January 16, 2011
Liberals and Political Kitsch
The link at RealClearPolitics said "Eliminating Inequality is Good for the Soul." But at the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof's article a week ago was more bland: "Equality, a True Soul Food."
Kristof was boosting The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. They argue, using social science data about the developed nations, that societies with greater inequality demonstrate bigger health and social problems. Obviously the solution is more center-left policies to socially engineer equality, from taxes to fighting global warming with a low-carbon, sustainable economy to employee-owned corporations. In short, all power to the liberals!
Obviously, if Nick Kristof is getting all tingly about some new center-left book, then conservatives need to know what is going on. If you want to get my detailed look at The Spirit Level, you should look at my blog's Spirit Level Week. But we have bigger fish to fry. Let's go into the kitchen.
I'm all in favor of equality, at least in its Abe Lincoln version -- the world open to talents. It's equality run by liberals that sticks in my craw, just as, to liberals, the talent open to the world called Sarah Palin sticks in their craw.
But what is it, exactly, that sticks in the conservative craw? I will tell you. It is the fact that liberalism is political kitsch.
Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton helped me see the light. I was reading his Beauty -- specifically, the chapter where he talks about the problem of kitsch and its alter ego, desecration.
Kitsch deprives feeling of its cost, and therefore of its reality; desecration augments the cost of feeling, and so frightens us away from it. The remedy for both states of mind is suggested by the thing that they each deny, which is sacrifice.
Our liberal friends champion a politics that eliminates sacrifice. "No one should have to [insert specific sacrifice here]," they bellow.
They used to have a point back in the mid-19th century, when it looked like the working class would never get a fair shake. Prophets like Marx predicted the "immiseration" of the working class.
That was then. Today, Wilkinson and Picket write in The Spirit Level, "[o]verweight among the poor seems to be strongly associated with income inequality." Something has gone wrong when liberals are telling us we need more government programs because the poor are too fat.
When liberals aren't kitschifying politics at political conventions with Al Gore's famous kiss or Barack Obama's Styrofoam Greek temple, they are desecrating our cultural memory by removing crosses from military cemeteries and taking God out of the public square.
But their great crime is that their political kitsch trivializes the sacrifice of Everyman in the Great Migration from farm to factory to office over the last two hundred years. It is the most astonishing story in the long story of homo sapiens: how tens of millions left the brutal world of subsistence farming and traveled, on a hope and a prayer, to the city on a hill. There, despite the challenges and the cruelties and excruciating setbacks, those millions thrived. What a story! What a movie!
Only, the way liberals tell it, the story was all about the legislation liberals passed to save helpless victims from a fate worse than death.
In my determined effort to escape the cloying kitsch of liberal politics, I have been reading the lady novelists of the 19th century, writers like George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. What was life like, I wanted to know, before liberals got their noses into everything, and what did women think about it?
What they thought was that every act was pregnant with moral meaning. Ordinary, plain people could thrive in a difficult world, they wrote, but they had to be serious about every act and diligent in building a moral community around them in the face of inevitable setbacks and hardship. They knew that they could be called upon for great sacrifice at any moment, and they were prepared for it. Needless to say, they had to be especially wary of idle young sons of landowners, manufacturers, and businessmen.
The liberal idea is different. Liberals say, Don't you little people bother your silly little heads with all that hard stuff. No one should have to (fill in the blank). Meanwhile, liberals want to be the ones who save the planet, succor the poor, create the great art, and instruct the ignorant. They take all that moral stuff very seriously.
That's the trouble with the Equality agenda. It denies Americans the right to live their own lives, accept necessary sacrifice, and create their own moral communities. It treats the American people as cogs to be fitted into the big liberal Equality machine. It reduces politics to political kitsch.