When I began doing this in 2006, it was with the intention of examining what goes wrong for the left, how we can change what we can do to win elections and to put our agenda into law. It’s been clear for decades that something has gone wrong. A movement which won its last significant battles in the early 1970s, despite the rational arguments and preponderance of evidence, is doing something wrong.
Early on the examination of what we were doing wrong required looking very hard at some of the ideological cornerstones of today’s left. My apostasy on the dogma of free speech-press absolutism, elevating those above the exigencies of self-government and equality has been the most shocking to many. I don’t think we will win without modifications of that article of faith in the age of corporate, money driven, media. We don’t live in a world of idealistic absolutes, pretending we do is a self-inflicted wound that prevents political success. The world we live in, the constitutional system we work under is the real given. Unattainable ideals effectively don’t exist.
Saying that will get you a lot of enemies, which I’ve obtained. But that’s not the point of this. It’s entirely unimportant.
Lately, through observation and blog discussions, I’ve come to another conclusion that will make many people unhappy. I no longer believe that an exclusively secular left will have the passion and dedication, in sufficient numbers, to move things.
**Remember that phrase “sufficient numbers”, it is absolutely essential to the point of this post.**
This post is about politics, about using the absolutely essential tools and powers of government to make life better, more just, more equal, for the continuance of life at all. Gaining control of those requires numbers sufficient to do that. Despite the lofty sounding, but ultimately empty stands on abstract principle, getting the most people to vote for the right candidate and to push office holders to do the right thing. It is not a mere detail, it isn’t an elective extra, it is a mandatory requirement for success. As we can see in the failure of the majorities in both houses of the congress to move our agenda, the question of numbers is especially crucial for the left.
Indeed, the unease of large numbers of people on the left to the discussion of the moral superiority of our agenda, is something I’ve been experimenting with a lot in the past four or so months. If our ideas aren’t superior on the basis of their morality, why fight and sacrifice for them? Personal preference? Team identification? The assertion of our ideas on the basis of self-interest, in some attempt to find a rational basis for them, is wrong. Self-interest only goes so far, it doesn’t build the coalition necessary for the ideas of the left to succeed. At best, self-interest leads to the center-right, not the left. Self-interest leads those who are motivated by it, more often than not, to conclude that their single “self” has desires that supercede the absolute needs of billions of people.
The pretense that there is a strictly rational basis to believing in our ideals is one based in the widespread cult of scientism, the idea that only those things demonstrable by science are legitimate. Well, none of the basic moral foundations of the left can be honestly demonstrated scientifically, not one of them, not anymore than those of our opponents can. As we see in the soc-sci of today, “science” more often than not undermines us. The temptation is to go into the inability of intolerant materialists to consider the possibility of anything else, but this is only about the political necessities of these issues.
Observing the post-war period of social progress, it is inescapable to conclude that the civil rights agitation that lead to the great legislation of the mid-60s and early 70s was our high water mark. And looking at that period it is inescapable that a huge proportion of the movement, I would guess the large majority of it, was motivated by religious morality. Martin Luther King jr. and Malcolm X were both ministers of religion - a fact that seems to be shocking to some materialists who invoke one or the other to support their program. Their followers were largely motivated by a religious belief in justice. Many of the associated groups and others were explicitly religious. To discount that huge and relevant fact for the convenience of the tender feelings of a small anti-religious faction is dishonest. I won’t do it.
Of course, and beyond dispute, the great issue in this is materialism, atheism. That will be what is focused on in this post, that will be the great and entirely beside the point issue. It’s beside the point exactly to the extent that materialists and atheists disprove that those ideologies are a block to the kinds of passion for justice and equality that are inseparable from the agenda of the left. I have always known atheists who were passionate in just the right way. I don’t question the foundations of their actions anymore than I would question a Catholic dedicated to justice how they square that with the oppressive, unjust Vatican clique that governs that church. I know both exist, I don’t care about their beliefs, I care about their actions. Where those are good and admirable, those are what count, not any professions of belief.
