose problems had been solved, or whom the Daughters concluded had been prayed for enough. In addition to these meetings the Daughters maintained a Prayer Chain so that when a Daughter got word of a Need she could pass it to other members of the local chapter for immediate attention. I had the Prayer Chain structure posted over my desk so that when the Daughter before me on the chain called to tell me of a new prayer request I could call the next Daughter to pass it on. It was I who usually broke the chain--shilly-shallying and praying that the next Daughter would have her answering machine on until, by an alternative route, the prayer request passed through the chain and came back to me again.

I thought these women were sickening. They had the best of intentions and, from the moral point of view were better people than me, but I found their interest in the minutia of other peoples lives, particularly their interest in other people's various miseries, incomprehensible and their compassion and smarm disgusting. They weren't merely gossips and they certainly weren't malicious--they were really interested in people's affairs, really cared and really wanted to help which is surely good from the moral point of view--but from the aesthetic point of view, in my very gut, I was nauseated. And that is what, rightly, disqualified me from ordination. The diocese had other reasons for not wanting me, illegitimate ones, but this was the correct reason for zapping me.

From the aesthetic point of view I like hard, cold, tough, aggressive, intense and angular. I've always wanted to live in a Mondrian world. That's why I got into Ayn Rand in my teens. Always operating according to Kant's maxim, "The Spirit of Thoroughness is not yet dead in Germany," I diligently read everything she wrote--from her essays in The Virtue of Selfishness and For the New Intellectual to The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I liked the idea of striving and fighting, exerting energy and achieving. Most of all, I liked the idea of hard, cold rationality--and Rand represented herself as the Knight of Reason in a world populated by Atillas and Witch Doctors, dumb thugs and smarmy-wimpy Daughters of the King.

By the time I was 16, as a high school senior writing my term paper on her opus, I was skeptical but it was only after spending 5 months as a clerk-typist at Intercity Trans. Co., Inc. that I repudiated the whole program. I saw that in the adult world of work most people just didn't have the opportunity to strive, fight, exert energy and achieve. Work I discovered was simply drudgery--filling time and coping with boredom. Striving and exerting energy didn't pay off and there was no way to excel. So I was converted--and have kept the Faith. Lots of people get into Ayn Rand at the time of their lives that I did and get out when I did.

But it still seems to me that lots of liberals just don't understand that aesthetic preference for hard, tough, aggressive and angular or the gut level disgust most of us feel for the Daughters of the King program. They don't understand the appeal of get-toughism, or why Americans like the idea of capital punishment, three-strikes laws or programs that purport to "get tough on crime." They don't understand why street gangs are appealing to ghetto youths. They don't understand why we like guns. They don't understand why people, particularly those who aren't engaged in combat, like the idea of war. When I was a kid I regularly watched a TV series called "Combat." I was never clear what the combat was about: was it WWII, Korea, Vietnam or something else? I don't think there was an answer: the program showed soldiers with greenery stuck in the net on their helmets, crawling through swamps with their weapons, intent on capturing territory. That was good enough for me: I liked it.

Lots of my fellow liberals don't seem to get it so they ask the wrong questions. Why do ghetto youths join street gangs? What's the matter with Kansas?: why do working class Americans vote against their economic interests? Why do Muslim youths support al-Qaida? They assume we're all, by nature, Daughters of the King. The answer is that violence, rage and the taste for toughness are the default: we are, after all, carnivores and our nature as a species is to like toughness, beat people up if we can, and to kill. War and violence are natural. What takes explanation is why, in civilized societies, there is a large population of people who could, if they chose, join street gangs, do violence, beat people up and engage in warfare--but don't. The answer is opportunity costs. If you believe, with good reason, that you'll do better by suppressing the natural tendency to do violence you won' t do it.

