virus: Postmodernists

Date: Sun Sep 01 2002 - 22:09:11 MDT

                         by Jonathan Rauch
                     {PRIVATE "TYPE=PICT;ALT=I"}

 n October I got an e-mail from a historian I know who teaches at a
    college in the Northeast. She was gloomy about the terrorist
    attacks and anxious about the war, but much of her distress
    stemmed from the reactions of some of the people around her.
 One of her colleagues had appeared at a teach-in and declared that
Americans were the "terrorists," because of their policies in Iraq.
   Others described the U.S. military action as naked aggression
  against an innocent, oppressed, and poor population. On another
     campus nearby she saw a graffito that read, "After Timothy
     McVeigh did we bomb Michigan?" Such sentiments cast their
    proponents into an incongruous ideological alliance”not with
    mainstream campus liberals like my professor friend (she was
 mystified and appalled) but with radical Muslims on the other side
                           of the world.
  There is nothing new about objections from the American left to
    the exertion of U.S. power abroad. Nor is there necessarily
   anything wrong with them: on more than one occasion they have
been prescient. Yet this time the far left's reaction was strikingly
  reactionary. If the left seemed as anti-American as it was anti-
terrorist, that was because it was in fact anti-everything, offering
    no program for American self-defense in the face of a direct
 attack and no substitute for either Western materialism or Islamic
   fundamentalism. The left failed to be constructive; it managed
    only to be, excuse the expression, deconstructive. That was
   disappointing to those who believe, as I do, that a vital and
intelligent left wing is an important ingredient of a healthily self-
critical society; but it was also clarifying, because it demonstrated
 the extent to which radical egalitarianism has displaced all other
                   values on the postmodern left.
     Radical egalitarianism? How could that explain the bizarre
    convergence of postmodern Marxists with anti-modern mullahs,
   who are anything but egalitarian? An underappreciated book by
             the late Aaron Wildavsky offers an answer.
  Wildavsky taught at the University of California at Berkeley for
  thirty years, until his death, in 1993. He was one of the great
political scientists of his generation. I was lucky to know him, and
    not a day passes when I don't miss his wisdom. That wisdom,
 infused with an incandescent passion, shines from a collection of
      essays titled The Rise of Radical Egalitarianism (1991).
 Wildavsky wrote at the time when "political correctness" had only
     just burst into full flower on university campuses, and he
      wondered what lay behind it. He concluded that its many
  impulses”the impulse to regard all whites as oppressors and all
     minority members as victims, the impulse to see America as
 incorrigibly racist and classist and unfair, the impulse to impose
 admissions and hiring quotas and then lie about them, the impulse
  to politicize all academic disciplines, the impulse to snuff out
 dissent”were all aspects of a single controlling imperative. "That
   common factor," he contended, "is egalitarianism”the belief in
    the moral virtue of diminishing differences among people of
      varying incomes, genders, races, sexual preferences, and
                       (especially) power."
   Wildavsky got it right. Whereas not long ago the American left
    was multivalent, valuing freedom, for instance, no less than
 equality, it now values just one thing. That is what makes radical
     egalitarianism radical. Even "diversity" has come to mean
   centrally administered sameness, with portions allotted not to
  persons but to five or so standardized categories of person. The
 postmodern left has become as fixated on its one value as the anti-
                   modern mullahs are on theirs.
    Were he alive, Wildavsky would have no trouble understanding
  why two such seemingly opposed groups might join forces against
    the modern West. In an essay titled "Who Wants What and Why?
  A Cultural Theory" he sorted political and cultural preferences
  into three broad categories. Individualistic cultures, he wrote,
  believe that all is right with the world when people are mainly
 self-regulating, with decisions made by bidding and bargaining, so
   that the need for centralized authority is reduced. Hierarchic
cultures believe that all is right when each is in his proper place,
 with particular people or groups making sacrifices for the good of
   the whole. Egalitarian cultures believe that all is right when
                  everybody's status is the same.
    The relevance of Wildavsky's categories today is immediately
         evident. The American mainstream is predominantly
   individualistic. Postmodern leftists, in contrast, are radical-
 egalitarian to the core. With Marxism in ruins, they can offer no
viable social system that will reliably produce equal outcomes; yet
so fiercely do they burn with egalitarian zeal that they insist more
      stridently than ever on the unfairness and wickedness of
       capitalism and materialism. Thus their new turn toward
    nihilism”toward ideology and action that always protest but
  never propose, toward suggestions, as in Seattle, in the form of
             rocks hurled through plate-glass windows.
    If the enemy of your enemy is your friend, then it is not so
    surprising that postmodern Marxists should make common cause
    with radical mullahs. Islamic fundamentalism is hierarchism
 incarnate: the world will be a just place when Islamic law is the
   only law, with Muslims ruling infidels, men ruling women, and
      God ruling man. Although the radical-Islamic and radical-
 egalitarian senses of justice could hardly be more different, they
     are less opposites than counterparts in opposition to the
dominance of individualism. If they differ as to ends, they share a
   sense of grievance at having been humiliated by history and a
 desire to torment what they see as the smug societies of the West.
  The Marxists and the mullahs are natural enemies, as Stalin and
 Hitler were, and their alliance, such as it is, will prove equally
fleeting. But their convergence is as revelatory in today's context
    as the Hitler-Stalin pact was in 1939, and for much the same
  reason: it brings two usually opposing pole stars into temporary
      conjunction, and reminds the rest of us where we stand.

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