SciFi Weekend: Fringe & Other TV Shows; Scientology; Lisbeth Salander As Libertarian & Leftist Heroine; The Ultimate “Leftist” Novel

This week’s episode of Fringe appeared to be a stand-alone story until late in the episode. I was surprised to find that it tied into the ongoing mythology of the show by having the results of Alan Ruck’s experiments, which never should have worked, become successful in making people lighter than air due to the laws of physics breaking down as a result of the rift between the universes.

The story also featured Walter obsessing about bringing William Bell back to live, along with getting high with Jorge Garcia of Lost, at Massive Dynamic. There was a lot of Peter and Olivia. Somehow seeing our Olivia smiling this much just didn’t look right. It looked more natural in Fauxlivia. The episode ended with another surprise as Anna Torv now has a  third charter to play–William Bell possessing the poor Olivia’s body. One can just imagine what that would do should Peter get Olivia into bed again. There’s no doubt that this will lead to the return of William Bell’s physical body with Leonard Nimoy confirming on Twitter that he has already come out of retirement.

BBC America has announced that the upcoming season of Doctor Who will premier April 23 at 9:00 p.m. There’s no official date from the BBC, but there are rumors that they are also airing the first episode on April 23 and the second of the two-parter on April 24. If true, hopefully BBC America will also air both parts the first week and not fall a week behind.

Among last week’s television shows, V appears to be ending the season with more enjoyable shows, despite the numerous plot holes which persist. The Event returned, but it remains questionable as to how long they can drag out this storyline. The Cape’s final unaired episode has been  posted on line. Terra Nova, a Steven Spielberg produced show about people escaping to the prehistoric past, has been moved back from May until next fall.

Michael Crowley has an article at Slate noting L. Ron Hubbard’s 100th birthday, noting “how truly strange Scientology is.” If we were going to have a science fiction writer devise a religion which has as many followers as Scientology, why couldn’t it be one more along the lines of the freer religions devised in novels by Robert A. Heinlein?

Benjamin Kerstein at Pajamas Media questions how a leftist such as Stieg Larsson managed “to create a libertarian parable for the ages” with Lisbeth Salander in his Millennium Trilogy:

Lisbeth Salander explodes like a grenade tossed into an ammunition dump. Ferociously individualist, incorruptible, disdainful, and suspicious of all forms of social organization, and dedicated to her own personal moral code, Salander often seems to have stepped into Larsson’s world from out of an Ayn Rand novel. She despises all institutions, whether they are business corporations, government agencies, or the Stockholm police. Rejecting all forms of ideology, she is dedicated only to her own individual sense of justice. Relentlessly cerebral, she trusts only what she can ascertain with her own mind and her own formidable talents. She considers Blomquist a naïve fool because of his belief that social conditions cause people to commit the horrible crimes he investigates. At one point, as Blomquist ponders the motivations of a brutal serial killer, Salander erupts, “He’s just a pig who hates women!” Salander believes there are no excuses, everyone is responsible for their own actions, including herself, and must answer for them accordingly.

In short, Salander is as close to an avenging angel libertarianism is ever likely to get, and her presence in the novels throws the books’ politics into a bizarre contradiction. Far from the left-wing bromide in favor of democratic socialism it appears to be, the Millennium trilogy, as Ian MacDougall has pointed out in the leftist journal n+1, often appears on second glance like a calculated and relentless evisceration of the Swedish welfare state. Indeed, not only is Salander a walking rebuke to the myths of Scandinavian socialism, but she  is usually portrayed by Larsson as being absolutely correct in her attitude toward it. “In this Sweden,” MacDougall writes:

The country’s well-polished façade belies a broken apparatus of government whose rusty flywheels are little more than the playthings of crooks. The doctors are crooked. The bureaucrats are crooked. The newspapermen are crooked. The industrialists and businessmen, laid bare by merciless transparency laws, are nevertheless crooked. The police and the prosecutors are crooked.

In Larsson’s world, it is only the individual — usually Salander — with their own personal sense of right and wrong and the courage to act on it, who can save the day.

It is, perhaps, telling that millions of readers around the world, whatever their political orientation, have become fans of the Millennium series and especially of Lisbeth Salander. Indeed, it appears that Steig Larsson, though he himself might have been horrified at the prospect, gave birth to one of the great literary ironies of our time: for reasons that will likely forever remain unknown, a Scandinavian leftist managed to create a libertarian parable for the ages.

