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Author Topic: What is Left? What is Right? Does it Matter?  (Read 3355 times)
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« on: August 14, 2006, 05:28:34 PM »

i don't necessarily agree with all views in here, but i think the subject matter is interesting and worth perhaps starting out own reasoning about

an excerpt:

Fred Siegel

The terms “Left” and “Right” were coined in the initial stage of the French Revolution. The seating arrangements in the National Assembly of 1789 placed the proponents of a new, more rational France to the left of the podium. On the right were those who wanted to cling to aristocratic tradition. It was but a brief moment of political and ideological clarity. By the time Napoleon crowned himself king in 1804, the terms had become, as they continue to be today, hopelessly confused. The great Catholic liberal Chateaubriand—a reluctant supporter of the Bourbon monarchy as the lesser threat to liberty—described how “mounting the throne,” Napoleon, “seated the common people beside him; a proletarian king.”

Napoleon III, who sometimes described himself as a socialist, and Otto von Bismark, Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” who created the first modern welfare state, institutionalized the confusion. By the time we get to the 20th century, when Benito Mussolini, a revolutionary socialist turned national socialist creator of the Italian welfare state, described Italy as “the proletarian nation” fighting a life and death struggle with the capitalist powers, the confusion has become pernicious.

Both communism and fascism—each of which strives to create a “new man”—emerged from the theatrical symbolism and mass politics of the French Revolution. But the terms Left and Right that were applied to them made them seem like polar opposites when in fact they were first cousins. “I realize,” said Mussolini, “that though there are no political affinities between us, there are intellectual affinities. Like them, we believe in the necessity for a centralized and unitary state, imposing an iron discipline on everyone, but with the difference that they reach this conclusion through the idea of class, we through the idea of the nation.”

Applying the terms Left and Right to Mussolini’s successors, such as Nasser, Arafat, and Saddam Hussein with their melding of Pan-Arabism, Pan-Islamism, fascism and communism, makes no sense. The French notions of Left and Right had even less meaning when applied to the United States, where we had no feudal past and liberalism, broadly understood, was the political language of the land.

There is scant continuity in what we Americans, in our own peculiar way, describe as Left and Right. We’ve repeatedly gone through refractory periods like the run-up to the Civil War, the early years of the New Deal, and the 1960s when allegiances shifted along with policy predilections. In the 1920s, partly driven by the Prohibition issue, Democrats were the localist party and Republicans the centralizers—in the 1930s that was reversed. There have been numerous reversals such as the shift in support for the feminists’ Equal Rights Amendment. It went from being a Republican to a Democratic issue as upper middle class women moved from the GOP to their rivals during the 1960s. Similarly, in the 1960s the Democrats went from being the majoritarian party of the middle and lower middle classes to a party of the educated elites and the poor, increasingly devoid of white Catholic working-class support. Likewise the New Leftists of the 1960s and ’70s entered politics as critics of Henry Kissinger’s amoral foreign-policy realism. Today they have become the amoral realists they once decried.

The use of the Left/Right distinction doesn’t help with intellectual life either. Today’s academic Left draws much of its inspiration primarily from the anti-modern irrationalists such as Nietzsche, Spengler, Sorel, and Heidegger who were associated with the rise of fascism. It’s today’s multicultural leftists who insist, like 19th-century European conservatives, that biology is destiny. At the same time, it’s the center-right in American intellectual life that has adopted the old left-wing themes of universalism at home and democracy abroad as its credo.

The growing importance of upper middle class professionals, including professors, as a voting bloc means that the terms Left and Right are likely to become even more confused. Today’s Left is located not in the economic aspirations of the working class, which is generally culturally conservative, but in what might be described as the New Class of people who make a living by telling others what to think or do. Hostile to middle America, they don’t want the proles interfering with their idea of the good life, which now includes the multicultural right to employ a low-cost Latino service/servant class regardless of the larger impact.

But it’s in foreign policy where the meanings of Left and Right are most tangled. What do the categories mean regarding the Arab/Israeli dispute when The Nation and Pat Buchanan both serve as apologists for the pathologies of Palestinian politics? Similarly, the mésalliance on the other side of this aisle brings together, as incongruous supporters of Israel, President Bush and the Euston Manifesto Leftists.

Clearly the terms Left and Right have little meaning when it comes to the Middle East. Still the terms will continue to be used because they are deeply burrowed into the emotional rhetoric we use to talk about politics. But 217 years after it accidentally imposed itself, a nomenclature devised for the semi-feudal society of late 18th-century France is bound to make a hash of describing American political life. 

Fred Siegel is the author of The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life from Encounter Books.

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