Earlier this month, I blogged about a fascinating Mark Lilla essay in NYRB about new currents emerging on the French Right. It caught my attention in part because I know some of the young Catholic intellectuals he features in his excellent reported essay.
Well, from NYRB, here’s a critical response from James McAuley, a Paris-based correspondent for the Washington Post. The key part:
Lilla’s account fails to confront the white supremacy at the heart of a movement he ultimately describes as a “coherent worldview.” Although he is correct that there are important evolutions underway on the French and European right, he overlooks an implacable bigotry that remains the essence of the project. Any responsible discussion of the movement’s new developments must begin and end there.
Must begin and end there. You can’t make this stuff up. The journalist upon whom the Washington Post‘s highly influential readership depends to explain contemporary France to them is so blinded by his ideological convictions that all he sees is “bigotry.”
Follow the link above to read Lilla’s response. He handles McAuley’s trite dismissal of his piece with more generosity than I think McAuley deserves — but handle it he does. Excerpt:
All of this strikes me as not only worthy of note, but important given the growing influence of the right just about everywhere. That is not to say that it is benign. As the title of my article stated clearly, there are two paths before these young intellectuals. One is to start developing “a renewed, more classical organic conservatism” inflected by Catholic social teaching that could have a moderating effect by counterbalancing the far right and offering an alternative to it. The other is to contribute to building an aggressive Christian nationalist ideology that one writer I quoted called “revolutionary, identitarian, and reactionary,” in concert with other similar forces in Europe responsible for the “xenophobic populist outbursts” I also mentioned. McAuley is quite right to point out Marion [Maréchal Le Pen’s] caginess in speaking in these two registers. And like him I would probably bet on the nationalist strain dominating in the end. Which would force these young writers to choose: that’s the drama.
In any case, this is what I was trying to get at in the article. But a reader of McAuley’s letter who had not seen the piece might come to a different conclusion: that it was intended to whitewash Marion (or her grandfather, or right-wing forces everywhere; it’s unclear which) and ignore the real animating forces on the right, which are “white supremacy,” “hatred of the other,” “bigotry,” and “an ideology of exclusion,” all whipped up by the phantom of immigration. In other words, never mind all the things that seem new, forget the writings about family and sexuality, forget all the talk about organic community, forget the lashing out against neoliberalism and tech giants, forget Pope Francis (an inspiration for some). It all comes down to hatred: “Any responsible discussion of the movement’s new developments must begin and end there.”
That sentiment is so common on the left, and not only in France, and so fruitless for confronting the contemporary right, in all its manifestations, that I’m moved to respond, though this was not my original subject. The forces McAuley lists are real enough in our societies. But it is foolish to deny or minimize social realities that xenophobes exaggerate and exploit, in the vain hope of cutting off their oxygen. Equally foolish is an unwillingness to take up fundamental political questions that the xenophobes give bad answers to, and to try giving better ones—questions like Ernst Renan’s “What is a nation?” These avoidance instincts must be resisted. If there is anything we’ve learned in recent decades, it is that closing our eyes or establishing taboos on what can and can’t be discussed, or how, always backfire. The left needs to present people with a fuller reality than the right presents, not an equally restricted one.
For example, illegal immigration in France has indeed dropped since 2015—but the levels before then were already fueling anger and frustration, since neither the French state nor the EU had been able to master them. And unless one believes in open borders, citizens are perfectly right to expect that whatever level of legal immigration has been democratically decided will be enforced. If not, the democratic system itself will look illegitimate. Uncontrolled immigration, along with economic globalization, are the major factors behind the growing distrust plaguing liberal democracies. It is not just bigotry.
Lilla, who is a liberal, goes on to make the point that if one is going to resist anti-liberal forces, one has to understand what they really are, and what they’re responding to — this, as opposed to projecting one’s left-wing prejudices onto them to make them fit into a predetermined mold. Again, it’s really quite remarkable that the Post depends on someone whose ability to see what’s right in front of his nose is so compromised. Again, Mark Lilla, who teaches at Columbia, is by no means a man of the Right — but he is trying to comprehend what’s actually happening in the world.
Last year, Lilla wrote a book criticizing the Left for losing its ability to think straight via its obsessions with identity politics. For his trouble, he got called a “white supremacist.” Thus proving his point.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a few exchanges with leftist friends over the past year in which any attempt on my part to explain to them that there’s more to a particular issue than bigotry — though bigotry may play a role — has been met with indignation, and accusations that I’m trying to apologize for hatred. It’s fascinating to see how frightened these people are of having their biases, and their settled narrative, challenged. This is a human failing, not just a left-wing failing, but it is especially interesting to see it manifest in the dominant elites. A friend from overseas who is studying at one of the top American universities tells me that he is constantly struck by how brittle and hyper-defensive is the progressivism among that scholarly community. It’s as if they can’t deal with facts and theories that contradict the progressive consensus.
