synthetic zero



Addendum - October 11, 2001

Most of my friends are leftists, and when I took a political survey on the Internet I found myself being categorized firmly as a Green voter (I voted for Gore, since I found Nader's political strategy both egotistical and utterly counterproductive --- if we lived in a country with a runoff or with proportional representation I'd vote Green in a second. As it is, voting Green is guaranteed to improve the chances that my ideological opposites will win. This does not appear to me to be smart politics. But this has all been said before, far too often, so I won't belabor the obvious.)

But one thing I have always, always been opposed to on both the left and the right is a sort of primitive, lizard-brain tribalist stance in which every conflict or contrast is couched in the form of an "us versus them" mentality --- that is to say, to imagine that it is always a matter of our side versus the other side. In the case of right-wingers, the tendency becomes to presume that our side is always right, and in the case of the far left, our side is always wrong. The left becomes a mere critiquer of the faults of our own society, and leaves the problems inherent elsewhere to someone else to criticize.

Well, I think that's bullshit. I am a citizen of the world, a person, a human being before I am an American. I recall some of my leftist friends telling me that they criticize American policy because, being Americans, we are in a better position to affect policy here. Well, yes, I agree with this generally, but to extend this to a blindness to the suffering of people under foreign regimes is, I believe, childish and callous.

I am not one of those people who criticizes the postmodern idea that there are incommensurable cultural systems. I find the notion very appealing. However, reflexively concentrating solely on our own faults, I believe is a hidden kind of cultural chauvinism, a reverse jingoism based in the same intolerant ignorance of others that engenders hateful right-wing excesses. I notice, for example, that many of my good leftist friends hang out almost exclusively with other white leftists. While preaching racial harmony, in reality they do not do very much to reach out to these other cultures.

In other words, I see both right-wing and left-wing ignorance as stemming from the same source: an inability to truly appreciate the substantive quality of the other. The right-winger engages in an obvious mistake, but the left-winger a parallel, only slightly more obscure version of the same thing: to imagine that everybody in the world is fighting the same battle, the battle against our own American problems. Sure, American policy is that which affects us most, and it has a disproportionate effect elsewhere, but other people live in foreign lands under foreign regimes and they have a different story. To reflexively ignore or forgive the excesses of foreign oppressive regimes is to apply a totalizing oversimplification, a single world vision in which everyone on the planet is fighting our internal struggle against American elements of oppression.

I, on the other hand, think of myself as fundamentally fighting oppression by anyone, anywhere: either within our own ranks or committed by our friends or enemies. When I see the Taliban and their crimes I simply would never accept similar behavior from Americans; it is as though the most rabid religious fanatics forcibly took over our own government and imposed an anti-feminist, anti-human, bigoted totalizing regime on everyone here --- I would fight that fiercely and so would all of my leftist friends. Why would it be any different when it comes to an even more extreme version of this imposed by the Taliban? It is not different for me. If I were Afghan I would fight them too.

Someone I know who has spent a lot of time in Afghanistan pointed out that for all of the concern the American left is now showing for the suffering of the people of Afghanistan, until we went to war with them they were totally oblivious to the horrible plight of people there. Meanwhile, however, he said that European leftists were aware of the problems there, and were sincerely engaged and concerned. To him, the American left is immature and hypocritical.

I don't have such harsh words for my friends. I am far more anti-right-wing than anything else --- but I find myself not sharing some of the views of my leftist friends, when it comes to foreign affairs particularly. I do not share their sanguine attitude about the depradations of foreign governments. I trust the basic good impulses of the left: the desire for justice and peace, the respect for values which transcend narrow self-interest. I simply wish they'd extend the same concern they have for victims of American oppression to victims of oppression everywhere: not just those who live under the heel of American allies, but also those who have been victimized by our so-called enemies.

I trust the left before I trust the right, however, simply because leftists understand the need for self-criticism is more urgently needed than the need for reflexive self-love; the default position is to be supportive of your own side. But to ignore the faults of people or governments not on our own side is nevertheless an extension of the same mistake, the tribalist fallacy. We are human beings, each living particularized stories in very different contexts. To be human first means to recognize that not everyone on the planet is fighting the American battle. We must be supportive of those who fight for their dignity and human rights, everywhere. Perhaps you could call me a global progressive as opposed to a parochical progressive.