John Agresto of the Wall Street Journal wrote a really provoking piece recently: “Robin Hoods Don’t Smash Shop Windows,” arguing that the left’s concern for the poor, as well as all that fairness and decency rhetoric, unravels rather quickly in practice, and that the ideological left seems to regularly produce a nihilistic fringe and mass protests that degenerate into riots and violence.
Agresto calls the ideological left’s convictions a myth because, historically, the goal of equality under the guise of social benefit has been forwarded by the heavy hand of violence. Mao’s cultural revolution, the French revolution, protests currently happening in Greece and the rest of Europe, and the Occupy crowd consistently show that equality is a revenge story (or a justice story, depending on who is writing history). Is it not the conservatives, with their calls for individual liberty, self-reliance, and hard work, that are the truly virtuous ones, in light of the left’s constant violent equalization in the name of greater good? As conservatives go about trying to make their living, the left fights for the entitlements of equality, always being robbed by someone or not getting their justice, directing their misfortunes and anger outwards, instead of looking inwards and trying harder.
Well. Now that we’re comparing the Occupy crowd to Stalinists and filing all that under the label “Democrat”, I’m sure we can have a reasonable discussion. The road to hell is paved with biased observations, Mr. Agresto.
From the get-go, Agresto builds a straw man for his own argument. You simply can’t compare the fringe elements of one side with the moderate elements of another. This is often a bias everyone makes: what happens when we compare the Tea Party, Donald Trump, the Mafia States of Africa, and the Westboro Baptist Church to the moderate democrats? – we’d simply be demonizing the opposition.
But more than that, the right has just as many turns to violence as the left. The right has just as many fringe groups outside of the mainstream conversation: the hyper-religious gay-bashing and anti-abortionist social conservatives who ostracize and throw rocks at anyone going to the wrong denomination of church are just as bad as the occupiers who ask for jobs and better fiscal regulation while throwing stones at the police.
And if we’re talking legitimate violence, let’s not forget all of violence of the hyper-right: we’ve got Nazism and Fascism historically, and more recently, the gunman of Arizona who shot a democratic senator and a few other people, or the Norwegian guy who shot up an entire camp of left-in-training kids. The differences here are in scale, perhaps: conservative violence, true to its roots in individual values, arrives as instances of individuals lashing out against others in defense of conservative values, and traditions.
But of course, it’s a lot easier to distance a group or ideology from one individual acting out, than from a huge movement gone wrong. A lone gunman? Emphasis on lone. But perhaps it is not that the left’s goals are to incite violence so much as that violence is a by-product of local interactions. Consider: true to thier values, the left advocates for strength in numbers, and tries to work together, resulting in both democratic governments as well as protests and revolutions (as opposed to trends of the right in fascism and coups). But when large groups of like-goaled people gather, you get a herd mentality and an implicit pressure from the momentum of the group.
As in Romania, where Nicolas Ceausescu was overthrown at a pro-Ceausescu rally by one man shouting “Down with Ceausescu” and the rest unthinkingly copying him, so can any peaceful gathering be very quickly be overtaken by a just-as-fringe radical leftist. However, as large group gathering are also always watched by groups of police to contain such fringe elements from exploding, the police presense generally backfires: a heavy-handed response against even one member of the group results in a ripple of back and forth violence that ends in a riot.
Of course, this is more likely to happen on the left, because the right doesn’t want to believe in large groups and movements. The right is pro-individual action, after all. To equate the left with revenge stories based on riots like that would be necessitate equating the right with a predatory vulturism and a complete lack of empathy for others, ala Ayn Rand and her heroes. Both sides have their extreme elements; both sides have very respectable moderate and centrist elements as well.
Perhaps a word needs to be said about how people perceive their futures as well. It’s been well noted that voting patterns are based on how the voter will see their futures, and America is the playground of unbridled optimism. That means the rhetoric of the right, that of individual success through hard work, resonates much more with the ‘working man’ than that of attempting to create equality of some sort. To create a rhetoric of achieving equality is to imply that things are so unequal that it will not be resolved by individuals. Calls for equality are pessimistic and defeatist: they are calls for help, and often calls by minorities for action, which quickly devolves into what looks like the minority imposing its views on the majority and vice-versa, or the paradox of tolerance (can you tolerate calls for intolerance?).
Violence from minority groups will come when they have no say in anything and think they can only be heard through some sort of action, while from the other side, that all looks like a bunch of appeasement and extremism. Radical Islam, anyone? The militant minority? A group unrepresented will have less options for communicating, and violence becomes a highly effective way to deliver a message.
But there is no balance that can be struck between minorities and majorities (or states rights vs. federal government) simply because there is a gap of understanding, empathy, and values. A natural balance will be found by bursts from one side to another as novelties codify into conventions. Things that were unthinkable in the past will become normal in the future, but the present will be marked by a strong strife of ideas and values. Because, of course, the present is our battlefield for the future. The violence is not a domain of the left, but the domain of the unheard or disagreed-with, regardless of political leanings.
This is all an interesting argument and John Agresto could have made a strong statement, but I guess one can’t hold editorialists to complicated views. And that’s a pity, because he makes some good points: we can’t conflate entitlement with legal and social equality. But we also shouldn’t conflate meritocracy with capitalism, nor the radical elements of an ideology with its moderate counterpoints. Every idea taken to its logical conclusion is a form of extremism. That’s why we can’t always be right. Sometimes, we have to be wrong– or in this case– left.
And P.S. — Robin Hood did smash windows and rob the rich blind. Just sayin’.Read More