Dancing in a ring (a response to a query posed by Norm Geras)
In a recent post, Norman Geras wrote:
And yet it is almost de rigeur amongst people of liberal and left outlook, today, to use as representative of what we should fear in the way of a possible return of the horrors of Nazism, not the many actual ruthless and life-devouring regimes we have known in recent decades, but... George Bush, or America, or some other Western instance or combination. Why? One answer I would give to this is that I don't know. I've been trying to understand it since September 11 2001 and on some level failing. Yes, you can say knee-jerk this, that and the other, and in its own way it is right to say so. But, more deeply, the failure involved in these de rigeur responses, the failure to give due weight and proportion to moral and political realities which matter more than just about anything else matters, is hard to comprehend.
In that one-word sentence, "Why?" and its answer, "I don't know," lie an enormity of wonder, a perplexity many of us share.
Why do so many "of liberal and left outlook" focus on Bush's supposed crimes, making the Nazi comparison at the drop of a metaphor, and ignoring the far more terrible tyrants around the world for whom the Hitlerian analogy would be more apt? Why indeed have many on the left functioned as apologists for Saddam Hussein, a man whose downfall they should be applauding? When they said they were against tyranny, didn't they mean what they said?
I don't pretend to have a definitive answer. But I do have a response.
First, I offer this quote from Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting:
Circle dancing is magic. It speaks to us through the millennia from the depths of human memory. Madame Raphael had cut the picture out of the magazine and would stare at it and dream. She too longed to dance in a ring. All her life she had looked for a group of people she could hold hands with and dance with in a ring. First she looked for them in the Methodist Church (her father was a religious fanatic), then in the Communist Party, then among the Trotskyites, then in the anti-abortion movement (A child has a right to life!), then in the pro-abortion movement (A woman has a right to her body!); she looked for them among the Marxists, the psychoanalysts, and the structuralists; she looked for them in Lenin, Zen Buddhism, Mao Tse-tung, yogis, the nouveau roman, Brechtian theater, the theater of panic; and finally she hoped she could at least become one with her students, which meant she always forced them to think and say exactly what she thought and said, and together they formed a single body and a single soul, a single ring and a single dance.
We all want to dance in a ring, to a certain extent. It's wonderful to be part of a coherent movement, a whole that makes sense, joined with others working for the same goal and sharing the same beliefs. But there's a price to pay when something challenges the tenets of that movement. When that happens, there are two kinds of people: those who change their ideas to fit the new facts, even if it means leaving the fold, and those who distort and twist the facts and logic to maintain the circle dance.
Now, you might say that leftists didn't have to compromise their beliefs to have applauded the downfall of Saddam Hussein and to have realized that he and his regime were worse (and far more Nazi-like) than George Bush. Indeed, there are many leftists who have consistently said these very things. But there are others---and their numbers are not small--who have not, or who have done it with so much "throat-clearing," as Chris Hitchens calls it, that their statements become virtually meaningless.
What is the difference between these two types of people? I think it has to do with the extent of their devotion to the circle dance, and the hierarchy of their belief system. The former group--what Norm Geras calls "principled leftists"--truly do believe what they say about hating tyrants and tyranny, and this is one of their highest values. They apply it irrespective of where the tyranny originates. But the second group, the terrorist and Saddam apologists, the relentless Bush=Hitler accusers, are quite different. It seems that they feel that their membership in the circle of the left requires them to elevate one particular guiding principle above all else, and that is this: in any power struggle between members of a third-world country and a developed Western country (especially the most powerful of all, the United States), the third-world country is always right.
Once learned, this very simple and reductionist principle makes the world easy to understand, and dictates all further responses. If one believes this principle, then oppression and tyranny can go in one direction only, and all evidence to the contrary must be ignored, suppressed, or twisted by sophistry into something almost unrecognizable. But once that price is paid, one can go on dancing in the old circle.
In the quote with which I began this essay, Norm Geras refers to "the failure to give due weight and proportion to moral and political realities which matter more than just about anything else matters." I think the key phrase is "which matter more than just about anything else matters." To those intent on dancing the circle dance above all else, the priorities are different. Apparently, other things matter more.
I don't think this phenomenon is limited to the left. I've watched some on the right do the same sort of thing (although the details and issues are quite different): ignore evidence or twist logic to make sure they come to a preordained conclusion that fits into previous theories. And on the right there are also those brave ones who leave the circle and dance outside the ring.