Ideas, old and dead, are still walking around.
by Bruce S. Thornton
Explaining the continued death-grip of progressive ideology on significant numbers of people despite its manifest intellectual exhaustion, incoherence, and senility compels one to rely on analogies. The notion of political religions, a time-honored way of explaining political doctrines like communism, Nazism, and fascism, is still serviceable for communicating the dependence of progressivism on unreflective faith, metaphysical myths, utopian fantasies, fossilized dogmas, and ritualistic rhetoric. But I’m not sure it any longer communicates just how dead left-wing ideas are.
For one thing, the comparison of such political ideologies to religion is an insult to most traditional faiths, which are much more rationally coherent and honest about their metaphysical assumptions. The great Catholic historian Henri de Lubac made this same point years ago in his classic The Drama of Atheistic Humanism. Quoting Leon Trotsky’s extravagant claims of Marxism’s power to create a utopia of “supermen,” de Lubac wrote, “Has Christianity ever asked such an abdication of the mind? On which side are the miracles most unbelievable?”
For this and other reasons, I find the image of the pseudo-religious “cult” more apropos. I mean something like Jim Jones’ People’s Church from the Seventies. As Shiva Naipaul’s brilliant book Journey to Nowhere points out, Jonestown was the crystallization of numerous leftist delusions, liberationist rhetoric, and stale revolutionary ideology that were popularized in the Sixties. Jones brilliantly exploited, for example, the “social justice” and anti-racist rhetoric of the Sixties New Left in order to fleece followers and various government agencies of huge amounts of cash, all the while he was running an old tent-revival scam and sexually feeding off the women in his flock. On the brink of exposure, Jones fled the country and set up a utopian commune in the jungles of Guiana, where eventually some 900 unfortunates committed mass “revolutionary suicide” by drinking cyanide-laced kool-aid.
The image of the cult, then, captures perfectly the progressive worldview: worn-out bad ideas about human nature and society put to the service of schemes for creating heaven on earth, if only absolute power is handed over to a messianic leader or some “enlightened” elite. Seeing progressive ideology as a cult explains why leftists fall so hard for charismatic thugs like Castro or Hugo Chavez, why they indulge paranoid fantasies about evil capitalists and their secret machinations, why they have such inflated views of their own righteousness and possession of revealed truth, and why they are so eager to drink en masse the poisonous ideological koolaid cooked up by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Moore, Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, Oliver Stone, Keith Olbermann, the Nation, or the Daily Kos.
As expressive as it is, though, the image of the cult doesn’t quite capture the most objectionable dimension of progressive ideology: its reliance on superannuated ideas long exploded and repudiated by history. The Brookings Institution’s Robert Leiken a few years back had a nice metaphor that captured this aspect of progressive ideology. Reporting on the 2006 mass demonstrations by the French protesting some modest adjustments to hiring and firing restrictions, Leiken wrote of the signs carried by the leftist marchers, “Causes and ideas that were young in nineteenth-century Europe had escaped from their nursing homes in Pyongyang, Havana, and Minsk.”
This metaphor neatly gets the senility of most left-wing thought. I am continually astonished by the doddering, addled ideas that some left-wing pundit or professor wheels out with the smug flourish of someone who thinks he’s daringly revealing new truths to the oafish masses mired in “false consciousness.” Hollywood, of course, is notorious for this bad habit. How many more television shows or movies do we need in which evil corporations, abetted by the evil CIA or the evil US military, plot to despoil nature or the Third World in the name of profits? Just watch Avatar, the recent mega-blockbuster whose state-of-the-art special effects are merely the lipstick on a trite pig of a story.
But our public intellectuals are no better than the purveyors of popular culture. How many more professors and pundits do we have to listen to as they drone on about the “greedy rich” whose ill-gotten wealth is immiserating the people? How many times do we have to listen to the ACLU’s stentorian hysteria about censorship and the “chilling effect on free speech,” when the definition of “civil liberties” has historically been expanding to dimensions that would have horrified the Founders? How long are we going to be subjected to the centuries-old noble-savage myth in its new disguise, multiculturalism, which peddles essentialist and illiberal racial and ethnic stereotypes whose roots lie in 18th-century German romantic nationalism? When will we ever be liberated from cobwebbed Marxist smear-terms like colonialism, imperialism, and fascism, which as historian Robert Conquest pointed out, are verbal “mind-blockers and thought-extinguishers” that serve “mainly to confuse, and of course to replace, the complex and needed process of understanding with the simple and unneeded process of inflammation”? And how will we ever purge ourselves of the decrepit romantic nature-love that passes for environmentalism, that Disneyfied view of the natural world that is nothing more than a millennia-old wish-fulfilling myth indulged by well-fed city-dwellers who wouldn’t survive in nature for five minutes?
These ideas are beyond old. They’re dead. Yet they’re still walking around, which is why the metaphor of the zombie works best. Moreover, zombies are mindless, also suggesting progressivism, which reflexively repeats received wisdom and gratifying myths as substitutes for clear thinking based on coherent principle and a respect for historical reality. Worse yet, the victims of zombies also become zombies. That’s how progressivism has managed to flourish despite its senility and repudiation by reality: by taking over schools, popular culture, the mainstream media, and for now the White House and Congress, where they can munch away at people’s ability to think critically until they too start staggering around, mechanically moaning left-wing bumper-sticker wisdom as they lumber to the polls or classroom or movie theater.
We know how all zombie movies turn out. A beleaguered handful of the uninfected battle furiously against the undead swarming the doors and windows. So too the war against dead progressive ideas, which has been going on in America for fifty years. And though we don’t know whether there will be a happy ending, we do know that we can’t ever stop trying to kill off a dead yet still dangerous ideology.
©2010 Bruce S. Thornton