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January 08, 2004
Left, Right, or Wingnut?

Okay, I was trying to get away with a superficial response to the cited post but I guess I should explain my thinking or people (well Curtiss anyhow) will think I've lost my mind.

First, when I go to someone else's site, I, I guess "allow them" is the phrase I need, I generally allow them to provide their own definition of terms. (Well, there's no point in reading and trying to understand both sides of the spectrum if you're going to let your thoughts get side-tracked because one guy's "blue" is your "turquoise" is there? You have to accept his "blue" while you're reading his words if you want to have any hope of understanding his point of view.)

If I want to understand opinions from across the spectrum, I can't go into sites with my guard up.

I expect to disagree with someone like Totten. And, yes, when I found him calling turquoise "robin's egg blue" it gave me more than a second of cognitive dissonance, but I got past it. As I said in my own post, it depends on how far you go back in defining your terms and, for the sake of that post, I accepted that he'd go only as far back as would support his own position.

(I mean, let's be fair. Yes, if you go back to the Enlightenment, most of us are "liberals" by those terms, but is that useful in defining political debate today? Not really, so neither he nor you were adding anything, IMO, useful to the debate by bringing the fact up.)

If you go back a hundred years, were "liberals" and "conservatives" interested then in what they're interested in today? Were the bloc voters for each party the same as they are today?

No, of course not. Political alliances shift as the issues shift.

And the leadership shifts as needs drive them. Bush's occasional mouthing of traditional, Republican "states' rights" or "small government" babble is in direct opposition to the actual behavior of his Administration. Is that because he's a lying swine or because political reality drives our government, even in defiance of individual policy positions and beliefs?

I don't spend as much time debating nuances of political thought over the last three or four hundred years. (It's not that I don't want to. I have an absolute passion for the subject, but time simply doesn't permit.) It's not that useful in trying to define what's "Left" or "Liberal" or "Right" or "Conservative" today. As has been pointed out frequently, a "Democrat" today is a far cry from what was a "Democrat" forty years ago.

Anyhow, back to the subject at hand. Did I agree with Totten's definitions? Of course not. I disagreed with almost every word he wrote, and most especially his belief that "leftists" are all terrorist-supporting, USofA-hating extremists. Still, but those on the Right don't have a monopoly on tarring a wide swath of their opponents with simplistic slanders, so if I allow some on the Left the privilege of oversimplification and name-calling, I have to allow it on the Right.

Do I think Totten's thoughts are worth reading? I do.

My point is less about how he defines his terms than it is about how the Right sees the Left these days. In spite of condescension, broad smears, and an indefinable air of "these are the lunatics" I thought his post was valuable as a window on how someone on the Right at least tries to define and understand the different forces working on the Left these days.

That he doesn't understand the Left didn't surprise me but political discourse is about...well, it's about talking to each other and if we only talk to people who agree with us, can we pretend to think we're making any progress?

There were kernels of truth in what Totten said, as there are in most opinions. There is a portion of the Left that's still communistic or socialist. There are those on the fringes of the Left who view much of what our country does as evil.

Heck, there are those in the center who suspect the same thing sometimes. Also on the Extreme Right. Those two areas were outside the scope of his discussion and I accept that.

That he has an exalted view of the Right also didn't surprise me. Very few people, especially those with a heavy emotional investment in their own world-view (which most of us possess and Totten certainly demonstrates) are capable of objective critique of said world-view. (The very fact that he'd reference Ann Coulter in any context outside that of her being a lying, scandal-mongering embarrassment to rational Republicans tells you just how invested he is.)

Anyhow. I don't support his opinions, but I stand by what I said. He does make sense, if you accept his definitions.

He postulates that the "centrist" Liberals are okay and the "extremist" Leftists are dangerous. Heck, I think Republicans are okay, but I'm quite frankly scared of the wingnuts, so I'm not surprised that there are those on the Right who feel the same way about the Left, okay?

Admittedly you can't define either side of the political spectrum these days in terms of two belief systems. "Liberals" and "Leftists" are simply too broad to encompass the different ranges of thought held by significant groups on the Left. It's like the assumption that there are Republicans and Fascists on the Right, and not much in between. It's childishly simplistic and dangerous. (Totten's arguments leave no room, for example, for the existence of tree-hugging, environmentalist Republicans and believe me, they do exist.)

I'm thinking it might be time for us to redefine what "Republican" and "Democrat" mean in our society. Totten's remarks, while inflammatory, are at least at attempt to distinguish between some of the different political forces that currently exist.

If nothing else, I appreciated his attempt to try and find a way to talk about his differences with the Left without automatically identifying "Liberals" with the more extreme beliefs of those he identifies as "Leftist."

Jesse at Pandagon's response to Totten is much the same as what I've said above. Simply put, Jesse argues that Totten's definitions are too broad. Again, I say that I'm not surprised. The nuances of thought among those on the Left matter to no one as much as they do to those on the Left. The difference between me and Elayne is probably almost indistinguishable to anyone but the two of us. If you pull the telescope back, she and I are in the same "group" but there's still a noticeable difference between us and, say, Michael Moore. If you pull back far enough, everyone on the Left is in the same group. Totten was, as I said originally, tarring with a wide brush.

