Oct 292002

This topic been circulating for a while. Jim at Philosoblog kicked things off by discussing (scroll down, Blogger permalinks busted as usual) the role of envy in leftist politics. I pointed out that envy can be animated by such tiny distinctions that placating it is of no use. Michael of Team Blowhard jumped in, arguing that envy isn’t the only explanation, that there’s a coolness factor to consider:

…the motivation I encounter that interests me most is this one: leftie-ism is attractive.
That’s spelled a-t-t-r-a-c-t-i-v-e, and I think it’s a huge mistake not to take it seriously. Far-out art? Good food? Bookstores with personalities? Performers who take wild chances? Glamour and sex? Snazzy design? If these things mean much to you, you’re going to be spending more time exploring the left-hand part of the room than the left-hand part. And the more time you spend there, the more likely it is that you’ll take on leftie coloring… where’s the envy?

Well, neither Jim nor I proposed envy as the sole explanation of leftist politics. (For the purposes of this discussion I will call “leftist” anyone who thinks the government ought to redistribute wealth to poor people. People who think the government ought to redistribute wealth to rich people are Republicans.) Envy is usually underrated, however, because everyone suffers from it, to a greater or lesser degree, and no one likes to admit it. It is, shall we say, unattractive.

By “attractiveness” don’t we really mean youth, at least partly? The young, we all know, tend to be leftist, because leftism requires ignoring the unseen, long-range consequences of one’s decisions, which is quintessentially adolescent. I myself remember taping up McGovern posters in sixth grade. This tendency may or may not be immutable but is in any case of very long standing. The young also tend to be attractive. So leftism tends to be attractive. Whaddaya know?

The right also tends to be Christian in this country. Now of course going to church is way uncool, so that’s more points for the left right there. Christianity deals effectively with envy, as Nietzsche pointed out, by shunting it to the afterlife. In the next world, to be sure, all the buggers who stepped on you will get what’s coming to them, but for now render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. This heads off the envious desire for “social justice” at the pass.

In the absence of Christianity, the left supplies its own religion, art-worship. Membership requires a firm belief in art as self-expression (“Whatever I spit, that is art.” –Picasso) and artists as the vanguard liberators from tiresome bourgeois constraints. Self-expression has been the reigning aesthetic in the West for about 200 years, since the publication of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798, so this is usually no problem. One can detect vestigial traces of the requisite attitude even in Blowhard Michael when he refers to “far-out art” and “performers who take chances.” (The art cult also compares unfavorably to Christianity in the envy-avoidance department.)

Genuine aesthetes are welcome in the art cult but no actual interest in art is required. People who attend Karen Finley shows or Sonic Youth concerts or other art-events that are objectively terrible are surely members of the art-cult yet, almost as surely, not interested in art in the slightest. There are as many aesthetes, people with a genuine interest in art, on the right as on the left. But the right has deserted the battle, leaving the field clear for the art cultists.