Until I came back from Eastern Europe I hadn’t often had to put up with a certain kind of person that infests the universities and intellectual circles of America and Western Europe. I refer to the kind of “progressive” intellectual I call the Achingly Earnest Young Radical, or AYERhead for short.
You know the kind I mean, the ignorant, arrogant know-it-all little twerps who revel in their superior insight at having discerned the true patterns of history, the ulterior designs and the true motives of the rapacious ruling class.
Since I have worn the label myself I should explain that by radical I mean someone who finds the state of affairs so horrible that it cannot be reformed, thoughtfully and gradually, but must be swept away and replaced RIGHT NOW. Someone who believes that this hideous state of affairs can be traced to a few root causes (radix (Latin) = root, the root word of radical – and radish for that matter) such as Capitalism, Imperialism, Sexism, Racism, etc.
Do I need to point out the obvious? That at this time, to be a member of Western Civilization of at least moderate means, identifies you as one of the luckiest members of the human race in its entire history? The challenge as I see it, is to protect those gains, extend them in the direction of more liberty and wealth, extend them to those who don’t enjoy them to the fullest and to keep from losing the ground we’ve gained so far.
I should also add that when I use radical in an approving rather than pejorative sense, as applied to myself for example, I mean someone who goes to the root of the problem to see the remedy more clearly. As a radical libertarian of many years standing, the knowledge that I was on the intellectual cutting edge and a member of a select group who had sole custody of the intellectual tools for understanding, explaining and fixing the current lamentable social order has always given me the greatest pleasure.
Well, age and distance gives you a sense of perspective sometimes and a fresh viewpoint can start you thinking about things that would have been too painful to consider before. In my case, it was sufficient distance from my own preferred brand of propaganda and years of living abroad.
What I have noticed is that there are a number of identifiable traits of the Achingly Earnest Young Radical, which I present below. These take the form of certain fixed assumptions held by “radicals” of all kinds.
But first understand one thing, I am not being holier-than-thou. I was that arrogant young twerp and the memory of it is PAINFUL. So, in no particular order…
1) The enemy of a Bad Guy is a Good Guy.
It would seem that a moment’s thought would dispose of this one. I venture to suggest that everyone, without exception, must have noticed that assholes have more enemies than nice guys. But apparently the desire to find the White Hats out there somewhere is so strong that if, for example, Somoza is a bastard then the Sandinistas must be heroic freedom fighters. Try casting your mind back as far as you can remember and think of what groups of heavily armed thugs have at one time or another been lionized by somebody as “heroic freedom fighters” just because they weren’t wearing the uniform of a state.
2) Oppression, discrimination and tyranny make you noble.
Bertrand Russell wrote about this one in an essay entitled “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed.” Again, direct observation would seem to show that long-term oppression generally makes you a scumbag.
3) Xenophilia: it’s better somewhere else.
Remember when the Earthly Paradise of the Left was China? I still get a warm glow when I think about how they must have felt to see Richard Godawful Nixon and the Party luminaries of Beijing toasting each other with martinis.
Corollary: it’s worse here than elsewhere.
Are you kidding? And if you’re serious, why aren’t you there?
4) It is a betrayal of the Truth to fail to state it in any but the most offensive way possible.
“Would you rather have a nice thick, juicy steak – or a segment of muscle tissue from the immature corpse of a castrated bull?”
A Young Radical of the anti-Viet-Nam war era (who bears an uncomfortable resemblance to myself) believed, and still believes that conscription is slavery. However at the time I believe that what I said was that little old grandmothers who work at the Selective Service office were on the same moral level as 19th century slave traders and would eventually hang from the lamp posts of their respective towns. It’s not that what I believe is so different nowadays, it’s just that I’ve discovered that while threats and insults may work to change behavior (usually for the worse) they are rarely effective at changing belief.
5) Custom, tradition and manners are just rules and regulations in disguise.
The countries of the post-communist world are discovering, painfully, that it is difficult to write a constitution for a free country without a long tradition of local institutions to base it on, and once written, the application of it is a long process of establishing a legal tradition. The saving grace of countries such as Poland is precisely that there is a continuous intact cultural tradition, going back to a time when there were free classes, among the aristocrats and the Jews, if not a totally free country. Those countries whose aristocratic/intellectual classes were destroyed are those that are having the most trouble establishing free societies.
