IN A RECENT POSTING, Cactus Kate fulminates against the Left’s presumption that only they know how to care about their fellow human-beings. Her caustic polemic reminded me of the editorial I wrote for the Autumn 2003 issue of N.Z. Political Review.
"Oh, For A Well-Mannered Left" drew attention to the curious fact that "the Right treats humanity like cattle and individual human-beings like princes, while the Left loves humanity with a passion but treats individuals like shit."
The whole editorial is reproduced below.
WHY IS IT that I can get a friendlier discussion about New Zealand politics out of an ACT regional conference than I can out of practically any gathering of New Zealand lefties? Come to think of it, why was a gathering of right-wing ACT party members confident enough to invite an avowed social-democrat like Chris Trotter to address them, when a gathering of socialists and communists were unwilling to grant him speaking rights at a post-9/11 rally?
Why is the Left so bloody unpleasant?
In the end, I think it comes down to the stark differences between conservative and radical political cultures.
Conservatives operate on the not unreasonable assumption that, since they already control most of the things that really matter in our society, their paramount political responsibility is to hold on to what they’ve got.
Having firmly settled upon their guiding strategy, conservatives feel free to debate its tactical ramifications without rancour. What’s more, like any good general taking up a defensive position, they possess an insatiable appetite for reliable intelligence about their political enemies’ intentions. If they’re going to be attacked, they would like to know when, by whom, and with what.
All of which contributes to a conservative culture of civility and curiosity. Historical memories of aristocratic honour and noblesse oblige mingle with more recent bourgeois values inherited from the Enlightenment – like the spirit of scientific inquiry – to produce the personal generosity, social ease, and intellectual flexibility so characteristic of conservative politicians the world over.
Radical political culture is altogether different.
For a start, there are long-standing and very sharp disagreements among radical leftists about "the movement’s" ultimate objectives. You can be a radical socialist, a radical Maori nationalist, a radical feminist or a radical ecologist and, depending on which camp you belong to, identify Capitalism, Pakeha Privilege, Patriarchy and/or Industrial Civilisation as the primary target of your political assault.
Worse still, because the radical’s default-mode (and here we are talking about radicals of both the Left and the Right) is opposition to the status quo, radical movements evince a praxis which encourages not only intellectual aggression, but all-too-often verbal and physical violence as well. Add to this volatile mixture the radical’s confusion over objectives (and the interminable tactical squabbles that it generates) and you have the perfect recipe for a culture of competition and intransigence.
Such cultures are highly intolerant of dissent. Indeed, intellectual subtlety of any kind tends to be frowned upon as proof of insufficient "staunchness". As a consequence radicals display all the attributes of (if I may continue to employ a military metaphor) the classical attacking force: an insistence on unity and unquestioning obedience; the strong validation of personal sacrifice and loyalty to the group; and a preoccupation with ends as opposed to means. Small wonder that so many radicals employ the language of combat – campaigns, rallies, marches, attacks – to describe political behaviour.
There is a paradox here. Conservative political culture, whose raison d’être is the preservation of social inequality and economic exploitation (not to mention the institutional violence these things create and upon which ruling class power rests) tends to produce individuals of considerable personal charm and genuine liberality. While radical political culture, which sets its face against the violence and injustice of entrenched privilege, all too often produces individuals who are aggressive, intolerant and utterly indifferent to the suffering which their relentless quest for justice causes.
In short, the Right treats humanity like cattle and individual human-beings like princes, while the Left loves humanity with a passion but treats individuals like shit.
I can’t help thinking that the revolution would come a lot sooner if the Left set about achieving its own radical objectives with its conservative opponents’ infinitely better manners.
As Gilbert Shelton’s wonderful 1970s poster put it: "Remember kids, when you’re out there smashing the State, to keep a smile on your lips and a song in your heart."
EIGHT YEARS ON, little appears to have changed. Perhaps all of us, Left and Right, should ponder the truth of the following line of dialogue from an old Hollywood movie I saw many, many years ago – but which I've never forgotten:
"It’s a whole lot harder to love just one person than all humanity – but it’s not one bit less noble."