Sawicky's post was much more interesting since he begins by pointing out that it's a mistake to confuse the strength of someone's rhetoric with their extremity of their beliefs.

On the other hand, I don't actually agree with his definition of "Liberals" so that's something I have to stop and get past before I read more than the first two paragraphs of his post. His perception that Liberals "shy away from market regulation" is a bit astonishing to me. I remember when any hint of preferring "deregulation" branded you as a pretty conservative Republican in this country. So, you see, it depends on how far back I go in defining my terms whether or not I can agree with him and probably places me pretty firmly in the "Leftist" camp in his world.

His condemnation of the Clinton Administration lost me. When discussing what the Clinton Administration did, or didn't do, can we please remember the make-up of Congress during those eight years? It's no more reasonable to pretend that everything that happened was Clinton's idea and Clinton's "policies" in action than it is to pretend that the Bush currently in office was happy with the idea of a drastic increase in federal spending to support a huge new federal agency. (Yes, the Bush Administration pushed though the ghastly appointment of Ashcroft, but only after they'd been fought to a standstill over their violent objection to creating the 'Homeland Security' agency at all.)

Sawicky also drastically underestimates the value of education in creating quality of opportunity, but that's a different rant.

Note to Curtiss:

I think the distinction between liberal and left comes down to whether one believes Enlightenment is a completed or on-going project; that is, whether we already possess adequate notions of individual rights, responsibilities, and freedoms—what it means to have political agency, if you'll permit me that piece of jargon—or if what notions we have are still amenable to critique and improvement. As someone who identifies himself as a leftist, I think the latter is the case, and I think the biggest obstacle to the advance of this project is a misunderstanding of the way in which our social and material worlds are sustained, so our economic and political systems—capitalism and representative democracy—must be the subject of scrutiny and critique. Unfortunately, holding such a view usually provokes one of two responses from people: one is judged to be either a fuzzy thinking 'idealist' or a supporter of oppressive regimes. That the substance of political agency poses an open problem never occurs to these people. They have all the answers, and know what's best. And if that's not frightening, I don't know what is.

If you decide to write at length on this, please let me know. (Not that I won't be watching, because I will.) I'd like to read your thoughts.

Posted by AnneZook at 10:11 AM


1. OK, my gibe about the Spart/neo-Trot/neo-Leninist/whatever wingnuts was a cheap shot. I couldn't resist making it. They drive me batty...although I did have a lot of fun with one once by asking her how the rag she was selling possibly gibed with what Marx actually wrote...

2. You think Totten's a right-winger? He describes himself as a recently disaffected Dem and liberal hawk/interventionist, and I (perhaps foolishly?) took him at his word. Maybe that's why we had such different reactions to what he wrote: if it's the work of a right-winger, it's a pretty generous assesment of liberalism, and an understandably gross caricature of leftism. If it's the work of a liberal hawk/interventionist, it's a pretty nasty hit job and a practically Leninist attempt to lay down a correct party line.

2.5. OK, saying it was "practically Leninist" was another cheap shot.

3. Ironically, Totten himself complains how unfair it is that people don't think he and his ilk are liberal in a later post. In fact, it's so dreadful that he's now decided to ditch the identification and is calling himself an independent!

4. Funny you mention that last paragraph...I was thinking of turning it into a blog post. (and in saying so, have probably jinxed any such project...)

Posted by: Curtiss Leung at January 8, 2004 04:27 PM

"The difference between me and Elayne is probably almost indistinguishable to anyone but the two of us." Well, if you don't count the fact that you write much better than I do. :)

Posted by: Elayne Riggs at January 9, 2004 08:22 AM

You know, Curtiss, I'd forgotten that's how Trotten identifies himself. The truth is, I pay more attention to what people say than to labels, and he's always struck me as pretty conservative, and doubly so when anything came up about the war.

Hmmm...maybe it's my interpretation that's at fault, you know? (After all, there's no one as mean and bitter as someone born-again into a different faith.)

(That's sweet, Elayne. :) Not true, but very ego-boosting.)

Posted by: Anne at January 9, 2004 09:20 AM

Well, whaddya know? I rarely read Totten unless I follow a link from someone else's blog, but I just went and took a look at his site and he's not, in fact, an extremist Right-winger!

How odd.

On the other hand, maybe I'm not surprised that he dissected the Left with such venom. You don't get the Right gazing into its own bellybutton and monitoring its own behavior the way the Left does it.

Posted by: Anne at January 9, 2004 10:15 AM

Hi Anne,

You're right. I'm not an extremist right-winger.

I have never voted for a Republican, and I voted twice for Ralph Nader.

Gore and Lieberman were both to my right during the last election. Joseph Lieberman is still to my right, but Gore no longer is.

You're also correct that I wasn't very nice to leftists. Though I do agree that many leftists do NOT have the traits I ascribed to them in that post. I could disect leftists into multiple camps, and I would only have serious problems with some of them.

I was, however, as nice to liberals as I could be. I personally support every liberal position I cited in the post.

Anyway, thanks for being a serious reader, even if you don't agree with me. I do appreciate that.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 11, 2004 12:25 AM