The doctor looked me in the eye and said, “Are you Mr. ben Moshe?”
“Yes” I said, barely able to hold my head up.”
“You poor bastard.” He said, with a slight smile.
It was a dreary morning in the spring of 1974, I was sitting in the waiting room at a hospital in Boston feeling as if I were going to die. I was 24 years old and had been, until the day before very healthy and strong. Even so, it was a shock to hear a doctor cal me a “poor bastard” even if he did say it with a touch of irony. It turns out that I would live but I had the worst case of Mononucleosis that he had ever diagnosed and he was sure I would have a very long and difficult recovery.
Judge Sotomayor has me thinking about that time in my life for a few reasons. For one thing, her handling of the New Haven Firefighters case brings back painful memories of that time for me.
Back then I was waiting for word from the one and only graduate school I wanted to attend. I had applied to University of California, Davis to do a PhD in Developmental Psychology. I had worked doggedly toward my dream goal for almost five years- three years of undergraduate study and a year and a half long master’s degree program. All that time I was focused on preparing myself for the program at UC Davis.
I was the son of a lower middle class family whose mother only graduated high school and whose father had gone to a technical school to learn a trade after high school. My family did not understand what I was doing or why and could not afford to support me in any case. So, that whole five years, I supported myself with a menial but meaningful job. I worked 36 hours per week at the Harvard University School of Public Health as an Animal Technician. I cleaned up monkey, rat and dog feces and fed them their food and assisted the researchers in the lab twelve hours a day, three days a week. I did this year-round while maintaining a full course load and dean’s list grades.
Even though it meant a transcontinental trip, which I could not afford, I had visited the Davis campus the year before, had extremely cordial meetings with both the head of the department and the guy (William Mason) with whom I most wanted to work.
My grades were excellent, my test scores were even better and my interests and Master’s Degree training matched up exactly with the work that was going on there. I had been told that UC Davis would be admitting three candidates for the PhD program that year and that I was sure to be in the top three, if not the best of all of them. I had pinned my hopes and focused all my energy on doing my PhD at U Cal Davis and I had earned my advancement.
In March, just before the acceptances were to be announced, the five years of full-time work and full course loads had taken their toll on my body and I came down with Mononucleosis. I was still in bed suffering the effects when the head of the department called me to tell me that, in the opinion of the committee, I was the second most qualified candidate, my heart leapt with excitement. I will never forget the cold, sickening feeling that washed over me as he continued with a “but”.
He didn’t say “You poor bastard” but he might as well have. “Ordinarily,” he said, “that would be good news.” It seemed as though the first candidate was a white male, as I am, and they was going to have to offer the other two places to a woman and a black man.
That all happened, by the way, the same year that Allen Bakke was turned down by the U Cal Davis medical school. I can only assume that Mr Bakke had more resources than I did and was able to harass U Cal with laws suits so that they finally did let him in and he got his MD.
I was rather more of a progressive liberal in 1974 than I am today. Unlike Bakke, I took "no" for an answer. I buried my disappointment and rage, telling myself that it wasan unlucky thing for me but that I had to understand the compassionate goals behind it. I was torn between outrage and selfless acquiescence. I found some sympathy from my friends and family but most did not want to talk through with me why something so compassionate ad selfless, something so obviously for the “good of mankind” could feel so hard and unfair to me. Who was I, after all, to insist on my right to achieve my dream when so many black scholars in the past had gone without their dreams? I was, in the end, able to move on, make a new plan, get a good job and build a career that, I dare say, has been more challenging and interesting than most, so I have rarely thought of this in the thirty odd years that have come and gone since.
I do not write this merely as a complaint. It is not just about the personal blow that it represented for me. I have, as I said before, gotten on with my life. No, what concerns me here is what it represents for the future of our nation. It has become more evident with the passage of 35 years that Affirmative Action, with its tinge of identity politics and frank quota policy was one in a (now long) series of strategic victories of the progressive movement.
The stated intentions of Progressivism are good, even noble, but there has always been something impersonal and intellectual about them that disturbs me. The goodness and nobility actually feel coercive and absolute. and it is often responsible for things that do not reflect the compassion to which it lays claim. This is because it is a kind of savage compassion that cares more about the collective idea that it has about “humanity” than it does about human beings. As Edna St Vincent Millay said, “I love humanity, but I hate people.”
In fact, Postmodernism, Communism, Socialism, Islam and Progressive Liberalism find their only common cause in their shared dread of The Individual. They share a fear, even unto loathing, no, even worse, unto denial, of the wants, the ambitions, the independence and the self-reliance of The Individual. When the culturally backward Arabs join the effete, postmodern/postchristian/postselfdefense/post good and evil Europeans in mocking Americans (at least before the election of Obama) as “arrogant” or “unilateral” or the ever-popular “cowboys” they are (were?) simply betraying the mixture of fear, fascination and envy they harbor for the first and only nation that was ever expressly “of the people, by the people and for the people”. It is true that we grew out of the proud tradition of English common law and the enlightenment “rights of man” thinkers, but only the American Experiment, created by Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, et al, had the freedom from historic burdens, openness of space and isolation from continental intrigue to bring it to its truest fruition. America was and has, for most of her history been, the land in which The Individual has been most in control of his own destiny and most involved in the running of his government.
