Left loses the plot on real life - and the meaning of borders
The following article is by Mark Latham, a former federal leader of the Australian Labor Party, Australia's major Leftist party. He is critical of the direction of his party in recent years. He uses the issue of illegal immigrants (mostly boat-borne in the Australian case and usually referred to as "asylum seekers" or "boat people") to make a wider critique of current Leftism. His claim that Leftism is ideology-driven rather than reality-driven is well-made
About a decade go, I noticed something distinctive about the Australian Left. It was wrong on every major issue for which the Australian parliament had legislative responsibility.
On economic policy, its belief in protectionism and industry welfare had been made to look ridiculous by the Keating revolution. Families which had been trapped for generations in blue-collar factory work were enjoying the benefits of economic liberalisation, business start-ups and booming prosperity. In social policy the Left's obsession with command-and-control public service provision was out of step with new attitudes in the outer suburbs. With extra money in their kick, people wanted to buy in the services which best suited their needs. It didn't matter whether these were publicly or privately run, as long as they got the job done. Customisation was king.
The other big issue was border protection. I was battling the Labor For Refugees group and its determination to abolish offshore processing and mandatory detention. When John Howard introduced his Tampa legislation prior to the 2001 election, I was one of a handful of Labor MPs who would have been comfortable voting for it On a question of competing interests (the needs of UN refugee camp asylum seekers versus unauthorised boat arrivals), the only way of avoiding a humanitarian disaster was to enforce the rule of law and an orderly, fair system of processing. I was perplexed as to how the Left could advocate open-door policies: an invitation for anarchy.
In each area, the so-called progressive wing of politics had failed. Why couldn't these people understand the basis of sound policymaking and social justice?
To answer this dilemma, I set about analysing the lifestyle and life values of the mistaken Left activists like the millionaire journalist Phillip Adams and my parliamentary colleagues representing gentrified inner-city boroughs. My conclusion was they had abstracted themselves from the empirical, commonsense views of suburban Australia. They saw issues as an exercise in ideological dogma, instead of problem-solving. Learning and adapting were foreign concepts.
The lessons of Whitlamism in the 1960s and Keatingism in the 1980s - that Labor is strongest when it relies on practical ideas drawn from suburban electorates had been forgotten. Ten years later, nothing has changed. Senators Kim Carr and Doug Cameron still regard government economic intervention as more important than market competition. The Left still talks about community services, such as school education, through the eyes of providers (teachers, union organisers and public servants) rather than recipients (students and parents).
For asylum seekers, the tragedy is doubly unfathomable. Not only has the Left's open-door policy, as implemented by the Rudd government in 2008, led to 2000 people drowning, the fanatics who urged on this atrocity have shown no signs of contrition.
Unmoved by rows of body bags and tiny coffins loaded onto planes, the Greens still see that boat journeys between Indonesia and Australia are an act of compassion. The blood on their hands has had no impact on their sense of right and wrong.
Privately, Labor's hard-Left faction despises the government's new Papua New Guinea solution but, out of self interest, it sees no point in opposing a vote-winning policy this close to an election.
Elsewhere in the media, apologists for the open-door/drownings policy have re-emerged, no less brazen than a decade ago. Three types of rationalisation are being used. The first is a straight denial of reality, the argument that deterrence strategies have never worked. Among others, the clownish Charlie Pickering has repeatedly made this claim on Channel 10's The Project, ignoring the obvious success of the Howard government in stopping the boats, This is a strange reaction to truth. It is almost as if, psychologically, Howard's record in saving lives - something which runs against the grain of everything Pickering believes in - cannot be accepted as reality.
The second rationalisation is to downplay the significance of death. Last week, in an editor's note to subscribers of The Monthly, John van Tiggelen complained that Australia's "humanitarian obligations [have come] down to a single KPI: preventing the deaths of one in 25 boat people."
