Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Futility of Distinguishing Between the Far-Left and Far-Right

There's a cottage industry in trying to pin down the politics of Gabrielle Giffords' would-be assassin (thankfully, it looks like she will survive). Jim Lindgren, claiming that he merely wants to "take the political argument off the table", argues that the best way to do so is to point out "that Loughner was more probably a mentally deranged left winger than a mentally deranged right winger." In support of this, Lindgren cites, for example, Loughner's apparent opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

But I think obsessing over whether Loughner was "really" extremely right-wing or left-wing is worse than just partisan, it's impossible. Why? Because whether they identify as "left" or "right", extremists of this stripe tend to say more or less the same things. Professor Lindgren's observation that rabid anti-war views are an indicator of being "left-wing" is simply flawed. Certainly, it's probably true that there are more mainstream liberals who are anti-war than mainstream conservatives. But once you reach the margins, you see plenty of extreme anti-war rhetoric emanating from the old-school, paleo-con right. If someone yells out that the Iraq War is an imperialist project of our Zionist Occupied Government, I have no earthly way of telling if that's the product of someone who identifies as "far-right" or "far-left". Frankly speaking, once you reach the fringes that folks like Loughner inhabit, it's more or less impossible to tell the difference between the far-right and far-left. The extreme ends of the political spectrum, far from being polar opposites, tend to wrap back around the edges of reality and link up again.

Moreover, extremists left and right don't seem to view each other as enemies, but as fellow sojourners. Cynthia McKinney has been very happy to associate with members of the far-right fascist fringe. The Palestine Telegraph, which I suspect identifies itself as "left", has prominently featured David Duke on its front page. Pushing (slightly) closer to the center, Code Pink attempted to make common cause with the Tea Party. This isn't exactly a rare phenomenom. Hell, there's a long history of at least a grudging respect and accommodation between White supremacists and Black nationalist organizations.

So the question isn't really whether Loughner is "left" or "right" -- a question to which I'm dubious has a coherent answer. There are certain hallmarks of extremist movements -- belief in imminent totalitarianism, wild conspiracy-mongering, racism and/or anti-Semitism, calls for violence against public officials, mistrust of basic governmental institutions (like the currency system), to name a few. And it's a bad thing when politicians of any stripe to tap into that id. The self-identification of either the politician who plays in that mud, or the extremists who listen to it, is besides the point. The fact of the matter is, since "we’re not teetering on the brink of totalitarianism, officials in positions of responsibility probably shouldn’t run around the country saying we’re teetering on the brink of totalitarianism."


N. Friedman said...

You sound like Jonah Goldberg, from his book, Liberal Fascism, where he notes that quite a large number of leftists were attracted to fascism, including some in FDR's administration. And, as we all know, Mussolini thought himself a socialist to the day he died.

I, for what it is worth, note that it is one thing to say - and, on this point, you could be correct - that we may never come know Loughner's true political ideology. It is another thing to suggest that there is no difference between the extreme of left and right or that they, historically, have really gotten along at all. As some used to say, Mussolini was a "traitor" to the socialist cause, the word "traitor" being meant quite seriously and with all the hostility that implies.

The main problem here is that, without much information, we have people making all sorts of wild claims. Thus far, the only credible information comes from his high school classmates and those whom he knew. Those in high school are pretty sure he was on the extreme left. Those in his college class, that he was deranged. So, it could be those two things. Or, he may have moved from the left to the right and become deranged. Who knows?

Actually, what matters now is that those who died rest in peace and that those who survived, recover a full life. The rest is for historians.

joe said...

If someone yells out that the Iraq War is an imperialist project of our Zionist Occupied Government, I have no earthly way of telling if that's the product of someone who identifies as "far-right" or "far-left".

This strikes me as equivocation. Where did Loughner say that? He did talk about the Geneva Convention though, and I'd note that is something even the more hawkish of leftists seem to have a soft spot for. By contrast, fringe right organizations hate the idea that they are bound by some international agreement, regardless of their position on Iraq and Afghanistan.

David Schraub said...