Last year, I interviewed Lilla about identity politics. I love this passage from Lilla’s book The Once And Future Liberal:
Electoral politics is a little like fishing. When you fish you get up early in the morning and go to where the fish are — not to where you might wish them to be. You then drop bait into the water (bait being defined as something they want to eat, not as “healthy choices”). Once the fish realize they are hooked they may resist. Let them; loosen your line. Eventually they will calm down and you can slowly reel them in, careful not to provoke them unnecessarily. The identity liberals’ approach to fishing is to remain on shore, yelling at the fish about the historical wrongs visited on them by the sea, and the need for aquatic life to renounce its privilege. All in the hope that the fish will collectively confess their sins and swim to shore to be netted. If that is your approach to fishing, you had better become a vegan.
Apply this basic insight to liberal journalism.
Look, it’s hard for everybody to write about the Right these days. Conservative journalists did not distinguish ourselves in the matter of predicting Trump’s rise. Still, remember that finding a few years back — from Pew, I think, but maybe some other outfit — showing that conservatives understand liberals more than liberals understand conservatives? It’s so hard for journalists and scholars on the Left to write about the Right these days, in large part (I think) because those on the Left have so much moral energy invested in their analysis. It reminds me of the kinds of conversations conservatives of an earlier generation had about Communism. If you were the kind of conservative who did not endorse the most simplistic take, then you might be accused of being Soft On Communism. Could it be that left-wing Culture Warriors are similarly afraid of being Soft On Bigotry (or what they define as bigotry)?
UPDATE: It wasn’t Pew, it was NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his team. In this excerpt from a Reason piece, adapted from his book The Righteous Mind, explaining his findings, Haidt writes:
The two narratives are as opposed as they could be. Can partisans even understand the story told by the other side? The obstacles to empathy are not symmetrical. There is no foundation used by the left that is not also used by the right. Even though conservatives score slightly lower on measures of empathy and may therefore be less moved by a story about suffering and oppression, they can still recognize that it is awful to be kept in chains. And even though many conservatives opposed some of the great liberations of the 20th century—of women, sweatshop workers, African Americans, and gay people—they have applauded others, such as the liberation of Eastern Europe from communist oppression.
But when liberals try to understand the Reagan narrative, they have a harder time. When I speak to liberal audiences about the three “binding” foundations—loyalty, authority, and sanctity—I find that many in the audience don’t just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral. Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia.
In a study I conducted with colleagues Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and conservatives could understand each other. We asked more than 2,000 American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a “typical liberal” would respond. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a “typical conservative” would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were by comparing people’s expectations about “typical” partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right. Who was best able to pretend to be the other?
The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.” The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the care and fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with statements such as “one of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal” or “justice is the most important requirement for a society,” liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree. If you have a moral matrix built primarily on intuitions about care and fairness (as equality), and you listen to the Reagan narrative, what else could you think? Reagan seems completely unconcerned about the welfare of drug addicts, poor people, and gay people. He is more interested in fighting wars and telling people how to run their sex lives.
If you don’t see that Reagan is pursuing positive values of loyalty, authority, and sanctity, you almost have to conclude that Republicans see no positive value in care and fairness. You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the liberal weekly The Village Voice, when he wrote in 2004: “Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet.…Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.” One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theater critic—who skillfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living—to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own.
If you know Haidt’s work in moral foundations theory, you know that he believes most people form their opinions, and the narratives that guide their lives, by drawing on six different areas. Liberals, though, base their views primarily on two of the six, while conservatives tend to be more thorough. Haidt writes:
In my own research, I have sought to describe the major elements of these narratives. With my colleagues at YourMorals.org, I have developed Moral Foundations Theory, which outlines six clusters of moral concerns—care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation—upon which all political cultures and movements base their moral appeals. Political liberals tend to rely primarily on the moral foundation of care/harm, followed by fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression. Social conservatives, in contrast, use all six foundations. They are less concerned than liberals about harm to innocent victims, but they are much more concerned about the moral foundations that bind groups and nations together, i.e., loyalty (patriotism), authority (law and order, traditional families), and sanctity (the Bible, God, the flag as a sacred object). Libertarians, true to their name, value liberty more than anyone else, and they value it far more than any other foundation. (You can read our complete research findings, including our report on libertarians, at www.MoralFoundations.org.)
Smith wrote the “liberal progress” narrative before Moral Foundations Theory existed, but you can see that the narrative derives its moral force primarily from the care/harm foundation (concern for the suffering of victims) and the liberty/oppression foundation (a celebration of liberty as freedom from oppression, as well as freedom to pursue self-defined happiness). In this narrative, fairness is political equality (which is part of opposing oppression); there are only oblique hints of fairness as proportionality. Authority is mentioned only as an evil, and there is no mention of loyalty or sanctity.
You can see, then, how a left-wing journalist like McAuley would not be able to comprehend the aspects of right-wing French thought that have to do with authority, loyalty to nation, or a sense of sanctity (or, to take religion out of it, purity). With them, it’s only “care/harm” and “liberty/oppression”.