I find this far less ironic than Kerstein, who sees far too much of the right wing stereotype of the left as opposed to the actual views of those on the left. The left actually contains people of a variety of view points, and many do not support the big-government stereotype which the right commonly uses. Many on us on the left are far closer to individualist anarchists at heart, opposing the right wing as the actual supporters of big government and authoritarianism.

While I don’t know terribly much about Stieg Larsson, from what I have read about him, Larsson’s “leftism” appeared to have concentrated on opposing the authoritarian threat from the far right. As sometimes happens, Larsson also appears to have bee to quick to see his enemy’s enemies as his friends, which has led to far too many people on the left to become overly sympathetic to aspects to the left which are better off avoided.

To see Lisbeth Salander as supporting libertarianism is overly simplistic (analogous to how libertarianism itself is an overly simplistic view of the world). Salander appeals to both libertarians and to those on the left who I referred to above as are far closer to individualist anarchists at heart. Such people on the left are attracted to such anarchism and disrespect for authority but also see the limitations to such a philosophy in the real world which libertarians do not.

Larrson both made Salander an appealing character on one level while also showing as the trilogy progressed how her attitudes were shaped by her troubled youth. Salander’s world view is appealing to part of us, but most people have grown up to understand the limitations in such a world view. Libertarians, along with Lisbeth Salander, have ideas and attitudes we can respect, but ultimately both libertarians and Salander are flawed people who have not grown up to understand the real world.

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen was asked to name the ultimate left wing novel. His answer is quite different from mine, showing the differences in views and emphasis on the left which I noted above. Cowen’s answer:

What jumps to mind is Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, but if you read the request carefully it does not qualify.  Here is a list of thirty famous left-wing novels, heavy on the mid- to late nineteenth century.  There is Bronte, Dickens, Hugo, Sinclair, Zola, Gorky, Jack London, and Edward Bellamy.  None of these books is as analytically or philosophically comprehensive as the novels of Ayn Rand.

I would say that the story per se is usually left-wing, in both good and bad ways.  It elevates the seen over the unseen, can easily portray a struggle for justice, focuses on the anecdote, and encourages us to judge social institutions by the intentions of the people who work in them, rather than looking at their deeper and longer-term outcomes.  Precisely because the story is itself so left-wing, there won’t be a definitive example of the left-wing novel.  Story-telling encourages context-dependent thinking, although not necessarily in an accurate manner.  One notable feature of Atlas Shrugged is how frequently the story-telling stops for a long speech or an extended dialogue, in order to explain some first principles to the reader.

Grapes of Wrath was an excellent work, and is one which I might expect from the branch of the left more concerned with economics. With my concerns more centered around opposing right wing encroachments on civil liberties, my answer would be quite different. Three books immediately came to mind, with only one book making the list in the link above–It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.

The other two which I immediately thought of were both by George Orwell: 1984 and Animal Farm. I’d pick 1984 as the answer to the question of picking the one ultimate book. Besides the messages of the book it remains even better known than Atlas Shrugged, and also stopped the story-telling for extended periods to make political points.

1984, while always an excellent choice for its opposition to totalitarianism, is even more significant today in light of the Orwellian distortions commonly used by the right wing. “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” One might almost think that Orwell was aware of the current American right wing in writing this.

To the  right wing freedom often means the “freedom” to impose their views upon others. Their support for the perpetual warfare state has clear parallels to Orwell’s work. Most disturbing of all is the manner in which the right wing supports Sarah Palin/Tea Party style ignorance as it opposes science, reason, and factual sources of information which do not follow the distortions they spread.

Right Wing Confusion Over “Statism”

I find that in recent years I find far less worth reading from conservative writers and those I still read are no longer accepted by much of the conservative movement. The conservative movement has become increasingly dominated by the religious right and those who prefer Sarah Palin style ignorance over science and reason, with many now accepting the misinformation spread by Fox and right wing talk radio as fact. There are many false beliefs spread in right wing writings which lead me to ignore them. One is the claim that liberals support more control from big government.

Conor Friedersdorf, sitting in for Andrew Sullivan, has a few recent posts explaining Why Statism Is The Wrong Frame which continues here. He points out, using some views held by Matthew Yglesias, that “The desired end of Matthew Yglesias isn’t to grow the American state.” Liberals such as Yglesias will support more government action in some areas than conservatives (and less in others) to fulfill their goals, but this is far different from holding a philosophical view based upon making expansion of state power a primary goal.