There is a story that a British admiral was brought before a board of inquiry because he had endangered the fleet, their last line of defense, by bringing it too close to shore while covering the evacuation at Dunkirk. His defense was, “We could have built a new fleet in five years. It would have taken two hundred years to build a new tradition.”
I remember what a young lady in Bulgaria said in my class, “Sometimes I think we will have to create an aristocracy before we can have a democracy.” That remark has haunted me ever since.
6) Anything less than moral perfection is evil.
As previously mentioned, too often criticism of our own nation, culture and civilization is based on comparison with hypothetical perfection, not the world as it is.
Corollary: dealing with the above constitutes “compromising with evil”.
I’m not really sure what these people mean by “compromising with evil”. Does it mean that one is forced to acknowledge the existence of less than perfectly moral individuals and institutions that are too powerful to be overcome and must be negotiated with? Does it mean cooperating in organizations with people one does not fully agree with? What’s that again? The last time I looked, disagree is what free men do. There is a fine moral line to be walked between doing what must be done to survive in a morally imperfect world and surrendering one’s sense of morality. But that’s what lines are for, to mark boundaries one must not cross. As Lazarus Long said, “Cooperating with the inevitable does not mean stooling for the guards.”
When I hear the phrase “compromising with evil” tossed about carelessly, I hear either an excuse for perpetual inaction or “Nobody’s opinion but mine matters.”
7) Meliorism: all problems have solutions, all situations can be improved.
I once pointed out to a class of Asian women that the above principle probably does more to define the American national character than anything else. We really believe this deep in our bones, to the extent that we seldom realize that other people don’t think this way. I asked my class what the most obvious thing about this was in their opinion. They all looked blankly at me and answered, “That it’s not true.”
As a people, Americans have accomplished great things by refusing to believe that something was impossible. And indeed many people confuse “impossible” with “very difficult”. But we’ve also made some spectacular blunders, the wars on Vietnam and Poverty for example, by assuming that our power, wealth and goodwill could solve problems that are not amenable to the application of mere power, wealth and goodwill. Or by assuming the mutual reliance on reason and goodwill can solve all conflict between peoples.
Sorry, some problems have no solutions and must be lived with until they go away, or perhaps forever. Recognizing this is also called “compromising with evil”.
8) A heterodox theory of history or society is automatically better than an orthodox one.
Well damn it, sometimes it is – but how often? Many of my own opinions run directly contrary to more widely accepted ones. However, confess. Don’t you get a warm feeling inside when you think about how the peasants have always believed the propaganda about some widely accepted belief, when only you and a select few know the real truth?
9) Nihilism: the existing state of affairs is so corrupt that it must be destroyed so that a just one can be built de novo.
This is where Young Radicalism turns pathological. What Timothy McVeigh failed to realize was that while yes, Americans are almost universally exasperated by their government’s bureaucracy, we often rather like the bureaucrats that we actually come face to face with.
In Eastern Europe, after the first flush of enthusiasm for democracy, former communists have often been returned to power in honest elections. This is sometimes explained as nostalgia for the stability of the communist times. Absolute nonsense, except perhaps in Russia where little makes sense. What people have found is that whatever the system is, you must have experienced people to run the machinery of the state (as Edmund Burke pointed out about the French Revolution). In Poland where I lived, there haven’t been any really committed Marxist-Leninists for a long time. You can only sustain that disassociation from reality in American Universities, not in a country which has directly experienced the failure of those principles.
No complex social order can be built de novo overnight.
10) Disagreement comes from villainous and self-interested motives. Or in the case of the noble oppressed classes: disagreement comes from “false-consciousness” or “brainwashing”. The possibility that a reasonably intelligent person who is morally not much worse than oneself has looked at the same universe and reached different conclusions about it is evidently too uncomfortable to consider.
Even in the sixties and seventies when I myself partook of some of these attributes to some degree, I found them irritating. The scary thing about America today is that the AEYRheads seem to be the Establishment these days. Young radical intellectuals seem to be just as arogantly stupid as their predecessors were, and their predecessors don’t seem to have grown up.