He lamented how "the complementary statistic, that of the crushed hopes and condemned lives of the other 96 per cent, will remain invisible, untold and unrecorded".
How can anyone look at the horror of boatloads of people drowning and try to establish some form of moral relativity against the circumstances of those still alive? The highest calling of one's conscience - in many ways, the emotion which sets our civilisation apart from the animal world - is for the preservation of human life.
If 4 per cent are dying, the only compassionate response is to address the problem directly, regardless of the economic interests of the remaining 96 per cent
The third stance is a surreal "business as usual" argument.
Last week, Adams returned to the opinion pages of The Australian on the boat people issue, rolling out words identical to those he used 10 years ago. He made no mention of the drownings, ignoring his long-running error in advocating policies that have made them more likely. Everyone else was at fault, all bar Adams.
Perhaps this tells us more about the Left than any other perspective.
When the world fails to comply with its ideological template, it uses ignorance as a way of keeping its beliefs alive. But then, when ignorance can no longer hold out the facts, when the evidence becomes overwhelming, it turns to Adams-style arrogance, lecturing others on where they went wrong.
The asylum-seeker crisis has changed Australian politics forever. The mistaken Left has forfeited its claim to moral superiority and a valid understanding of compassion. It now faces an uncomfortable truth. If left-wing politics means thousands of people drowning, we would be better off with no left-wing politics at all.
You're right-wing? You must be stupid
Frank Furedi on how conservatism came to be treated as a mental deficiency. Frank points out that the whole argumnent is "ad hominem" and hence of no intellectual worth. He does not however allude to direct evidence on the question. For that evidence, see here
Mocking conservative and right-wing political figures for their stupidity is all the rage in certain media circles. Yesterday it was the turn of Tony Abbott, leader of the opposition in Australia, after he mixed up the words `suppository' and `repository' in a live TV debate. Last week, Australian election candidate Stephanie Banister was branded ignorant after she made a series of gaffes about Islam during a TV interview. A video of the interview went viral, and as a result of the humiliation Banister has now withdrawn her candidacy.
Not surprisingly, commentators compared Banister to Sarah Palin, the former US Republican vice-presidential candidate who was, and continues to be, regularly targeted for her `stupidity'. One blogger recently referred to Palin as the `Queen of Stupidity', the `very embodiment of all things stupid'.
The idea that conservatives are thick and simple is increasingly being backed up by a new brand of advocacy research. In recent years there have been numerous so-called studies purporting to prove the intellectual inferiority of conservative people. Two Canadian academics gave us a good example of this tendentious research last year. Their `study', titled Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact, claimed there is evidence that simpletons go on to become prejudiced right-wingers in later life.
It is worth noting that, historically, the manipulation of science to discredit political opponents - from nineteenth-century craniology to twentieth-century Stalinist and Nazi theories - was strongly criticised by the intellectual community. Today, by contrast, it is self-styled intellectuals, especially the ones who refer to themselves as `liberal', who use such pseudo-scientific tactics to pathologise their opponents as a mentally and intellectually inferior political species. And there is barely any dissent from this view.
The intellectual devaluation of conservatism originates in the nineteenth century, when the British Tories were described as the `stupid party'. That phrase was probably coined by John Stuart Mill, who wrote in 1861 that although both the Whigs and the Tories were lacking in principle, it was the Tories who were `by the law of their existence the stupidest party' (1). Back then, associating conservatism with stupidity was justified on the grounds that upholding tradition and the status quo - as conservatives do - does not require much mental agility or imagination. In contrast, it was claimed that taking a more questioning and critical approach to politics required an ability to think abstractly and in a sophisticated way.
But it wasn't until the post-Second World War era that the pathologisation of conservatism gained real intellectual credibility. Instead of seeing right-wing prejudice as the outcome of various cultural and social influences, left-leaning observers treated it more like a psychological problem. Theodor Adorno's classic text, The Authoritarian Personality, helped to give credence to the new dogma that the disposition for a certain kind of intolerance was a psychological issue. From this standpoint, right-wing people not only suffer from an intellectual deficit, but also from a psychological one.