I need to pause here in order to draw some distinctions about a word that has lost its true original meaning. It is a word that is so central to the American spirit of liberty, fairness and openness that I cannot imagine recovering the momentum and purpose of America until it is reclaimed. There has developed a schism in the heart of America about the word liberal. I will not here try to expose the history and context of the schism, It is enough to say that there are two main camps of political liberals on the American stage today, the progressive liberals and the classical liberals.
Many analysts hold that personal property is the fault line that best defines the difference between the two. It is true that while, to a Classical Liberal, the right to own and dispose of his own legally obtained personal property is nearly absolute and for Progressives there are important and sweeping exceptions, this difference is really just a superficial trace of a deeper difference. The chief difference between progressive liberalism and classical liberalism is that progressives hold sacred, above all, the collective ( as in “The People” or “Humanity”) and the classical liberal holds The individual to be the salient, transcendent unit of value around whom the nation’s laws and practices are constructed.
Affirmative Action in, placing a fungible value like “diversity” and attempting to redress individual wrongs of the past by legalizing and committing institutionalized wrongs in the present, places itself and its proponents at the leading edge of the movement to deconstruct our culture of individual responsibility and self-reliance and replace it with the politics of compassion, selflessness and the collective good.
In their collectivist vision, Progressive Liberals believe in the “perfectibility” of human life and society by political means- that through legislation and social engineering, people can be molded into a society of peace, equality compassion. Whereas, a Classical Liberal understands that perfectibility is not and never will be the question, that the individual, flawed and unruly as he might be, is the elemental actor in “humanity” and no government that denies his evil tendencies and fails to balance them not just with laws and penalties but with incentives and goals will ultimately fail.
The progressive professes faith in the essential “goodness” of humanity and declares the confidence that given a “good” government and the necessary resources “the people” will be happy and good; peace, equality and contentment will reign. The problem for progressives is the same one that bedeviled Lenin when hr came to power in the Russian empire and renamed it The Soviet Union: that “humanity” is made up of people and people often disappoint those who put too much faith in their essential goodness.
But then, goodness is often defined according to the assumptions of the prevailing political system. For the Communist, goodness is someone who buys into the warped and bloated logic of the commissars and will work to exhaustion regardless of the proportion of his rewards. For the framers of The Constitution of the United States, goodness was an honest yeoman farmer or merchant who managed his affairs intelligently, dealt with his fellows fairly and stood ready to defend his own freedom.
Ask anyone who has been in business, observed arraignments in criminal courts or otherwise had to decide whom to trust and whom not to: people can be wonderful but they are not exclusively good- no matter what your definition of good is and no matter how you distort the definition.
I would make the argument that although the Progressive Liberal makes the claim that he “cares” more about humanity, the Classical liberal cares enough about people to understand and accept them with all of their faults and failings. Classical Liberalism is the only political movement that does this and has a form of government that works in harmony with the diversity of people.
The argument is often made that the intellectual elite in academia and the mainstream media largely belong to the progressive movement. Many of the most brilliant minds of the last two centuries have been progressives. So, how can so many of the finest minds be mistaken about something so basic as human nature? My answer would be that it is not a matter of pure brain power. It is my experience that I would rather trust people of average to very good mental ability in matters of ethics and morality than someone whose powers of intellect, persuasion and rationalizing are so great that they have been able to avoid confronting the bankruptcy of their creed. Their glibness and facility with abstracts may have made it possible for them to cover moral and ethical shortcomings in their lives with reasons and rationalizations. For diagnosing a disease, designing a bridge or solving the puzzle of DNA, give me someone with the most complex neurons and the fastest synapses. For an appreciation of what is good in life and timeless in humanity, however, give me an honest man or woman who has had to work for their self-respect and feeling of personal worth.
The Progressive movement takes as its touchstones of goodness these three ideas: compassion, selflessness and “the good of mankind”- Compassion because it reassures The Individual that his needs and feelings will be taken into account and cared for, Selflessness in order to nullify the privacy and personal property rights, and “The Good of Mankind” to replace religion with humanism. If you accept these three virtues uncritically you have accepted the primacy of the collective over your identity.
Since the evidence is everywhere that the basic assumption of “the goodness of man” is mistaken, however, The Progressive often takes it as a personal and overriding mission to portray himself and all other progressives as perfect paragons and embodiments of the essentially god man that proves the evidence wrong. There is no way a human being can actually live up to that kind of standard- so he adopts a “virtuous” persona or mask behind which he hides all his thoughts and actions that are not good.
Virtue, though, is a one-dimensional imitation of true goodness and requires an intricate network of exceptions and excuses to maintain the illusion that it is equal to goodness. Certain things must be ignored (as in the fact that Islam, not some limited subset of it, is to blame for much violence and evil and will not be absolved until it acknowledges guilt and repents for it) many facts must be distorted (as in moral relativism and multiculturalism) and others must be overblown (The greatness and goodness of Obama). These omissions and distortions are resistant of any form of logical of reality-based test. They only have to keep the winds of reality from blowing over the hollow façade of virtue. This we call political correctness.
