Wednesday, November 26, 2014
BOOK REVIEW of "The Pity Party" by William Voegeli
Review by Rich Lowry
The trump card of liberalism is always compassion. Whether it’s in a dorm room or on the Senate floor, in any debate the presumption is that liberals self-evidently care about people and their opponents do not. End of discussion. In his new book, William Voegeli subjects liberal compassion to a sustained examination that exposes its inadequacies, contradictions, perversities—and, ultimately, its threat to our system of government.
His work is invariably acute and grounded in a sure-footed understanding of the philosophical undercurrents of our politics. This book is neither mean-spirited nor a diatribe; it’s a brilliant intellectual dissection that bristles with insight and arresting formulations.
Since compassion is so central to contemporary liberalism, The Pity Party is less a critique of an aspect of liberalism than of liberalism itself—and of our most prized virtue. Compassion, Voegeli notes, “is routinely used not just to name a moral virtue, but to designate the pinnacle or even the entirety of moral excellence.”
In his famous 1984 Democratic convention speech, New York Governor Mario Cuomo set out the animating vision of liberalism. He said that government should be “the idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another’s pain, sharing one another’s blessings—reasonably, honestly, fairly, without respect to race, or sex, or geography, or political affiliation.” President Obama has said, less ringingly, that “kindness” accounts for all of his political principles. (Voegeli comments acidly, “Apparently, all one really needs to know about politics can be learned in kindergarten.”)
Voegeli’s examination begins with the vacuum left by modernity’s destruction of the former “comprehensive shared understanding” of human affairs. By his account, there are several ways to fill it. One is totalitarianism, which discredited itself in the horrors of the 20th century. Another is the notion of self-interest well understood that undergirds The Federalist’s political science and informs Adam Smith’s economics. But liberals distrust the market’s propensity to render selfishness benevolent. Their answer is compassion. They rely on what they take to be our natural empathy to forge a togetherness. This dispensation doesn’t depend on any grand theory, and liberals reject both premodern and totalitarian versions of philosophical unity. They notionally reject certainty itself, embracing Judge Learned Hand’s belief that “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”
* * *
There is a countervailing tendency, though. Liberals, according to Voegeli, “want the modern bargain of agreeing to disagree, but also keep trying to graft a moral and teleological unity onto it.” They envy the universality of the great religious faiths, and seek their own vague, secular version. “The marriage of liberal universalism and liberal skepticism,” he writes, “proclaims the brotherhood of man while rejecting the fatherhood of God.”
Although it is difficult to recall, there was a time when liberal compassion didn’t dominate the Democratic Party. It used to be that what Voegeli calls the “Eleanor tendency,” after Franklin Roosevelt’s naïvely do-gooding First Lady, was checked by a patriotic, tough-minded vein within the party. John F. Kennedy represented the high tide of the “desentimentalization of liberalism.” His assassination changed everything. Liberalism went from appealing to the country’s pride to inveighing against its depravity. In 1962, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., published a collection of essays called The Politics of Hope; in 1969, he titled a new collection The Crisis of Confidence.
This is the liberalism we know. It demanded the enactment of a sweeping program to save America from itself, and lurched from an emphasis on “the helplessness of sufferers” in the 1930s, to the further contention that they were helpless because of what had been done to them. The cultural attributes that lift people out of poverty came to be dismissed as merely a way to blame the poor for their own poverty.
* * *
Voegeli subjects all of this to withering assault. He makes liberal use of the word “bullshit,” elevating it to a major concept and featuring it in a chapter heading: “How Liberal Compassion Leads to Bullshit.” The word is a little jarring, especially from a writer as calm and judicious as this one, but Voegeli makes a good case that it's exactly right, quoting the philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt that the “essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.”
At the core of liberal bullshit is the fact that the same people who care so much about social programs—don’t seem to care whether they work or not. Social programs never end, and only extremely rarely are they significantly reformed. Even if programs like Head Start are proven to be ineffectual, they are still defended as totems of compassion. The answer is always more spending, and more programs, regardless of how much government has already grown.
