Why (American) Liberals Aren’t

Seeing Causes and Effects

Warning, you’re going to hate this essay. Really, really hate it. Enjoy.

Whenever I ask my liberal friends about Trump, Brexit, and so on these days, they say: “aggh, they’re just dumb racists.” And I say: “Stop. At this exact moment, you have stopped being a liberal.” They look at me, angry, puzzled, furious. And then I have to explain why the line they’ve been fed by a generation of coddled pundits — that the rise of the right is only because people are terrible — is one billion percent wrong.

It’s not enough to say people “are racists”. When you tell me what you see in a person, then I also see what is in you. There’s a man with a frown, muttering to himself. What do you see? Maybe you say: “he’s angry”. But I see that he is disappointed, hurt, afraid — that somehow, from his parents, teachers, elders, he learned only this way to be. So which one should we call “him”?

To say that a person “is” something is to say that’s in their nature. Now what about racism, hate, xenophobia? Are the people who suddenly espouse these things inherently, naturally different? Are these inborn traits? But that’s the foundational conservative position: that some people are born ugly, foolish, blind, and therefore nobody deserves an equal change to begin with. “They’re just dumb racists” is a line that makes you a conservative the minute that you say it.

If we believe that people are born one way or another, then we are not liberals at all, because to be liberals, we must believe that human nature is a tabula rasa, that the good and bad in us depends on what is learned, acquired, gained, taught. Then we set the conditions for creating truly free, just, and equal societies, and otherwise, there is just a reversion to feudalism, where kings have a divine right, the aristocracy shares noble blood, and peasants are ignoble in blood. There is no human possibility at all if we presume to know the limits of human nature.

Now let us come back to racism, violence, and spite. There is no question that the US is a profoundly racist society. I’ve lived it. You don’t need to tell me about it. I was beaten up every day in high school for not taking the pledge of allegiance because I thought the US was a racist hellhole, and I enjoyed every terrifying, exhilarating, righteous moment of those fights. And yet. Fighting blindly isn’t enough if we wish to conquer our demons, not just express them.

So the question is: if racism and spite aren’t inborn, then they must be caused, so what causes them? We don’t have to look too far for an answer. The history of the 20th century is the answer. How did Germany turn genocidal? Because the good German was inherently evil? No — because Germany was forced to repay war reparations for WWI that crippled its economy, the average German grew impoverished, and in that poverty, he was an easy, weak target for the Nazis. A poor man is a like a nuclear reactor of violence just waiting to be switched on.

Now let us come back to America. Why does America, among rich nations, have this unique and terrible history of racism? The answer should be obvious by now. It wasn’t one. When America was founded, its cousins today, the UK, Germany, and so on, were rich nations already. But it was dirt poor. It had nothing. Not even money to pay taxes with. And so yet again, the old story tells itself: in the muck of poverty, the poison of racism grew.

Of course, you can deny that: you can believe that Americans were naturally evil, inherently bad, that this was all destiny, and so on. Just don’t call yourself a liberal. You have taken the most conservative position of all. To really be a liberal, you have one primary responsibility. Not protest, not action, not any of the rest of it. Just seeing. When describing a person, saying who a person “is”, or who people “are”, a liberal must see deeper and truer than a conservative, if they wish to genuinely conquer the feudal forces that have always opposed human progress. They must never describe people in terms of superficial effects, but of root causes. “They’re just dumb racists” versus “Of course hate is bad. They’re people who’ve been foolishly taught that hate is the way to solve all their problems, even though that’s the cause of their problems. We teach them by not ending up like them.”

Now let’s tie up the loose ends. When America discusses itself today, there are only two positions that are allowed. “They’re all just dumb racists, and racism is bad!” — the Trumpists, Brexiters, and so on. Or their position, which is that immigrants, gays, women, and so on are bad, which must be restrained and curtailed. Now you see the irony: both these positions are precisely the same. They are both conservative positions. They use one and the same logic of inherent destiny.

In this truest of ways, the world is turning conservative. It doesn’t even know it. America’s foolish and futile discussion is being exported around the globe. I see it in the UK’s discussion of Brexit. I see it in Germany’s discussion of the AfD. Such a discussion is fruitless — because it is not a discussion at all. It has no sides, no alternatives, no debate. It is just the same perspective, repeating itself to itself. Of course we can and must condemn violence and racism and hate — but that is not all we must do. It is barely a beginning at all.

That is why these discussions lead nowhere but into the abyss. Such a discussion has only made America worse off, hasn’t it? First we had Trump, now we Nazi marches. Why is that? Because unless we understand that racism and spite have material, real-world causes, we cannot fix them. If we implicitly presume that racism and spite are inborn, inherent, natural, then, conversely, we have already conceded that they cannot be fixed. Thus liberalism itself has been perverted, and become conservatism — not just via neoliberalism’s embrace of market fundamentalism, but in this truer, deeper philosophical way.

So. Maybe you call yourself a liberal, but you are probably not — and you probably don’t even know it. If you really want to be one, then you are going to have to remember one foundational belief. We are all created equal, and we are all born to love and be loved. All the hate in us we is only the consequence of the absence of such love.

September 2017

Why (American) Liberals Aren’t was originally published in Bad Words on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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