social left

You don’t win converts by being rude

“I’m going to be 100% honest with you,” her email started. “I want you there but I don’t want [her] there.” That’s the excuse I was given for why I was not invited to a friend’s engagement party. As an ardent anarcho-libertarian, she didn’t want my girlfriend in attendance. My expected guest committed the gravest of sins: she “honestly believed Romney would be a good president.” That belief might as well be the same as robbing starving children of their last scraps of food. My girlfriend also had the audacity of criticizing libertarians for both being too purist and not casting a ballot for Governor Romney when it mattered. In the libertarian world, this accusation is the equivalent of first degree murder. So she must be shunned.

When I first received the email, I stared at it for a minute before clicking off and hitting the “trash” button. At first I smirked about the declined invitation. I used to be a militant defender of libertarian non-politics. I avoided company with government workers, preferring to withhold my presence from those awful “thieves and murderers.” I understood where the disinvitation was coming from. But even still, I was hurt by the sentiment. I was being kept out of gathering of friends because of my girlfriend’s political beliefs. She’s not some bullhorn Republican, aggressively deriding everyone who doesn’t vote straight R. She’s as amicable around liberals as she is around conservatives and libertarians. This was strictly politics.

The liberal press loves to fret about the current polarization in politics facing America. Tea Party Republicans are painted as intolerant of compromise. President Obama’s aloof stance toward the loyal opposition is seen as a necessary undertaking if he is ever to get anything done. Washington, we’re told, is a town divided on ideological lines that is as cynical as it is inept. There’s a lot of truth in these caricatures. But the American polity isn’t all that venomous or divided as it was two centuries ago. In the contentious campaign between then-President John Adams and then-Vice President Thomas Jefferson, sycophants from both sides called the candidates everything from “a hideous hermaphroditical character” to a “gross hypocrite.” If anything, political discourse has cooled down to a level of respectful civility.

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Exits, the left, and liberalism

Earlier this week, my colleague Mark Lutter attempted to make an impassioned case for the left to embrace the political practice of “exit,” while not making much of an effort to define it in a way that a leftist could make much sense of it.  I say this not because the practice itself is incomprehensible to the left, but because leftist ideas of mass “exit” are already in existence in so many places.  The Scottish National Party leans heavily to the left, as do the Bloc et Parti Québécois*.  The current efforts for Catalan independence are being spearheaded by a leftist party, the Republican Left of Catalonia, with backing from the pragmatic Convergence and Union. SYRIZA, the leftist coalition in Greece led by Alexis Tsipras (above), is pushing hard for a general election after success in European elections last month, so as to set up a possible exit from the European Union after being under severe austerity in recent years. The list goes on.

Of course, with the exception of SYRIZA (which we’ll get to in a moment), one could argue that most of these secessionist efforts are ethnically oriented, and perhaps not what is meant by “exit” in Lutter’s mind. So, let us look at the more basic terminology, the act of free dissociation. Lutter rightly points out that exit was previously associated with the classical left. The Paris Commune of 1871 could be framed as one of the better leftist representations of that from the time period: A dissociation from the nascent Third French Republic in order to protect the interests and livelihoods of the city’s workers from the political machinations of the majority-rural French population.

However, Lutter is not interested in the left of modern times, even though it still exists — albeit as a marginalized fringe group — in American politics.  Liberalism and progressivism, strains of political thought that are often haphazardly associated with the left, are Lutter’s true concern. Yet, both those philosophies are completely incompatible with the concept of “exit.” Why? The answer falls on the basis of what purpose “exit” serves. Lutter’s use of the term “survival” nails the principle: “Exit,” in his mind, serves as an act of self-preservation from change, or from the pressure to change. It serves as a means to survive upheaval of one’s way of life because of these changes.

The important thing to understand about liberal thinking, be it economic liberalism or social progressivism, is that its purpose is to instigate change itself, or at least embrace it. In the liberal’s mind, to allow any and all persons** to opt out of these changes defeats the purpose of making changes to begin with. Their primary act of self-preservation, and often their means of advancing change, is accommodation and compromise. In essence, “exit” by Lutter’s terms is a defense against liberalism, even if one were to create liberal communities as he and Scott Alexander suggested.

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