This gets to the central dynamic of liberal compassion. To wit, “the liberals who create, perpetuate, defend, and expand social welfare programs are devoted to them less because they care about helping than because they care about caring,” as Voegeli puts it. It is this flaw, he writes, that “connects the theory of liberalism to the malpractice of liberalism,” to its toleration of waste and failure. There may be a perverse psychological benefit to the malpractice. He quotes the late political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain: “Pity is about how deeply I can feel. And in order to feel this way, to experience the rush of my own pious reaction, I need victims the way an addict needs drugs.” Considering people as victims, and encouraging them to consider themselves as such, does them no favors. Citing Thomas Sowell’s work on the success of Chinese immigrants throughout Southeast Asia despite persistent discrimination, Voegeli notes that there are no examples of “groups that have acquired significant, durable social and economic advantages by feeling sorry for themselves, or by inducing other, more powerful groups to feel sorry for and guilty about them.”
* * *
Liberals are loath to insist on basic cultural norms. Who are we to judge, they ask, between a life of indolence and of work, a life of self-discipline and of indulgence? It is this attitude that gives rise to what George W. Bush aptly called the soft bigotry of low expectations. C.S. Lewis famously diagnosed the tendency of kindness, unmoored from any standards, to exhibit an “indifference to its object, and even something like contempt of it.” This non-judgmentalism only applies to victims, not to those who liberals believe are heartlessly unwilling to help. Voegeli borrows the formulation of Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield that liberalism is, in essence, an “alliance of experts and victims.” It scorns those who resist this alliance—as stupid for not deferring to the experts and as unfeeling for not bowing to the needs of the victims. The only truly legitimate expression of compassion in the liberal mind is government programs, which tend to crowd out private charity. The United States has much more private social welfare spending than Western European countries that have more fully embraced the welfare state. As Voegeli writes, “The sincere, spontaneous reaction to suffering, which propels the liberal project, is attenuated by the pursuit of that project.”
How have conservatives responded to liberal compassion? Voegeli devotes his final chapter to this question. The compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush sought to blunt the image of conservatives as heartless, with some limited political success (it helped make Bush seem less threatening in the 2000 campaign). But substantively it was a non-starter. Obviously, social problems have policy implications, but that doesn’t mean they have policy solutions. The Bush agenda, consequently, was always unclear and smallbore.
Voegeli himself is partial to the negative income tax schemes advanced by Milton Freidman and Charles Murray to guarantee a certain income to everyone and leave it at that. Murray would abolish most major social welfare programs. For Voegeli, this approach has the advantage of acknowledging that the welfare state is inevitable (every modern developed country has one), while radically simplifying it. It would establish boundaries on the state and accentuate the importance of private charitable organizations and individual responsibility. Of course, a negative income tax is not going to get marked up by the House Ways and Means Committee anytime soon, let alone signed by a president.
Voegeli concludes The Pity Party by arguing that the politics of compassion is inherent to democracy, with its natural emphasis on equality. This doesn’t mean that it is good for democracy. The tendencies of liberal compassion are deeply harmful to it. The pity party’s impatience for action and willingness to trample procedural constraints to get it are corrosive of our constitutional system. Its programs erode the mores upon which self-government depends. Compassion, in short, can’t be the basis of a worthy democratic politics. “Much more than their empathy,” Voegeli writes of the people who govern us, “we require their respect—for us; our rights; our capacity and responsibility to feel and heal our own damn pains without their ministrations; and for America’s constitutional checks and limitations, which err on the side of caution and republicanism by denying even the most compassionate elected official a monarch’s plenary powers.”
To wring this out of them is an essentially endless project, to which William Voegeli’s new book is an invaluable contribution.
Leftist hate in Britain
The name Jack Monroe may ring a vague bell with regular readers. She was the Guardian blogger on ‘poverty issues’ who featured in a Labour party political broadcast last year masquerading as an ‘ordinary person’.
Among her top tips for beating the ‘savage cuts’ was a recipe for making Kale Pesto Pasta for 42p a portion. Kale Pesto Pasta is what the Guardianistas think ‘ordinary people’ should eat.
Jack, then a single mother with more tattoos than your average professional footballer, gave up her £27,000-a-year job answering the phone for the fire brigade to exercise her ‘right’ to bring up her son on benefits and pursue a full-time career sitting in front of her laptop moaning about ‘austerity’.
Naturally, she was hailed by Left-wing rags like the Guardian and the Independent as ‘the modern face of poverty’. Pretty soon she was being invited on to the BBC as a spokeswoman for the welfare classes.
She even got a gig at Sainsbury’s on the strength of it, demonstrating exciting things to do with left-over chicken.
When I lampooned her in this column, she published an indignant reply on the Guardian website — where else? — denying all manner of stuff I hadn’t accused her of and claiming I was only picking on her because she was a lesbian.