Actually Matthew Yglesias does support a bigger government than I do. Yglesias, like Kevin Drum, are significantly  to the left of both the Democratic Party and many liberals. The left in the United States today actually includes a wide variety views which have been lumped together due to an opposition to today’s conservative movement. Many former conservatives now identify with the left (a trend which began as far back as Barry Goldwater describing himself as a liberal in his later years in opposition to the religious right). Others such as Andrew Sullivan, as well as many of the more rational Reaganites, might continue to call themselves conservatives but their views are not welcomed by the conservative movement. E.D. Kain summed up the differences:

One thing I’ve realized over the past few months is that liberalism is a pretty big tent. This in stark contrast to contemporary conservatism which is, if anything, a few small embattled tents each trying to out-crazy the other. I’ve also realized, perhaps a little late, that a lot of people on the left think pretty much like Matt does here – a lot of people don’t but you’re not tossed out of the movement for it (not yet anyways)

Matthew Yglesias is a blogger who I frequently quote when I am looking for a sensible view to the left of me, plus there are many issues where we do agree.  As with most of today’s left, the primary overlap in our views stems from opposition to the restriction in civil liberties and expansion of the warfare state as an irrational response to the 9/11 attack by the right wing, support for civil liberties, opposition to the expansion of Executive power during the Bush years, and support for reality-based polices.

I might have philosophical differences with some of the more liberal economic views of Yglesias and Drum but at least, for the most part, we are basing our arguments upon facts. In contrast, right wing arguments in recent years start with their goal and make up the facts to support them under the assumption that if enough right wing sites make the same claim it becomes “true.”

Often in modern conservative writings liberals are distorted to sound like Ayn Rand villains, with any desire to use government action dismissed as “statism” and tyranny.  Even when I disagree with some views from some liberals, such as with some of Kevin Drum’s views outlined in his response here, I understand enough of where they are coming from that I don’t see their views as evil or tyranical.  Drum concluded:

When it’s all said and done, if we lived in Drum World I figure combined government expenditures would be 40-45% of GDP and the funding source for all that would be strongly progressive. “Statist” is an obviously provocative (and usually puerile) way to frame this, but really, it’s not all that far off the mark. It wouldn’t be tyranny, any more than Sweden is a tyranny, but it would certainly be a world in which the American state was quite a bit bigger than it is now.

My utopia would have a  smaller government than that of Kevin Drum. Drum provides far stronger ammunition for charges of “statism” than many other liberals who are far more moderate on economic positions, making a blanket attack on the left for “statism” absurd. This comes off as even more ridiculous considering that among the strongest areas of agreement in the big tent which makes up the left is opposition to the far more odious statism of the right.

Conservatives dwell on the size of government–except when it involves invading other countries, torture, or imposing the agenda of the religious right upon others. As a consequence, much of the actual growth of the United States government in recent years came under Ronald Reagan and George Bush. A supposedly smaller conservative state is also far more likely to interfere with personal decisions which should be left to the individual.

In contrast to conservatives, many liberals (and “liberaltarians” as mentioned in the previous post) see limitations on the power of government in the lives of individuals as being the more important than dwelling over the actual size of government. If the question is tyranny, those who support the agenda of the modern conservative movement are on pretty shaky ground.

Update: It looks like Steve Benen was also working on this topic  as I was writing this. His post is also useful for links to other liberal bloggers on this topic.

GPS Message: “Read Ayn Rand”

For a group who claim to be individualists, many Ayn Rand supporters have turned into an incredibly supportive cult. One devoted fan used GPS to place the above message on Google Earth. Gizmodo reports:

One man drove 12,238 miles and across 30 states in the U.S. to scrawl a message that could only be viewed using Google Earth. His big shoutout: “Read Ayn Rand.”

Nick Newcomen did a road trip over 30 days that covered stretches from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. First, he identified on a map the route he would need to drive to spell out the message. He put a GPS device in his car to trace the route he would follow. Then, he hit the road.

“The main reason I did it is because I am an Ayn Rand fan,” he says. “In my opinion if more people would read her books and take her ideas seriously, the country and world would be a better place – freer, more prosperous and we would have a more optimistic view of the future.”

