My post yesterday was linked on Salon.com and attracted a fair number of new readers, many of whom objected to various parts of the discussion. I am always pleased to have new readers, and always read every comment, with the expectation and hope that I can learn something, even from the most critical comments. It seems to me that there are two particular aspects of our discourse that deserve further comment and clarification.
First of all, a number of commenters objected to my statement that "The left has always been anti-American" and several cited examples of people on the left who support our military and support our country. [I wonder if I had written "much of the left has always been anti-American" (a more accurate statement) whether that would have made any difference to the commenters.] There are two problems with my statement and the responses to it. The first problem is that almost no one has been able to adequately define what Left means in ways that are agreed upon by most people involved in the debate. Secondly, those who accuse me of generalizing and making artificial distinctions tend to do the very same thing themselves, and there is a good reason they do so.
I have written on a number of occasions about the way our minds and brains are organized which enhances distinctions between, at the lowest level, "self" and "other", and at higher levels between "us" and "them". (See here for an example.) Binary distinctions are a basic feature of our nervous system and it takes a significant cognitive effort to parse finer distinctions. When I use the term Left I am making a binary distinction between a certain group on one extreme of our political divide (a group I believe has an out-sized influence in the Democratic party) and the rest of "Us." A person who objects that they are on the Left and are not at all anti-American may not be speaking of the same Left I am, but they are making a similar binary distinction. Of necessity, people do not, and can not, define all our terms every time they write a post or an article; it would make discussion impossible, yet the absence of agreement on basic terms also damages discourse.
I have tried on several occasions to come up with a working definition of Left and its relative, Liberal, and have somewhat facetiously arrived at the following:
Any position espoused by the New York Times is liberal; any position espoused by Michael Moore (or Noam Chomsky, Ward Churchill, Cindy Sheehan, et al) is left.
I think the term deserves a more nuanced definition and will try to present one.
Here is how Dictionary.com defines Left:
The people and groups who advocate liberal, often radical measures to effect change in the established order, especially in politics, usually to achieve the equality, freedom, and well-being of the common citizens of a state. Also called left wing.
This is a decent starting point but is quite limited and general. Wikipedia has a decent entry on Left-wing politics which gets closer to a good, working definition:
In politics, left-wing, the political left or simply The Left are terms that refer to the segment of the political spectrum typically associated with any of several strains of socialism, social democracy or social liberalism, and defined in contradistinction to its polar opposite, the right.
The entry goes on to describe some of the historical background of the term, and describes various issues that the Left concerns itself with, especially inequality, the plight of the poor, and various social issues and adds:
Although specific means of achieving these ends are not agreed upon by different left-wing groups, almost all those on the left agree that some form of government or social intervention in economics is necessary to advance the interests of the poor and middle class.
Advocacy of government or social intervention in the market puts those on the left at odds with advocates of the free market as well as corporations (who oppose democratic control of the markets but not necessarily all control) if they see their interests threatened.
The entry goes on to discuss the various connections of Western Leftist political thought to Communism, the old Soviet Union, and Post-Modernism. It includes the Left's relationship to war:
While anti-war movements have never been exclusively left-wing, they have generally been led, inspired, and organised by those on the left. While some on the left are inspired by pacifism, most left-wing opposition to war arises from anti-imperialism which leads them to reject specific wars because they see them as being in capitalist interests rather than being morally against all violence. Left-wing opposition to war is also often characterised by the internationalist belief that the world's workers share common interests with one another, rather than with the powers governing their respective countries.
While Wikipedia has to be read with a large grain of salt when it comes to technical and factual data, it seems a particularly good tool for defining terms like Left and Right when it comes to politics, since these terms are constructs that are defined by those who use them. I think the Wikipedia entry gives enough data to support a contention that much of the left is anti-American, by definition, but I think there are a couple of other factors that might make this even clearer.
Post-Modernism, the destructive and often misunderstood and mis-used philosophy that essentially denies the existence of an underlying reality that can be known, is the spiritual and actual progenitor of Political Correctness, a philosophy (if one can legitimize it to such an extent as to call it a coherent body of thought) which divides the world into victim classes and oppressor classes. All Oppressors are defined as White males and their agents (which is how someone like Condoleeza Rice can be safely impugned by those on the Left), and all Victims are those who are oppressed by them. There is a hierarchy of victimhood which makes it confusing when one victim class (Islamists) oppose and oppress another victim class (homosexuals, women) but this is usually ignored or minimized by the Left. Political Correctness is closely related to the Left's adoption of Identity Politics and the efforts to use the state to promote group Rights as opposed to individual Rights.
I think there is another extremely important aspect of the Left which deserves incorporation into the definition. There is a powerful strain of Moral Perfectionism on the Left. The necessity of self-criticism for any society to improve gets taken to pathological heights by those who find any imperfection reason enough to damn the entire enterprise.
(The Augean Stables, which has quickly ascended to must-read status, has an excellent explication of the intersection of Political Correctness, liberal cognitive egocentrism, and Moral Perfectionism at Media War of Attrition: Inbar on Implications of Walt-Mearsheimer, which is also provides a particularly trenchant answer to the facile anti-Semitism of the Walt-Mearsheimer piece.)
One commenter to yesterday's piece effortlessly makes the case for me:
A healthy fear of the military is not a bad thing...ask Eisenhower. I am afraid of torturing, lying, thieving people who don't seem to be held accountable for their actions....why aren't you?
In Psychiatry, we refer to pars pro toto (closely related to synecdoche) to describe the thinking processes of those who take a small part of a whole and use it to define the entire thing. While surely there has been some torture (though not as much as many on the left would imagine) and some dissembling (though "Bush lied" is itself a lie) and anywhere people exist there will be some thieving, to make those the defining characteristics of the American military is a slander and reveals an insipid and disordered quality of thought.
Demanding perfection of ourselves, while excusing the worst excesses of others, is functionally anti-American. I doubt that most or even all of those who see themselves in part or all of my description of the Left imagine themselves to be anti-American, but those who would refuse to use American military power to defend America because our flaws are so egregious that they discredit our entire American enterprise, are functionally anti-American and I will stand by my statement. Finally, I would like to give Jimmy J the last word (with my emphasis added) and defy anyone to tell me that the people he is describing were not and are not anti-American:
After completing a deployment flying from the carrier Midway into Vietnam, I was assigned as a Naval Aviation recruiter in Northern CA. My job was to find college students who wanted to be Navy pilots.
My fellow recruiters and I were set upon by groups of anti-war students. We were called vile names, accused of crimes, and even spat upon. They burned our literature, spray painted our vehicles, flattened our tires, and did their best to drive us from the campuses of northern CA. We were under orders to be civil and unreactive to their insults, taunts, and spittle. It required a great deal of self discipline.
The students that confronted me in 1967 are running many of the universities, working in government, and practicing politics today. And from what I have seen they are still trying to censor speech by setting up speech codes on campuses. And I think many of them would still "Rather be Red than dead."
The atmosphere of those days of Vietnam is still with us. Now that we have no draft, most liberals apparently believe only Neanderthals or young people desperate for a job actually go into the military. It is generally not viewed as a high calling. Certainly not one that a sharp and talented young man/woman would aspire to. They forget too easily what Orwell said, "Good people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."
I am astounded by the brains, toughness, and courage of those fine young men and women who are stepping forward to do violence on our behalf today. They don't scare me; they elicit love, gratitude, and awe. My only regret is that I'm too old to join 'em.