Sunday, February 01, 2009

Journey Into The Heart of (Leftist) Darkness

Y'know, it's funny where you find yourself on some Saturday nights.

Last Saturday, I attended a discussion forum entitled "Obama and the Left," sponsored by a progressive publishing company.

Before you call the Mendota State Mental Hospital and get the commitment papers rolling, allow me to explain.

I attended this event with my good friends and intellectual fellow-travellers Greg, Rick and Jessica. Greg and Rick ran across the flyer, thought it was a "can't miss" sort of event and invited me along. As a grumpy libertarian, I thought it would be a frightfully good wheeze and besides, I hadn't been angried up in a while.

Before going, we steeled ourselves with shots and beers at the corner tavern near Greg and Rick's house. This being done, we descended upon downtown Madison to see what we could see.

The first thing that struck me, before the presentations even started, was the amount of people in attendance. I mean, think about it: they filled a 300+ seat theater to standing room only capacity on a Saturday night for a political discussion forum...only in Madison.

The other thing that struck me immediately was the smug, self-satisfied, humorless air of unbearable earnestness that permeated the attendees. Oh yeah, they laughed on cue at the appropriate forced jokes of the speakers, but it was more a cry of acclimation than a show of the common human emotion of joy. We were even told to be quiet by someone behind us. Honestly, what am I, a fucking five-year-old?

When the program began, it was obvious what we were in for that night. All of the preposterous remarks need not (and should not) be repeated here, but here are some highlights:
  • One speaker taking lines from FDR's inaugural address in 1933 as a great new rallying cry for the progressive movement. Specifically, he stressed the portion where FDR recounted the "chasing of the moneychangers from the temple" story from St. Matthew's Gospel. The speaker was obviously monumentally ignorant of the anti-Semitic overtones of FDR's usage of this story...or he was an anti-Semite himself and wanted to clothe his damnable beliefs in the mantle of progressive politics.
  • Another speaker reading loaded rhetoric about the United States and the Middle East that was shot through with half-truths, prevarications and outright lies. Her invective (if it could be called that) was made more odious by the fact that she read it out from a sheaf of paper without looking up. Lack of rhetorical force is hardly the term.
  • Yet another speaker calling for the impeachment of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, seeming to forget that they are no longer in elective office...hell, the only thing that GWB is controlling now is a golf cart and a case of Lone Star Beer. This speaker also dragged Naomi Klein's awful book The Shock Doctrine into the discussion. This book, treated as scripture by the left, is filled with distortions, mischaracterizations and flat-out shoddy research into Milton Friedman's life and work. Click here and here for complete discreditings of Klein's shabby piece of lies and character assassination.
  • A member of the audience talking about a "warm, safe socialism" where everyone would (apparently) get everything for free and government would care about everyone and everything equally. Where the free stuff is to come from, who is to pay for it and how it is to be distributed were problems that were not addressed, oddly enough. Perhaps the idea of economies of scale has no place in a socialist utopia.
  • A veteran of the U.S. Army who, in giving a political speech wearing military insignia, was clearly breaking both Department of Defense and Army codes. Oddly, no one pointed this out to him. Hmmm...

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Greg, Rick, Jessica and myself had to retreat to the corner tavern and drink and eat pizza until things made sense again. Thanks again for everything, booze and food.

In general, the speakers and attendees dragged out the same old tired shibboleths of the left. Our new president, who at the time had been in the job for less than a week, was mentioned to call attention to his failures (in five days?) or to project their far-fetched and unworkable agenda onto the canvas of President Obama.

In a way, I feel sorry for all the people who are seeing Obama as a transformative figure and therefore projecting all of their desires and expectations onto the man. They seem to forget that he is, first and foremost, a politician. This means that nobody gets everything they want. Sorry, that's how it goes.

This event, furthermore, shows that the left's supposed tolerance and open-mindedness is a sham and a lie. They are tolerant of people who believe the same way they do. They cheer if you repeat the right slogans and curse the right (pun somewhat intended) targets. If you don't, then they cannot grasp the concept that someone might respectfully disagree with them, in whole or in part. Greg and Rick, for example, submitted questions (and good ones at that) that were ignored by the moderator. Where's your tolerance now?

They never compromise. They never listen to dissent. They won't admit to other views. They treat their opposition as stupid, backwards and a way, as lesser beings. They never feel the need to have their facts straight or to understand the basis of their arguments. They won't retreat even when they appear to have lost.

