While watching Norman Mailer being interviewed on FNC last evening, I was reminded again of how far the political left of today has come from the founding tenets of political liberalism. It is easy enough to seize on Mailer’s claim that the 52% of Americans that voted for George Bush are simply “stupid,” or that we went to war in Iraq to assuage the ego of white American males, or that Cheney withheld the shooting story from the press for 24 hours, knowing that the press would become crazed, and thus show its worst side to the American public.
Perhaps Mailer’s self-avowed elitism explains the first claim; indeed, if there were a Maureen Dowd Award for Self-absorbed Elitism, Mailer’s insistence that 52% of Americans are stupid because they voted for George Bush would surely be a nominee. It is not because the 52% are uninformed, not because after comparing the options, they settled for the lesser of two evils, not because they made a judgment that their concerns and values were more likely represented in Bush than Kerry. No; they voted as they did because they were “stupid.”
But this of course is an inversion of the view of our Founding Fathers. Steeped as they were in the Enlightenment thought of the time, the Fathers drafted a Constitution that they thought would protect the people from government. In Mailer’s world, democracy must be protected from the people.
In Mailer’s world, democracy is a noble enterprise and therefore tenuous – always to be protected from the baser instincts of the people whose natural state, according to Mailer, is a tendency toward fascism. Put aside for the moment the Left’s fascination with the unfounded comparisons between President Bush and fascism. The difference between the elite left and the authors of modern democracy lies in what sustains our best impulses.
Mailer reviles Bush in part because he “speaks in clichés,” because he does not elevate the language. Indeed Mailer goes so far as to claim that what sustained the British during the ebb and flow of empire is….Shakespeare.
Really? This is what we are to think? That it was Shakespeare that sustained the British during World War II? Or compare the British reaction to Ghandi’s independence movement to the Chinese reaction to Tianemen Square. Are we really to think that the difference in the two governments’ reactions is fundamentally to be found in the British being able to “fall back on” Shakespeare and the Chinese only being able to fall back on Confucius or Lao Tzu?
Here is a far more likely explanation: The British government of 1947, unlike the Chinese government of 1989, thinks that the actions of a government and a people are answerable to some independent moral order, that our nobility lies in our ability to rise above our baser instincts and act according to a code that is independent of our speeches, of our party documents, or even of our best authors. And that independent moral order holds that killing innocent protesters is wrong. The British government of 1947 may have made a number of political calculations, but only the most cynical would claim that they did not also think that killing innocent protesters was, is, and will be wrong. Unlike the Stalinist Beijing government, whose only interest was what the party said, quite apart from what the people wanted. Stalinism answers only to its own party-line view; no facts interfere, and no notice need be taken of the choices of the people. The difference between the two governmental reactions is better explained by their differing views about whether our actions can be judged by some extra-human moral order.
One need not be Christian to prefer this explanation over Mailer’s “Shakespeare explanation.” The intellectual source for Ghandi’s views lay in Hinduism, which looks to a reality other than the speeches and artwork of the most recently celebrated humans.
But in Mailer’s world, the only justification of our noble experiment in democracy lies in our speeches, in our social constructions, in our judgments about what is valuable. For Mailer, as for so many others in the contemporary elite left, all that matters is our latest theory. Some claim is a fact, some assertion is a reason to act if it fits with our most recent story of our success or failure. It does not matter that there is no evidence, no facts outside of his own theory that support Mailer’s claim that Cheney judged that withholding the shooting story for 24-48 hours would craze the media so that they would fly into a rage, thus further undermining American’s confidence in the media. Nor does it matter that the sociological-psychological theory has yet to be invented that would sustain the claim that the current war in Iraq came about to assuage the egos of white American males. All that matters in Mailer’s view is that the latest theory, the latest fad of interpretation can explain another event in a manner suitable to the elite left. For there are no facts of human nature, and there are most certainly no facts about a moral order that has its source in something other than what human beings say. For the elite left, “spinning a good yarn” is all that remains of “searching for the truth.”
Whatever one thinks of the Enlightenment view that people are guided by rational self-interest, and that given the needed information, they will make far better choices for the course of their own lives than any government could – whatever one thinks about this view, it still recognizes that there are facts about human nature, facts about the world that are not of our own making. And our political theories ought to be accountable to these facts. It is ironic that the some of the 20th and 21st century heirs to the Enlightenment should have come to the view that government must be protected from the people.
There is a sadder irony to Mailer’s view. It is, of course, a sad irony, for example, that the elite left can no longer make sense of Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” with its insistence that the rightness of the civil rights movement lies in a moral order that is not the creation of human beings. Or, for example, that in their rush to advance human rights, they have to cross their fingers when they read those famous words in the Declaration of Independence – and hope that some intellectual will finally come up with an explanation of human rights that does not in the end depend on something extra-human, on some divine being.
The sadder irony lies in Mailer’s insistence that the only truth lies in our own speeches, our own stories of our self-invention, our own self-serving and self-absorbed accounts of human nature. For Mailer does not apparently see that once the left decides that there is no extra-human moral order, no extra-human set of facts to which we can appeal to judge our theories and conjectures, that the real worry is not fascism. There really is no chance that we will wake up early in November of 2008 and find that George Bush has decided to call off the election, claiming that he knows what’s best for us.
No, the real irony is that the left – fearing that the people are too stupid to entrust with the American experiment in democracy – will collapse into its ultimate perversion. The British are sustained by Shakespeare, and we are sustained by the elite left’s view of the direction our democracy should take. It may be that the elite left has already decided that their view is no longer answerable to any facts, that the people can no longer be trusted, that the people are too “stupid” to run their own government or their own lives. But if the elite left is on the road to concluding that all that matters is their view of how our democracy should function, that there are no facts that limit their conjectures, that we are only guided by our own speeches, our own inventions, our own theories, then the elite left is surely on the high road to Stalinism. And the irony is that the elite left – the group that prides itself so on its intellectual superiority to the people – should be so oblivious to this danger.