Category Archives: Ideals & Ideology

Going Back To Liberal Roots, Recognizing The Limits of Relativism

Cultural Diversity?

I went to see Bernard-Henri Levy at the Union Square Barnes & Noble the other day after hearing about his new book Left in Dark Times; the talk was compelling enough to sell me the book, and Levy was pretty entertaining, too. He regaled us with stories about Sarkozy’s attempt to enlist his support; and said his criticism of the left was a “family” matter, and that he had nothing to say about the Republican candidate “Mrs. Pah-leen” (nothing is funnier than a French accent) and her running mate John McCain.

Left in Dark Times promises to be a sort of call to the left to take back liberalism. Levy addresses at least four specific problems that have been bugging me in recent years about the state of left-leaning liberal politics. I don’t yet know exactly how he tackles those issues (I just started reading the book), but it’s nice to see them taken on by someone from the left.

One: Knee-jerk anti-Americanism — please people, if you think this is an antidote for knee-jerk- “pro-Americanism” a la Bush-Cheney et. al, it’s not. Political thought isn’t a viral infection (although it is sometimes an inherited genetic disorder, but that’s another topic). For those who are confused, I put “Americanism” in quotes because there is something decidedly un-American in the idea of blind allegiance to leaders and government policies. Real Americanism has to do with American ideals, not unthinking nationalistic fervor.

Two: sympathy for (or at least refusal to criticize) unsavory autocratic regimes simply because they call themselves revolutionaries for some brand of “egalitarianism.” How can anyone be that blind? More importantly, what’s the real agenda here? If you are a liberal (rather than simply a leftist-central-planning-junkie) then, shouldn’t your preoccupation be the actual conditions of people’s lives (you know, open societies, freedom to make choices about your lives, privacy from surveillance, access/right to make a living, etc.)?

It’s delightfully ironic to see a French dude criticize people for sympathizing with leftist authoritarianism, since that particular ideological tick tends to be more common among Europeans, especially the French (although the usual intellectual dishonesty of right wing critics typically permit them to treat American liberalism as though it were no different).

Three: the misguided view that caring about the Palestinians requires condemning Israel as evil.

Four: treating certain classes of human rights as cultural rather than universal. I couldn’t agree more, although, I suspect, given his approval of the French government’s veil-ban, Levy probably goes further than I (or most Americans) can get comfortable with — because it allows government precisely the kind of authority over personal choice that we are trying to prevent governments (and religious leaders) from having.

(Side note: some will be uncomfortable with a veil ban because it shows inadequate respect for religious “tradition” in a way that might interfere with their own agenda of tradition, like “family values” or “traditional marriage” — I have NO such qualms; yes, many traditions are harmless and some have great value, but that value is not intrinsic to or derived from their status as “traditions” or “respect” for tradition for its own sake; I remind you that slavery and feudalism have been the “tradition” in most societies for vast stretches of human civilization. My only issue is the freedom of choice for a woman who wants to wear a veil.)

Speaking of cultural relativism, I remember a discussion in law school about the question of political asylum for victims of gender-based oppression from “traditional” societies. I was disheartened (but not entirely surprised) at the enormous ease with which “liberals” adopted a “non-interventionist” posture, loathe to “impose our world view” on “other cultures.” Apparently, it was somehow more acceptable for the priests and warlords of these countries to impose their world view on these women. Keep in mind, we were talking about asylum seekers rather than “intervention” initiated by the United States. By the way, conservatives, who like to feign great concern for women’s rights when trying to justify invading a country to secure fuel sources, are (and were in this case) predictably more concerned with “cultural sensitivity” to the sheiks and mullahs when it came to granting asylum to the same women. So, I’d be suspicious of any critique on this topic from that side of the political spectrum.

Back to liberals: their frequent acceptance of the absurd (and logically self-canceling) idea of “respect” and “tolerance” for systemic intolerance in “other cultures” assumes those cultures are monolithic (and buys into the conceit that dissent and diversity of opinion can only exist in western societies). Does that really sound “respectful”? It treats human rights and individual dignity differentially according to the ethnicity of the person whose rights/dignity have been proscribed. Does that sound respectful? While purporting to refrain from “judgment” this sort of thing is very much a judgment that the priests’ and emirs’ characterization of their “culture” is authentic and worthy of respect, while women asserting their human rights are somehow “influenced” in an illegitimate way, by the “western” notion that each of them should have control of her own life. That’s the most utterly disrespectful and illiberal attitude imaginable.

I have hopes for a robust analysis of all this in Levy’s book. I may even write a review for the Thought Oven, but no promises; my regular readers (do I even have any?) know that I’m not regular or dependable with the entries. But really, is that such a bad thing? Think of all the blogs that you could keep up with if they didn’t insist on posting something EVERY DAY 🙂 Yeah, I’m not above using emoticons in a blog entry.

Incidentally, the most entertaining portion of Levy’s talk was when this communist guy with a loud voice (I mean REALLY loud, like a large subwoofer) expressed his disapproval by yelling out all kinds of obscure “facts” about the former soviet union and Cuba, the relevance of which was never entirely clear to me, and chanting “down with anti-communism” and calling Levy “a French Rush Limbaugh!”

