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The Next Good Thing

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Well, I made it to Saturday. This feels like some kind of miracle that I should celebrate, but instead I’m worried about my mother–yesterday, she was in the hospital all day for a blood transfusion; last night she was back in her nursing home–and I’m intent on drinking this enormous cup of tea.

I want to throw out a proposition, however, that ties in with the posts of the last few days.

Here it is:  the only people who are threatened by competition are people who are afraid to lose.

I want to make that as clear as I can.  I’m not talking about people who think they might lose.  I’m not even talking about people who know theyr’e going to lose.

You can be both of those things and yet not be threatened by competition, as long as you can accept losing.

I am, in fact, one of those people who is often convinced I am going to lose.  And I have, in my life, often lost.  It feels awful, and I hate it, but I get up and give it another shot.

And I don’t hate losing–failing, may be the better word–so much that I’m willing to do anything to avoid it.

I’d rather compete and lose, try and fail, than not compete or try at all.

There are a certain subset of people, however, for whom losing/failing is the worst possible thing.  Some of those people are in situations where their fear makes at least practical sense.

If you’re the sexagenarian owner of the local pharmacy and Rite-Aid moves in next door,  you may very well be afraid of the competition (and seek to find a way to avoid it) because it might mean that your store goes out of business and you no longer have a source of livelihood at a time in your life when you don’t really have the personal resources to rebuild.

But some people just can’t face failure, period.  It doesn’t matter if they think they’re going to win or to lose, because the mere possibility of losing is insupportable to them psychologically.

And I’ll tell you from experience that a fair number of these people end up in highly competitive environments.  It’s not that they don’t compete.  It’s that they hate the competition and are constantly trying to find some way to game it.

I bring these people up because I think they’re the second solid segment of what I remember of the New Left, and the New Left keeps coming up in connection with Whittaker Chambers and the Old Left.

Let me say this first.

I think most people underestimate how large a percentage of the leadership of the campus left in the Sixties was made up of the children of the Old Left of the Thirties and Forties.

Without the Red Diaper Babies, the New Left would never have happened.

And the Red Diaper Babies were not the ones I’m thinking of who were afraid of competition.  They came to Left politics the way a lot of people come to religion.  It was what they were brought up with, and they never questioned the dogma (moral or political) of their faith any more than a Southern Baptist at Liberty University questions his.

In fact, they may have questioned it less.

But the New Left would never have gotten where it got to if it had had to rely on the Red Diaper Babies alone.  There weren’t enough of them.

What it had was the most competitive generation in the history of the country, a phalanx of adolescents who had grown up being told:  a) they could be anything they want to be if they just worked at it and b) the road to riches and power and fame was through the universities that were open to everybody.

The implication, of course, was that if they did not do much with their lives, then it was their own fault and no other.

This was what I was trying to explain the other day about the problems of meritocracy.  Meritocracy leaves nobody an out.  If you fail, then your failure is your own personal sin, and it says something about your worth as a human being.

The New Left was headed largely by students from top-tier universities.  These were the students who had, up to that point, been winning the competition to “be somebody.” 

They were also the ones most likely to be afraid to lose, because losing would mean (given where they had gotten to) being separated from the entire life they had build so far.

Ack.  Every time I try to say this, I feel like I mess it up.

There’s a saying that it’s harder to be poor if you’ve ever been rich.

That’s the sense in which I mean it.  These were kids used to being at Harvard and Columbia.  East Podunk U would be hard to take.  Moving into anonymous, not very glamourous careers would also be hard to take, because they’d look up every morning and see the kids who sat beside them in History and Calculus running the country.

I think that fear of losing resulted in a big minority of “movement” students deciding that the safest thing to do in their position was to try to bring down the system that would judge them.  If the system was destroyed, they couldn’t lose.

I have no idea if any of that makes any sense.

But I think you can apply it to certain kinds of Left-ish pundit, too, and to a lot of the really silly Left faculty on college campuses.

I think that the reason that Humanities professors skew left isn’t that there is something inherent in the Humanities, but that in a world that values science and technology, they will in fact lose, even on their own campuses.

If you’re part of a system that judges what you are to be worthless, then it makes sense to try to bring down the system.

