Liberalism on the Couch: In search of root causes

(Excerpt from Mark Goldblatt)

The first factor I'd suggest in the causal chain that leads liberals to their politics is abject failure. People who are frustrated by their lot in life are often drawn to liberal ideas because modern liberalism's contempt for the free market jibes with their efforts to rationalize their disappointments. This thought was driven home for me last year at the Small Press Book Fair in Manhattan. As you climb the stairwell at the Small Press Center on West 44th Street, moving from small presses on the first floor, to even smaller presses on the balcony level, and then to presses-that-exist-only-to-publish-the-press-founder's-screed upstairs, you move progressively leftwards. Talk to any author on the upper floors, and he'll swear that he's been driven to self-publish because he refused to sell out. He wouldn't compromise his message for the sake of wealth and success, unlike fill-in-the-name-of-a-popular-writer. Corporate capitalism beats down the true visionary, he'll tell you, and he's no company hack. What greater proof of his bona fides than the fact that no mainstream publisher was interested in his work?

But of course the majority of liberals are not abject failures. On the contrary, many have attained a considerable measure of social status and financial clout, which calls to mind another reason liberals become liberals-guilt. Guilt-induced liberalism is most common among the more successful members of historically marginalized and currently struggling groups like blacks and Hispanics, or among members of historically marginalized and currently prospering groups like women and Jews. The trappings of achievement-prestigious job titles, comfortable homes, swollen bank accounts-are a kind of inverse torment for such people, an ongoing crisis of authenticity, a sign of the dissolution of their identity within the marginalized group. They feel compelled, therefore, to demonstrate that their sympathies still reside with the underclass. The cartoonish version of this response is found in hip hop-where ostentatiously thuggish rappers ride around in stretch limos, dripping jewelry and sipping champagne, all the while swearing their allegiance to "the street." The more insidious version is found in humanities classrooms-where ostentatiously underdressed professors browbeat their students with the message that good fortune in America carries with it the perpetuation of injustice and the tacit acceptance of oppression.

After failure and guilt, a third obvious cause of the liberal worldview is sin. There is, of course, nothing inherently sinful about the politics of liberalism. But in its modern incarnation, liberalism not only takes to heart the Enlightenment values of tolerance and skepticism, it hoists them aloft as intellectual torches and bears them forward in search of the dreaded Frankenstein Monster of moral judgment. Modern liberals deplore moral judgment-except in their collective outrage at conservatives-because they've decided, in their own lives, to abandon the doctrinal elements of Judeo-Christian morality in favor of an ethic whose guiding principle is, in the words of noted Shakespearean dunderhead Polonius, "To thine own self be true." Hence, the liberal mantra, I'm not religious, but I consider myself a spiritual person. Roughly, this translates into: I don't want to give up on an afterlife, but I don't want to be judged by the stuff I'm doing. Liberals, therefore, seethe with resentment towards public displays of traditional faith out of fear such faith carries with it an implicit condemnation of their personal choices....

Which leads to the final, and perhaps overriding, cause of modern liberalism-genuine compassion.... Intelligent people are often drawn to dumb ideas because the dumb ideas speak to their hearts rather than to their heads. The roster of world-class intellectuals who failed to recognize the evils of Communism in the last century is a testament to human frailty, not human imbecility. Tyranny, like charity, begins with compassion; this lesson is utterly lost on liberals, for whom compassion is an absolute good. So it's important to remember that the prime justification of liberalism, at least in the minds of liberals, is almost always fairness. They feel unfairness in their bones. It upsets them. That's how they know they're compassionate. It is the misguided pursuit of fairness that, in the final analysis, drives the majority of liberals to liberalism. It's a pursuit at which they cannot fail, since it's never-ending; it's a pursuit that alleviates their guilt, since it re-connects them with their roots; it's a pursuit that cleanses their individual sins, since its goal is the common weal. The pursuit of fairness is itself a kind of therapy. Liberals are entitled to it, however ill conceived the enterprise.


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