Roebuck dissects theory that liberalism is driven by avoidance of envy

Alan Roebuck writes:

After reading your VFR post “Clown or catastrophe?…,” I took a look at Jack Wheeler’s website. One item that caught my eye was a brief headline about how the “Evil Eye” provides the key to understanding liberalism. Since most of his site is for subscribers only, I did a bit of Googling to find an essay of his titled “The Secret to the Suicidal Liberal Mind” at Newsmax.

What I found, as discussed below, is that Wheeler’s thesis is a valuable addition to our understanding of liberalism, but he errs by regarding this one insight as the most important fact about liberalism. Furthermore, he commits the most basic error of conservatism, which I identify below.

Wheeler’s thesis, in brief, is that liberal self-hatred is simply a sophisticated manifestation of the atavistic human fear of envy. His phrase “the Evil Eye” refers to a belief in the envious gaze of other people, spirits, or even gods, an envy that primitive peoples feel that they must avoid or placate at any cost.

As an example, Wheeler writes

For such understanding, we need to travel to the Amazon. Among the Yanomamo and other tribes deep in the Amazon rain forests still adhering to the ancient hunting-gathering lifestyle practiced by our Paleolithic ancestors, it is an accepted practice that when a woman gives birth, she tearfully proclaims her child to be ugly.

In a loud, mortified lament that the entire tribe can hear, she asks why the gods have cursed her with such a pathetically repulsive infant. She does this in order to ward off the envious black magic of the Evil Eye, the Mal Ojo, that would be directed at her by her fellow tribespeople if they knew how happy she was with her beautiful baby.

Thus, in Wheeler’s view, when liberals demand that America not defend herself, when they curse whites, Christians and males, when they fight to maintain mass immigration, when they demand that we cripple our economy through environmentalism, they are simply acting out of a primitive desire not to arouse the envy of others. In Wheeler’s words,

As the Amazon tribeswoman […] says her baby is ugly, so the white male liberal says his gender, his race, his country, his civilization and even his entire species is ugly.

The demented self-hatred of the liberal is thus, in Wheeler’s view, fundamentally caused by the desire to avoid arousing the envy of others. This sheds light on the effort by liberals to placate hostile outsiders, with the effort being stronger in proportion to how hostile or foreign the outsiders are. It is well-known that white liberals are motivated at a deep level by guilt, and guilt can be another name for fear of the envy of others.

Furthermore, it is useful for us intellectuals to remember that people are also strongly motivated in their convictions and behaviors by primitive emotions. Liberalism is not just a body of doctrines.

But Wheeler goes wrong at two points. First, he strongly implies that his insight is a sufficient and complete description of liberalism. For example, he says

Liberalism is thus not a political ideology or set of beliefs. It is an envy-deflection device, a psychological strategy to avoid being envied.

and later he says

I began to realize how liberal envy appeasement is the root of the problem…

But it is absurd to regard envy appeasement as the essence of liberalism. Liberalism is both a coherent philosophical system and a ruling bureaucracy, pervading and controlling both the formal apparatus and the thought life of the nation. As Thomas Sowell has said, people are often unconscious carriers of ideas, and the ideas determine the structure of society and its long-term development.

And this error leads to a second: misdiagnosing the cure. Wheeler seems to think that liberalism can be overcome through a collective effort of the will:

The antidote to envy is emulation.

In the “Rhetoric” (ca. 350 bc), Aristotle distinguishes the two: “Zelos, emulation, is a good thing and characteristic of good people, while phthonos, envy, is bad and characteristic of the bad; for the former, through emulation, are making an effort to attain good things for themselves, while the latter, through envy, try to prevent their neighbors from having them.” (“Rhetoric,” 2.10.1) …

Rejecting envy is the key to preventing “The Death of the West,” the key for America to continue to prosper. I suggest that this rejection begin with you.

In this, Wheeler commits what I call the Basic Error of Conventional Conservatism: regarding liberalism as just a collection of discrete and isolated phenomena arising from within a basically sound society. Like most public articulations of conservatism, Wheeler’s essay fails to understand the near-total control liberalism has over the thinking of most Americans and over the formal apparatus of American society.

Fear of the Evil Eye may be natural to man, but the formal ruling principles and institutions of society determine to a large extent how much damage it can do. Wheeler has usefully identified one of the basic psychological impulses behind liberalism, but he fails to see the necessary remedy: arguing against bad ideas, with the goal of changing what the authorities teach.

LA replies:

I wrote about Wheeler’s envy theory several years ago (here, here, and here) and I had the same response as Mr. Roebuck: that Wheeler had added to our understanding of liberalism, but that he was absurdly off the mark in making this the main explanation of liberalism.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 13, 2009 11:21 AM | Send

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