George Steiner pretty well said this in “Archives of Eden,” which is osmething I should talk about on this blog at some point, because it’s a truly astonishing piece of work.

But I think the Communists of the Thirties were different from the Leftists of the second half of the 20th century because they could not have had the motives those second-half Leftists had.  In the world of the Thirties, places like Harvard and Yale were largely restricted to people who had not only money, but the right kind of money.  If you failed to get into them, it had nothing to do with you.

But the fellow travelers are something else.

I think the fellow travelers may very well have been influenced–some of them–by that fear of failure. 

But at the moment, I’m trying to figure out a man named Henry Ware.

And I need my tea.

Written by janeh

September 11th, 2010 at 7:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'The Next Good Thing'

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  1. I’d have taken a different tack, but it may be complimentary rather than contradictory. I’d have said it wasn’t fear of losing that motivated the New Lefties, but of being shown to be wrong.
    This is why math, chemistry and engineering are denied tarritories to them, but physics thay can work with. Theology, philosophy, ethics, “political science” and such are very congenial to them. Across the board, in university and out, their prefered niches rely on argument, never on demonstration. No rude outsider can prove them to be wrong: they can only be shown to depart from the concensus. (To accomodate this, each leftist art or literary critic is allowed–or assigned?–one eccentric judgement, but only one.)

    Of course, part of this may be that I never understood the whole “losing” thing the same way. Because some idiot jock says “I’ll race you to the corner” doesn’t mean I have to run, and certainly doesn’t mean I’ve “lost” when he gets there first. Yes, in a perfect meritocratic society I should be limited in competition only by natural aptitude and my own behavior–but there is natural aptitude, and no society is perfectly meritocratic. “Time and chance happen to all things.”

    More importantly, when did we all agree that wealth and power were the objectives? No one asked me. I did not set such goals for myself. Yes, society is more meritocratic than it used to be. But it is also more free than it used to be. And in a free society, I get to pick my own goals.

    Which gets to the heart of my reaction to these people. In the Movement’s view of matters, we all have to play the same game–and they get to choose the game and write the rules.

    No, thanks.


    11 Sep 10 at 10:14 am

  2. Robert said, “…we all have to play the same game–and they get to choose the game and write the rules.”

    I think that’s true of basically everyone who goes into politics or any political movement whatsoever, not just the Left. The question is, are the game and rules that the particular group is proposing ones that you personally would be happy with? And that’s the party you choose to support.



    11 Sep 10 at 12:14 pm

  3. “I think that’s true of basically everyone who goes into politics or any political movement whatsoever, not just the Left.”

    NO! A thousand times no! That is the counsel of despair–and it provides the nitwits with just the excuse–“everyone does it”–that you’d expect of the third-rate villains they are. Even authoritarian states have left room for individual tastes and preferences. Take a look at China in recent years: Drink or don’t drink: run a business or work in one. As long as you don’t make trouble for the powers that be, the powers that be don’t care. It’s specifically the hallmark of the West’s political left that EVERYTHING is political. You can become morally reprehensible by using the wrong diapers, drinking the wrong coffee or drinking it out of the wrong container–not to mention the more heinous offences of liking the wrong music, or giggling at their “serious” art. And what’s immoral (to them) can and will be regulated, since they cannot conceive of a state which is not absolute.

    An American conservative may argue that if government has been regulating something for 200 years, then it has the right to do so, and it is bad constitutional practice for the courts to change the rules. A Tory argues for accepted practices. Neither goes out and invents entire new government functions and a consequent expansion of government power. If you prefer the left, do so: but don’t excuse the block wardens and informers by claiming “everyone does it.” They’re the Left’s own contribution to political development–a “coming thing” I mean to stop coming.


    11 Sep 10 at 1:42 pm

  4. I’m not saying it’s OK “because everyone does it.” I’m saying it’s reprehensible, and I see everyone doing it.

    You can be morally reprehensible to the political right by eating the wrong kind of fish or salad greens, or asking people not to smoke in your house, or buying a foreign car, or not espousing one of the “acceptable” religions. In what way is this different from the left?

    I’m just saying that if you happen to be a sushi-eating, baby-wearing, pagan, classical music lover, you won’t be as bothered by the left’s rules, because they will seem “natural” to you.

