Sometimes I think my liberal friends are wrong when they say that the Right has moved further right in recent years. Maybe they are correct, but here’s another way of looking at it. If you think of the spectrum as two poles with a center point, I’ll agree that the center has shifted right since the emergence of Fox news and talk radio, but the right ideological pole, with its emphasis on deregulation and privatization, lower taxes, a distrust of group-based rights, etc., has held firm. This means the right half of the spectrum has been compressed, bunching up and causing internal tensions. To keep to the metaphor, one could say that the right half of the spectrum has constricted and buckled, with new subgroups like the Tea Party and the Alt-Right buckling up from the base like tectonic plates. I propose, for the sake of argument, that we consider these groups not as philosophically more conservative, but rather as a sublimated version of the base. Sure, they push further right on some issues, like immigration, but for the most part they are not more right-wing but just a less grounded (historically, factually and psychologically) version of the conservative base: the idiot version of birthers and Obamacare death panels.
Although this analysis has seemed to take a partisan turn, the Left fares not much better. It might be that those who think the Left has moved further left may be wrong. Yes, they have become more strident, more unwilling to compromise, more given to vitriolic name-calling of their conservative counterparts, but that merely indicates a change in tone, not a philosophical move to the left. So has the Left buckled also? Not exactly. Has it stretched further left? I don’t think so. I think the problem on the left is that it is “curling” back to the right. The “true north” of the left-wing vision dates to the 1960s Civil Rights and hippie movements. The left-wing goal then was to liberate people from all conventional restraints on what to say and think, on living arrangements and paths to self-actualization. The goal was to celebrate our sexuality and our differences without denying our shared humanness, to see each other as brothers and sisters, regardless of race or demographics. We were fellow human beings, first and foremost, and it was precisely the vantage of that shared humanness that brought into focus the absurdity of racism, sexism, and other social injustices.
But now the curling. The Left’s new tendency to police sexuality (a new puritanism ever watchful to prove, e.g., that male desire and heterosexuality are intrinsically exploitative), to police dissent, to set us-vs-them identity-based triggers that shame and alienate white from black, male from female, for short-term political gain. In the New Left’s view, it seems that viewing each other as brothers and sisters regardless of race and gender is a “microaggression,” bridges are replaced by walls and defending one’s turf against “cultural appropriation,” the post-60s battle lines with a rainbow coalition of progressives resisting a status quo Establishment are replaced by demographic battle lines between white and black, male and female, and all of the other reified categories of the intersectional encyclopedia. In these ways – the cultural policing, the revivified segregation of demographic groups into insulated interest groups, the authoritarian resistance to dialogue and free expression – the Left has curled back toward the “Right” as it was defined on a 1960s spectrum.
So my contrarian conclusion to my friends at both ends is that the spectrum has not widened but narrowed, with the Right buckling up and the Left curling back. Sure, there are still policy differences – on immigration, health care, environmental regulation – and, to be clear, I favor the liberals on these issues – but the shorter the horizontal space of the spectrum becomes, the more ad hominem and the more vicious the personal attacks on those who disagree. And this is the state of things today. The only hope, if there is a hope, is for some new force to emerge outside of today’s left-right spectrum, a unifying voice that can connect with the idea that we are all in this together, and with a limited amount of time to address issues of environmental destruction and inequality and tribalism before the tipping point. There were such inspirational voices in the past, so perhaps it can be done again, but not from within the political spectrum as we now know it.
Yes, I know, political correctness maintains that white people have no title to an opinion on the subject today, but I’ve never been much for following rules – not back when conservatives were the cultural police and not now with liberals as the cultural police. So what the hell, here’s my view. It is not intended as the final word on the subject, not even my final word, as there’s a lot to hear before fixing my position too firmly. It is one voice among many, but it is a heartfelt one, and any tricky issue is navigated best when the widest range of voices, including those we disagree with, are welcome at the table.
