Radical Son: on "progressives" and conservatives
Many people have suggested I really need to read David Horowitz's book Radical Son, so many that I decided to take them up on it. I just got the book out of the library and have only read a bit so far--and done this in my usual fashion, which involves skipping around rather wildly, reading the parts that interest me most first.
It is a long book, and a rambling one. But some of his words really leapt out at me with great power. My impression, based on just the little bit I've read so far, is that Horowitz's story is a sad one. Disillusionment with beliefs, and the resultant ostracism by one's former "comrades," is always sad. My story differs a great deal from Horowitz's, especially in two particular points: Horowitz was a well-known public figure and activist both before and after his "conversion," and he began from a far more radical position than I--hence the title.
But the book is still of great interest to me; those who suggested it were right. I only hope I can find the time to read the whole thing. One of the points that Horowitz drives home is how unforgivable his apostasy was to people who had formerly been his friends, many of whom ruthlessly cut him out of their lives with great bitterness solely because of his new political opinions.
The following struck me as so on-target that I wanted to quote it here. It explains the power of the Communist leftist dream to generations of poor immigrants during the early decades of the twentieth century. Horowitz is describing his own father, who was a committed Marxist--and I believe he is also describing an immigrant grandfather of mine whom I never knew, since he died in the 1920s:
Political utopians like my father had a master plan. They were going to transform the world from the chaos we knew into a comfortable and friendly place. In the happy future they dreamed about, there would be an end to grief from life out of control, life grinding you down and smashing your gut when you expected it least. Human cruelty would go out of style and become a memory in the museum of historical antiquities. In my father's paradise there would be no strangers. No one would feel like an outsider, alienated from others and at odds with themselves.
For thirty-five years I followed my father's footsteps and believed in his earthly redemption, until a day came when I realized that there are tragedies from which one cannot recover, and alienation that no revolution can cure. That we are the mystery, and this is the only truth that matters.
This is a fine description of the tragedy of the Utopian, who believes in the perfectibility of human nature and thus often commits (or at least condones) great evil in the name of an only-imagined good. To these people, faith in Communism replaced faith in religion, and was going to make up for all the disappointments of their lives. Some of them managed to abandon the dream when the excesses of Stalin were finally revealed in mid-century; others could not give it up, but instead gave up their hold on reality. I knew some of these people.
Horowitz also has a fine passage on the difference between those who like to call themselves "progressives" (read: leftists) and conservatives:
In December 1992, I was invited to give a lecture at the Heritage Foundation, the right's most important policy think tank. The subject was, "Are We Conservatives?" The very posing of the question was interesting. It was difficult to imagine, for example, a parallel forum asking, "Are We Progressives?" I explained this anomaly to my audience by pointing out that conservatism was an attitude about lessons from an actual past. By contrast, the attention of progressives was directed towards an imagined future. Conservatism was an attitude of caution based on a sense of human limits and what politics could accomplish. To ask whether conservatives were conservative was to ask a practical question about whether particular institutions were worth conserving...
The reason why progressives were unable to ask a similar question went to the root of their intolerant attitudes. Because the outlook of progressives was based on the idea of a liberated future, there was no way to disagree with them without appearing to oppose what was decent and humane. To criticize the radical project places one in opposition to a world in which social justice and harmony would prevail.
No wonder "progressives" ended up hating this guy. In this particular passage, Horowitz gets to the heart of a matter I've often thought about, and he explains it with a fine economy of expression. In summary, he is saying: how can you argue with a dream? Although dreams ordinarily don't hurt people, this one has caused profound harm to untold millions of people during the course of the twentieth century, and is still causing misery in certain places.
"Progressives"--boy, do I hate that word, although now I finally understand it better, because it expresses very well their focus on a dream of the future in which things, including nasty old human nature, will have progressed and been perfected. "Progressives" feel that conservatives, and even moderates and neocons, are the ones Frank Sinatra was talking about in the song "That's Life" when he sang: some people get their kicks from stomping on a dream.
No, we "non-progressives" [sic] don't get our kicks that way. But we, like Hobbes (as opposed to your Rousseau), see human nature as an imperfect given, something that needs to be taken into account when advocating a plan for society, or attempting a remedy for social ills.