Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Sometimes I'm Uncomfortable With The Rhetoric Of The Progressive Left

I guess I consider myself a member of the "progressive left." I'm in favor of taxation and regulation, and I think there is too much income inequality. I think most western societies are racist and discriminatory, I think climate change is going to doom us all and I think that my god, yes, we should be doing something about it

But lately some of the rhetoric of the progressive left has been weirding me out and making me feel uncomfortable. Here are a couple of examples.

1. Calling people "stupid" for objecting to free-trade policies.


During all the heated discussions over Brexit, and sometimes in US politics as well, objections to opening up trade are sometimes treated by the progressive left as if they are simply ignorant. Underlying this idea seems to be the thought that since trade leads to overall economic growth, people worried about their own well-being ought to be for it.

For example, some "Remain" proponents were really dismissive of Brexiters who raised issues about economic well-being as one of their concerns. Even now, one often sees in commentary the idea that economic concerns helped the "Leave" vote only because of the lies told by Cameron, Johnson and Co.

But it's not stupid or ignorant to object to free trade when that trade is hurting and not benefitting you personally. It's possible to have overall economic growth and also have that growth benefit some people while hurting others. It's certainly not hard to believe that some tradespeople were hurt by the open EU: if a plumber or carpenter from a poorer EU country will charge half of what you would normally charge to do some bit of work, then yeah -- you're definitely being harmed by being in the trade zone of the EU.

It's funny, because I'd always thought of this tactic as characteristic of the other side. It's usually fiscal conservatives who run the "too stupid to understand economics" line -- as when P. J. O'Rourke referred to the Occupy protestors as "drum bangers who had failed Econ 101." I'm embarrassed to have this condescension associated with my otherwise allies.

None of this is to deny, of course, that the Leave campaign was also associated with certain hateful and racist sentiments. You can object to that without bringing in the economic-trade-stupidity business.

2. Treating cosmopolitanism as a moral requirement.

This one is a bit more complicated. In one sense, the ideal of different people all living happily side by side is not only an ethical ideal, but probably the only possible future of the actual world. So in that sense yes, we're all going to have to learn to accept and respect differences. Personally I love living in a city like Toronto where everyone is here living together. It's the best.

But I don't think it's somehow ignorant or backward to value your community, or to want to live with people with whom you share values, and culture, and language, and food tastes, and all those other things that make up the texture of life.

In fact, I thought one of the good ideas of the academic left over the past few decades was an acknowledgment that communities matter -- that we're not separated individual agents calculating preferences but rather embedded social beings linked through communities and culture. You can't just uproot a person from their surroundings and expect them to be OK. But a certain kind of insistence on cosmopolitanism seems me to deny this -- as if being attached to your own way of life is somehow a problem.

It's complicated, but I feel like part of the problem is a failure to grapple with the fact that a diverse and heterogeneous society is, itself, a certain kind of community with a certain texture. As I've said, it's a kind of community I love and thrive in. And I don't want it to change too much: I would be much  less happy in a different kind of world. But I think acknowledging that means acknowledging that others, too, might be much less happy in a different kind of world. They have their community, and they don't want it to change too much either.

I was reminded of all this when I read this piece in the Guardian a few days ago. A physicist, reflecting on philosophy, describes its importance for science, then goes on to explain that one reason Brexit won the day is that its opponents failed to address the deeper philosophical issues at stake and talked only about numbers and consequences. I don't know if that's true, but I was struck by the end passages, where the author talks about the importance of "universalism" and how the wise man is at home everywhere.

When I read that, I thought to myself that I, at least, do not feel at home everywhere. As a woman, I would not feel at home in any society that enforces strict or traditional gender roles -- and I don't even really feel at home in a country like France, now that they've gone off the deep end with their anti-modest-clothing crusade. It made me feel like "feeling at home everywhere" is less about being an enlightened universalist and more about privilege -- the ultimate sign of privilege being that you can, in fact, make yourself at home no matter where you are.

Again, none of this is to deny that the forces against cosmopolitanism are sometimes allied with racism and bigotry and discrimination. But the impulse toward protecting a way of life doesn't have to be a bad one, and even if you don't share or agree with it, it's possible to treat it with respect.

1 comment:

Robert GT said...

Your first paragraph is reminding me of this generally excellent piece in the Atlantic about "the war on stupid people" -- as the one acceptable form of discrimination.

Article here

To sweepingly overgeneralize, it points at two other issues the progressive left sometimes struggles with: harshly personal attacks, and failure to consistently apply & think through the application of principles. Of course, these are not at all unique to the left, but it is very frustrating to see one's "own side" falling into these traps.