Limbo of the Left

Where are the great storytellers and heroes of the Left, asks Yitzi Tuvel. This piece came second in the 2012 Honi Soit opinion competition, judged by Joe Hildebrand.

A man does not have himself killed for a halfpence a day, or for a petty distinction. You must speak to the soul in order to electrify him.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

Once upon a time, there was a right wing of politics. It had all sorts of grand notions about hard work and just desserts, and it had well-thought-out cases for reasonable pieces of political doctrine.

Then the bottom fell through.

The right wing of political discourse today – at least in American and Australian politics – consists largely of positions that are alternately horrific and absurd. Financial deregulation doesn’t work: the market doesn’t just contain rational investors making self-interested decisions which benefit everyone, it also contains wily investment bankers who realised they could game the system and exploit the non-regulation of derivatives to get wealthy while America lost her home. The death penalty doesn’t deter murderers. There is no reason to deny gays the right to marry, and no case to be made in science classes for an Earth that’s half the age of Sumeria.

But for all its blatant failings, the right still has its adherents. And not a last straggling few, but a great multitude: churchgoers and farmers and plumbers and lawyers and carpenters and bankers and a handful of careful citizens who entomb their children in indestructible range rovers to protect them from the perilous terrain of Bondi and Vaucluse en route to private lessons on piano and soccer and deconstructing Wordsworth.

The right holds on to its followers for one simple reason: it keeps them out of limbo. The limbo that is ever the abode of the sensitive, thoughtful left. The limbo that lies at the end of a melancholy slope, once reasonable doubt has descended into a paralysing scepticism. The constant questioning and doubting and searching for a better way forward that so defines the left oft leaves the liberal thinker keenly aware of the imperfections that necessarily attend any decision, and the folly of deifying a person or policy.

The right does not suffer in the same way, for among all its lies, it has myth.

It has a sense of the kind of fictions that people are willing to fight and die for – flags and countries, heroic endeavours, freedom, liberty, justice. The kind of cohesive grand narratives that make us the good guys and them the bad guys, and give us a symbol to rally around and a cause we can believe in: really, truly believe in.

It wasn’t always this way. There is no reason you can’t have both. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr, Jawaharlal Nehru: they were social progressives who gave speeches that stirred the blood. They reminded people of the great causes for which they were fighting.

The Gettysburg Address was one of the most pivotal speeches in American history. It was delivered at a time when an already unpopular civil war was rapidly declining in support and rapidly growing in casualties. By the time Lincoln rose to give his few words, Edward Everett, the noted orator hired for the occasion, had been prattling on for hours. Lincoln didn’t prattle. He didn’t lecture about policy, or margins of error, or how a utilitarian model of morality would render the practise of slavery indefensible.

He talked about the larger sense. He talked about the great dreams of the founding fathers, their noble hopes, their soaring ambitious plans for a country founded on ideals. He talked about the devotion that the dying had to their cause, and reminded his listener of just how important that cause was.

All of it ran to a mere ten sentences. But it was enough. It galvanised the North. That’s how social progressivism ought to work. That’s how the left should sound. Yes, do the thinking. Yes, consider the issue from all sides. But don’t forget to tell us why we’re considering the issue at all. Don’t forget to tell us why the issue profoundly matters, how what we do about it reflects our great moral or civic path.

Mitt Romney has stated that he will repeal “Obamacare” if elected. That the world doesn’t recoil at the very notion, that a man – while styling himself a statesman – can be publically proud of his intent to stop the poor of the very nation which he wishes to lead from accessing vital medical aid, is an indictment – not of the indolence of the people, but of those whose duty it is to rouse them.

The right needs more scientists. It needs more economists. It needs statisticians. It needs trained professionals and rational inquirers to speak reason to it and make it listen.

The left needs storytellers. It needs mythmakers. It needs heroes.

The right’s great pit is ignorance. The left’s great pit is limbo.