How the left-liberal doctrine of equality of results has been applied, at least symbolically, to foot races

(Note: this entry contains two separate discussions running next to each other: the first is an exchange between Thomas Bertonneau and me on my criticism of the use of the word “obsession” to describe liberals; the second is an exchange between Steve W. and James P. on the topic raised by Tim W.)

Tim W. writes:

This article hyping this year’s Los Angeles Marathon is an example of how obsessed our liberal society has become with equalizing results. Traditionally, marathon races which are open to both sexes had a uniform starting time for all participants. This resulted in dozens of men crossing the finish line before the first woman (i.e., the women’s winner for that year). Usually the first woman crossed the line about sixteen or seventeen minutes after the first man. This didn’t create the illusion of equality that liberals expect to see, so in recent years some marathons have changed the rules to give women a head start. This often enables a woman to cross the finish line first, with the goal of creating an impression that she actually beat all the men. According to this article, a woman has crossed the L.A. Marathon finish line first four out of seven times since they began giving women a head start. This year women were to get a seventeen minute head start.

Of course, anyone with half a brain knows that the women were given a head start. So no one really believes that a woman crossing the finish line first was really a faster runner than all the men. But it makes liberals feel good to see a woman crossing the line first. It’s as if they suspend their disbelief, as someone might do when watching an engrossing movie. It’s done to help liberals lie to themselves, and thus maintain their belief that they are a morally superior people capable of changing human nature.

—end of initial entry—

LA writes:

I have a quibble with a passing point in your comment, in which I connect to a larger point that has nothing to do with your comment.

You write: ” … an example of how obsessed our liberal society has become with equalizing results.”

Would you say that Communists were “obsessed” with achieving the Communist society? Would you say that traditionalist are “obsessed” with criticizing liberalism? Would you say that Shakespeare was “obsessed” with writing Hamlet? Would you say that committed Christians are “obsessed” with following Jesus Christ? Well, neither are liberals “obsessed” with equalizing results. Equalizing results is simply what liberals believe in.

It is a common habit today to characterize those with whom one disagrees as “obsessed” with their beliefs and goals. But one don’t characterize people with whom one agrees as “obsessed” with their beliefs and goals.

Liberalism is not a result of obsession. It is a result of liberals pursuing that which they believe in. To fight the belief in liberalism, we need to demonstrate that it is wrong, not say that liberals are irrational or acting out of bad faith.

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

I must defend Tim W.’s word choice.

All ideologies are obsessive. Obsession is one of the qualities that differentiate an ideology, such as liberalism, from a normal state of mind. Thus in the American constitutional order, there is concern about a type of equality, namely equality before the law; but in liberalism, there is a fanatical devotion to equality everywhere and in everything, as an absolute principle that may never be influenced or conditioned by any other principle.

Was killing off “the bourgeoisie” (i.e., people who had worked a regular job or who wore glasses) merely what the Khmer Rouge “believed”? No. It was a massive, bloody, unshakeable obsession.

Eric Voegelin and others who note a similarity between ideology and heresy point out that the Patristic definition of a heresy—a variant of orthodox Christian doctrine that elevates one element of that doctrine over all other elements until it excludes them—applies also to modern ideologies. If it were not within the usage to say that heretics, as well as ideologues, are obsessed with some one part of a view of life to the exclusion of all other parts then the usage would be—useless.

LA replies:

Mr. Bertonneau posits or assumes a situation in which the charge of obsession is only used correctly, against ideologues who seek madly to reduce the world to one idea. But, as I pointed out in my comment, that’s not the way the charge is actually used. Today, all parties, on all sides, routinely characterize their opponents as being “obsessed” (or as irrational or as hateful or as acting in bad faith). No one ever characterizes his own side as being “obsessed” (or as irrational or as hateful or as acting in bad faith). Yes, of course, in any movement, some individuals and parties will be more fanatical, i.e., more determined to achieve ideologically consistency, than the “garden variety” followers of that ideology. But that internal difference among adherents of an ideology does not change the fundamental nature of the ideology nor the reason people believe in it. They believe in it because they think it’s true. The ideology will only be defeated when enough people are persuaded that it’s not true. Will calling liberals “obsessed” (which everyone calls everyone today) persuade liberals of that?