Since the end of the Second World War, right-wing and conservative ideas have come to be marginalised within the key cultural and intellectual institutions of Western society. In a frequently cited statement, the American literary critic Lionel Trilling declared in his 1949 preface to a collection of essays that right-wing ideas no longer possessed cultural significance:
"In the United States at this time, liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas."
While Trilling's statement contained an element of exaggeration, there is little doubt that it also captured something important about political developments in the 1940s. The experience of the inter-war years and of Second World War itself helped to discredit the influence of the right-wing and conservative intellectual traditions in Western culture. The 1930s Depression, followed by the rise of fascism, significantly diminished the appeal of right-wing ideas. These events also solidified the association of being an intellectual with adhering to left-wing philosophies, to the extent that universities almost became no-go zones for the right.
Things have now moved so far in this direction that today, in the twenty-first century, it is sometimes hard to appreciate the fact that until the second half of the last century, right-wing thinkers constituted a significant section of the Western intelligentsia.
Since the 1940s, intelligence has been turned into a cultural weapon that is used by individuals and groups to validate their status and authority. Inevitably, this weapon is most effectively used by those claiming the status of an intellectual. As Mark F Proudman has written: `The imputation of intelligence and of its associated characteristics of enlightenment, broad-mindedness, knowledge and sophistication to some ideologies and not to others is itself therefore a powerful tool of ideological advocacy.'
Making fun of the parochial and folksy ways of right-wing politicians and exposing their grammatical errors to ridicule is one way that intellectuals assume moral superiority these days. Those who have something of a monopoly over modern-day intellectual capital can thus present themselves as the possessors of moral authority, too.
Not surprisingly, many conservatives become defensive when confronted with the put-downs of their intellectual superiors. Consequently, in many societies, particularly the US, they have become self-consciously anti-intellectual and hostile to the ethos of university life. Anti-intellectualism works as the kind of counterpart to the pathologisation of conservatism. And of course, the bitter anti-intellectual reaction of the right, which sometimes seems to affirm ignorance, only reinforces the smug prejudices of the intellectuals who see themselves as being morally superior.
The use of the term stupid as a political label speaks to the infantilisation of public life. Name-calling is an activity normally associated with childish behavior. Making fun of someone's speech, mannerisms, vocabulary or historical knowledge is the politics of insult. And an insult does not constitute an argument, or even an idea. In fact, often the political insult serves as a substitute for argument and debate. The use of invective and the suggestion of mental deficiency closes down debate. After all, what's the point of using a rational argument against people who are incapable of reasoning? To use a popular American expression of the modern era: `They just don't get it.' When someone says this, particularly in relation to political and moral debates, what they're really saying is not only that the other person `doesn't get it' but that he is incapable of getting it. Therefore, further debate is pointless.
It is of course quite legitimate to argue that the ideas held by conservatives are stupid. But the tactic of devaluing the mental capacity of conservatives calls into question the validity of open debate and free speech. Why take seriously or discuss the views of those who are intellectually inferior? In the past, such arguments were used by anti-democratic theorists to put the case against popular sovereignty, against mass engagement, against allowing the allegedly ignorant public to get involved in politics. Today, such arguments are used by those who pose as knowledge-rich experts as a way of suggesting that the rest of us - the ignorant - should defer to them.
Genuine intellectuals who are devoted to the pursuit of ideas and who understand the transformative potential of debate should reject the politics of insult. Instead of sneeringly declaring `they don't get it', a real intellectual should develop ideas in a way that would allow `them' to get it. Indeed, it is the conviction that most human beings have the potential to grasp the issues facing their communities that underpins the ideals of democratic politics and popular sovereignty. The real problem today is not stupid conservatives, but people with multiple university degrees who `don't get' what it truly means to be an intellectual.
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