The progressive demands that we believe his claim that he serves a higher truth and a loftier goal. He tries to force us to accept the idea that his ideas are unassailably good. And, even if they fail to be good, his virtuous pretentions are supposed to indemnify him from guilt or shame. Even if he make mistakes, behaves badly or cause harm, virtue will save him from blame. His “caring and good intentions” are supposed to trump the fact that he cares about the wrong things in the wrong way and his intentions are a humbug. Virtue is more than a sham- it is the prim, ruthless face of coercion. It is aimed outward, at others, as a self-justification; an accusation and, above all, a yearning for Utopia.
Utopia is an attack on the individual. There has never been a Utopia that could survive for long without crushing the individual. That is why “selflessness” is considered a key element of virtue. Hannah Arendt foresaw the destructiveness of progressive virtue many years ago. In her work On Revolution she wrote:
“Virtue has indeed been equated with selflessness ever since Robespierre preached a virtue that was borrowed from Rousseau, and it is the equation which has put, as it were, its indelible stamp on the revolutionary man and his innermost conviction that the value of a policy may be gauged by the extent to which it will contradict all particular interests, and that the value of a man may be judged by the extent to which he acts against his own interest and against his own will.”
All utopias are inspired by the well-intentioned hope that there is a way to defeat evil and “make people happy”. Communism was supposed to be a compassionate and selfless way to improve the lot of humanity. When the benevolent and compassionate communists took control of Russia, however, they found that when they tried to get people to understand that communism was a foolproof plan to eliminate hunger, unhappiness and inequality, there were many people who found that the plan really didn’t work for them.
These enemies of the “workers paradise” were denounced as counterrevolutionaries and portrayed as so decadent and corrupt that the most selfless and compassionate government ever conceived had to eliminate them. It took several decades, innumerable political murders, millions dead by government induced famine, the largest system of concentration camps in the history of the world and a demoralization of the population so deep that the Russians have a fertility rate below replacement levels, but the individuals of the Soviet Republics finally proved to be “unworthy” of the communist utopia on earth.
To the classical liberal, the goodness of humanity is not the question so there is no need for denial and pretense. He is for the Individual, and he understands that his happiness, his life and his prosperity is his own responsibility- subject to the choices that he himself makes. The proper function of politics and government for the Classical Liberal is to provide checks and balances on the destructive imperfections and temptations of human nature and, as far as is possible, to provide the opportunity to pursue those responsibilities in safety and security.
Thomas Paine wrote, “Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence”. The notion that the flaws of the human vessel could be managed and even harnessed to create a self-regulating social organism inspired the framers of the constitution of The United States. The checks and balances built into the interplay of the three branches of government were designed precisely to mitigate the tyrannical impulses of human nature. They knew that the impulse to power and domination grows out of the natural and necessary human need for security and cannot (and should not!) be removed from or educated out of any human being. They understood that the most just society and the freest populace would be the one where the human spirit is accepted not solely for its grandeur or its squalor but for its potential for both. In the healthiest society everyone understands the limits of power and pains are taken so that no one is in a position to wield enough power to dominate all others.
Since the beginning of the Obama administration I have been reminded over and over of the words of advice offered to me by a ski instructor many years ago I was one of a class of intermediate skiers, all of us trying to break through our individual cycles of fear and doubt and learn to commit ourselves to the gravity and terrain- to lean forward downhill and take charge of our momentum rather than let it paralyze us with fear and send us tumbling. “The mountain is like a jealous mother.” He had told us, “If you lean back toward her instead of forward into the pull of gravity, she will reach out for you and pull you down into her arms.” Of course he was only trying to improve my skiing but the elemental wisdom of his words revealed a very basic truth: The sense of virtue or security derived from not committing whole heartedly (literally, throwing yourself into it) to the challenge of self-reliance, personal responsibility and critical thinking is dangerous - a sure guarantee that you will be drawn backwards and held fast b y the snares of dependancy, victimization and identity politics which are the other side of the "compassion equation".
The compassion of the Progressive Liberal is like the pull of the mountain. Welfare has destroyed the work ethic and family structure of most of the people who it calls “beneficiaries”. Affirmative action has done nothing so much as take very smart and motivated black and Hispanic young people like Sotomayor and the man who appointed her and, along with the education for which they were unprepared, also indoctrinated them into the deathly virtue of savage compassion that will continue to eat away at the vitality of the nation that made it possible for them to rise the way they did.
Sonia Sotomayor is not a friend of the common man and woman and she is not the wise Latina that she would like us to believe she is. Like the President who appointed her, she is a postmodern progressive, a dupe of the Progressive Liberal Elite Establishment that has shifted the political spectrum to the left by appropriating the name liberal and virtually prohibited honest debate by proscribing any speech and ideas that it labels as uncompassionate.
I look at my fellow classical liberals and say, “you poor bastards”. It is time to break the strangle hold of compassion by showing how savage and deadly it has become in service of a theory of humanity as opposed to a real understanding of and empathy for human beings.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
The doctor looked me in the eye and said, “Are you Mr. ben Moshe?”