In a word, they are extremists. True-believers. Bigots.

My only comfort is in knowing that their brand of extremist nonsense is exactly that, and that I have faith that, given the choice of their ideas or those of others, the great American public would reject them soundly.

Do I reject their right to speak freely. Of course not. This does not mean, however, that I agree with their baseless claims, evangelical devotion to untruths, unrealistic expectations, shocking ingorance or outright intolerance.

I close with a quotation from South Park co-creator Matt Stone that pretty much sums up what I thought of the whole affair and its connotations:

"I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals."


Rachel said...

There are bigots on both sides and open-minded people on both sides.

Will Shannon said...

First off, thanks for looking in.

Point well taken.

To explain why, however, I find these people more distasteful than conservative bigots would involve backsliding into the realm of emotion.

I didn't want to do that, so I merely set up a narrative of the event, my gut reactions to it and left the rest to you, the good readers.

Anne Giblin Gedacht said...
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Anne Giblin Gedacht said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will Shannon said...

Well said, Anne.

That's pretty much what happened.

When cornered, I react.

Josh Giblin Gedacht said...


Now that Anne has introduced me to the world of blogs, I see that I have a new outlet for procrastinating. Like now, when I should be reading an article entitled "Montagnard Domain in the South-East Massif" for prelims. So I shall procrastinate...

Keep in mind that the following comments are intended in the generous spirit of disagreeing agreeably, and that I love political arguments! That is why I am procrastinating in this fashion.

Going to a political talk on a Saturday night eh? I hope you weren't expecting a mirthful bunch! But should they not be commended for their level of civic engagement? I actually do agree with your point about political conformity and intolerance. However, I also feel that most committed political activists, libertarian or socialist, Christian conservative or anarchist, generally do not do so well tolerating ideological deviation. By definition, they almost cannot, because that would dilute and compromise their ability to fight for what they believe in. Now, I think the reason you and I are joining academia, for all of its myriad imperfections, is that we bristle at such conformity. But I do not think it is a bad thing that these groups exists and even flourish. Personal confession: in my first two years at McGill, I was the sort who attended these talks, and I actually went to the Quebec City anti-globalization protests--you should see the pictures one day (I also got tear gassed for no particular reason beyond exercising my right to peacefully protest). I guess, having left the very conservative suburban confines of Colonie, New York, I was intrigued by the exotic anti-capitalist collectives and anarchist groups who are not so uncommon on the Quebec left. However, by my sophomore year, after sitting through my fair share of “democratic decision-making meeting” and vegan potlucks, I had also grown tired of the tendency to dismiss dissenting viewpoints and to not think through the issues seriously. I especially disliked it when children of wealthy people would lecture me about the need to buy organic food. So yes, the left has its share of relatively narrow minded people--as does the right I'm sure.

Now to your comments about Naomi Klein. As you know, I read and enjoyed the Shock Doctrine. This is not to say that I was not skeptical of many of her specific claims or of her overarching thesis. She is an unapologetic polemicist, and I never doubted that she indulged in exaggeration and selective quotations. The metaphor of torture was totally over the top. That skepticism is precisely why I asked you, with your expertise on Freidman and libertarianism, to read the book and offer obvious refutations. However, in spite of the exaggerations of Klein, Michael Moore, and company, I do not think you can entirely dismiss the gist of her argument out of hand. I tend to agree with the points raised in Joseph Stiglitz's review in the New York Times (the blog won't let me post the url for some reason).

I perused the Johan Norberg, Cato Institute polemic (and I mean that positively) you posted. I was impressed--it was well researched and his arguments about specific problems were spot on. While I have no doubt he is a true believer in his cause, Norberg’s piece forced me to re-evaluate some of my initial impressions of Klein’s book. Here are several problems I have with the article, however.

