Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Central Force

A long and great post by Tom Strong on the perils of being a centrist blogger. It has a lot I agree with, and a fair amount I disagree with. But I think the most important thing to draw from it is a centrism of underdogs.

A key part of Strong's narrative is his transition from hippie, WTO protesting leftist, to part of the "sensible center." I identify with this trip, because I made a similar one--I went from a self-described Democratic Socialist to a New Republic style moderate liberal. To some extent, it's a big change, but to some extent it isn't. Strong points out that:
Both "radicals" and "sensible centrists" are basically consigned to being political outsiders. The insiders, these days and all days, are political partisans, party people. If you like to root for underdogs, you will eventually find yourself outside all parties, looking in.

My philosophical framework has always been bottom-centric, not just rooting for but trying to actively aid the "underdog". Society, I think, is obligated to look first to the least well-off. Though this position is identified more with the left than the right, I do not think it is a resident of either pole, because marginalization is very contingent and often includes conservative-identified groups. My favorite example here would be conservatives themselves. Though we don't often think of conservatives as marginalized (and for the most part, we're right), at universities they are very much rendered unwanted outsiders. Liberals are ideologically blinded from seeing this problem, for the simple reason that liberals are defined as in opposition to conservatives and thus are not naturally inclined to see them as someone needing their aid. Liberals also have trouble dealing with cross-cutting forms of oppression where one source is one of the usual suspect oppressors (The West, Whites, males, etc..), but other sources include groups commonly seen as victims. This explains the incoherency of leftist outrage to the US deposing Saddam Hussein in Iraq, which though arguably within the stock framework of western imperialism, more concretely was a liberation of persons brutally oppressed by the Iraqi regime (most notably Shiites and Kurds). Because its pre-set ideological predispositions have allies and enemies which precede (though which try and correlate to) oppressors and victims, attempts to formulate anti-oppression theory and praxis solely from the left are doomed to failure.

A bottom-centric centrism can dodge this problem by inverting the chain--letting social realities of oppression precede our decisions on allies and enemies, rather than the other way around. Since sometimes our supposed enemies are on the bottom, centering on the bottom means occasionally centering on theoretical enemies. For example, the main "enemies" of centrists are partisans. If centrists were oriented by the traditional notation of self-interest--helping oneself (and one's friends) and hurting enemies--then we'd attack partisans at every opportunity. If a line is being parroted by the RNC pundit-corps, we'd oppose it on those grounds. However, centrists don't (or shouldn't) tend to operate that way. Rather, we examine the message as such, and see whether it creates a more just world. If so, we don't care who the speaker is--we'll stand up and support it (a position which will put us sometimes in favor of Democratic partisans, sometimes Republican partisans, and very often neither one). Alternatively, centrists might argue that a suppressed message labeled "extreme" be allowed into the limelight--even if we then proceed to bash it later. It is in this respect ends-oriented insofar as the end is hearing as many voices as possible--but this should not stop us from attacking hostile or unhelpful opinions. This is not a strain but a logical conclusion: the goal here is to have a constructive and comprehensive social debate, which requires both the opinions themselves (bring out suppressed voices) and those willing to refute/defend them (smack them down or applaud their insight).

Bottom-centric centrism is combative, militant, forceful, and activist. It does not "simply" try to mediate between opposing poles (although that is an important role, and I'd also assert an active value in of itself). It also must forward unique, innovative plans of its own to bring in voices not being heard within the dominant hierarchy. Above all, centrists must press for and defend a fair social playing field in which all perspectives have a chance to be heard and no person or group is condemned to perpetual marginalization.

3 comments:

Isaac said...

You write

for the simple reason that liberals are defined as in opposition to conservatives and thus are not naturally inclined to see them as someone needing their aid.

This is simply not true. Your argument is for why to identify as centrist as opposed to Republic or Democrat, not an argument for why to identify as centrist as opposed to liberal or conservative. This may seem pedantic, but it's mostly not. Liberalism and conservatism are self-contained ideologies that have little to do with each other; Republicans have everything to do with Democrats (and vice-versa).

More broadly, I'd say that politically you are generally to the left of the Democratic party. Humanitarian concerns outweighing, well, national interests? That's left. Race? You're left there. And etc.

If by centrist you mean uninvested in partisan politics, then maybe, but...I just find the notion of centrism sort of noxious: if you truly are centrist then your views are whatever the status quo is, which isn't particularly admirable (think David Broder), and if your views don't perfectly track the status quo then why cloak yourself in this language, which is a weird kind of morally superior language: I'm above, well, something that turns out to be incredibly important, which I'm not sure you want to be.

Baron Violent said...

Isaac writes

This is simply not true. Your argument is for why to identify as centrist as opposed to Republic or Democrat, not an argument for why to identify as centrist as opposed to liberal or conservative. This may seem pedantic, but it's mostly not. Liberalism and conservatism are self-contained ideologies that have little to do with each other; Republicans have everything to do with Democrats (and vice-versa).

Obviously Isaac has never read a drop of intellectual history. Conservatism and Liberalism have everything to do with one another and are anything BUT self-contained ideologies. Burke (conservative) wrote in opposition to Rousseau (liberal). John Stuart Mill (liberal) wrote in opposition to Burke. Rawls (liberal) wrote in opposition to Mill. Nozick (libertarian/conservative) wrote in opposition to Rawls. Then you've got Hayek (conservative) writing in reaction to Keynes (liberal). The whole history of conservatism and liberalism and the evolution of their thoughts drew powerfully from one another. Neither side is a "self-contained" ideology.

And being a centrist as David attempts to write it is more based upon the non-privileging of one of these ideologies (clearly not "self-contained") of one over the other. To use both, in effect. It's not about being "above" either, but merely drawing from both.

Isaac said...

Too true: in historical terms, liberalism and conservatism have everything to do with one another. But that does not mean that in ideological terms they do: you can define liberalism without reference to conservatism and conservatism without reference to liberalism. The animating ideas of the ideologies are quite distinct.

And I agree, intellectually it is probably best to draw on both. My point is that that has very little to do with how you define yourself politically. And David is, I think, claiming the centrist political mantle. The most philosophically and ideologically conservative person I've met, a true conservative in the best sense -- he's a Platonist! and thinks Aristotle has much wisdom and has no use for any developments in political theory post, say, the death of Jesus Christ -- is a Democrat.

There are two levels of debate here: I have no objection to drawing from a little bit of everything in your political philosophy; I have every objection to saying that this means that you are centrist politically, or to saying that you are centrist politically. Reasonable? Open-minded? Sure. But not centrist.