Newcomen, unlike previous GPS artists, actually traveled the lines he traced on the map. He used a GPS logger (Qstarz BT-Q1000X) to “ink” the message. Starting his trip in Marshall, Texas, he turned on the device when he wanted to write a letter and turned off the device between letters. The recorded GPS data was loaded into Google Earth to produce the image above.

“The first word I wrote actually was the word ‘Rand’, then I went up North to do the word ‘Read’ and finished it with ‘Ayn,'” says Newcomen.

He better hope that there aren’t any Canadians who respond by doing the same with “Don’t.”

A Republican Operative Explains How The Right Wing Manipulates The Tea Parties

The tea party movements have been characterized by angry people who are ignorant of the issues and are being misled by operatives from the far right. Playboy has interviewed one of the right wing operatives who has explained how he manipulates their followers by appealing to the Reptilian portions of the brain as opposed to their logic centers. We’ve seen his type of work before:

Did you get an automated call from the sister of a 9/11 victim asking you to reelect President Bush in 2004? That was me. Did you get a piece of mail with the phrase supports abortion on demand as a means of birth control? That may have been me too.

The people the source deals with “may not read much, but they all know their Ayn Rand.” He described the “black arts” techniques used to manipulate them:

A good piece of mail gets its message across in 10 seconds. Television gives you 30 seconds, maybe. We’re playing to the reptilian brain rather than the logic centers, so we look for key words and images to leverage the intense rage and anxiety of white working-class conservatives. In other words, I talk to the same part of your brain that causes road rage.

In other words, this is a continuation of the usual right wing misinformation campaign. New York Magazine noted the similarity and questions if Democrats will be prepared to counter it:

Think Swift Boating, or the James O’Keefe ACORN project. It sounds dark the way this person describes it (“black arts” never sound particularly appetizing, unless they are practiced by Robert Pattinson), but it’s really nothing new. The question is whether Barack Obama, as head of the Democratic Party, is going to retain his frustrating coolness in the fall as these tactics are being used against liberal candidates across the country in an effort to take away the Democratic majority in Congress. No matter how rational he can be, is reason any good when it’s up against road rage?

Maine Republicans Adopt Extremist Tea Party Platform

Maine in recent years has been unusual on the east coast for having two Republican Senators, who are among the few remaining moderate Republicans left in the country. I wonder how long it will be before the tea party decides to purge them as occurred with a  conservative (but not conservative enough) Senator in Utah last weekend. As a sign of where they are going, Maine Republicans have adopted the tea party platform. Maine Politics reports:

The official platform for the Republican Party of Maine is now a mix of right-wing fringe policies, libertarian buzzwords and outright conspiracy theories.

The document calls for the elimination of the Department of Education and the Federal Reserve, demands an investigation of “collusion between government and industry in the global warming myth,” suggests the adoption of “Austrian Economics,” declares that “‘Freedom of Religion’ does not mean ‘freedom from religion'” (which I guess makes atheism illegal), insists that “healthcare is not a right,” calls for the abrogation of the “UN Treaty on Rights of the Child” and the “Law Of The Sea Treaty” and declares that we must resist “efforts to create a one world government.”

It also contains favorable mentions of both the Tea Party and Ron Paul. You can read the whole thing here.

Dan Billings, who has served as an attorney for the Maine GOP, called the new platform “wack job pablum” and “nutcase stuff.”

Among the other “nutcase stuff,” the platform prohibits any funding to ACORN or other groups they dislike (or have black members), declares marriage to be an institution between a man and a woman,  calls to discard political correctness and fight the war against radical Islam to win,  and advocates sealing the borders.

Their fear and hatred of minorities is seen, beyond repeating the usual right wing smears against organizations such as ACORN, by their views on immigration.  They call for “No amnesty, no benefits, no citizenship -ever- for anyone in the country illegally. Arrest and detain, for a specified period of time, anyone here illegally, and then deport, period.” It’s “deport, baby, deport” on immigration, and “drill, baby, drill” on energy.

The same ignorance of health care is seen in this document as we saw throughout the health care debate. Their ideas on expanding coverage cost control are the same ineffective ideas I’ve debunked in many previous posts. They attack a non-existent “government take-over of health care” as being unconstitutional, declaring health care is not a right but “a service.” Elsewhere in the document they demand that, “Congress participates in the same health care plan as the general public. No preferential plans or treatment.” They remain oblivious to the fact that one of the driving ideas behind health care reform was to give the rest of the country the same type of health care choices as Congress now has.