I never said Loughner said that. I was pointing out an example of a radical anti-war position whose left or right provenance can't be distinguished.

N. Friedman said...

But, David, one can distinguish the left from the right. Your contention to the contrary is disingenuous. That does not mean that a seemingly deranged character like Loughner has a coherent ideology that we can easily pick up from his statements. He may or may not. Essentially all who have spoken about him from his high school days say, he was on the extreme Left. While ideology can be fluid (e.g. Mussolini), the great probability is that Loughner is a lunatic of the Left - not the Right -, which may have exactly nothing to do with his acts of violence.

After President Kennedy was killed and it became clear that his killer was a radical Marxist, there was an effort to elide that fact and make it seem that the real issue was the violence in Texas. Nowadays, we have the argument from some that it is the nasty rhetoric from the Right - and, of course, there is a fair amount of it, something which, without regard to the instant event, ought to be toned down (but that is a different discussion).

In any event, having called that Rightist rhetoric a "cause" of what occurred - which is a pretty outrageous claim -, those who made such charge owe it to the public, for the sake of civility, to, in fact, bring out the actual nature of Loughner's views, if they can be discerned definitively or admit they were making incendiary political allegations based on nothing.

Which is to say, since Saturday, we have seen irresponsibility from our side of the political aisle. It is pathetic. Now attempting to hide the matter behind the theory that the extremes meet is a cop out.

David Schraub said...

I stand by my claim that (a) the far-right and far-left are extremely difficult if not impossible to differentiate and (b) to attempt to differentiate them obfuscates more than it illuminates, given that they bear far more in common with each other than they do with their supposedly "more moderate" cousins.

In dealing with my ZOG-imperialist war example, trying to discover whether the speaker is "really" far-right or far-left is a meaningless exercise, given that even assuming they self-identify as one or the other, they almost certainly would recognize a greater commonality with their fellow extremists than they would with a mainstream Democrat or Republican. Playing this game only devolves into it's own form of partisan blamegaming -- he's "your" extremist, which is spectacularly stupid. This sort of extremism exhibits its own gravitational pull that transcends left and right. Hence the red-brown-green alliances already alluded to -- alliances which provide powerful proof that the extremists themselves see more in common with each other than they do with some sort of trans-left or trans-right unity.

Everything I've observed about extremist movements is that they are scavenger ideologies -- they draw sustenance from whomever is hitting their themes, without regard to whether the speaker is putatively "of the left" or "of the right", and I linked to examples that demonstrate this. Transcending left and right, it doesn't make sense to talk about "is he left" or "is he right" -- those are scarcely even relevant categories for this sort of political ideology.

What matters is whether politicians -- of any stripe -- feed into this collective extremist id by, e.g., fomenting conspiracy theories about imminent totalitarianism or jackbooted government thugs sending innocent citizens to labor camps. These narratives could, to be clear, emanate from either mainstream left or right speakers -- the point is that from the perspective of the extremist listener, it doesn't matter whether the affiliation of the mainstream (but conspiracy-peddling) politico matches his or her own putative self-identity.

N. Friedman said...


I understand what you are saying. What you are doing is confusing effects with reasoning.

There are still many communists and, once upon a time, many fascists who argued, using your exact logic, that what we call liberals and conservatives were really one and the same, merely two sides of the same coin. That, in effect, is your argument. Yes, you can find places where fascist and communist, for example, hold seemingly similar views. And, there are fascists who began as communists (and vice versa). As noted before, the most famous example is Mussolini, among the founders of the fascist movement.

But, by and large, you can tell a person of the far right from the far left. The two use different types of language to describe reality. One focuses on supposed universals divorced from rootedness and place. The other focuses on rootedness and place, ala Heidegger. One sees a revolution of the worker, without regard to nation, to better the workers and others. The other sees a commitment to nation as a means to better workers and others.

You have given examples that mean nothing, akin to the arguments made by fascists and communists that liberals and conservatives are the same. Are you willing to concede that liberals and conservatives are really the same? If not, you should consider that your argument is not all that strong.