As a white man, I feel sorry for my black brothers and sisters. Not only because they have suffered so deeply from historical conditions whose effects continue today, but also because the liberal agenda, which was “liberating” at the time of the Civil Rights/hippie 60s, has now become a constraining force. Conservatives, of course, are no help whatsoever. But liberals used to offer, at least in the vision, a way out. Now the liberal agenda, although split between residual Enlightenment liberals and emergent identity politics liberals, seems to have given the microphone to the latter. And the latter seem to hold that if you are black, every aspect of your identity must be defined by racism. You cannot speak, especially if you are a public figure, of any interactions with mainstream culture or white people without decrying racism as a driving part of the interaction. Forget about the collaboration, the good times, the connections that transcended race or racism.
Indeed, many of my younger liberal friends are probably already offended by the fact that I opened with a reference to “my black brothers and sisters.” That old liberal vision that says we are all in this together, brothers and sisters, regardless of race or demographics, that says we should measure each other by the content of our character and not the color of our skin, is now anathema to liberals. Where liberals once fought to break down the walls between races, liberals now insist upon those very walls. For white people to try to identify with blacks as brothers and sisters is considered presumptuous, overreaching, an affront to the black experience. There is a certain logic to this position but it gives us no way forward toward a harmonious multicultural society. When activists demand that the Whitney Museum “remove and destroy” Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till solely because it was done by a white artist; when universities demand that students treat each other not as fellow human beings but as instances of this or that race (“I don’t see race when I meet people” is widely listed as a microaggression); at this point, liberalism becomes a force that hardens the walls between races and blocks any collective path forward.
Few people at any point in the political spectrum deny that racism exists. But whereas racism was once considered a cancer to be removed from the body politic, liberals now conflate it with the body politic itself, and the treatment seems to involve killing the patient to get at the cancer. I believe this is a mistake. The truth is that many people, black and white, have been fighting against racism for a long time; that many people, black and white, still harbor race-based judgments against others; that blacks have suffered disproportionately because of their race; and that the solution is not and will never be to sharpen the line between white and black with the “us versus them” approach favored by conservatives in the 1960s and now favored by liberals. Better to search out and magnify the good in one another, not to search out and magnify the bad. What you focus on determines the fruit you bring forth.
(To my younger liberal friends [black or white]: Before you write me off, please note that beneath all the needless belligerence manufactured by today’s political players, there’s actually a lot we agree on and can work on together.)
If you look at clips of hippies from the Summer of Love or Woodstock or their post-60s communes, you see, the sexual liberation of the times aside, lots of non-sexual touching and hugging. In the hippie zeitgeist, human touch was one of the primary glues of communal oneness. Physical touch was not just symbolic of healing and unity. It was the physical joy of human connection itself. It not only symbolized but manifested oneness with our fellow beings on the level of all the sheaths of identity (physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual). You could feel the bonds. Besides the cosmic, hippyish explanation, this may simply be evolution. For millions of years, grooming and snuggling and other forms of touch have defined primate behavior.But as with so many things in the hippie spring of the 1960s, the reinvestment in physical touch was part of a social vision, a push toward a society that was less materialistic but richer in human contact.
Nowadays, the focus on sexual harassment has brought shame to many who long deserved it, but has also raised a question for us hippie sympathizers: Was there a utopian naivete about the hippie zeitgeist on touch? Can it be exploited by those who would sexually harass? That is certainly a risk, and the anti-harassment movement we see today is a corrective to that risk. But I fear the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. Along with those who are justly punished, there seems a sense building that any touch on the shoulder or forearm, is a blip on a gradient that ends in rape. We have moved from seeing “human touch” as one of the great healing and redemptive powers at our disposal to seeing it as something intrinsically dark.
I don’t want to overstate my case. I understand that no one is proposing that all human touch be marked negative. But is that becoming the new default setting? In our eagerness to right wrongs, is “potentially toxic” becoming the first thing we think of when one human being touches another? Come to think of it, a lot of default settings seem to be moving the needle to “toxic.” Masculinity is increasing portrayed as toxic in itself, invested in violence and power and subjugation; heterosexual sex is seen as vaguely toxic, and even women with straight heterosexual desire should feel a little guilty for being complicit in the heteronormative patriarchy. Such are the times, at least as they are being engineered by the theories coming out of academic identity departments.
