One of the less understood criticisms of progressivism is that it is totalitarian, not in the sense that kale-eating Brooklynites want to build prison camps for political nonconformists (except for the ones who want to lock up global-warming skeptics) but in the sense that it assumes that there is no life outside of politics, that there is no separate sphere of private life, and that church, family, art, and much else properly resides within that sphere.
Earlier this week, I expressed what seemed to me an unobjectionable opinion: that politics has a place, that politics should be kept in its place, and that happy and healthy people and societies have lives that are separate from politics. The response was dispiriting but also illuminating.
Among those who directed tut-tuts in my direction was Patti Bacchus, who writes about education for the Vancouver Observer. “That’s one of the most privileged things I’ve ever heard,” she sniffed. Patti Bacchus is the daughter of Charles Balfour, a Vancouver real-estate entrepreneur, and attended school at Crofton House, a private girls’ school whose alumni include Pat (Mrs. William F.) Buckley. It is one of the most expensive private schools in Canada. I do enjoy disquisitions on “privilege” from such people. But of course her criticism is upside-down: It is exactly we privileged people with education, comfortable lives, and spare time who expend the most energy on politics. But there are other pressing priorities, like paying the rent, for poor people. If Ms. Bacchus would like to pay a visit to West Texas, I’ll introduce her to some.
Another objection came from a correspondent who demanded: “What if politics greatly impacts every facet of your life?” That would be an excellent question if it came from some poor serf living in one of the states our American progressives so admire, such as Cuba or Venezuela, where almost every aspect of life is under political discipline, where government controls whether you eat — and, indeed, whether you breathe. But if you live in the United States and politics greatly impacts every facet of your life, you have mental problems, or you are a politician.
(But I repeat myself.)
Esar’s Comic Dictionary (1943) contains two definitions of the word “fanatic,” often wrongly attributed (by me, among others) to Winston Churchill: First, “A person who redoubles his efforts after having forgotten his aims.” Second (my favorite), “One who can’t change his opinion and won’t change the subject.”
If you want to see fanaticism at work, try looking for a roommate in Washington or New York City.
From the New York Times we learn of the emergence of the “no-Trump clause” in housing ads in our liberal (which is to say, illiberal) metropolitan areas. The idea is nothing new — I saw similar “No Republicans Need Apply” ads years ago when looking for apartments in Washington and New York — but the intensity seems to have been turned up a measure or two: In 2017, the hysteria knob goes up to eleven. Katie Rogers of the Times offers an amusingly deadpan report:
In one recent ad, a couple in the area who identified themselves as “open-minded” and liberal advertised a $500 room in their home: “If you’re racist, sexist, homophobic or a Trump supporter please don’t respond. We won’t get along.”
That’s a funny kind of open-mindedness — it is in fact literal prejudice. It is also illiterate: Whatever Donald Trump’s defects, to associate him with homophobia is a stretch to the point of dishonesty, inasmuch as Trump in 2017 is well to the liberal side of Barack Obama in 2008 on gay marriage. Trump’s personal style is abrasive and confrontational, but he also is on the actual policy issues arguably the most moderate Republican president of the modern era, one who often has boasted of taking a more progressive view of such issues as abortion, gay rights, gun control, raising taxes on Wall Street, and what we used to call “industrial policy.” Given his history in and with the Democratic party, this is unsurprising.
But, as Robin Hanson put it, politics isn’t about policy.
What it is about is tribe, which is what makes all that conflation of racism and bigotry with political difference so amusing. Political prejudice is not the moral equivalent of racial prejudice, but they operate in very similar ways, as anybody who ever has spent much time around a genuine racist or anti-Semite knows. Taxes too high? Blame the blacks. Not making enough money? Blame the Mexicans. Foreign policy seem overwhelmingly complex? Blame the Jews. Whataburger gave you a full-on corn-syrup Coke instead of a Diet Coke? Blame the blacks, Mexicans, Jews, subcontinental immigrants . . . somebody. Racism and anti-Semitism are metaphysical creeds, and those who adhere to these creeds see the work of the agents of evil everywhere. For them, there is no world outside race and racism.
In this, they are very similar to the Hillary Clinton–voting Manhattan balletomanes who seethe that they must endure being seated in the David Koch theater. David Koch’s brand of libertarianism is mild and constructive, and it has about as much to do with ballet as Keith Olbermann has to do with astrophysics. But for the fanatic, even to hear the name spoken is unbearable.
The people who believe that there can be no art, literature, culture, or life apart from politics are people who do not understand art, literature, culture, or politics.
Imagine being so mentally poisoned and so spiritually sick that you feel the need to organize a protest at New York–Presbyterian Hospital because the institution accepted $100 million — the largest gift in its history, being put to purely philanthropic health-care purposes — from someone whose political views are at odds with your own. Imagine what it must be like to feel that doing that is a moral imperative. Imagine sitting down to listen to a Beethoven string quartet and being filled with paralyzing anxiety that the cellist might not share your views on the Arab–Israeli conflict.
(I’ll bet Beethoven had really regressive views about gay marriage. And who knows what Bach or Bernini thought about tax policy?)
Imagine being willing to take a stranger into your home only on the condition that he did not vote for the man who won the 2016 presidential election. One of those Trump-excluding roommates mentioned in the Times insisted that this discrimination was in the interest of the Trump voters, too, who would be unhappy in a household full of “raging liberals.”
Meditate, for a moment, upon the word “raging.”
The people who believe that there can be no art, literature, culture, or life apart from politics are people who do not understand art, literature, culture, or politics, and whose lives are sad and sadly deficient.
A Buddhist writer once described two kinds of material unhappiness: the absence of what one desires and the presence of what one despises. But the Buddha was known to associate with worldly men and their unclean enthusiasms in much the same way that Jesus slummed around with prostitutes and tax collectors, instructing us by example to seek after lives that are as large as our love and not as small as our hatred. The people who close their doors against those who simply see the world in a different way, who scream profanities at Betsy DeVos or chant “You should die!” at Jewish musicians, are people who cannot rise far enough above their own pettiness to understand that the thing they fear is the thing they are.