    And if you are a hunting, domestic beer drinking, christian, NASCAR watching, country music lover, you won’t be as bothered by the right’s rules, because they will seem “natural” to you.

    The left doesn’t even see outlawing spanking as an intrusion on liberty, because who would do that anyway?

    The right doesn’t even see outlawing gay marriage as an intrusion on liberty, because who would do that anyway?



    11 Sep 10 at 5:55 pm

  5. In other words, whether you are left or right economically isn’t actually that important.

    What matters is where you are on the dictatorial-libertarian scale.

    I happen to be a libertarian social democrat, or something. A mixed economy should be tilted in the direction of a large safety net. But none of it should involve control of people’s behavior. Even if I am paying for your health care through my taxes, I shouldn’t be allowed to drug test you or force you to eat healthy or wear a helmet….

    That means I have more in common with libertarians than I do with most Democrats and almost all socialists.



    11 Sep 10 at 5:59 pm

  6. I’ll avoid the 60’s. It was a painful period for me. I sympathised with the Civil Rights marchers and dislikes the anti-war protestors.

    Robert wrote “This is why math, chemistry and engineering are denied tarritories to them, but physics thay can work with.” I don’t see what physics has to do with being liberal or conservative.

    Cathy wrote “And if you are a hunting, domestic beer drinking, christian, NASCAR watching, country music lover”. Both Mique and I are conservative but that description fits neither of us.


    11 Sep 10 at 6:17 pm

  7. Well, I am a country music lover. :-) (It’s just about the only type of music I can hear well enough to listen to these days.) I hate NASCAR and have never hunted for fun.

    I think that there are intolerant authoritarians in pretty much equal measure on both sides of the political spectrum. The only real differences are the issues that trigger their extremist tendencies. The “left” are contemptuous of those they label “right” and vice versa. The body count is heavily in favour of the left in world political terms, but that is merely because the leftist totalitarian regimes had bigger populations to feed their murderous instincts.

    The arguments are futile unless and until people learn to make the issues the issues rather than indulging in ad hominem instead of rational argument. That doesn’t look like happening any time soon.


    11 Sep 10 at 7:18 pm

  8. I think those are probably rural US conservative stereotypes–YMMV.

    Mique, I bet you could hear death metal–you just wouldn’t want to! ;)


    11 Sep 10 at 8:35 pm

  9. JD I mentioned Physics for a reason. As Jane has pointed out, it’s the closest thing to a hard science with a respectable population of Marxists–and it’s the only part of the “hard science” end which tends to rely more on argument than on demonstration. Chemistry and engineering don’t have any equivalent of “string theory,” for instance, and there’s no equivalent of “Schroediger’s Cat” among the other people with lab coats or hard hats.
    That puts the physicists closer to the sociologists, cultural anthropologists and even literary critics, where theories come and go by fashion, and not because they’ve been confirmed or refuted experimentally. And that’s where they end up politically as well.

    Which gets back to the main point: leftists fill the faculty in the departments in which argument is enough and no refutation is possible if the graduate student knows what’s good for him. As a percentage of faculty, they fall off drastically in, say, engineering, where the bridge can fall down or stand regardless of the professor’s opinion. I don’t think liberals are comfortable with an environment in which facts trump argument, and career statistics back me up.

    Cathy, point duly noted, and I reserve the right to be as much offended as the next person, but it is the Left’s program I see put into law. I don’t smoke or drink, but I don’t much care for the state telling a tavern owner what he can and can’t permit adult customers to do on his property. Most us us regard vegans and drinkers of “fair trade” coffee in paper cups as strange, not immoral–but this is not reciprocated.
    As for homosexual marriage, most conservatives hold that rules which have held for 3,000 years should be changed very carefully. That’s why we’re conservatives. If the people of a state and their elected representatives want to change the rules–well, that’s why we have a federal structure: so Georgia and California don’t have to do things the same way. Most conservatives I know are a lot more upset when a judge decides that a constitution suddenly means something no one noticed it meant for 150 or 200 years. Frankly, I don’t see how liberals can be thrilled by that either. Yes, it makes for a cheap “win” today–but it also undermines any existing right based on the constitution. Those could be very expensive victories over the long haul–for everyone.


    11 Sep 10 at 8:36 pm

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