April 25, 2005

Relatively Relativistic

So far on this blog I’ve made little effort to define myself politically. And in real life I don’t either. That’s because my political thinking is situational. I don’t align myself with one side in the debate and then adopt that side’s position on issue after issue. When I decide where I stand on an issue, I want to have thought it out on my own. That would take an immense amount of time if I felt duty-bound to take a position on every issue – there’s an understandable pragmatic reason for choosing Column A or Column B every time. But I don’t feel obliged to weigh in on most issues, because I’m not primarily a political being. I’m more interested in art and literature.

If I have any political axiom, it’s that no ideology has a monopoly on being right. (Other axioms would be a belief in individual freedom and in social fairness.) Even if I think that the best answer is to be found fifteen degrees left of center most of the time, I’m happy to admit that in some cases the best answer might be found twenty degree right of center. And the cases where my expectations are reversed might well be cases of particular importance where my usual perceptions and attitudes are overthrown by external events.

So, while I might not want Winston Churchill determining ordinary social policy for the world, I’m extremely grateful that he was in charge during the extraordinary crisis of 1940. While I, as a non-Catholic, did not agree with John Paul II on many matters of ordinary policy, I’m glad he was there to do the extraordinary job of helping topple the Soviet empire. As Ecclesiastes might have said, there’s a time to be liberal and a time to be conservative.

This in itself is a relativistic position and thus might be perceived as left of center. But to me it seems like common sense, and I don’t know why most people on both sides of the spectrum don’t think this way.

Relativism has been much talked about lately because of the words of Pope Benedict XVI. I greatly respect what I’ve heard from the new pope so far. He is defending Western civilization, a civilization I love and I find worth defending. But I’m also concerned that relativism is turning into the new anti-intellectual, anti-progressive code word. I’ve been asking myself to what extent I’m a relativist.

It turns out that I’m relatively relativistic, not absolutely relativistic. In the normal course of things, I’m eager to consider all points of view and welcome input from all cultures and groups. I support affirmative action even though it doesn’t serve my self–interest and may at times have worked against me. By temperament I prefer a diverse world. Although I go to a medical doctor, I’m open-minded enough to have tried acupuncture. You get the idea.

Where does my relativism stop? It stops at the absolute necessity of defending our civilization’s survival. Thus I supported the war in Afghanistan and was impatient with those who thought that this country had no right to shoot back against its real enemies. I opposed the war in Iraq because I did not feel that Saddam’s regime, however odious, represented an imminent threat against us.

I’m disgusted by those on the left whose cultural relativism consists of an absolute disapproval of the United States: those who gleefully point up every historical misdeed of this country while excusing the misdeeds of other countries as being results of different cultural values. Those who make cushy livings in the United States by vilifying the United States, biting the hand that feeds them. They belie their own claims to relativism. The historical misdeeds need to be brought up, faced honestly, and used as incentives to avoid similar wrongs in the future. But people who act as if the most important thing about George Washington was that he was a slaveowner are simply obtuse.

This issue is important today because Western civilization really is under an imminent threat, perhaps more in Europe than in this country. Islamic militants understand this and European leftists do not. In Holland and France recently the peace–loving liberal public has received some big shocks: the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh for making a film critical of Islam, and a number of violent attacks on French students by Muslim gangs shouting racial epithets. Such incidents have galvanized the right and split the left in those countries. The backlash does not promise to be edifying or thoughtful. The conflict is bound to increase.

The Islamicization of Europe is a real threat for the next generation. It shows an intent to take revenge not only for the Crusades but for the Battle of Tours. Meanwhile, relativist leftists are starting to look more and more like their liberal, well–bred counterparts in Chekhov’s plays: sitting around chatting amusingly about their own helplessness and the need to reform society. They don’t dare stand up in their own defense because it’s not the attractive thing to do.

No society, whether privileged or not, has an obligation to comply in its own demise. Liberalism does not mean permitting others to try to destroy you.

If I’m only relatively relativistic, then, does that actually make me more relativistic than the absolute relativists? Who knows? I’m not into solving paradoxes. I live comfortably with them.

But it means I’ll never be fully acceptable to the left. I saw an example of this about a decade ago when I was living in the doctrinairely leftist environment of Madison, Wisconsin. I had a friend who was a leftist activist – a nice, mild–mannered guy, and we had a lot of interests in common. He was going through a divorce, and I’d gone through one a few years earlier and could talk to him about it. We were at a social gathering one evening and there was some Indonesian gamelan music on the stereo. I like Indonesian gamelan music and had just enjoyed a concert of it at the university. So we were talking about how nice the music on the stereo was.

This gave my friend an opportunity to make a multiculturalist point. “How come Mozart is so much better known than Indonesian gamelan music?”

“Maybe because Mozart wrote better music?” I asked.

He looked at me with utter horror, as if the mask had been peeled from my face. “Better music?”

I had said the impermissible. And though the discussion ended there, after that evening he and I never got together socially again.

But you know, much as I can enjoy Indonesian gamelan music, Mozart is better. Tastes can vary. I may like Rembrandt and you may like Titian. But anyone who thinks Jeff Koons is an equally great artist is simply a fool.