29 May 2009

An Accidental Conservative Looks Back at the Left

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Spiegel editor Jan Fleischhauer grew up in a haute bourgeois left-liberal family, the kind that boycotted Hollywood movies, Pepsi Cola, and oranges, all on grounds of US or right-wing associations. Converting to Conservatism, he reports, was not easy, since doing so required breaking ranks with the entire community of culture and fashion.

Go to any theater, museum or open-air concert, and you’ll quickly realize that ideas beyond the mindscape of the left are unwelcome there. A contemporary play that doesn’t critically settle scores with the market economy? Unthinkable. An artist who, until George W. Bush left the White House, could associate anything with America other than Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the Washington’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol? Out of the question. Rock concerts against the left? A joke.

The left has won, across the board, and has become the happy medium. When we search for a definition of what left means, we can draw on an impressive array of theories. Leftism is a worldview, as well as a way of explaining the world and how everything is interconnected. Most of all, however, it is a feeling. A person who lives a leftist life is living with the appealing awareness of being in the right, in fact, being right all the time. In Germany, leftists are never truly called upon to justify their views. In fact, their views have become the dominant views, not within the population, which stubbornly adheres to its prejudices, but among those who set the tone and in circles where they prefer to congregate. …

In the business of opinions, where I earn my money, there is practically nothing but leftists, and anyone who is not is well-advised to keep it to himself. One reason for the cultural dominance of the left may be that the other side has nothing to say or leftist ideas are so convincing that everything else pales by comparison. But I would hazard to guess that many are to the left because others are.

Man’s tendency to assimilate, though well-documented in experimental psychology, is a trait routinely underestimated in everyday life. What we call conviction is often nothing but adaptation in an environment of opinions. Opportunism is an ugly word that doesn’t apply here, because it assumes that we adopt opinions for purely calculated reasons. Let’s call it social instinct instead. No one wants to be the only person in an office who isn’t asked to join the group for lunch.

The liberal family has many clans competing sharply with one another, but in the end it remains a family, and it sees itself as a family. The left, with which I have dealt throughout my life, is a milieu that could be described as the leftist bourgeoisie. In English-speaking countries, terms like “chattering class” or “creative class” have taken hold. Middle-class socialism or leftist chic are other attempts at description, but they all mean the same thing. This milieu is inhabited by a type of person easily recognized by his consumption and cultural habits (even if he prides himself on his nonconformity), and who is characterized by a pronounced elite awareness, even though the word elite is much as a taboo for leftists as words like nation, homeland or ethnic group.

Liberals in Germany rave about Obama, fear climate change and the surveillance state, do their best to eat organically acceptable food and read the opinion pages of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the arts section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine’s Sunday edition and, with a certain amount of feigned contempt, the political section of SPIEGEL. Their children attend exclusive schools, even though they are fundamentally in favor of public schools. They like to spend their weekends visiting friends in the country who have been renovating a stone cottage for years — with attention to historical authenticity, of course — and in Italian restaurants they always order in Italian, no matter how well they actually speak the language. Of course, liberals and conservatives probably share some of these traits, but not to the point of excluding everything else, and certainly not as one of the prime attributes of a lifestyle.

Members of this social class are critical of the market economy, and yet are unable to specify an alternative. In their view, the current economic crisis is a gift from God, because it provides perfect fodder for all kinds of prejudices and practically eliminates the need for argument. All it takes is to mention words like “Deutsche Bank” or “Wall Street” in any discussion in which someone has dared to voice a cautious objection, and everyone standing around will quickly nod their heads in agreement, causing the troublemaker to withdraw, while mumbling apologies. In secret, however, they hope that this crisis of capitalism will not progress too far, because their own prosperity depends on capitalism and because, for the past 150 years, no one has been able to demonstrate that a comfortable retirement was possible under good old Karl Marx.

Read the whole thing.

His book, Unter Linken: Von einem, der aus Versehen konservativ wurde (The Left, From the Perspective of an Accidental Conservative), has not so far been translated into English.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

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