David Schraub said...

I'm certainly willing to "concede" that mainstream liberals and conservatives have far more in common with each other than they do with the radical left or right, respectively. I don't even think that's particularly controversial. For the purpose of delineating battle lines between mainline and extremist, liberals and conservatives can be grouped together. For other purposes, they're separate -- but we don't really have any other "purpose" for engaging with extremists other than trying to marginalize them vis-a-vis the mainstream.

The point is that, for the limited purposes we engage with extremists (that is, to minimize their influence and the damage they cause via acts like this), differences within the extremist community are mostly irrelevant. If I felt inclined to wade into the fever swamp that extremists call their ideological justifications, I suppose I'd be able to discern some differences. But so what? Those differences don't matter in terms of how the mainstream ought approach extremists. We don't care about grasping the fine nuances they draw between worker versus volk, we care about not having our buildings blown up and our politicians shot down, and for that project the extreme right and left can be thought of us roughly the same cloth.

The approximately 900,000 Trotskyite sects out there all are different from one another in some respects -- respects that (presumably) are really important to the Trotskyites, but they're not important to me compared to the broader commonalities they share as Trotskyites. Ditto with extremists. They seem to get it -- why don't you?

Solomon Kleinsmith said...

Well said.

Solomon Kleinsmith
Rise of the Center

N. Friedman said...


You write: "The point is that, for the limited purposes we engage with extremists (that is, to minimize their influence and the damage they cause via acts like this), differences within the extremist community are mostly irrelevant."

If you do not care what certain groups of people think and why, obviously you cannot tell such people apart. Hence, you are not in a position to make the argument you are making, which is that such people are effectively indistinguishable. Other people, by contrast, can tell such people apart.

As for the view that there are no important differences, that was clearly not the case for the distinctions between Nazis and Communists. Both hate Jews. But, the Nazis wanted to rid the world of Jews, not as an episodic matter but as a categorical moral imperative. The Communists have only had episodic interest in killing Jews, with most Jews being able to become acceptable by becoming communist. To me, that is a real difference.

PG said...

Of course, Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism doesn't seem to grasp that "totalitarianism," into which category both fascism and communism fit, is not the same as modern liberalism. Thus every time he found something in common between Hitler and Stalin, he deemed it an instance of "liberal fascism," rather than recognizing that this was a feature common to totalitarian societies. In the Goldbergian vision, the fact that a feminist says "The personal is political" means she wants the state to have MORE control, not less.

N. Friedman said...


I was not advocating for Goldberg's theory. I was merely noting that it is akin to what David has asserted, namely, that the extreme left and right are related phenomena. On Goldberg's telling, they are both phenomena of the Left, because they involve the state acting for the supposed betterment of the people.

I am not quite sure I agree with you about the sharp line between totalitarian ideas and what we call modern liberalism. On that account, Goldberg makes a rather good argument, showing that before the name of fascism was truly darkened (most particularly by the Nazi version of that political ideology), it had, for example, many liberal friends including people in FDR's administration and among society's liberal elite. And, of course, communists and some versions of liberalism manage to make common cause. So, the line is not that clear cut.

On the other hand, Goldberg's effort to say that liberalism, even today, is reminiscent of fascism is a stretch, even if, as he notes, there are quite a number of common points so far as policies are concerned. Interesting among those he discussed involves "positive" Darwinism, the view that mankind can be perfected not just by natural selection but by mankind, via the government, altering mankind (not just improving society). Such, as he shows, were major parts of the argument originally used to advance the minimum wage, birth control and abortion. As he shows, such arguments sometimes still crop up from liberals.

joe said...

[Ha! Forgot to hit post in this frame, and the following sat for weeks... A lesson in not having a hundred frames open, perhaps.]

By the by, pretty sure the idea of fusion paranoia is hardly a new one. Of course, Michael Kelly, who coined the term, had his own issues with believing heaping piles of bullshit, from Stephen Glass to Saddam's WMDs--an area where we can also say some liberals and conservatves "fused" a few years ago...