Thomas Bertonneau replies:
I am not, in the context of my remarks, concerned in what way “the charge [of liberal obsession] is actually used.” My intention is to defend Tim W.’s usage. I was specific about that. Since the project of overthrowing liberalism depends on its advocates being anchored in truth, accurate descriptions are important. Tim W. made an accurate description. What interests me is the truth about liberalism, and obsession is part of the truth about liberalism, just as it is part of the truth about heresy. Perhaps, when addressing liberals (rather than our own), or when addressing the liberals who call themselves “undecided,” we might want rhetorically to minimize our perception that liberals are obsessive; but this should not lead us to censor ourselves internally. We should not sacrifice truth on the altar of rhetoric. Of course, you are not advocating that.

With you on the barricades.

July 15

LA replies:

The problem relates both to what we say to liberals and what we say among ourselves. The idea that the problem of liberalism is—at least to some degree, perhaps to a dominant degree—not liberals’ beliefs, but the excessive intensity and aggression with which they push those beliefs, is the standard view constantly repeated by mainstream conservatives who are themselves liberals and thus are incapable of truly opposing liberalism. This is why I object to criticizing liberals for their “obsession” with achieving liberal goals. It is only through identifying the falseness and evil of liberalism—which are inherent in liberalism, and not a function of the psychological problems of liberals—that an individual can reach the point within himself of opposing liberalism as such and truly ceasing to be under its sway.

Steve W. writes:

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. In the case of marathons, there is no ideological motive behind starting women runners ahead of the men. As a matter of clarification, only the top women runners who are competing to win the race are given a head start; the vast majority of women runners, the casual marathoners, run along with the men. The reason for this arrangement is simple: Precisely because they are slower than the men, the top women runners would not be able to run unimpeded at their quickest pace if they had to compete with the male runners for road space. So in order to allow the top female marathoners to perform their best, they are allowed to start first. This has nothing to do with “equalizing results,” symbolically or otherwise.

James P. writes:

In reply to Steve W., the idea that women runners deserve a preferred starting position is necessarily ideological. If runners were grouped at the start line according to expected finishing time and without reference to biological sex, the fastest female runners would start further back with the men who have slower finishing times than the fastest men. I can see no possible reason but ideology to start the fastest women ahead of the slower men (whose finishing times are the same as those of the fastest women) and to group the fastest women with the fastest men (whose finishing times are much faster than those of the fastest women).

LA replies:

But Steve did give a plausible, non-ideological reason. So how can you say, “I can see no possible reason but ideology”? It’s one thing to say that you disagree with his explanation. But to ignore his explanation is something else.

Thomas Bertonneau replies:
As you say in different words, some beliefs foster obsession, while others do not. It’s hard to see, for example, how carrying the conviction that people should see to their needs by themselves and generally mind their own business could induce a fanatical state of mind. (Maybe it could, but it seems unlikely.) On the other hand, the conviction that inequality of any kind is evil and intolerable is already obsessive and fanatical. It implies a terrible narrowing of consciousness to one object or to one goal to the exclusion of all others—a classic idée fixe. It’s difficult to see how such an idea could not lead to a fanatical, a deformed and vicious state of mind. Indeed, he who adopts it has become fanatical simply in virtue of that adoptive gesture. We can agree, can we not, that obsession and fanaticism are pathological states? That no one in his right mind would want to submit to them? In that case, any critique of liberalism will necessarily entail pointing out to interested parties—some of whom might be faltering liberals—how their basic beliefs lead to pathological states of mind, how they lead, in fact, to suffering. You must argue according to your best lights and I according to mine. The motif of obsession will continue to figure prominently in my critique of liberalism whether it does so in anyone else’s or not; being true, it’s also valuable.

