Fortuitously given the ongoing skirmish between Chris Sheil and myself about the utility of the label “left”, RWDB bete noire David Marr delivered a long lecture partly on that very subject a couple of days ago. It’s reproduced at tiresome length on Margo’s Web Diary.
Incidentally, I’m pretty sure I agree with most if not all of Chris Sheil’s reservations about the utility of crude generalisations like “left” and “right”: principally that no-one fits any such box neatly, and everyone means something slightly or even radically different when they use those terms. And both “right” and “left” are inherently relativistic and therefore changeable concepts over time. Moreover, “left” has become an especially problematic concept since communism and broad-scale state-owenership socialism fell out of favour even with most people who happily self-label as lefties.
My position is simply that the meanings of the terms “left” and “right” aren’t so radically indeterminate as to rob them of all utility as short-hand descriptors for initial finding and crude sorting purposes.
Marr attempted to assess the extent to which RWDB labelling of others as “lefties” involved any consistent generally agreed meanings. He did that by asking Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun, Piers Akerman of The Telegraph, Tim Blair of The Bulletin and Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute to explain what beliefs they identified as connoting a leftie.
As you might have expected, Blair, Bolt and Akerman gave answers that varied from simplistic to downright silly via cartoon caricature. Nevertheless, I would be fairly comfortable in labelling as a leftie anyone who held a majority of those viewpoints.
Henderson’s list is another matter. Although one could certainly quibble with aspects of it, Hendo’s 9 point list of leftie beliefs is a bit more substantial, as Marr observed himself. However, rather than arguing about Hendo’s list, I thought it might be interesting to assess my own beliefs against it. Am I a leftie in Hendo’s eyes? Not that I actually give a rat’s arse, but I’ve finished work for the day and I haven’t got anything better to do until Jen gets back from gym and we go and play tennis. So here’s Hendo’s list and my responses:
1. A belief in the desirability of wide scale government intervention (funded by taxation) in the domestic economy – in such areas as education, health, welfare and the environment. Along with a corresponding scepticism about private solutions in such areas as education, health, welfare and the environment. In other words, a view that the public sector is good in itself and that the private sector is, at best, a dubious exercise.
Not guilty. I’m equally sceptical of both governments’ and corporations’ propensity to interfere with my freedom and happiness. I subscribe to much of the neoliberal prescription in relation to the efficacy of markets, but I don’t accept that private is necessarily better, especially in areas of natural monopoly, and experience tells me that self-regulation doesn’t work.
2. A belief that governments should not interfere in the realms of private morality – covering such areas as abortion, censorship, same-sex relationships etc.
Guilty. But those beliefs are equally held by classical liberals and libertarians, who would not be labelled “lefties” by most people. I regard myself as a classical liberal with slight social democratic tendencies.
3. A scepticism about Western religious beliefs – in particular traditional Christian churches and the emerging fundamentalist Christianity.
Guilty. But again these are beliefs widely held by classical liberals and libertarians as well.
4. An unwillingness to support the use of military force abroad – along with a disdain for patriotism at home. An ambiguity towards, or outright opposition to, the Australian-American Alliance¢â¬âalong with concern about Israel’s role in world affairs.
In the wake of the Iraq conflict, my reservations about resort to military force except as a last resort have been reinforced. However, I’m neither ambiguous towards nor opposed to the American alliance. But supporting it doesn’t mean that Australia’s interests and those of the US will always coincide. Righties like Blair, Bolt et al seem to view any expression of an independent viewpoint as leftie treason.
As for Israel, I’m equally condemnatory of its actions in Gaza and the West Bank and of the Arab States’ ongoing determination to obliterate the entire State of Israel
5. An abiding sense of shame and guilt for the past acts of Western nations in their colonial manifestations – a commitment to reconciliation with native peoples.
Not guilty. Nevertheless, I do support reconciliation with Australia’s Aboriginal people, as long as it means seeking genuine mutual understanding and accommodation, not just saying sorry and signing treaties agreeing to hand over big mobs of land and money to anyone with a couple of drops of indigenous blood.
6. A belief in the sanctity of international solutions to international problems – comprising a commitment to the United Nations, despite its evident inefficiency and virtual impotency.
I think internationally-mandated human rights standards are to be commended and fostered. I also think that jingoistic nationalism (like religious fervour) have been major sources of human misery and bloodshed throughout history, and that internationalism may have some potential to mitigate such evils. But the current UN system, with its great power Security Council vetoes and a majority of General Assembly votes held by third world authoritarian regimes, is corrupt almost beyond redemption and does little in practice to protect human rights.
7. Opposition to the globalisation process of economic reform – including a resentment to such international organisations as the World Trade Organisation, World Bank, International Monetary Fund. A preference for international aid over the reform of the political systems and domestic economies of third world nations.
Not guilty on either count.
8. A tendency to be alienated from elected mainstream political leaders (whether conservative or social democrat) and a conviction that the modern democratic system is inhabited by politicians who lie by habit.
Not guilty, but lying as a habit is true of Howard, and I do subscribe to Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely
9. A tradition of moral compromise – leading to a belief that democracies are not much better than dictatorships in the way they operate. In other words, moral equivalence.
Not guilty. But agreeing on a generally-accepted set of core moral values isn’t as easy as Henderson’s statement seems to imply. So tolerance, civility and open discussion are useful places to start.