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Reason Will Not Save Us – Unless It Will

Two questions for a mid-week musing: Is the left under threat? And does it deserve to be?

This is definitely the impression one gets lately. Even if you leave aside the recent deadly massacre of politically-involved, liberal-leaning young people perpetrated by a Christianist fantasist fattened on the greasy ideas of the nihilistic far right, there are plenty of less bloody battlegrounds to note. The debt ceiling crisis in the U.S. manufactured by wild-eyed conservative extremists has resulted in a deal for eventual heavy spending cuts, leaving many American progressives feeling betrayed if not outright assaulted by President Obama and the Democratic Party. Closer to home, the ascendant federal NDP lost their well-established leader to an indefinite health-related hiatus, precipitating a PR reckoning concerning their risky flirtations with disillusioned Quebec sovereigntists. And even closer to home, a Canadian literary icon has become a flashpoint for the arts-funding-slashing agenda of the ruthless ideologues that she calls “the Twin Fordmayor(s)” of Toronto, who seek to portray one of the country’s most celebrated writers as a representative of the latte-sipping downtown leftist elites that they believe they were empowered to eradicate.

Political OR religious. Can't have freedom in both, sorry.

Even faced with such concerted advances on all of its flanks, liberalism ought to be careful about giving in to the temptations of social and political victimhood. Cultivating the sort of absurdly overblown persecution complex that animates (and practically consumes) the conservative movement is hardly prudent. Though you will note my use of terms like “careful” and “prudent”, and perhaps will scoff at the implied weakness of them. Many liberals (to say nothing of their determined conservative opposition) bemoan the wavering of purpose that the essential positive rationalism of this perspective bequeaths to the contemporary left. But this privileging of prudence, doubt, and consideration, once the hallmark of Burkean conservatism but since jettisoned by the rabid, aggrieved right of the past decade or three, is now the calling card of mainstream liberalism. To toss it away in favour of the same alarming and overzealous clarity of purpose that defines its opposite is to cede its firmest ground for the ever-uncertain footing of missionary fervor.

What the sensibility of calm reason protects against is a cannonade of resentment in an age of emotion. We live in hard times (although for many, even in the “developed” world, times have long been hard), and uncertainty, turmoil, and suffering (real or imagined) call out for easy scapegoats. Politics, at its worst but even at its best, is the practice of scapegoating, of identifying problems and their supposed sources and proffering solutions, extreme or mild as they may be.

Sad Social Democrat is sad.

But this tendency also plays into a deeper-seeded aspect of the post-modern condition, namely the perceived need to identify the corrupt oppressors of our world, the industrial dumptrucks of cubic feet of bullshit, and hold them to account, even punish them if necessary (even if we cannot agree on who, precisely, they are). This goes beyond the political spectrum into a darker, more misanthropic corner of human behavior, our inherent need to kick against the pricks, to shine lights on hypocrisy, to be constantly (or at least consistently) in the right. Still, you can attribute as much or as little wrong as you desire to the actions of the government, corporations, churches, terrorists, police, hipsters, teachers, lawyers, bankers, city-dwellers, country folk, or just plain thoughtless jerks. None of it changes anything (or keeps anything the same) without sober evaluation and due process.

This tendency is essentially an emotional one, even hysterically so, and appeals to it usually fall under the ambit of dreaded populism. Its focus on feelings of resentment would seem to benefit a conservative ideology most, but that need not necessarily be the case. If the rampant right-wing populism of our current moment overreaches itself (and it seems predicated specifically on a mindset of necessary overreach), a muscular left-wing populism may be the response (of the sort most clearly glimpsed in the fight against anti-union legislation in Wisconsin earlier this year). But even if outrage is the fuel for such ideological conflagrations, the more measured approach that establish secular liberalism currently owns a monopoly on stands ready to check its advance. That kind of stance may not be terribly sexy (it is, indeed, the crunchy bran to the sugar high of emotional resentment-based politics), but it could also prove to be terribly necessary.

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