But touch, I hate to see touch go. Whereas the push in the 60s was for a society richer in physical human contact, the push now would seem to presage a society that valorizes a decrease in physical human contact. Granted the naivete of the hippie zeitgeist had a vulnerability that could be exploited, I just worry about the pendulum swinging too far. I am uneasy about the demise of that hippie optimism about human nature and human connection. I worry that the beauty of human touch will be lost in a new age of puritanism. I worry that this new idea we have of the integrity of the isolated individual – some would say an idea that really only emerged 100 years ago with the existentialist philosophers – that this idea puts us at odds with millions of years of evolution, in which identity formed as part of a group, with constant tactile confirmation giving “wholeness” to that identity.
A society depleted of that tactile confirmation may indeed make individuals safer,and there is an absolute value there that gives pause to my own thesis. That value alone makes today’s anti-harassment movement potentially a great positive in our effort to “form a more perfect union.” But great positives can become negatives without moderating voices, just as the heady liberation of the French Revolution (1789) morphed into the Reign of Terror (1793). Without a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi, the passion of protest can turn unprofitably violent. And if Facebook posts are any indication, there are certainly some cultural warriors out there harboring a little of the Robespierre bloodthirst. So yes, I am all for the increased safety that might result from the anti-harassment movement, but be aware that a lack of moderation always comes with its own risks. The risk in this case is a more general fear of human contact. People may slowly become more isolated, alone, bereft of the redemptive power that has always saved us from our fragmentary, individual lives and given us a pathway to fulfillment that only comes viscerally, through abundance of human contact.
Photo credit: Peter Simon (http://www.petersimon.com/)
Of course, terms like “liberal” and “conservative” change values over time, so there is no permanently fixed answer, but the question is still meaningful. Looking at the general standards of what “liberal” has meant in living memory (the past 50 years or so), today’s liberals are not liberal by a 1960s definition, and indeed, for better or for worse, are working feverishly to dismantle the 1960s liberal vision. The 1960s counterculture liberals pushed hard for a non-restrictive (break all restraints), radically integrationist (everyone share everything openly, regardless of race), and non-puritanical (celebrate all forms of robust sexuality, so long as no one is forcing anyone) vision. Using these three criteria, today’s liberals are by 1960s standards “pseudo-liberal” at best, “reactionary” at worst — i.e., they are restrictive (policing speech and every false move), segregationist (cultural appropriation and do-not-cross lines and “you can’t know my truth” because you’re not my color), and puritanical (crude jokes and clumsy flirtations are actionable offenses, every hint of male heterosexual desire is suspect in a vague consensus that “male pleasure is inextricably tied to victimizing, hurting, exploiting” [Dworkin]).
So are liberals today “liberal”? If by liberal, you mean restrictive, segregationist, and puritanical, yes. Perhaps this is indeed what “liberal” has become. But if you are old enough to have set your benchmarks of “liberal” over a longer range, say reaching back through the hippies to John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, the new “liberalism” (restrictive + segregationist + puritanical) might seem “pseudo-liberal” or even reactionary, in some cases more reactionary than today’s college-age conservatives.
The first question people always ask me about Hippies is whether this romp through the psychedelics and sexual liberation and ideals, the music scene and the war scene, all the darkness and all the light of the late 1960s, is autobiographical. And am I like Ragman or Ziggy or Tex, etc.?
It’s not exactly autobiographical in that sense. But I draw from autobiography on every page. I am a bit part in every character. But perhaps this is tautological. Perhaps every artwork with more than one character is a kind of psychomachia, all characters projecting different aspects of the writer’s soul or psyche. Perhaps this is not just a psychological necessity (creative arts are after all self-expression) but a metaphysical one as well. How metaphysical? If all the people of the world – past, present, and future – are so many surface expressions of the single personality of godhead, then the whole great drama, the extended “vanity fair” of human history, is one great psychomachia. And divine history, too, as the figures that populate the collective imagination are just as much expressions of godhead as the figures that populate physical reality. Indeed, the figures of imagination may be more intimate expressions of godhead, as Jung’s collective unconscious transcends the individual psyche and gets one step closer the universal Psyche.
At least this literary theory, this metaphysics, seems consistent with the cosmic laws governing the created world of Hippies. And perhaps that is enough.