I even think someone pulled out a Ouija board to contact Ayn Rand to add this clause: “Espouse and follow the principle: It is immoral to steal the property rightfully earned by one person, and give it to another who has no claim or right to its benefits.” This ignores both the fact that “property rightfully earned by one person” can be earned only with the infrastructure created by government, which must tax to preserve it, along with the need for a safety net.

In this document full of outright lunacy I especially find it ironic that they quote Thomas Jefferson in one section while also distorting the meaning of the First Amendment elsewhere. After all, Jefferson is probably quoted the most to demonstrate that the Founding Fathers did in fact intend to create a secular government with a strict wall of separation of church and state. Apparently they will quote him when convenient but ignore his actual liberal beliefs. While they oppose the First Amendment, they do strongly support the Second.

If they continue like this the Republicans are on the road to extinction, despite the likelihood of picking up some seats seats this year. A party cannot continue with views which so racially oppose the values which this nation was founded upon. If this lunacy continues, sane Republicans will have no choice but to remove this element from its base or leave the party.

Conservative Paranoia Over Books

I generally avoid responding to arguments which are limited to the conservative blogosphere as opposed to more prominent conservative politicians or writers but I cannot resist this considering the attention it is receiving and the absurdity of it.  Say Anything is publicizing this picture of books selected by Michelle Obama for the White House library. They use the presence of books mentioning Socialism and Communism in the titles, along with many other bogus conservative arguments raised in the past, to further the right wing meme that the Obamas are conspiring to establish Communism in the United States.

The books might include words like Communism in the title but that hardly demonstrates anything about Michelle Obama’s beliefs. As Matthew Yglesias pointed out, “Nathan Glazer, author of the book on Communism depicted on the picture, is a well-known anti-communist intellectual from the original ‘neoconservative’ social/political circle with Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and Patrick Moynihan.”

I imagine that by their logic it is liberals who should be concerned that Michelle Obama is secretly a neoconservative.

Of course the presence of books in one’s library tells nothing about one’s political or economic beliefs. This would be true even if Michelle Obama’s book on Communism was in support as opposed to opposition. A photo of my home library would show books by Karl Marx as well as Friedrich von Hayek and Ayn Rand, along with books by authors with views in between.

The books pictured do not demonstrate any support for Marxism but the conservative reaction does show a lack of respect for freedom of expression, along with suggesting a possible reluctance of conservatives to read books other than those which support their own narrow views. This would explain the widespread ignorance of history and economics in recent conservative writing and the frequency with which conservative bloggers repeat right wing talking points which are counter to fact.

Update: Here is yet another example of how the right wing blogosphere repeats items which are contrary to fact to support their world view. These books weren’t even chosen by Michelle Obama as claimed. They have been in the White House library going back to 1963.

Fiction Means It Isn’t Intended To Be True (On Ross Douthat’s Erroneous Interpretation of Dan Brown)


I noted the religious opposition to Dan Brown’s work in my recent discussion of his book Angels and Demons. An example of this can be found in Ross Douthat’s most recent column. Douthat does take a different view of Dan Brown than I do, as I described his work as escapist fiction that slips in some ideas. Douthat writes:

Brown is explicit about this mission. He isn’t a serious novelist, but he’s a deadly serious writer: His thrilling plots, he’s said, are there to make the books’ didacticism go down easy, so that readers don’t realize till the end “how much they are learning along the way.” He’s working in the same genre as Harlan Coben and James Patterson, but his real competitors are ideologues like Ayn Rand, and spiritual gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. He’s writing thrillers, but he’s selling a theology.

It is a bit of a stretch on Douthat’s part to take a line that people are learning from his books to mean he is promoting a position in the way that writers such as Rand are. I find it hard to believe that anyone who has read fiction by both Ayn Rand and Dan Brown would lump them into the same genre. For example, compare the sex scenes. In an Ayn Rand novel the lead characters will break into a lengthy discussion of their political philosophy in the middle of having sex. Characters in a Dan Brown novel are too busy solving mysteries to have very much sex, but when they do there is no philosophy involved. The closest Brown came to mixing sex and philosophy was  when Vittoria Vetra compared having sex with her to a religious experience and “a perfect moment of glorious rapture” due to her experience as a yoga master.

