Friday, June 25, 2010

The why of it - part 3

In the last part, by the early 90's, in the wake of the collapse of Actually Existing Socialism, I'd started moving away from -- and in fact reacting against -- what had become of the left. But I was still uncertain about what I was becoming, politically. By this point of my story, then, I'm pretty much through with the "why of it" (but keeping the title for the sake of continuity). Here I want to talk a little bit about that more puzzling question of how such change happens, and then see about getting to what I myself was changing into.

The "how", i.e., the process of personal political change, has unfortunately a lot to do with the labels that people attach to various political positions -- e.g., Marxist, conservative, socialist, libertarian, progressive, fascist, liberal, etc. Such labels attach to the people that hold these general positions as well, more or less, and can be used to identify social groupings, from friends to workplaces to entire communities and sometimes regions, though of course with less precision as the groupings broaden. At the most general level -- "left" and "right" in the conventional 1-dimensional polarity -- these political-social labels are associated not just with one's social groupings of all kinds, but can become value-belief systems so deeply rooted that they form important parts of a person's identity, and of a whole way of life.

A label like that is not an easy thing to change. Still, like any belief system, such political identifications can come under pressure from events -- doubts begin bubbling up, from more and more sources, less and less repressible, and threatening to break open the system as a whole. When that kind of process gets underway, there are roughly three kinds of response. You can vow to suppress the doubts by sheer will and retreat into a hardened, inflexible shell of fundamentalist faith that nothing in the real world can penetrate; or, you can largely keep your doubts to yourself, retain your outward political label for the sake of getting along, but pull back from politics as a source of value or purpose in your life; or, finally, of course, you can at least try to be open and rational about such doubts, and see where they take you. Since reason, even in a limited sense, has always been a primary source of meaning for me, I never felt much attraction to either of the first two options. The third, though, has its difficulties and problems, without question -- I've lost friends in some cases and lost aspects of friendship in others, and that's been sad. But other friendships have remained, even over  long stretches of years, and considerable distance, both geographically and  politically, and that's been deeply gratifying. Politics, after all, isn't everything and it isn't the only thing.

But there's one important thing to note about that third option: taking that route, one of the first things you need to overcome is what I would call "the tyranny of the label". This comes up when, in analyses or discussions of particular issues, people attempt to use such labels as arguments in themselves -- e.g., using "That's right-wing" or "conservative" (or "left-wing" or "liberal") as an accusation. It's tempting, particularly when you're just starting down this path and still flinching at having a long-despised political label flung at you, to want to try to deny or refute such "accusations", but I think such a temptation should be resisted. It  risks sidetracking the discussion as a whole, and in any case immediately puts you on the defensive -- in effect, you're letting yourself be bullied by a mere label. Instead, I think it's better to respond along the lines of: "Whatever; the argument isn't whether such-and-so is left or right, the argument is whether it's right or wrong." Which applies to one's own internal arguments as well.

(To be continued.)

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