I should remind you of an earlier exchange of ours, which I had forgotten until now. I also differ from you on the question whether equality is the goal of liberalism. I believe that reversal is the goal of liberalism and that equality is merely a tactical phase in a strategy of reversal. Said strategy takes inspiration from a criminally literal-minded misinterpretation of the Gospel promise that—in some indefinitely deferred time of judgment—“the last shall be the first.” Since the present discussion began with reference to a foot race, it is not inapt to recall that earlier exchange.

LA replies:

These are valid points, but if they are to be made, they need to be made as you have made them, as part of an overall critique of liberalism, in which one shows that liberal ideas produce obsession. What I am criticizing here, and what you have been defending, is the routine conservative ascription to liberals of obsession and other neurotic states. Such ascription does not assist people in understanding and opposing liberalism. It leads them to complain endlessly and pointlessly about liberals’ bad character. Three quarters of the conservative writings on Obama are attacks on his objectionable personality.

As to your point about whether liberalism/leftism stands for equality or for a reversal in which the thing that was formerly oppressed becomes the new ruler, I am certainly aware of the second and have written frequently about it. To understand the issue adequately, one must differentiate the liberal process into parts. Most liberals sincerely believe in equality as the goal. That is the ideal that moves them. That is the ideal that gives liberalism its moral force and its claim to rule. It is this ideal that makes people believe in, for example, homosexual “marriage.” But in the larger dynamic of liberalism, such equality is impossible and always results in rule by the thing that is supposedly being equalized. The reason I don’t talk about the latter as often as I talk about the former (though I do talk about the latter a lot) is that it is the former, the belief in equality, that actually motivates most liberals and makes conservatives unable to oppose them effectively.

What interests me the most is getting at the core of liberalism that moves people in their minds and souls, because I think that is the place where liberalism has won so far, and the place where the career of liberal rule can be stopped and reversed.

Steve W. writes:

James P. seems to be overlooking the fact that men and women professional marathoners do not compete against each other but only against runners of the same sex. Hence, in order to give the top women runners optimal running conditions, they give them a head start. It wouldn’t make any sense to require them to run with the larger group of top (and not so top) male marathoners. Likewise, for essentially the same reason—to provide the best possible running conditions—the top male runners are allowed to move to the front of the crowd of runners so they don’t have their runs interfered with by the bulk of less competitive and casual marathoners. I fail to see any ideological forces at play here—unless one believes that providing optimal running conditions for the top female runners is part of the leftwing agenda. But that strikes me as extremely far-fetched.

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

This discussion has been economical and productive, so I don’t want to draw it out beyond its usefulness. Let me say that I’m gratified that our thinking on these topics has gradually converged during the colloquy, leaving us at this point in a sufficient state of agreement. I shake hands with you across the web.

James P. writes:

I think you’re missing my point, which is that the “best female runners” are no better than the “second tier” (slower) male runners, and thus the only reason to give preference to the “best females” is ideology. If all you knew about a runner when deciding the runner’s starting position was the runner’s previous finishing time, then the best female runners would start in the back and would have to deal with “encumbrance” just like the second-tier male runners do. If the best male runners normally finish 16-17 minutes faster than the best female runners, why would we give the best female runners preference over equally-skilled male runners (i.e., the second-tier male runners who, like the best female runners, finish 16-17 minutes slower than the best male runners)? The only answer is ideology.

Steve W. wrote:

James P. seems to be overlooking the fact that men and women professional marathoners do not compete against each other but only against runners of the same sex.

In that case, they should not be running mixed-sex marathons, period. The “optimal running condition” for top women runners is a race with no men in it. But not allowing women to run with men is ideologically unacceptable, and therefore we have to have mixed-sex marathons with special rules for women.

Hannon writes:

I’ve enjoyed your exchange with Mr. Bertonneau very much. Your respective positions seem to work well in tandem.

I concur strongly with James P. regarding the marathon business. Just before I read his logical idea that marathons should not be mixed gender affairs because the population at large cannot process the inherent “inequality” of result, I thought the same thing. If the Olympics can separate the sexes why can’t the marathon organizers? Ideology maybe?

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 14, 2011 04:47 PM | Send

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