I’ve been thinking off and on all day about what to say about David Brooks’ provocative column today, in which he compares the Tea Party Right of today with the New Left of the 1960s. Here’s an excerpt:
But the core commonality is this: Members of both movements believe in what you might call mass innocence. Both movements are built on the assumption that the people are pure and virtuous and that evil is introduced into society by corrupt elites and rotten authority structures.
I invite you to join discussions on other blogs, left and right, to discuss the partisan implications of all this. Brooks’ point here reminded me of political philosopher John Gray’s book “Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia.” Why? It’s in the first line of the book: “Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion.”
What he means with that — and what he takes an entire book to explain — is that we in the West have become enamored of the idea of a Utopia achievable by politics. Last summer in a Templeton-Cambridge seminar, Gray, who is himself a religious skeptic, made a case that the so-called New Atheists are actually secular utopians, and as such, religious-minded. In “Black Mass,” Gray traces the utopian impulse — the idea that we can create a kind of heaven on earth — throughout Western intellectual history. He argues that the obvious forms of secular utopias — the Nazi racialist version, and the various communist versions — may have been the most deadly, but that the belief in human perfection pervades Western political thought. For Gray, this is primarily a religious impulse, because it is based on faith about human nature that cannot be squared with the known facts.
This is why I’m so alienated from politics these days. It’s fine and indeed necessary to be visionary, and to have an agenda for effective, positive reform. But that’s not the same thing as utopianism, which by definition is a philosophy built on an impossible dream. I got into a heated e-mail discussion yesterday with a Tea Party sympathizing friend who said that the government is “evil.” Wrong. The government is no more evil than are big corporations, Wall Street bankers, university professors, media barons, Pentagon generals or anybody else. I am sick of the way our government leaders and our financial titans behave, and I think they do not have the best interest of the country at heart. But to declare them as an entire class “evil” is not only to be unserious about the challenges facing us, but it’s also to run the risk of a kind of utopian thinking that can destroy lives and whole societies.
This story has never been confirmed, but if it’s not true, it ought to be. The story goes that G.K. Chesterton was among well-known writers polled by the Times of London, which wanted to know, “What’s wrong with the world today?” His two-word answer: “I am.” There’s political wisdom in that, a humility in the light of our spendthrift excesses that we Americans of all political convictions need to ponder. And this: passion is not the same thing as thinking.
I’ll end with this. The black linguist John McWhorter just blogged a list of people (not all of them black) he’d like to erase from black history — meaning they did more harm than good. Leading his list is Malcolm X. Why? Read past the jump — McWhorter’s words say a lot about the lasting harm of utopian politics:
Yes, I understand that in Malcolm’s time, rage among black people was deeply rooted for fully understandable reasons. Yes, I know that near the end of his life he was preaching a more inclusive message. Still, the way he comes down to us in shorthand is as the one who taught black people to channel their inner Angry Motherf***er. Articulately so–the speeches still work. But the problem is what that does for us now.
There is a tacit sense that the kind of anger Malcolm became famous for, with the upheld fist and the menacing “By Any Means Necessary,” is portentous, the start of something. But in real life, what Starts Things now is not going to be black America rising up in anger. The community isn’t cohesive enough, and the problems today aren’t simple enough.
I don’t wish Malcolm X had never existed, but I wish he hadn’t become famous. He was quirky enough that it’s possible that no one with equivalent star power to his would have emerged otherwise, and the mood he represented, long on oomph and so short on result, would be represented by no iconic historical figure today. The Black Panthers were so over-the-top that we marvel at them rather than wanting to be them, and Spike Lee wouldn’t have made a movie about Stokely Carmichael. The Malcolm T-shirts and the sense of reading his autobiography as a smart black persons’ rite of passage are distractions from the actions, as opposed to the moods and gestures, that really help black people.