Sunday, May 17, 2009

Peak Column #1: Right and Left

You could probably tell me, if I was interested enough to ask, whether you self-identify as right-wing or left-wing. Sure, you might reject the left/right label, preferring to call yourself a Progressive Idealist, Libertarian, Marxist-Feminist or whatever, but trust me: it is simplistic to divide the world into right and left, but it is not inaccurate. The only way to avoid falling into either camp is to be so apathetic as to have never actually fleshed out a set of beliefs about the world beyond your immediate social circle. If this describes you, now would be a good time to turn the page – the grownups are going to talk politics.

Now, absent the riff-raff, let’s see if we can figure out this whole left-right thing. Doesn’t it strike you as remarkable that in the chaotic world of belief systems and ideologies, every possible opinion apparently simplifies to a neat and linear two-dimensional vector? At either end of this spectrum, we find a set of completely unrelated beliefs clustered together. On every topic of conversation that would be impolite to bring up at a dinner with your girlfriend’s parents, there is a right-wing perspective and a left-wing perspective. But why? What exactly do abortion, gun control, taxes, and the occupation of Iraq have in common? Certainly nothing obvious. But tell me how a given individual feels about any one of these topics, and I’ll lay money I can tell you how they feel about the other three.

Why aren’t there any abortion-loving Iraq hawks? Pro-apartheid gay rights activists? Evangelical Christian Neil Young fans? I suppose we could dig up a few of each, if we really looked. But I haven’t met any, and I doubt you have either. Again, this is weird - but for some reason, this strong correlation between beliefs in seemingly unrelated subjects doesn’t surprise us. What gives?

It’s possible that the polarization of Right and Left just reflects the difference between lies and truth, and the conflict between them is simply the noble and righteous facing down the wicked in a battle that has raged since the beginning of human history. (I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to assign the “good” and “evil” labels to their appropriate political orientations, depending on your tastes.) Regardless of whether this perspective is true or not, it is a common one. Michael Moore surely feels that modern Conservatives are agents of the Dark Side of the Force, and I doubt Sean Hannity has any trouble picturing a snarling Barack Obama administering a force-choke. Since neither of these men have small followings, we can conclude that their views are not rare.

But while this perspective has popularity to recommend it, it doesn’t have much else. I have many friends who are both Right and Left-leaning in their politics. All are good, decent and sincere people. If you have no friends who disagree with you, I will have to ask you to take my word for it - and maybe try to get out more – there is virtue at both ends of the political spectrum. Similarly, there is obvious and verifiable douchebaggery on both sides as well. You don’t get any further Right and Left than Hitler and Stalin. You also don’t get any more evil.

So the Good-and-Evil explanation is incomplete, at best. What else is there? Perhaps the two perspectives correlate with intelligence and stupidity. Here I will not strike as neutral a pose as with the good-and-evil hypothesis. If it is true that the Left Vs. Right dichotomy comes down to the stupid vs. the smart, the Left comes off looking pretty good. Professional academics, presumably the most educated and intelligent among us, are almost uniformly Left-leaning in their politics. This is especially true among those who actually study subjects such as political science, sociology, anthropology etc, which would seem to be particularly illuminating on the nature of human societies. Journalists, writers, artists, lawyers – basically, those who think for a living – are predominantly men and women of the Left. The thinking classes that trend Right – business owners and such – well, it’s not hard to see how nicely their financial self-interest and affection for free markets line up. So perhaps we’re on to something here.

And now the fun part: we can combine these theories and come up with a two-dimensional ranking system of ideologies; ideologies can be either good or evil, and appeal to either the stupid or the smart. If either the Right or Left is both good and intelligent, choosing to support one and turn our backs on the other is a no-brainer. But if, as I suspect, neither modern Progressivism nor Conservatism meets this standard, we will have to set about constructing (or reviving) a new ideology that does. Unfortunately though, we seem to be out of time, so this exercise will have to wait until next week.