Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Republocrat: Chapter 1 "Left Behind"

Carl Trueman begins the book by briefly sketching his own political journey. Born of working class parents (and grandparents) it was natural that he would gravitate toward the liberal side of British politics. However by the 1980s the Labour Party was hopelessly compromised by radical elements, and so Trueman joined the Tories and supported Margaret Thatcher's fusion of traditional working class values and free-market economic reforms. As is often the case though 18 years of Conservative rule ended in corruption and impotence (i.e., the John Major government). At that point the author switched allegiance to the Liberal Democrats, the British party of the center-left that occupies an idealogical niche somewhere between the Conservatives and Labour, and that's where he's remained.

Though Trueman still identifies with the Left, in a sense, he's a man without a country, since the "Old Left" issues he cares about have been eclipsed by the preoccupations of the "New Left." He's been, well, left behind. Let me explain.

But first a little history. The left/right divide in Western politics we recognize today had its origins in the Industrial Revolution. The great progressive reforms of the 19th century were largely in response to the massive shifts of population and wealth to the cities. Reforms such as the right to organize unions, child-labor laws, and the broadening of the franchise were all efforts to humanely respond within a democratic framework to the dramatic changes taking place in society. In these movements one can see the origins of the great Western European and American political parties of the left.

There were more radical responses to the problems of industrialization though, in particular those of Karl Marx. The problem Marx sought to address was the same problem the Old Left sought to address -- the problem of economic oppression. History would go on to utterly discredit the Marxist solution. In practice it turned out to be a bloody failure, but at least Marx was tackling "oppression" as an economic issue -- something that can be measured.

Some people possessed more than others, and some did not enjoy either the material goods or the working conditions to allow them to live with any quality of life. This was the problem the various movements on the Left wished to address. The philosophies varied, but there was basic agreement on the problem: economic poverty. (p. 5)

Moving into the 20th century Trueman documents the "strange love affair" of Western elites with Marxism, even after the bloody butchery of Communist totalitarianism was apparent to all but the most willfully ignorant.

The gulags of Stalin's Soviet Union, the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring, the Cultural Revolution in China, the killing fields of Cambodia, to name but a few, showed how the quest for utopia so often ends in a blood-soaked nightmare, whose victims are the very poor and oppressed for whom the Left professes to be most concerned. (p. 7)

Yet there were still remnants of the old democratic Left that weren't compromised by flirtations with totalitarianism. Among its achievements in Great Britain was the National Health Service founded in 1945 (and on this side of the pond FDR's New Deal which helped bring America out of the Great Depression). Trueman credits the NHS for his existence, since it provided his working poor grandparents free health care they wouldn't otherwise have been able to get. I can only wish for an American version of the NHS when I contemplate the thousands of dollars it cost my wife and I to have our son, and the thousands more it will cost to have baby #2. This on top of the hundreds of dollars we shell out each month to the insurance company.

By the 1960s whatever remained of the traditional left-wing concern with poverty and economic exploitation was further diluted by shifting the definition of oppression from the economic to the psychological realm. Trueman details this in a section called "Mr. Marx Meets Dr. Freud." He argues that this led to a host of pernicious effects, the most pernicious being the elevation of trendy middle-class issues like a woman's right to choose and gay marriage. In advocating these issues, "the Left frequently finds itself opposed to the values of the very people it was originally designed to help." (p. 12)

Trueman points out the stunning moral inconsistency of a movement that used to pride itself on giving voice to the voiceless refusing to defend unborn children. Add to that the ridiculous spectre of middle-class academics and rich celebrities scolding working-class folks because they don't support the right of Melissa Etheridge to marry her partner. An absurd case in point was the kerfuffle that broke out when President Obama invited Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration. Here's a man who's given millions of dollars to help the poor, but since he spoke out in favor of California's Proposition 8 he was branded as an intolerant bigot. For the New Left having the right position on same-sex marriage and abortion is more important than clean water, feeding the poor or providing basic health care.

Sadly the concern for trendiness and empty moral gestures among secular members of the New Left has bled over into evangelical Christianity. For example the evangelicals who loudly trumpeted the fact that they were voting for Obama in the last election -- as if to say "Aren't I naughty?" Trueman also cites the sanctimonious outrage among some over the appointment of Philip Ryken as President of Wheaton College because he was a theologically conservative white male. And a Calvinist to boot! The possibility that Ryken might have been the most qualified candidate for the job didn't seem to occur to his critics.

Far from standing as a testimony against the culture and for biblical categories of oppression and liberation, the trendy evangelical Left. . . clearly enjoys empty, conscience-salving gestures as much as the trendy political Left. (pp. 16-7)

In conclusion Trueman writes:

As the Left adopted such concerns as gay rights and abortion as touchstone issues, those of us with strong religious convictions on these matters found ourselves essentially alienated from the parties to which our allegiance would naturally be given. The parties of the Right, while representing to an extent, and at least on paper, positions on these matters with which we are comfortable, yet also represent policies in other areas where we find ourselves in fundamental disagreement. . . . Thus I find myself politically homeless, restless, and disenchanted, and I suspect I am not alone. (p. 18)

No he's not alone. For what it's worth, I find myself increasingly in the same position. By now you may be asking, "If the contemporary Left is as bad as Carl Trueman makes it out to be why doesn't he bite the bullet and join up with the contemporary Right?" In chapter 2 he begins to explain why not.

Quotes from Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010)

1 comment:

redeyespy said...

I'll be investigating this book. Our fingers must be pointed at ourselves as well as at those branded with other labels.