If there is a religious philosophy behind Brown’s books it is not anti-religion as many conservatives believe. Brown actually expresses strong views in favor of religion. What he doesn’t accept is that the teachings from leaders of organized religion are necessarily true. At first I thought Douthat understood this as he wrote:

In the Brownian worldview, all religions — even Roman Catholicism — have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true. It’s a message perfectly tailored for 21st-century America, where the most important religious trend is neither swelling unbelief nor rising fundamentalism, but the emergence of a generalized “religiousness” detached from the claims of any specific faith tradition.

Unfortunately he allowed his personal views to get in the way, later accusing Brown of “dishonesty” as the “secret” history of Christendom in The Da Vinci Code is false. Dan Brown is a fiction writer. His last two books created situations to place Robert Langdon in the midst of a fictional thriller. Fiction by definition is about things which are not true. Creating fictional situations is part of writing fiction and not a sign of dishonesty as Douthat claims.

Even if Brown is trying to use his fiction to promote his views he is basically doing what is done with the stories in the Bible. Perhaps much of the religious opposite to Brown’s work stems from their inability to recognize fiction. The stories in the Bible are stories to make a point and not literal truth. The same types of people who try to take the Bible literally and do not understand its use of fiction are the ones who also fail to understand that Dan Brown’s work is fiction, making it nonsensical to say it is dishonest. The “history” in Brown’s work is not intended to be taken literally any more than the stories of the Bible should be taken literally. This view, also expressed in Brown’s work, certainly contributes to the hostility towards him seen from fundamentalists.

Conservatives Should Think Again Before Following John Galt

Conservatives and libertarians who think that a few point increase in the marginal tax rate is reason to drop out of society as in Atlas Shrugged seem to be out of touch with reality. Many of them also have little understanding of Ayn Rand’s views and fail to realize how low an opinion Rand would have of them. Democratic Strategist presents some quotations from Rand which conservatives might not want to read:

Capitalism is what the “conservatives” dare not advocate or defend. They are paralyzed by the profound conflict between capitalism and the moral code which dominates our culture: the morality of altruism . . . Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society.

–Conservatism: An Obituary” from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal

I consider National Review the worst and most dangerous magazine in America…[b]ecause it ties capitalism to religion. The ideological position of National Review amounts, in effect, to the following: In order to accept freedom and capitalism, one has to believe in God or in some form of religion, some form of supernatural mysticism.”

–1964 Playboy Interview

Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason.

–1964 Playboy interview.

If they [people] place such things as friendship and family ties above their own productive work, yes, then they are immoral. Friendship, family life and human relationships are not primary in a man’s life. A man who places others first, above his own creative work, is an emotional parasite.”

–1964 Playboy interview

Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered.

—-“Of Living Death,” The Objectivist, 1968

I cannot project the degree of hatred required to make those women run around in crusades against abortion. Hatred is what they certainly project, not love for the embryos, which is a piece of nonsense no one could experience, but hatred, a virulent hatred for an unnamed object…Their hatred is directed against human beings as such, against the mind, against reason, against ambition, against success, against love, against any value that brings happiness to human life.

–“The Age of Mediocrity,” The Objectivist Forum, 1981

I am profoundly opposed to Ronald Reagan. Since he denies the right to abortion, he cannot be a defender of any rights. Since he has no program or ideology to offer, his likeliest motive for entering a Presidential race is power-lust.

–Letter to the Editor, The New York Times, August 11, 1976 (subscription only)

Rand did not think much of either conservatives or libertarians:

Above all, do not join the wrong ideological groups or movements, in order to ‘do something.’ By ‘ideological’ (in this context), I mean groups or movements proclaiming some vaguely generalized, undefined (and, usually, contradictory) political goals. (E.g., the Conservative Party, which subordinates reason to faith, and substitutes theocracy for capitalism; or the ‘libertarian’ hippies, who subordinate reason to whims, and substitute anarchism for capitalism.) To join such groups means to reverse the philosophical hierarchy and to sell out fundamental principles for the sake of some superficial political action which is bound to fail. It means that you help the defeat of your ideas and the victory of your enemies.”

–“What Can One Do?” from Philosophy: Who Needs It, an address to the graduating class at West Point, 1974

Neither I nor “Atlas Shrugged” nor my philosophy has any connection with the so-called “Libertarian” movement. I hold that politics without a consistent philosophical base leads to disaster. The “Libertarian” movement is a random movement of emotional hippies-of-the-right who play at politics without philosophy or consistency.

