jueves, 8 de mayo de 2014

Review of "Our Political Nature", by Avi Tuschman

Human races, anthropologists tell us, do not exist. There are two basic arguments for this. First, between one racial type and another, there is a long continuum, and it is impossible to abruptly point out where one race begins and the other race ends. Second, there is weak concordance among racial traits; black skin needn’t match curly hair, racial packages simply do not exist.

            For these reasons, race is not a very useful category when classifying human beings. And, it seems to me that, for similar reasons, it is not very adequate to place political opinions in the great dichotomy of liberals vs. conservatives. And yet, this is what, roughly, Avi Tuschman pretends to do in Our Political Nature.
            In political terms, Tuschman believes there are two races: the left and the right. Although he does not use the word “race”, he does have something similar in mind, inasmuch as he believes that political opinions are largely determined by our genes. I do not disagree with this part of his argument. He has successfully proven that political ideologies are robust throughout people’s lifetimes, and that they are most likely due to selective pressures in human evolution. But, I do disagree with the way Tuschman classifies opinions in the political spectrum, as well as the correlation he establishes with psychological traits.
            Anthropologists do not dispute that skin color is genetically determined for the most part. But, at the same time, anthropologists do dispute that this fact permits racial classifications. In the same manner, I do not dispute that political opinions have a considerable genetic bases. But, I do dispute that they are easily placed in a left vs. right continuum.
            This continuum is well known in popular culture. The right is authoritarian, religious, nationalist, militaristic, aggressive, paranoid, opposed to egalitarianism, sexually repressed, believes human beings are not cooperative, defends capitalism, and so on. In other words, the right is Glenn Beck (an unfortunate character that seems to be Tuschman’s favorite example). The left is more libertarian, secular, cosmopolitan, pacifist, rational, egalitarian, more sexually permissive, defends socialism, etc.
            Although this book is very well written, replete with funny and interesting examples, this dichotomy reveals Tuschman’s prejudices. The reader can easily tell that Tuschman’s sympathies are with the left, as he presents multiple strawmen of what the right is. In his account, the left is progressive, the right is retrograde. The left is cool, the right is stiff.
            Well, if things were only that simple! Political opinions, very much as racial traits, do not correlate as neatly as Tuschman pretends. We will find plenty of anomalies that, simply, do not fit. Was Christopher Hitchens on the right or on the left? If you support the invasion of Iraq on the grounds of bringing secularization to religious fanatics in the Middle East, what does that make you? What does being pro-life have to do with capitalism? What does favoring gay marriage have to do with believing that the rich should pay more taxes? It seems to me this is all part of a huge stereotype (very much as racial stereotypes work): to get some order out of an immense chaos of data, we cluster political opinions in two large groups, even though this may not adequately reflect reality.
            This is even more troublesome when Tuschman explores specific psychological traits of each ideology. Apparently, rightists watch neutral face expressions, and think those face expressions are actually menacing. So, rightists are paranoid, whereas leftists are not. Yeah, right. Who thinks 9/11 was an inside job; the right or the left? The fact that, in Michael Moore’s delusional Farenheit 9/11, conservative George W. Bush was the master of this gigantic and perverse plot, should be enough evidence that left has a great taste for conspiracy theories. Who is the real paranoid? Who talks about chemtrails, Frankenfood, the Bilderberg Group, and other paranoid delusions?
In Tuschman’s account, rightists are more prone to use sticks than carrots, because they believe the world is a hostile place. Following Lakoff’s work, Tuschman comes to the conclusion that conservatives’ violent rhetoric betrays their aggressive political style. Well, of course, if you cherry-pick, and choose Glenn Bleck as a clown of whom to make fun, then you can make this argument. But, this is a very biased choice. Is (Tea Party sympathizer) Ron Paul’s rhetoric aggressive? Not at all. Furthermore, one needs not to look very hard to find very aggressive left-wing rhetoric outside American politics. Che Guevara’s speeches were eerily violent. The very concept of class struggle reveals that most on the Left are not very interested in achieving goals giving away carrots. Sure, Glenn Beck goes around with bullet-proof vests, but so did Hugo Chávez: in fact, Chavez claimed (without any evidence whatsoever) that there were plans to assassinate him, in at least 15 different occasions.
