The Daily Sandwich

"We have to learn the lesson that intellectual honesty is fundamental for everything we cherish." -Sir Karl Popper

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, United States


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Our Lady of Regressive Taxation

Jonathan Chait wrote an interesting piece for TNR on a favorite topic of mine-- why some people treat their political affiliation as a belief system, beyond critical thought or the possibility of error. It also addresses one of my pet theories, namely that when people convert it's to the same point on the other side of the spectrum.

What causes lefties to turn into conservatives? Conservatives are fascinated with this question, repeating, often for years on end, their stories of deliverance from liberal hell to conservative heaven. Several such testimonies can be found in a new volume, Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys. Most of the journeys described are short ones--from apolitical child of (generally) conservative parents to conservative young adult. (Rich Lowry's progression from son of Republican parents to avid teenage reader of National Review to editor of National Review lacks the dramatic tension of, say, Whittaker Chambers's Witness.) Of the essays that do describe genuine left-to-right conversions, the striking thing about them is that encounters with actual liberalism are virtually absent. . . .

David Horowitz offers the model for this left-right metamorphosis, having changed almost overnight from gun-storing Black Panther wannabe to radical right-wing culture warrior--a story he has recounted in no fewer than four (as we go to press) books.

Christopher Hitchens is a more recent example of the phenomenon. In a 2001 Atlantic Monthly essay, Hitchens excoriated figures like Noam Chomsky, bell hooks, and Oliver Stone before concluding with a general denunciation of "America's liberals"--as if his targets were typical liberals, or even liberals at all. One day Hitchens was denouncing liberals as cruel imperialist aggressors (e.g., attacking Bill Clinton's 1998 air strike against Sudan), the next day as cowardly appeasers. . . .

Why do these converts register their disgust with the far left by immediately hopping into bed with the right, rather than settling down with some nice neoliberal think tank?

The whole article is well worth reading for its "case-study" look at the facile anti-intellectualism that's such a hallmark of today's conservatism. But at this point, I'd like to inject some of my own thoughts. Chait cites the case of "post-structuralist academic" turned right-wing stooge Heather MacDonald. And far from being an eye-opening conversion, it's nothing more than a case of trading psychological security blankets. But as an example, I'll have to quote my favorite modern philosopher, Karl Popper. Who, by the way, was a genuine liberal.

Acceptance of [Freudian or Adlerian psychoanalysis, Marxism, or other theories that claimed to be scientific] had, he observed, "the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were opened, you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refused to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still 'un-analysed' and crying out for treatment. . . . A Marxist could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history; not only in the news, but also in its presentation-- which revealed the class bias of the paper-- and especially of course in what the paper did not say.*

This pretty much sums up the mindset that controls the GOP right now, and I'm more than willing to acknowledge that it holds disturbing sway in some areas of the humanities. Present non-falsifiable hypotheses as irrefutable truth. If someone disagrees, they may deserve pity, but not a rational argument.
And if all else fails, move the goalposts. The problem isn't with the left or the right, but that boundless thirst we have to define a complex world in black and white terms. Probably inevitable as long as people are people, but not the folks you want to see in charge of anything.

*Taken from the book Karl Popper by Bryan Magee, which is an outstanding and terse overview of Popper's philosophy. The quote comes from Popper's own Conjectures and Refutations.