But those kinds of atheists and Catholics, or any other great figures of action are not going to be the majority of the population. When the issue is politics and governance, raw numbers of votes matter, numbers of supporters of issues matter, the force that the less involved supporters of ideas, their passion and dedication and willingness to sacrifice matter very much. If any of the mainstream organizations of the left had the raw emotive force for good that the National Rifle Association has for things malign, things would be very different. We have the raw numbers of supporters for responsible gun legislation, why can’t we turn that into reliable votes, in sufficient number to swamp a small, irrational, dishonest and financially self-interested faction?
I don’t think that a movement for justice will succeed without the dedication and passion of a large number of people with a deep and abiding faith in the morality of their position. Atheists who show that dedication have always been there in the past, though not in large numbers. Atheism, itself, isn’t the problem. The problem are small factions within the left that demand the exclusion of other parts of our coalition.
Observing the past thirty-five years, I have come to the conclusion that is one of the important factors in the failure of the left. Atheists and others who insist on the exclusion or minimization of the religious left, that is a huge problem. Put into purely practical terms, whatever passion vociferous, anti-religious people bring to the movement is dissipated by their insults and demanded exclusion of the far larger number of religious liberals. Religious liberals, in my experience, are over scrupulous in their observance of the feelings of anti-religious bigots, also dissipating the essential passion to move our agenda.
As I have also pointed out, heretically, we are not the government, we are not bound by the First or any other amendment, we do not have to maintain a wall of separation between church and left. The absurdity that such a separation is desirable is made most clear by the support for RELIGIOUS LIBERALS for the wall between church and state. Just about every religious liberal I’ve ever encountered, personally or in writing, has been a stalwart supporter of the wall of separation between church and state.
I have never, once, encountered or heard of a religious liberal who would discriminate against someone on the basis of their being an atheist or agnostic. In fact, I know a number of religious liberals who are philosophical agnostics, though sincere believers in the divine. I have encountered many atheists who are un-bothered by religious people and their beliefs, a number of them aren’t particularly chuffed by occasional expression of religious ideas. Indeed, I have heard and read atheists who are eager to disassociate themselves with anti-religious bigots. I have no problem with those people, they are often among our most valuable colleagues.
I do have a big problem with bigots of any identity, especially when they do damage to the left. I’m no longer tolerant of their demands and the damage they do. The habit of religious liberals accommodating the unreasonable demands of intolerant atheists isn’t that far removed from the absurd idea that we have to be fair to conservatives, and worse. I think that is related to the misunderstanding that we are bound by the same rules of impartiality that the court system allegedly is. We are not, we can decide that there are some demands that are not worth the price.
Few, if any, religious liberals are not in full favor of legal equality on the basis of gender, race, gender preference, religious or non-religious identity, class, ethnicity or any other basis. I have known few if any who argue against the right of women to own their bodies, science-based sex education, scientific evolution, or for the inclusion of religion where it has no business going. Such is the stuff which liberal religion consists of. I don’t think religious liberals present any problem of dividing the left and making it fail.
I think that the observance of the preference of intolerant atheists and the misconception that the left is required to be non-religious is a bad habit of thought that takes up too much of our time and weakens the left. THAT studied and mandatory secularism is what is constantly mis-identified by the popular media and right-wing propagandists as the left’s hostility to religion. That doesn’t help either. Most liberals, strictly by number, are religious in some way. But I think it is the dissipation of passion and dedication by the majority of people leaning left which is the biggest problem with it, and that is largely a problem of our own making.
* Note: I am coming to believe that it is the pose of coolness of the present administration, its willingness to sell out its stated principles for some silly, Oceans Eleven style big score, has a lot to do with why so much of the passion and energy of November 2008 has turned to sour despair. I blame Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel for a lot of that, I blame their lack of real passion for the agenda of the left, the ideals that I fully believe fuel most of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses. Evan Bayh’s self-centered display of this week, Joe Lieberman’s phony histrionics, the cynical calculations of Maine’s two “moderates” points to the conclusion that the “centrism” that is all the rage is nothing more than a lack of real passion for anything but self-advancement, media time and an easy PR opportunity. It’s all unrelated to the very un-abstract, concrete, lives of real, suffering people.
Any of the above could disprove that tomorrow by standing against a Republican-media storm for something other than their sell outs of those they ask to vote for them. I had thought that Barack Obama would do that, he has completely failed to do that in the past year. I am coming to doubt he really believes in anything to do with us.