Tuschman guides his account on the basis of the Right Wing Authoritarianism Test. Well, it seems to me this reveals some of his bias. This measure is based upon Theodor Adorno’s famous work on the authoritarian personality. Needless to say, Adorno was a leftist who (understandably) was very hostile to the right, after having gone through the Nazi experience. But, his ideas (and the test that he later inspired) are somewhat biased. Authoritarianism is a trait both of the right and the left. To say that socialists cannot be authoritarians is simply mistaken. In fact, socialism requires a strong government to legislate economic and civic life, and this eventually leads to authoritarian personalities.
There are many other tests to determine political leanings, and in some ways, I think they are more useful. Take, for instance, the Nolan chart favored by libertarians. Admittedly, this is a somewhat simplistic test. But, at least, it is very useful in making us understand that both the left and the right can be strong enemies of liberty. And, in this chart, someone who favors liberty in all its spheres, will be soft on crime (a liberal stand), yet at the same, will embrace capitalism (a conservative stand).
Furthermore, the collapse of the Soviet Union has changed things dramatically. In the good old days of the Cold War, things resembled closer Tuschman’s account. But, this is no longer the case. Today, one of the hallmarks of the “liberal” position is Anti-Americanism. And, in this regard, anyone who shows contempt for America and the West, is welcome among the comrades. Whether it is Yasser Arafat, Osama Bin Laden or Robert Mugabe, their images are stamped on t-shirts of “liberal” youth across university campuses all over America and Europe.
In fact, the defense of traditional liberal values has come to be, paradoxically, part of the conservative mainstream. If, as a secularist, you oppose the wearing of hijabs in public schools, you are a conservative. Hence, Nicholas Sarkozy is a conservative, wehereas a sympathizer of Islamic theocracies, such as Tariq Ramadan, is part of the left. If you oppose the harrsament of homosexuals in Russia, you are a rightist, for lefitists applaud Putin’s politics as a way to challenge American imperial arrogance (Putin is someone who surely scores very high on the Right Wing Authoritarianism Test, needless to say). If you support scientific literacy in Bolivia and oppose the teaching of nonsense indigenous ideas of the same caliber as creationism (such as Pacha Mama mysticism), you are a cultural imperialist, and hence, part of the “decadent right”: Evo Morales (someone who defends pre-Columbian retrograde ideas), instead, is a “progressive leftist”.
No wonder plenty of old-fashioned leftists have flirted with neoconservatives over the last few years. No wonder Bernard Henri Levy felt “left in darkness” (hence the title of his famous book, Left in Darkness, an obvious pun) by his old comrades. A couple of decades ago, Jean Francois Revel warned that what Americans call “conservative”, is actually what Europeans call “liberal”. Despite Tuschman’s brilliance in this book (and I won’t deny it is worth reading), he commits an ethnocentric mistake (curiously enough, he accuses the right of being more ethnocentric): he has a tendency to categorize the global political spectrum in terms of American labels. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Language, of course, is a useful classification tool, and as Sapir and Whorf famoulsy claimed, it reflects a community’s interests: Eskimos have tens of words for “snow”, we only have one. For the most part, Americans have only two words for political ideologies, maybe because they have a bipartisan political system. But, the world is much more complicated than that. Over the last few decades, Americans have come to understand that humanity is not neatly divided among “Blacks”, “Whites” and “Orientals”. I surely hope that, soon, they will come to realize that, despite the stereotypical image of Glenn Beck, the political spectrum is much more complex than the simplistic “left-right” dichotomy.

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