–Letter to the Editor, The New York Times, August 11, 1976 (subscription only)

Conservative and Libertarian Misconceptions of Liberal Viewpoints

I’ve quoted Will Wilkinson in several posts recently. We share some views in common and disagree in other areas. I generally tend to prefer this type of post as there is little point in liberal blogs which only quote liberals, conservatives only quoting conservatives, and libertarians only quoting libertarians.

In my case it is easier to find conservatives and libertarians to quote on some topics as there are areas where my views don’t always coincide with the consensus of the liberal blogosphere. I’ve also quoted Mathew Yglesias many times, both agreeing and disagreeing with him from time to time.

One of the topics I have frequently quoted Will Wilkinson on is his interest in liberal/libertarian fusionism. In general there are areas of overlap between the two on civil liberties issues, social issues (excluding the many libertarians who are far more conservative than libertarian), and the war. Wilkinson has supported more communication between liberals and libertarians because of these areas of agreement.

There is less disagreement in economic matters, although Wilkinson frequently does point out that some liberals are more market-friendly than others. Some of this disagreement is based upon true policy issues, but there does remain the problem of non-liberals having many misconceptions about liberal beliefs, often believing the stereotypes coming from the right wing noise machine.

All of this leads to this post by Mathew Yglesias which shows how many of the differences are based upon misconceptions about what liberals believe. He begins by saying, “Someone emailed me this Will Wilkinson post which I find interesting because his description of what progressives think about the economy has basically zero points of contact with what I think about the economy.”

Will Wilkinson pays far more attention to what liberals are saying than most conservatives and libertarians. If his writing prompts this comment of “zero points of contact with what I think” imagine how little relationship there is between the average conservative or libertarian blog post and liberal thought. Some conservatives and libertarians waste a tremendous amount of space for posts which amount to nothing more than straw men attacks, attacking beliefs which sound far more like those of the villains of Ayn Rand novels than any one’s actual beliefs.

Dividing Progressive and Liberal Beliefs

Terms such as liberal, conservative,  progressive, and populist all have some ambiguity as a variety of people fall into each category, and often the lines are not clear. People who use these labels might have historical influences, but they generally do not have specific ideological leaders. While Marxists or Objectivists might trace their views specifically to Karl Marx or Ayn Rand and there is a clear definition of these philosophies, liberals and conservatives typically have a variety of influences on their views.

Nate Silver recently drew a distinction between two forms of progressives. It looks like this grew out of blog wars which I don’t want to get into, and his definitions are tilted in favor of one view and against that held by those he was arguing with. Ignoring these issues, there is still some value in looking at his breakdown.

The first type of progressivism has its philosophical underpinnings in 18th Century, Enlightement-era thought. It believes that politics is a battle of ideas. It further believes that through the use of reason and the exchange of ideas, human society will tend to improve itself through scientific and technological innovation. Hence, it believes in progress, and for this reason lays claim to the term “progressive”. Because of its belief and optimism in the faculties of human reason, I refer to this philosophy as rational progressivism.

Rational progressivism tends to be trusting, within reason, of status quo political and economic institutions — generally including the institution of capitalism. It tends to trust these institutions because it believes they are a manifestation of progress made by previous generations. However, unlike conservatism, it also sees these institutions as continuing works in progress, subject to inefficiencies because of distorted or poorly-designed incentives, poorly-informed or misinformed participants, and competition from ‘irrational’ worldviews like religion. It also recognizes that certain persons who stand to benefit from preserving the status quo, particularly elected officials but also corporations, may seek to block this progress to protect their own interests. The project of rational progressivism, then, is to propagate good ideas and to convert them, through a wide and aggressive array of democratic means, into public policy.

The second type of progressivism is what I call radical progressivism. It represents, indeed, a much more radical and comprehensive critique of the status quo, which it tends to see as intrinsically corrupt. Its philosophical tradition originates in 19th Century thought — and specifically, owes a great deal to the Marxist critique of capitalism and the Marxist theory of social change. It also finds inspiration in both the radical movement of the 1960s and the labor and social movements of late 19th and early 20th centuries (from which it borrows the label “progressive”).