1.) I actually agree with Norberg’s assessment of the main thesis in Shock Doctrine. The proposition that violence is an inescapable, inexorable, and intrinsic component of free markets is tenuous at best. However, I nonetheless respected Klein’s polemics, and here is why: I think the inverse of her thesis, that free markets inevitably produce freer and less violent, less authoritarian governments, is equally flawed. If you look at Chile, Indonesia, the Philippines, or a number of other places, I think you can make an argument that market liberalization coincided with and even helped to cause increases in violence in many particular cases. Overall, I think the truth is somewhere in between these two extremes, that there is not a necessary connection between economic ideology and violence. Regimes of all types and all economic ideologies will use violence when it serves their purposes. However, the belief that free-markets equal free peoples is the reigning conventional wisdom in this nation, a sacred cow almost. The power of Klein’s argument was in its capacity to rankle, to provoke, to puncture this received wisdom and to make ideologues defend their beliefs. If Klein had been more mealy-mouthed, adding caveats and qualifications, she would not have made as big splash she did. I trust that other people will come along to correct her where she needs correcting.

2.) Second, yes, I agree that Klein's characterization of Freidman borders on caricature. However, I do not think that Klein attacked him in as ad hominem a fashion as Norberg suggests. I may be wrong, since the book is packed, but I believe Klein generally focused on the ramifications of the policies proposed by Friedman, not on his personal motivations. If I recall correctly, she never flat out accused Friedman of being a murderer, an inciter of violence, or an ogre. Of course, the idea that Friedman's ideology or policy prescriptions contributed to violence is a very controversial and debatable proposition. But I think this argument has worked some people into a tizzy and made them scream about character assassination and slander. I would submit that it is fair to argue about whether policy prescriptions contributed to violence, and even to make the argument that in practice they are inherently linked to violence. It might very well be a wrong argument. I think on many levels it is. However, to dismiss such charges as personally malicious and slanderous strikes me as a convenient way to evade responding to the fullness of the argument. Milton Freidman was as enormously influential public intellectual. His ideas are going to take some knocks, and rightfully so (as should ideas from the left).

2.) Norberg implies that Klein is totally opposed to free market economics. However, she explicitly stated her belief in Keynesian economics, in markets tempered by social spending and safety nets. Norberg seems to conflate this Keynesian position with an inflexible hatred of the market--agree or disagree with Keynes all you want, but this strikes me as a polemical exaggeration of his own.

3.) Norberg does not mention that Klein copiously footnotes her chapters. Of course, this does not mean that she did not draw exaggerated, tendentious conclusions from those citations. But she did offer an easy way for people to reconstruct her historical data and make their own conclusions.

4.) Friedman did not directly advise Latin American governments. However, many of Friedman's students from Chicago and like-minded graduates of Berkeley's economic policy did find comfortable homes in some of these regimes. Norberg dismisses this fact by arguing that Chicago grads were in demand everywhere and in places like Sweden. But I do not find this convincing proof that the application of free-market ideas, privatization, lower government spending did not on multiple occasions lead to violent suppression of leftist movements. I would be the last to argue that free market advocates have a monopoly on violence—far from it. But I don’t think the opposite assumption, that free market advocates are immune from violence in service to their ends, logically follows either.

5.)Norberg takes Klein to task for lumping in libertarians with mindless corporate enthusiasts. He also argues that libertarians would also criticize the nexus between big government and big corporations. I would agree that pure, unadulterated libertarianism would indeed oppose all these things that Klein ascribes to it. However, I think libertarians also need to go beyond their pure philosophies and account for the real-world applications of their policies. I think many people in the Pinochet regime, the Suharto regime, or in the Bush presidency would have described themselves as sympathetic to Friedman, to privatization, and to liberalization. To overcome labor unions, communists, etc., these regimes often employed indefensible violence. The Bush administration used Iraq and New Orleans as a test case for privatization, Blackwater, what have you. Friedman himself might have regarded these things as distortions of his philosophy, but Rumsfeld did not. Many a good-intentioned Marxist and Social Democrat have been tarred for the excesses of Stalin and Mao, and rightfully so. Not that I am arguing for equivalence between Bush and Stalin. However, my point is this: you should base these sorts of debates not on the tenets of pure ideology, but on their messy and unpredictable real-world consequences.

6.) Lastly, Friedman may not have been a paid adviser of Pinochet, but he did have a 45 minute meeting with him. I know Friedman was very careful to say that he did not endorse the Pinochet regime. However, I still find a 45 minute meeting between a leader and a foreign academic somewhat questionable. I think, at the very least, we can have a discussion about the moral ambiguity of this trip.

Alright, I have written way too much now. You can tell I’m really intent on procrastinating. We should hash this out over a spirited evening of beer and rum and coke sometime soon.