That wasn’t true, either. I had no idea she was a lesbian and hadn’t even alluded to her sexuality. Still, the Left never let the facts get in the way of a good smear campaign. It’s pity she’s white, in a way, because otherwise I could have been accused of ‘racism’ as well as ‘homophobia’ and demonising single mums.
It’s what the Left always do when someone shines a torch into their murky Fantasy Island world. Instead of engaging in an argument, they sling dirt.
When they’re not parading their moral superiority, the Guardianistas like to posture as victims of an evil Right-wing conspiracy. Thus, any mild criticism of their behaviour or opinions, however justified, can be dismissed as ‘hate speech’.
The truth of the matter, as I have long maintained, is that the real hatred comes from the Left. Those who preach ‘tolerance’ the loudest are among the most bigoted, intolerant people on earth.
As the furore over the Emily Thornberry ‘White Van Man’ tweet has exposed, Labour — and the Left in general — has nothing but undisguised contempt for ‘ordinary people’.
Thornberry was forced to resign from the Shadow Cabinet after appearing to ridicule the owner of a house festooned with three English flags, complete with ubiquitous white van on the forecourt.
It proved, we are told, that Labour is a metropolitan, middle-class party which doesn’t understand white working class voters and holds them in contempt.
This analysis is right, but only up to a point. It doesn’t go far enough. The Left don’t just hate the white working class, they hate everyone who doesn’t share their warped world view. The Guardianistas never, ever, demonstrate the kind of ‘respect’ towards their opponents that they routinely demand for themselves and their chosen client groups. When it comes to slagging off ‘Tory scum’, nothing is beyond the pale.
Take the saintly Jack Monroe, who postures as a victim of ‘poverty’ and every kind of ‘phobia’ going. She goes mental if anyone casts aspersions on her ‘lifestyle’ choices.
Yet she appears to believe it is perfectly permissible to use a dead child to make a political point. Yesterday, it emerged that she had attacked David Cameron on Twitter — the online asylum for those suffering from advanced narcissism — for using ‘stories about his dead son as misty-eyed rhetoric to legitimise selling the NHS to his friends’.
This was a disgusting reference to Cameron’s son, Ivan, who died after suffering from cerebral palsy and epilepsy, aged six, in 2009.
Admittedly, the Prime Minister has spoken publicly about his admiration for the medical staff who cared for Ivan and cited his family’s own experience to counter those who claim he doesn’t ‘care’ about the NHS.
And there was a moment before the last election when he came dangerously close to getting into a distasteful ‘arms race’ about the NHS with Gordon Brown, who also lost a young child in unbearably sad circumstances. But to rake up this tragedy in support of an outright lie — the entirely false allegation that Cameron intends to ‘sell’ the health service to his ‘friends’ — is as indecent as it is insensitive.
No doubt Jack’s ‘followers’ are giggling into their Kale Pesto Pasta. Her cheerleaders at the Guardian will be basking in the reflected glory of their celebrity chef sticking it to the hated Tories.
By the time you read this, she will probably have been invited on Newsnight or Radio 4’s Today programme to expound her views on how Cameron is exploiting the death of his son as a smokescreen to ‘privatise’ the NHS.
Presumably, A Girl Called Jack — as she styles herself online — is big on ‘women’s issues’. So why does she believe that intruding on another woman’s grief is a proper way to behave?
No parent ever gets over the loss of a child. It is especially tough on the mother who has brought that precious life into the world. What makes Jack Monroe think that Samantha Cameron isn’t worthy of human compassion? Doesn’t Sam Cam count, because she happens to be married to a Conservative politician?
Probably not. In the sick world inhabited by the Guardianistas, all Conservatives are wicked monsters and are not entitled to common decency.
Look at the way the Left reacted with jubilation to the death of Margaret Thatcher. They queued up to dance on her grave and now, thanks to Jack Monroe, they are dancing on the grave of a dead boy, just because he happened to be the son of a Tory Prime Minister.
Last night, as revulsion at her remarks escalated, Sainsbury’s sacked her. Heaven knows why they hired her in the first place. Would you buy a left-over chicken recipe from this woman?
Conservative MPs are calling on the Guardian to fire her, too. They should save their breath.
Jack Monroe should be preserved in aspic, as a stark reminder of the true, deep-seated hatred which lies behind the self-regarding, self-satisfied, self-pitying posturing of the modern British Left
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Posted by JR at 1:35 AM