Friday, March 14, 2003

Actually since Prager spent the third hour rerunning his show on the right-wing nature of the Nazis, I have an opportunity to post an analysis of my reasons for disliking the whole right-wing, left-wing terminology. This analysis was originally contained in an email to a friend of mine.

Originally written on January 23, 2003

By the way, I can't resist commenting on the "Nazism is an extreme right-wing goverment" claim that Prager made and defended during the week against numerous unfortunate right-wing callers. I think you know my basic take on this. The right/left continuum is in my opinion at best rather limited in utility and
ultimately unhelpful.

Apparently historically (and I haven't checked on this but it's repeated everywhere) this distinction traces itself to the assembly during the French
revolution where the supporters of the monarchy sat on the right and the revolutionaries sat on the left. Since then the continuum's basic distinctions
are usually regarded as follows:

On the right wing we generally put the following ideas (in no particular order):

Nationalism, racism, religion, capitalism, fascism

On the left wing we generally put the following ideas:

Socialism, Communism, internationalism

Of course this list is not meant to be exhaustive. The extreme right is represented by fascism, national socialism, and religious theocracies. The extreme left is represented by the communist countries. The continuum is curved and thus the extreme right and extreme left almost meet. The center is taken to be liberal democracy presumably with a little religion and capitalism as well as a welfare state.

I would say this scheme is okay as far as it goes and of course I frequently refer to it myself. But I would say it is in the end not very helpful either morally or politically.

I reject the idea that because something is held to be "extreme" it is therefore necessarily bad and for that matter if an idea is "moderate" it is therefore necessarily good. I think this is part of the assumption that Prager works from; he calls himself "a passionate moderate" (or is it centrist?) after
all. In response, I could pose the same criticism that he posed to the poor right-wingers who called up and tried to say that only extreme left-wing
regimes are evil. He said their position is self-serving since by their definition no matter how extreme the right, it can do no wrong. But it seems to
me by a similar argument I could say that Prager's position is self-serving since he implies nothing evil could ever come from a moderate position. I claim
the so called "extremity" of a position (whatever that is supposed to mean) has little to do with whether something is right or wrong. We evaluate right and
wrong by comparisons with a proper moral standard. If systems meet the standard then to that extent they are good whether they are right-wing or left-wing. If
systems fail to meet or go against the standard, then to that extent they are bad. A properly defined moral standard should be consistently upheld. I don't
think it would be more moral to be "moderate" and uphold it only 50% of the time. Rather one should be "extreme" (consistent) and uphold it 100% of the
time or as close as one can get.

To give a simple example: There are two extremist positions: 1. We should execute all murderers. 2. We should not execute any murderers. Presumably the
moderate position is: We should execute some murderers. It may be the moderate position but it is not the moral one. Morally, we want position 1. It may
always be possible to find an extreme that is bad but that is because of the way we set up the continuum. I could set up the positions in such a way that
both the extremes are bad: 1. All criminals should be executed 2. No criminals should be executed. Here the presumably moderate position is:
Only some criminals should be executed which is the moral position since presumably we don't want pick-pockets executed. But this all depends on how the
continuum is set up.

In politics a proper moral standard would be the protection of individual rights and in that respect there is indeed a proper continuum. From the U.S.
and the West in general where individual rights are largely respected to the various totalitarians, whether right or left, religious or secular where rights
are basically absent.

So to summarize, I think it's okay to continue to use the terms right-wing and left-wing. I will certainly continue to do so. But the reality is that both are
grab-bags of different ideological strains and movements, most of which, frankly, are bad to varying degrees. These days I still say I am part of the
right but if I announce it to a stranger I have to spend quite a few minutes distinguishing my views from all the other right-wingers (moderate or extreme).
So again I think the terms are at best of limited utility and ideally would be replaced with actual ideological terms such as Objectivist, Catholic, Orthodox
Jew, Marxist, Socialist, Pragmatist, etc.

By the way I think the terms "liberal" and "conservative" are basically as limited as "right" and "left" and in some ways more so. But that's a whole
other story.

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