Readling lots of liberal stuff, I'm amazed at how denatured many liberals are--how they fail to understand the natural tendency for violence and the aesthetic appeal of toughness, how they just don't get the fact that we're carnivorous, that rage is our natural condition, and how they utterly fail to understand the contempt and disgust most us feel for the Daughters of the King, for smarm, whining, softness, weakness, and what passes as "compassion." Because of this "tough-minded liberal" strikes most Americans as an oxymoron. Until liberals--or "progressives" as we now style ourselves--can break that link between liberalism and this sickening smarm sensibility we will lose. Until we can re-brand liberalism as macho we haven't got a chance. There's nothing virtuous about machismo: it's simply what most people, male and female, like. Until we accept what we are as human beings, until we accept that anger, hatred and violence are at the core of the human condition, albeit something we need to overcome, and that for all our self-deceptive and hypocritical maneuvers we're in our guts disgusted by old-lady smarm and "compassion" we will never win hearts and minds.


Anonymous said...

I can't believe that nobody has commented. Perhaps all your readers accept this as a truism?

Unknown said...

You mean it's NOT a truism? As Reinhold Niebuhr said, "Original Sin is the only theological dogma with knock-down empirical verification"--though I don't think he was the first to say it.

It always seemed odd that the conventional wisdom is that conservatives believe in original sin while liberals believe in original innocence. If people were by nature kind, generous, trustworthy, honest and fair we wouldn't need taxes, redistributive schemes, social safety nets, regulations forbidding discrimination, a welfare state or any of the other items on the liberal agenda.

The response, of course, is that being by nature corrupt that corruption will be reflected in the operations of government and all the machinery of redistribution and regulation. But there's a theological nicety here. There's a piece of us I believe that isn't wholly corrupted--rationality. Intellectually, we aspire to moral decency so we create mechanisms to force ourselves and others to behave--and to minimize free-riding so that good people aren't suckered. We voluntarily vote for coercive taxation, regulations, etc. because we know that neither we nor others will be charitable, fair or decent on a voluntary, personal basis. Impersonal, rationally contrived, coercive, institutional mechanisms, however imperfect and tainted, do better in promoting decency and fairness than feelings, voluntary grassroots initiatives and person-to-person efforts.

I could never figure out what was up with the Daughters of the King or any of the other well-meaning people I dealt with in the Church. It was like they were from Mars. Or maybe I was from Mars and they were from Venus. They were sincere for the most part but what I discovered was that they didn't simply want things fixed--they wanted to be personally involved in the fixing and to "do for" people--even if their efforts were inefficient or completely ineffectual. As for the rest of us--the Ninety and Nine out of 100--we're just carnivores. Shrink government and drown it in the bathtub and, I believe (given my faith in Original Sin) we'll have a Hobbesian free-for-all with a few old ladies operating prayer chains and taking food baskets to the deserving poor.

Anonymous said...

I hope you'll forgive my bluntness, but that is exactly what you have in your current administration. I read a comment yesterday on a Guardian CiF article, by one of your countrymen, to the effect that the civilised young tend to see their fellow beings as well intentioned and that for most of us it requires the bitter pill of life to enable us to recognise the sociopaths who govern us. We vote for them when we are young and hopeful and by the time we see their true colours they are entrenched in power.
Anyway, no, it's not a truism. Most of us are altruistic and were we not our species would long ago have been extinct. The problem is that the very fact that most of us are altruistic enables a bunch of sociopaths to grasp the levers of power. Apparently Nash later revised some of his observations on game theory and altruism on the grounds that when he essayed them he was suffering from paranoid delusions. Someone should have told him that being paranoid it does not follow that they are not out to get you.

Ophelia Benson said...

"They weren't merely gossips and they certainly weren't malicious--they were really interested in people's affairs, really cared and really wanted to help which is surely good from the moral point of view--but from the aesthetic point of view, in my very gut, I was nauseated."

