Trying to figure out why ”progressives” think as they do can be a thorny task. The Volkswagen vans that once were common sights at left-wing rallies are a fitting symbol of the problem.
Those battered vehicles were festooned with bumper stickers promoting the favored causes of the American Left: “Ban the Bomb,” “Make Love Not War,” “Split Wood not Atoms,” “Free Mumia,” “Save the Whales,” “I’m Pro-Choice and I Vote.”
What is the common denominator that unites these causes? You can see why someone who favors socialized medicine would also back a negative income tax. Those causes center on a confidence in the central government as an instrument of social justice. But why would those who oppose the application of American military power around the world also favor keeping abortion legal? Why would someone engaged in environmental causes also be convinced that Mumia Abu-Jamal was framed by the Philadelphia police department? Why would someone who opposes censorship also buy into Michael Moore’s charges about the Bush administration’s motives for overthrowing Saddam Hussein? Why would that person also favor forgiving third-world debt?
In some cases there is no rational explanation. I submit that there are instances when what we are dealing with is nothing more than a form of peer pressure. In other words, there are people who backed the causes championed by the bumper stickers on the Volkswagen buses because… well, because they saw the buses. They heard friends and people they yearned to be associated with movie stars and rock musicians, for example expressing these opinions. The Volkswagen bus was a cue-card for them on how a progressive thinker should view the world. They didn’t look for a nexus. The Oprah show does the same thing for many of them now that they are middle-aged.
How do I know that? I used to see the syndrome all the time during the years when I taught high school seniors. Let me give you an example. During the 1980s I watched one of my students transform himself from a quiet computer enthusiast into a counterculture activist. He grew a scraggly beard and started spending time in Greenwich Village on the weekends. He became a devotee of alternative rock music and began wearing the pink triangle symbol of homosexual activists, even though I don’t think he was a homosexual or sexually active himself. The triangle was a badge of open-mindedness for him, a way of shocking his classmates. In class discussions, you could count on him to defend Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas, to argue for legalizing drugs, abortion rights and spending more on welfare programs.
He backed these causes because he saw them as part of a profile he desired for himself. My point is that he did not become a leftist in the way you would expect. He did not discover that his independently-formed opinions on the issues of the day coincided with those of leading leftists and conclude that he was a man of the Left. It was the other way round. He yearned to be seen as an underground radical of sorts, so he went out and learned what he was supposed to think to fulfill that role.
One of the buttons he wore on his denim jacket was especially indicative of the phenomenon. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was a big black button with some derogatory remark about Margaret Thatcher. I was puzzled. What could Margaret Thatcher have done to get on the wrong side of this suburban teenager? The boy was a better-than-average student, but just slightly better-than-average. I couldn’t imagine him spending time reading British newspapers or listening to the BBC on a ham radio.
So one day after class I decided to ask him about what Thatcher had done to arouse his ire. I wasn’t trying to corner or humiliate him. We were on good terms. I was genuinely curious about what was shaping his thinking. Was it Thatcher’s opposition to the British trade unions? The Falklands war? Her policies on Ireland? None of the above. He didn’t know a thing about Thatcher’s policies. I am not exaggerating: not a thing. He admitted that he was against Thatcher, because he “just liked to be against her.” He shrugged and smiled awkwardly in a way that made clear that he was not interested in having the discussion go any further.
It became obvious. His anger at Thatcher was rooted in nothing beyond the songs of the British punk rock bands who were hammering away at Thatcher at the time. He had picked up the button at a club where the crowd was enthusiastically against the “Iron Lady.” He wanted to be like these edgy twenty-something activists he looked up to. He wore his button the way other kids wore Yankee hats or T-shirts extolling their favorite wrestler.
But it would be a serious mistake to assume that all leftists are in the same camp as this naïve young man searching for an identity. There are others who have read the literature of the Left and who know very well what they do. It is no coincidence that many who blame America first in the world arena also lean toward socialism and oppose traditional morality. There is a common denominator for the bumper stickers on the Volkswagen buses. A column by Roger Scruton from the June 25th edition of the British magazine The Spectator illustrates that for us.
Scruton focuses on one of the sources of the modern counterculture: the existentialism of John Paul Sartre. The occasion of the column was the 100th anniversary of Sartre’s birth. There is a reason why left-wing intellectuals and those inspired by them reject the political and cultural heritage of the Christian West. For many of them, Sartre was the godfather. Sartre, writes Scruton, “invented the anti-hero of modern literature,” the “one for whom the self and its authenticity take precedence over every moral code, every convention, every custom.” Sartre inspired the Left to hate the “bourgeoisie” for its willingness to uphold “customs, institutions and laws.”
If it needs to be said, one of the institutions that Sartre sought to destroy was Christianity. “Sartre was an atheist, who saw existentialism as the only coherent response” for modern man, writes Scruton. He “adopted the stance of the Antichrist” and “singled out the Christian faith as the central threat to the only thing that is truly mine” the unrestricted expression of individual choice. He appointed himself as ‘God’s successor.’”
In that role, he taught a new credo, “the denial of the loyalties and attachments that distinguish people from people and nations from nations”; he offered a “Mephistophelian morality which has negation as its sole premise.” We know the pop culture versions. “I gotta be me,” “Different strokes for different folks,” “If it feels good, do it.” It is the morality we have been taught for decades now by Hollywood and the rock music industry: all those hard-bitten Hollywood heroes from Bogie to Clint Eastwood, living proudly by their own rules; the lonely housewives oppressed by their roles in marriage and motherhood; the idealistic young people finding liberation through a rejection of their parents’ narrow beliefs and restrictive lifestyles. In that world, you can’t be free taking up a cross and following the Lord, by living for God and country. An enlightened thinker must rise above such bourgeois morality. As Scruton sees it:
The French have not recovered from Sartre and perhaps never will. For they have had to live with an intellectual establishment that has consistently repudiated the two things that hold the country together: Christianity and the idea of France. The anti-bourgeoisie posture of the Left-Bank intellectual has entered the political process, and given rise to an elite for whom nothing is certain save the repudiation of the national idea. It is thanks to this elite that the mad project of the European Union has become indelibly inscribed in the French political process, even though the people of France reject it. It is thanks to this elite that the mass immigration into France of unassimilable Muslim communities has been both encouraged and subsidized. It is thanks to this elite that socialism has been so firmly embedded in the French state that no one now can reform it.
Scruton is writing of France, but, sad to say, he could just as well be describing the impact of left-wing scholars on life in this country.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)