Virtue by Default
April 19, 2008
In the arts pages of today’s Guardian, there’s a suitably incoherent piece by the playwright David Edgar. It includes the following assertion:
Whether they like it or not, the current defectors [from the left] are seeking to provide a vocabulary for the progressive intelligentsia to abandon the poor.
I scarcely need to say much about that statement or its ludicrous assumptions, or the half dozen or so other claims that rival its stupidity, save to add that Mr Edgar’s formulation is not as rare as one might wish. But over at Harry’s Place a discussion of the above is a’rumbling and among its gems is this one:
There is another dynamic… which I would argue over-rides all the others that you have listed, and that is based on power: the weak versus the strong. This manifests itself in different ways, in different times, be it the King oppressing his serfs, the State oppressing its citizens, a religion oppressing its adherents or adversaries, a corporation oppressing its workers, etc. The progressive always stands with the weak, against the strong. And that is the difference between left and right, and it matters a lot.
Setting aside the tendentious particulars, what’s interesting to me is the broad ideological dynamic – the romantic elevation of victimhood, real or imagined - and the tangle of contradictions that necessarily follow. A position of relative weakness is, bizarrely, deemed one of de facto virtue, one that “overrides” other considerations, no doubt in the interests of convenience. Thus, for instance, a random Muslim can be designated a member of some put-upon category of mankind, by virtue of simply being Muslim. What matters, by this logic, is group affiliation and collective identity, regardless of how patronising or cartoonish that collective identity is, and regardless of how partial or notional that affiliation may be. Whether any given individual is actually put-upon, or puts upon others, or hopes to, doesn’t seem to feature in this calculation. What matters, and matters very much, is group “disadvantage” – irrespective of how that “disadvantage” came about or why it persists. Where, I wonder, does self-inflicted “disadvantage” – arrived at by vanity, ideology, stupidity or incompetence – sit in such lofty moral calculus?
Another HP commenter, one much clearer in his thoughts, replies:
The fact that somebody is weak doesn’t make that somebody automatically just or right. In Spring 1945, the Wehrmacht was weak, the Allies strong: by your logic, you should have sided with the Wehrmacht.
It seems remarkable to me that the observation directly above should need pointing out, and pointing out quite often. Yet, apparently, it does. With that in mind, I’ll repeat two passages from an essay I wrote some time ago:
For some commentators, innocence and guilt depend less upon personal actions than on the racial, economic or religious group a person can be said to belong to. Hence we’re presented with a menu of Designated Victim Groups, members of which may be afforded a measure of immunity from individual responsibility, while claiming privilege on grounds that something bad happened to someone else ostensibly a bit like them. Conversely, members of Designated Oppressor Groups are often expected to bear responsibility for actions other than their own - even the actions of strangers who lived centuries earlier. Variations of this premise underlie practically any utterance involving the term “post-colonial”.
Regarding that urge to “always stand with the weak against the strong,” which is, apparently, “the difference between left and right,” this seems apposite:
The phrase “asymmetric warfare” has entered popular usage and many of those who use it focus primarily on the asymmetry of military capability, rather than the asymmetry of morality, tactics and intention. Again, this follows from the notion that the ability to defend oneself is a very bad thing indeed, with the exception of certain perceived underdogs, for whom an entirely different moral standard is available. (The words “Israel-Palestine conflict” spring immediately to mind.) Those of a critical disposition may wish to object at this point on the basis that the asymmetry of military capability is for most purposes a moral non sequitur. Simply put, if a person threatens me or my family with a baseball bat and I happen to be carrying a gun, the fact that I’m better armed is in no meaningful sense “unfair”.
With luck, I won’t feel a need to repeat this for at least six months or so. But I make no promises.