Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Left's Historical Hubris

The following thoughts came to mind after reading this article by Charles Krauthammer.

For nearly ten years now, the political left has not been what it used to be. It seems to have turned into its opposite, and understanding this change is one of the great questions of political philosophy which is directly relevant now.

I believe in a form of modesty in politics. I first thought about this idea in terms of modesty, or humility, while reading American constitutional law cases in which an ongoing theme of the debate between the "conservatives" and the "liberals" (I put these terms in quotation marks because I am using them here in their distinctly American senses) is that the liberals are more willing to adapt the meaning of the constitution, through interpretation, to match their views of what a just outcome to a particular dispute would be. The conservatives typically oppose this by arguing that the liberal view defeats the whole point of having a constitution and that remaining faithful (to some degree) to the original meaning (whatever that may have been) of the words is a necessary form of respect for the wisdom of the founding fathers. There are many things to be said about this debate, but I want to focus on the question whether we know better than the founding fathers, or whether they, despite having lived centuries ago, may continue to know better than us in some respects. Otherwise stated: what is the extent of our (speaking from the perspective of an American) moral or political duty to obey the founding fathers (i.e. the constitution), despite our own belief that we know better? The conservative argument is that we are blinded by our own narrow historical circumstance, and so what we believe to be best may turn out, in light of broader historical experience, not to be. Though we flounder in our historical solipsism, the founding fathers, on the other hand, are better capable than we of transcending their narrow vantage point and of legislating wisely for great swaths of history. At the very least, one might say that this is demonstrated by the fact that the constitution they produced has brought us this far.

It is two attitudes towards history which are pitted against each other in this debate, and political morality is at stake.

I often hear pronouncements like: "it is inconceivable that in the 21th century, we still have child poverty". It seems incredibly pompous to speak in that way about one's own century over every other century. King David, John the Scott, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Kant all lived in centuries other than ours; it seems the height of brash pride to assume our superiority. This betrays an attitude which looks at history with a sense of smug superiority. I think history should be looked at with humility and with awe.

The left today is corrupted by historical hubris; it thinks itself greater than history. Considering that the left used to be Marxist, this is the Marxist version of revolt against God. In religion, the greatest revolt possible would be against God. The greatest repudiation of religion (from the perspective of the pious), would be revolt against God. Similarly, the left's smug attitude towards history is the greatest repudiation possible of Marxism, for history plays a god-like role in Marx.

A lot more could be said here about religion itself and the way in which belief in God instills humility into men. I have a hard time conceiving of a "God" in such a way as to persuade me towards humility, but thinking about history has that very effect on me.

38 comments:

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