I have huge respect for people whose political convictions are far to the left of my own, and often, much more respect for them than I have for a lot of people who consider themselves to be conservative or right-wing.
For the most part, I try to avoid identifying myself too much with either the right or the left. It is always terribly dismaying to me how many intelligent people on both sides are willing to smother their intelligence so that they can say whatever the latest talking point is from their side.
Still, in the final analysis, I have difficulty when I try to sympathize with the core of the left, in a way I don’t with the right. There’s a particular negation at the heart of how the left sees the world, and I can’t fully embrace it.
My problem with the left is not that the left wants the government to fund organizations beyond the police and the military, or cares about equality, or distrusts the wealthy, or supports certain kinds of censorship, or worries about climate change. I think these are all good things, generally, even if we might quibble about some of the details of how to pursue those goals.
For me, what I can never fully get behind, is the left’s readiness to demonize the past. This apparently inborn tendency of the left is unacceptable to me for many reasons.
- It’s unnecessary. There’s no reason we can’t respect the past for what it did well and also simultaneously seek to build a better world in the ways that are available to us. Indeed, isn’t that supposed to be the whole idea of conservatism? If systematically disrespecting past generations isn’t necessary to help us reach the future we’re striving toward, why do it?
- It’s inconsistent. The left is famous for demanding sympathy for groups of people today who are not thriving, and who are especially beset by moral and social problems (eg theft, abuse, neglect, murder), for reasons that are outside those people’s control. This stance is often a very commendable thing! So then, why can we not extend the same understanding to our own ancestors, even while recognizing the failures and flaws of those same ancestors?
- It’s arrogant. Do we really think that we are so much better than they are? Do we think that we’re all on a level playing field, and we are choosing to do the right thing where they simply faced the same choice and did the wrong thing? No. Much truer to say that our generation is a product of the history that led up to us, just as theirs was, and perhaps even that if our generation finds ourselves able to embrace some moral imperatives, it may in part be precisely because of the efforts made by those earlier generations whom we are now so quick to judge.
- It’s laughably shortsighted. If we can condemn our ancestors for not having made changes that had never even occurred to them as a possibility, what makes us think that our descendants won’t or shouldn’t treat us in exactly the same way? Our smug self-assurance has the seeds of its own disgrace. If a generation knew what it should do and didn’t do it, then we can of course be somewhat critical. But we can’t be so full of hate towards people who simply didn’t see as clearly what might seem obvious to us from the standpoint of living later in history.
- It’s divisive. Would you insult a person’s deceased grandparents? It doesn’t matter if the grandparents were indeed contemptible people, whose flaws are worth noting. Think of the effect it will have on their descendants who to some degree derive their own identity from those people. It doesn’t mean we can’t be honest, but still, if we wish to be good people ourselves then we’ll recognize that some tact and thoughtfulness might be called for. A similar thing happens with major leaders and thinkers from the past. If we can find a way to point out what was wrong, without needlessly dividing and alienating groups of people from one another, doesn’t everything within us beg to choose that path?
- It’s lazy. It’s easy to complain about the past and to be speak angrily about the dead. It doesn’t doesn’t require any imagination, any sympathy, any compassion, any nuance. Pure hatred or prejudice are powerful emotions to tap into, but they are our worse self, exactly the sort of moral deficiency that we’re so proud today of having overcome. If they made mistakes in the past, then it’s up to us to make repairs. The past can’t change itself or offer apologies — it’s up to us, and passing the buck, if anything, only takes away from the sense of our need to make things better right now.
- It’s misguided. We aren’t angry at them, really, and deep down I think we know it. We’re angry at ourselves, at our own generation, at the preventable injustices all around us — and rightly so! Let’s be honest. And rather than redirecting the anger at a set of convenient scapegoats who cannot speak in their own defence, let’s direct that energy toward trying to be better ourselves.
- It comes at the question from the wrong side. If our history emphasizes one people-group at the expense of another, let’s not cast down the one but lift up the other. Discover the heroes that can be praised for representing those other virtues and efforts that we consider praiseworthy and find lacking in the usual protagonists of our history, and then make an effort to ensure that these other names and stories are known and loved.
I don’t have any specific examples in mind as I write all this out. I know specific examples could very easily be brought out to make me look terrible (“really, John? Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot? You don’t think anyone should disown any of these?”) and that’s a fair point. Maybe that means my claims here are imprecisely broad, if they open me to that sort of reply. Still, it’s a general attitude that I have in mind, more than a particular historical situation. Perhaps what I mean to say is simply that if contempt and hatred and dehumanization will be something we must engage in, with respect to the actors of history, I can’t help but wish that at the very least it would be our very last resort, not our tool of choice.
There are plenty of bigots on the right, trust me I know, but I don’t think their bigotry is inherent to conservatism. I think it is perfectly coherent, being a conservative, not to be a bigot — indeed, I would believe it’s more coherent than the alternative. On the left, a prejudice against the past is widespread, and my point in this post is simply to say that I suspect that this moral flaw, unfortunately, is not so easily extricated from what it means to be progressive.
We can definitely feel ashamed of actions that were done or allowed in the past, and of the things that were said. But to reject that past as though the people in it were less than human, as though we could somehow change retroactively what happened then, is not helpful. Let’s strive for a better future, accepting our predecessors as the flawed human beings that they were.