I'm not so sure that is surely good from the moral point of view, and I'm not so sure your reaction was merely aesthetic. The really caring may be partly good from the moral point of view, but I don't think it's mere cynicism or brutality that makes us suspicious. It's intrusive, that kind of thing; it's patronizing, it's infantilizing, it's cloying; it interferes with the freedom of its objects; it inserts its nose in everyone else's business; it breathes damply all over everyone. It gives me the fantods. And I am very, very suspicious of it - I think there is something dubious at work - prurience, superiority, conspicuous 'concern' - all kinds of repellent stuff.

Unknown said...

Anonymous: now that's interesting--paranoia as the basis of decision theory. Hadn't heard this about Nash but I'll poke around and look for it. As you probably know, there have been computer tournaments playing various strategies to see which survive in a simulation of an evolutionary free for all. Initially Tit For Tat, a relatively nice strategy won. But subsequently slightly less nice strategies beat out Tit For Tat.

I suppose I'm not really talking about egoism vs. altruism so much as the way in which they manifest themselves. On Combat, I recall soldiers altruistially put themselves in harm's way to for the sake of their units and threw themselves on grenades to save their buddies. And sentimentalists can be egotistical, petty and thoroughly nasty.

As an undergraduate I remember writing a test in church history, medieval, writing about Hildebrand and St. Francis. We're supposed to like St. Francis but I just never warmed to him. It was Hildebrand, however wrong-headed his policies, however much I disagreed with his goals, who moved me: "I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile." Both recognized by the Church as saints but there are just different flavors of sanctity and my taste is not for humility and service but for the acquisition and use of power for the ends to which one is committed.

Unknown said...

Here is where I disagree with you, Ophelia. When it goes bad, this character is cloying, patronizing, intrusive and, occasionally, vicious but at their best altruistic, sentimental, conventionally religious people are the best people on earth. They will do jobs that no one else will do.

When I was working for the diocesan adult education program no one signed up for the lay preachers license but we had over 100 applicants for LEM II, a "ministry" that consisted in taking Communion to shut-ins and hospital patients. I wouldn't do this if my life depended on it--for that matter, I wouldn't be a doctor no matter how much it paid--but there were lots of takers, not only for the LEM II license, but for visiting the sick the lonely, working in soup kitchens and food pantries, delivering meals to the elderly and to AIDS patients, and generally doing miserable, thankless work that needed to be done.

The fault of the Church is in taking a particular personality type as virtue, not recognizing that this kind of character is morally neutral and can be directed to good or ill, and maybe even more than that, failing to recognize that lacking this kind of character isn't in and of itself a moral defect.

Larry Hamelin said...

I don't think all liberals are wimps. I'm pretty far left, an no one ever accuses me of wimpiness. And, amusingly enough, those that accuse me of over-aggression tend to be (with some exceptions) conservative Christians and Muslims.

Also look at, for instance, Arthur Silber, Dennis Perrin, and The Rude Pundit.

I would definitely agree that there's a thread of wimpiness in the vast agglomerate we call "liberalism", but that's because many people are in fact wimps, and wimps are attracted to liberalism. However, I think the notion that liberalism and leftism is wimpy by definition is as much an artifact of right-wing propaganda as it is a real truth.

Ophelia Benson said...

No actually I agree with you, H.E., when you put it that way. I got the impression from the post that you had in mind people who more or less forced concern on people whether they wanted it or not, rather than people who did useful generous demanding things that other people (including me) don't want to do.

Elentar said...

H.E., you mentioned that slightly less nice strategies beat out Tit for Tat? I'd heard that the current winner overall was Tit for Tat with recovery, which is actually a slightly nicer strategy. Another strategy was able to recognize itself, establish master-slave pairs, and slightly edge out various versions of Tit for Tat, but this seems somewhat like cheating; who really wants to be a slave?

Anonymous said...

It's a different version of Ossama bin Laden's famous statement that "when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse."

Unknown said...

elentar, I haven't followed the literature much recently. I just vaguely remember that Tit for Two Tats, which was even nicer than tit for tat got beat up and subsequently that there were nastier strategies that beat up Tit for Tat--might have been the master-slave strategy. I should poke around a little more.

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