Levy seemed to enjoy it and wanted to engage him in a friendly conversation, but that was really going nowhere. Levy turned to the young man filming the event and asked if he had planted the “communist” in the audience to manufacture juicier footage. Ultimately, the communist had to be taken away — which led him to charge “you talk about liberty, but have them drag me away by force, what a fucking joke. . . . down with anti-communism!”

Personal Shame ≠ Refutation of Policies

Many people are taking what I think is a perverse pleasure in Eliot Spitzer’s downfall. When pointing out the irony of Spitzer’s role as an anti-corruption crusader, they are using the term “clean up Wall Street” and putting air quotes around “clean up” — as if his visiting prostitutes means there’s no fraud or deceptive practices on Wall Street!

One person commented on my other blog that he “loved” watching Spitzer “crash and burn” — a sentiment echoed by a number of my conservative friends. I most definitely didn’t love it. I was deeply saddened that one of the apparent bright spots in our political landscape turned out to be just that: an “apparent” bright spot. He was unable to build coalitions, he became mired in scandals like “trooper gate” — and now this — this was not the governor New Yorkers thought they elected.

For me, there’s no joy in watching the death of so many people’s hopes that integrity would be restored to government, that transparency and accountability would be demanded of corporations, that corruption would be attacked everywhere. These are the things that people saw and admired in the Eliot Spitzer they thought they knew.

One of the most disheartening aspects of this scandal is that Spitzer’s long-time detractors are treating it as a vindication of their policy disputes with him.

Let’s please remember what happened and what didn’t.

What happened: a man was disgraced and a family dragged through enormous public humiliation and a state full of people deeply disillusioned in their civic hopes.

What didn’t happen: nothing about any policy that Spitzer advocated (that many, many New Yorkers supported) was discredited in any way. In fact, I think recent events have made it painfully clear that Wall Street really could use a good Sheriff.

Ideological Burnout; Ribbon-Shaped Sticker

Its shape is perfectly intact on the bumper. No peeling or fraying visible at all. But the weatherworn ribbon is faded to an almost perfectly colorless dull white, perhaps a hint of gray.

Maybe it was once a splash of rainbow colors, joyfully celebrating diversity, or a bold, brilliant yellow, defiantly believing that soon all the troops will be safely home. Or maybe, in its heyday it was a soft pink –holding out the hope of curing a disease or a hatred of other people’s love lives– blushing at its own daring optimism.

Now it just has the unmistakable shape and pallor of having once cared.

Martin Luther King and My America

In the American imagination it has almost become trite to say that one admires Martin Luther King Jr. – it’s like loving Mozart or Shakespeare (or, if you share my Bengali-Indian heritage, Rabindranath Tagore) – it goes without saying and is almost second-nature and ceases to feel significant or impressive.

But listen again, and you’ll remember why.

I read Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail when I was a kid. I think it was an anniversary of his assassination. I read it in a book of his writings my Dad gave me. At the time, I had been reading the history of the American Revolution and the Constitution, so, unsurprisingly, one of the themes that stuck with me was King’s characterization of the civil rights movement and its aim, as not so much a revolution as the fulfillment of the American promise.

On the one hand he pointed out that “abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation, and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop.”

Yet he also wrote, “when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were …bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

The destinies are “tied up” together with America, not just because of historical circumstance, but because it had been the American values — and mechanism for implementing those values, set up in its founding documents by people who took freedom and equality seriously in principle, however imperfectly they practiced it — that presented the greatest chance of overcoming the original wrongs. Overcoming, it’s important to note, is not the same as avenging.

As a kid I was enthralled by the American promise, while acutely aware that many Americans – perhaps most – didn’t even consider me a “real” American, what with my brown skin and my accented parents. I was the kid whom everyone asked “where are you from?” even though I was born five miles away in the George Washington University Hospital in the nation’s capital. I was the kid who was assumed, whenever I had an unusual idea (and I had plenty), to be speaking, not from my own individual imagination, but from an alien cultural source. I was the kid whose teacher responded, when I told her how moved I was with Dr. King’s writing, “yes, he’s very much like Mahatma Gandhi in your country. In fact, did you know he was inspired by Gandhi? I can give you a bibliography of his writings about Gandhi if you want.”

I know lots of people who responded that way to me, usually without consciously thinking about it. I’ve met people like that all my life. Yet, I loved America. I love it still. I love being an American and what that means at its core. Whatever others may think, I know “America” is mine. Because I know history is not inherited piecemeal by genetic lineage. I know that I am heir to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Walt Whitman and Emma Lazarus and Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King. Their legacy is mine because I have chosen it.

And that’s what America is. It is a choice. It is a legacy of choice. America is the one place in the world where it is taken for granted that you can belong here by choice, not just birth. At least this is the one place where the opposite proposition is the controversial one.

Martin Luther King reminded me that there are those who have a heritage of things much, much worse than my mild cultural identity crisis. People who have strong and righteous historical reasons to reject America, or even hate it. But even they love the promise of America. In fact, they root their struggle in that promise. They embrace the “America” we set out to become and are always in the process of becoming.

When people flex their muscles in a show of “American” patriotism that reduces us to parochial idiosyncrasies and perhaps narrow religious or social preferences, I remind myself, that’s not “America” any more than my elbow (or the callus on my heel) is “Koli Mitra.”

For all the grievous wrongs we may be guilty of as a nation, we are also the nation founded in the purest of struggles to overcome those elements in our nature that commit those wrongs.

Martin Luther King taught me that.