Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Meaninglessness of "Right" and "Left"

Let's finish up this story.

If you want to use the terms "right" and "left," you have a decision to make. The early 20th C. fascists were on the "right" in common English. It has been demonstrated that they were also on the left, but that doesn't disprove the former point. Under these circumstances, "left" and "right" are incoherent or at least too confused to be useful.

If you want to use the terms, you will have to remove the confusion embedded in them, namely that the fascists were on the right and on the left. You'll need to prove that all users of English should (a.) reserve the term "right" for conservatives and other opponents of totalitarianism and (b.) stop calling Hitler and Mussolini "on the right" or "right wing." Good luck with that. It isn't going to happen. Take a look at John Jay Ray's writings on this. You'll have to search the Web under his name and "fascism," "leftism," "Hitler," and so forth; they're well worth reading in full. He has undertaken the Herculean task of semantically pushing the totalitarians out of the right.

Suppose you could accomplish this feat. Now you have conservatism on the right and totalitarianism (socialism, fascism, what have you) on the left. What good does that do you? It means that libertarians are to the right of conservatives, and anarchists still further to the right. Is that what you want? It will do you no good. If you want anarchists to be considered as to the right of conservatives, then you want to introduce a new semantics and not to clean up an old one. Also, you'll have rendered conservatism as only moderately right. To the right of it will be decidedly unconservative territory. This would render "extremely conservative" and even "very conservative" meaningless. You'll have to explain those features of the English language away.

"Right" and "left" are confused and intellectually useless. Their usage is best reserved as brickbats to be hurled at various totalitarians. This is how various totalitarians themselves have used them. The leftists decried the right wing fascists, and vice versa. At best the terms mean "totalitarian whom I dislike intensely." As a conservative, you can accept the label "right wing" only if you accept that it indelibly connotes "totalitarian whom I dislike intensely." Have fun washing that away. Lenin even denounced leftist communism as infantile. You better get to work if you want to clean up all the confusion. You'll fail, and if you succeed, you'll still have only useless gibberish left over.

Better to eschew these terms, preferring these: totalitarian, statist, fascist, socialist, communist, conservative, and libertarian. "Liberal" was also taken over by the socialists and is now in dire straits. It might be rescued as a close relative of libertarianism and conservatism, but the prospects are not good. Once you allow your language to be perverted for decades, you can't simply clean house. Semantics are not easily reversible because the meanings of words cannot be easily changed.

By the way, when you give up the useless left-right spectrum, you may still speak of degrees of conservatism. Conservatism is a devotion to a large set of important values, including liberty, order, justice, charity, and self-reliance, amongst many others. To be extremely conservative is to be absolutely and implacably so devoted. To be extremely unconservative is therefore to be amoral. There is in addition a sense in which one may be "too conservative." In this case, one is absolutely adherent to the traditional moral judgments one holds, even when one of them has been proven groundless or inconsistent with the others. The defenders of slavery in the 19th Century were too conservative in this sense. This is not a very salutary locution, however, as the ability to renounce moral judgments which run against the larger set of one's values is precisely a way of being devoted to that set and not a disloyalty to it. Slavery ran against the value of liberty and against certain non-moral facts, such as that blacks are people. To defend slavery in these circumstances is hardly conservative and only "too conservative" in an idiosyncratic sense. The real conservatives denounced slavery. Consider an analogy. Consider a scientist who won't give up his belief in one of the current theories in the face of conclusive evidence against it. Is he being "too scientific"? Of course not. "Too conservative," then, is hardly useful.

If you hear someone call conservatives "right wing" you might speak up and say "Do you mean like the fascists Hitler and Mussolini? Then how are conservatives, supporting limited government and individual liberty as they do, right wing? Please explain yourself." The reply will be hopelessly confused. This is a semantic task that requires less than Herculean effort and is achievable.