Richard J. Ellis’s The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America
While the Right is stereotypically considered rigid and dogmatic, inflexibility and illiberality exist just as firmly in the Left. Within the Left, however, it seems to be more hidden. As informed citizens in a country meant to foster diversity and equality, we should consider it a duty to make ourselves aware of any thoughts that, while seeming benevolent, unwind and undermine our liberty. Richard J. Ellis, a political science professor from Willamette University in Oregon, helps us accomplish this. The professor, who describes himself as “a card-carrying liberal,” gives us his insider’s critique of where the Left goes wrong in his fabulous book, The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America. The book features historiography, well-cited source material, singing prose, and intelligent interpretation. It is a worthwhile read regardless of one’s political affiliation, because unlike most texts of its nature, it evenhandedly anatomizes a powerful fringe movement — one that does affect policy but is generally unnoticed or misunderstood.
Ellis discusses exactly how the radical Left conducts itself throughout history. First and foremost, they typically conceive “the system” to be hopelessly corrupt and corrosive: People are inherently good, but their lives are broken down by a society whose structure malforms them and limits their human potential. According to Mike Gold, a communist writer from the 1920s, the average citizen was a “hypnotized” by a hegemonic “capitalist culture” that was “present in every[thing]” he or she consumed, from music to literature; Earth First!, a radical environmental group, writes that “the anthropocentric imperialism of Western culture is a killing machine,” that all the world’s problems would be resolved if we could “shake off this awful thing called Western culture which has now, inevitably, brought the world to the brink of ecocide.” Ellis points out that “[i]n this alienated mindset, even the problems plaguing the non-Western world, such as overpopulation, grinding poverty, and environmental degradation, become the fault of the West” and that “[t]he language … used to describe the West and the American political system is so exaggerated and hyperbolic that careful distinctions become hard to draw.” If one side is so insistent that everything fundamental about America is not only wrong but is calculatedly evil, how can the political process be functional? Can people legitimately disagree? Where should we turn?
The radical Left’s answer to these questions is that fundamentally inclusive egalitarianism is the best way to undo the evils that our Western capitalist society sows all over the globe. There is a historical tradition of people advocating the methodical deconstruction of our society. William Lloyd Garrison and Edward Bellamy, Mike Gold, and Earth First! all churn out utopias to characterize and explain the ideal alternative to the current world. In his 1887 utopian novel, Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy conceived a world of total equality, with nothing distinguishing citizens from each other: identical homes, identical pay, identical food; Mike Gold in the 1920s wrote that revolution-torn Russia provided fertile soil for the ultimate paradigm of equality in the world, having totally rejected capitalism; radical feminist Catherine MacKinnon asserts that there is no such thing as consensual sex between men and women (and goes so far as to call all heterosexual sex ‘rape,’ even within marriage), and that only when women have sublimated men will they be free from incessant and total degradation; and Earth First! insists that the only way to save the planet is to deconstruct all of our social institutions — from capitalism to parenthood.
These points of view are hard to address because they are so polarizing. Where is there room for scientific or general dispute to Earth First!’s environmental claims? If one objects to MacKinnon’s perspective, do those dissenters become apologists for rape? A nuanced argument incorporating these themes is impossible; the Left’s tendency to make things dire stifles the ability to debate, consider alternative viewpoints, and negotiate — all of which contribute to a kind of intellectual dishonesty and refusal to accept other ideologies as valid or even worth addressing. Relativism and indoctrination now abound, and what was formerly “radical skepticism [of societal practices and norms] often gives way to radical certainty” and forcible indoctrination. He also writes that “anti-intellectualism, specifically an impatience with intellectuals who raise doubts or questions that might impede radical action,” abounds, leaving college radicals to disregard and disdain points of view they are fundamentally and willfully ignorant about.
The changes demanded are also impractical and illiberal. They do not allow for a complex, chromatic breadth of life experiences that is fundamental to America. In this way, the Left’s injunctions are incredibly authoritarian and total, which leads them to often imbue the utopian state with power to enforce egalitarianism, for “[i]f people’s preferences reflect not their own volition but rather an imposed hegemonic cultural system, then is it not legitimate to force them to be free?”
Furthermore, the Left tends to idealize the oppressed as they are “seen as being uncontaminated by the dominant ethos of society.” The idealization of the minority often leads to an endorsement of fundamentally illiberal practices because they are viewed as more “human.” While critical of Western nations, the Left often exaggerates the beneficence of and ignores the evils of other regimes: Mike Gold’s “romance with Soviet communism ended with tawdry apologies for Stalinist oppression, just as the New Left’s romance with Third World revolutionaries led them to excuse or overlook political repression and acts of brutality … at the high cost of intellectual honesty and radical skepticism that egalitarian intellectuals rightly prize.”
This egalitarian skepticism is incredibly valuable. The Left would be nothing without its capacity to dream, and often that dream has led to bigger and better things for society. Objectively, feminism, the civil rights movement, the rights of sexual minorities, the crusading for freedom of speech in all walks of life, and the struggle for defense of privacy have vastly improved the lives of many Americans — and, by the examples they set, people around the world. In contrast with the hawkishness of the Right, Randolph Bourne’s anti-war essays in WWI set the example of a conscientious and thoughtful objection to violence and human slaughter and suffering. The Right can and ought to use the tools of the Left to its own advantage. Questioning a political tradition, fighting frigid and callous political machinery, and acknowledging political limitations are quintessential tools for a functional democracy. The Left’s current, and sometimes merited, complaints about the dogmatism in the Right’s radicals — like the Tea Party — should be applied to similar movements within their own camp. Aiming for a pragmatic centricism on both sides would help everyone govern better. Ellis closes with hope that the Left will relinquish its more rigid political stances and “put politics before [ideological] purity,” to turn its wealth of human compassion and intellectual vigor to the addressing of cruelty and true liberal and diverse freedom in America.