Radical progressivism is more clearly distinguishable from “conventional” liberalism and would generally be associated with the “far left” — although on a handful of issues such as free trade, it may find common cause with the “radical” right. Radical progressivism embraces the tradition of populism and frequently adopts a discourse of the virtuous commoner organizing against the corrupt elite. It is much more willing to make normative claims than rational progressivism, and tends to view conservatism as immoral and contemporary American liberalism as amoral (at best). Its project is not reform but transformation.

Actually I tend to avoid the term progressive and prefer liberal, seeing two primary uses for the term progressive. Often it is used by as an alternative in response to the demonization of the word liberal by the right. I would often use liberal in place of Nate’s use of rational progressivism and reserve progressive for radical progressivism or populism from the left. This is not entirely satisfactory as the word liberal is used by others in a variety of ways, often including Nate’s radical progressives. There are certainly no hard and fast lines between each group, and Nate acknowledges this:

The truth is, I don’t particularly care whether you call me a “progressive” or not. In fact, I’m suspicious of people who line up on the same side of the ideological divide on every single issue. The world is more complicated than that, especially when one strives to see the world through a scientific, empirical lens. While progressives, in my view, clearly have the preponderance of good ideas, they do not have a monopoly on them. Nor do conservatives have a monopoly on bad ideas, especially when radical progressives flirt with Marxist modes of discourse.

While recognizing that liberal is often used in other ways, I generally use liberal in the way that Nate uses rational progressive as a philosophy growing out of the age of enlightenment (thus the tag line of the blog). Primary principles of liberalism include a belief in liberty, limitations on the power of government, openness to new ideas, and use of science and reason to evaluate the world and influence public policy.

Progressives (or Nate’s radical progressives) may share many of these beliefs, but they are often more concerned with what they view as economic fairness. They are often the supporters of larger government programs, while liberals vary tremendously in support for “big government.” There is often a considerable blurring between these two groups. They might share many of the values of the other and the difference is often based upon which ideas they stress more.

The line between liberals and progressives versus conservatives often comes down to political alliances on the major issues of the day. During the Bush years both rational and radical progressives shared common ground in opposing many of Bush’s actions. Opposition to the Iraq war provided further common ground.It is not surprising that with the Democrats in power disputes between different segments of the left would be more visible.

Lumping people with some diversity of views into one of two groups based upon the major issues of today (along with who they supported in the last election) will give a general breakdown of liberals and progressives versus conservatives, but there are clear limitations. I recently cited Andrew Sullivan as an example where the labels breakdown.

Sullivan supported Obama over McCain, opposes the war, supports same-sex marriage, and holds other views which cause many conservatives to consider him a liberal as opposed to conservative. He falls on the liberal side when looking at a division based upon current issues, but when his views are evaluated in greater detail it is clear that his fundamental views are based upon historical conservatism as opposed to liberalism.

Sullivan traces his views back to the political tradition of Burke, as opposed to the religious fundamentalism which now dominates the conservative movement. His opposition to this fundamentalism places him on the same side as liberals on many issues despite his conservative philosophy. Similarly there are also other conservatives who stress civil liberties and constitutional limitations on government power who have sided with liberals in opposing the actions of the Bush administration.

Libertarians create yet more confusion on the ideological spectrum. The word libertarian has become as ambiguous as any of the other labels. Many libertarians have been aligned with the Republican Party for so long that, even if they disagree with them on some issues, they have become increasingly conservative. In many cases, but certainly not all,  it is accurate to describe a libertarian as a Republican who has smoked marijuana. There are also Libertarian Republicans who still claim to be libertarian despite supporting massive increases in the power of the state as they accept the Republican line on the “war on terror.” The most extreme of these have endorsed what would amount to a virtual military dictatorship with suppression of civil liberties to prevent dissent against the “war on terror” while still claiming to be libertarian. On the other hand, there are left-libertarians and liberaltarians who share considerable common ground with Nate’s rational progressives, but are much further from the radical progressives.Failure to distinguish between the different types of liberals, along with the fundamental conservatism of some who use the libertarian label, leads to the differences in reaction to alignment with liberals among different libertarians.

There is yet one other dichotomy I’ve found useful in discussing the views of liberals. There are the actual views held by liberals, regardless of which strand of liberalism they believe in, and the imaginary liberals created in the scare stories spread by people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. It would be helpful in political discussion if people understood the differences between various types of liberals and progressives, but it would be tolerable if these were lumped together as long as people understand the differences between actual liberals and the straw men created by the right.