Why is the Left groovy?

I ran into a discussion of “why leftism” over at 2blowhards.com that was interesting because it dealt with the problem of the attractiveness of the Left. The discussion ended by proposing that the Right
“Claim art, claim food, claim pleasure, claim generosity.”
My response:
Good idea, but one that’s hard to carry out.

Art: The Right has to do with finding oneself in and through established social conventions, because man is social and the ways people come to live together reflect the greater truths that are at the bottom of what we are. The Left has to do with setting oneself against what is established, because there are no greater truths that can be publicly known, social convention is mean, superficial and hypocritical, and we find ourselves by inventing ourselves and maybe through some sort of abstract or ideal solidarity that sets itself against settled social ties.

The problem is that the left-wing view reflects a general tendency of thought and social change that’s been gathering force since the High Middle Ages. The arts today may think they’re rebellious but except in particulars and individual cases they’re not likely to set themselves against that. What makes the problem worse is that if there’s a tendency to think that social conventions are just a matter of prettified self-interest then in time the conventions will come to reflect less and less that goes beyond that. Polite rituals won’t do much for you if the rituals aren’t there. So the problems the Right has with the arts are an aspect of problems it has with the fundamental orientation of life and thought today and the latter is what has to be dealt with.

Food: Home cooking, mom’s apple pie, is right wing. Food as novelty and excitement is left wing. The transformation of something as basic as eating from domestic habit to competitive public pursuit of pleasure is anticonservative because it fragments life. It also makes food worse on the whole, but that’s not how it seems. It’s like the difference between married and unmarried sex. The former is in fact more satisfying but since it avoids publicity it’s difficult for its superiority to enter the public understanding of things in a media-driven age.

Pleasure: If food and sex are a problem, can pleasure be far behind? The media select, juxtapose and overemphasize, and so have trouble showing pleasure as something found within the events and practices of ordinary daily life. They make pleasure a special object of pursuit separated from the general pattern of things. When so viewed pleasure is an attribute of the dissolution of life into shining fragments to be chosen and recombined at will. That can’t be conservative.

Generosity: Righties give more to charity than lefties. Still, the Left appears more generous from a viewpoint that overemphasizes the side of things that is publicly visible, because it favors using public authority to give people things and getting rid of social disciplines that keep people from doing what they want to do.

So what’s the lesson? I don’t think the Right can compete by promising art, food, pleasure and generosity apart from presenting an overall way of life of which those things are attributes. When isolated from the rest of life those things do I think support the Left. Still, I agree we should be aware of the problem and not fall into the trap of presenting other things—limited government, traditional values or whatever—as isolated things either. When presented as such they’re a lot harder to sell than pleasure.

Posted by Jim Kalb at October 20, 2002 10:16 AM | Send

I think Ortega y Gasset pointed out in _Revolt of the Masses_ that the fundamental characteristic of the aristocrat is his strenuousness, in contrast to the essential laziness of the mass man. The pursuit of superficial pleasures seems to be part of this essential laziness. Presenting conservatism as an “overall way of life” might also appeal to laziness. Perhaps an honest advertisement for conservatism, like one for religion, would emphasize the need for painful and solitary struggle to achieve genuine self-realization.

Posted by: Ian Hare on October 21, 2002 3:13 PM
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