One and a half cheers for well-meaning bleeding-heart liberals

by Emrys Westacott

So many people have it in for well-intentioned, bleeding-heart, left-leaning liberals.[1] Of course, if the critics are bona fide racists, sexists, homophobes, gun and flag fetishists, religious fundamentalists, anti-government Ayn Randians, coal or oil industry CEOs, or just Fat Cats protecting their pile, then it's to be expected that they'll trash Well-Intentioned, Bleeding-Heart, Left-Leaning Liberals (WIBHLLLs–pronounced “wibbles,” and since I don't like acronyms from here on let's just call them wibbles.). It's part of these critics' job description, since wibbles cherish just what such people despise (and vice versa). What is surprising and disappointing, though, is how often one finds wibbles being attacked, ridiculed, or despised by others who hold progressive values.

George Orwell offers a paradigm example of this sort of hostility towards people who, in the great political scheme of things, are on the same team. In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell, a professed socialist, complains about 330px-Edward_Carpenter_(1905)

the horrible, really disquieting prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism' and ‘Communism' draw toward them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, ‘Nature-Cure' quack, and feminist in England.

I can't prove this, but I rather suspect he may have had in mind Edward Carpenter (pictured), an English socialist (1844-1929) who would check most of Orwell's boxes. For an example today of a left-wing theorist whose main concern seems to be to criticize those who presumably share some of his basic values, one need look no further than Slavoj Zizek. Zizek scoffs at vegetarians, recyclers, people who buy organic produce, and people who give to charity.[2]In the 2008 documentary Examined Life, he criticizes environmentalists who seek to reduce our alienation from nature by reminding us we are part of nature. In Zizek's view, the possible success of their teaching represents “the greatest danger,” and ecology threatens to become the new “opium of the masses.” For “to confront properly the threat of ecological catastrophe” we need to “cut off [our] roots in nature….We need more alienation from life….We should become more artificial.” Elsewhere he criticizes “tolerant liberal multiculturalism” as really just “barbarism with a human face.”[3]

I have good friends who also seem to hold wibbles–”nice” people, Guardian readers­­–in special contempt, although “do-gooders” inspire even more hostility. On one occasion the name of Bono came up.”God, I despise Bono!” one friend said. Another heartily agreed. Note, they don't despise rock musicians in general, most of whom (like most of everyone) are politically disengaged. No they despise the one who has campaigned vigorously for many years to alleviate poverty, disease, and debt in the third world. Perhaps they'd respect him more if he spent his free time sleeping off hangovers and playing video games.

So just what is it about wibbles that other leftists despise? Here are a few of the charges:

  • Self-delusion: They think they're saving the world when they cycle to work, recycle their wine bottles, buy organic fair trade coffee, and so on. But they're not! These are just pathetic little gestures that really do nothing except give the wibbles an undeserved warm fuzzy feeling inside.
  • Stupidity: They persistently prefer what they want to believe to the objective truth. So they drive to a pick-your-own berry place to reduce the “food miles” of what they eat, not realizing that berries shipped in bulk from the other side of the world will actually have consumed less energy per berry to grow and deliver.
  • Hypocrisy: Wibbles claim to care about inequality but send their kids to private schools. They claim to care about global warming but think nothing of flying to their fancy vacation spots. They scrupulously switch all their bulbs from incandescent to fluorescent, and then leave the lights on in their (often unnecessarily large) houses to deter burglars.
  • Self-righteousness: Wibbles may not say it out loud, but they obviously think themselves superior to folks who drop litter, don't bother recycling, drive gas-guzzlers, eat junk food, smoke, read The Sun, don't read improving books, watch Keeping up with the Kardashians, believe Fox News, keep big dogs chained up in the back yard, or like bad coffee.
  • Smugness: They derive satisfaction from a sense of their basic decency, and this is just very unpleasant to contemplate.
  • Male wibbles often wear sandals over socks.

What is one to make of such criticisms? Well, first of all, let's admit that some of the mud sticks. But so what? Wibbles hardly have a monopoly on foolishness, self-deception, hypocrisy, or self-righteousness. What left-wing critics of wibblery fail to acknowledge, though, is a simple truth: the world would be a much better place if there were a lot more wibbles.

The case for this claim is easy to make. First of all, even if here and there some wibbles are mistaken over the specific consequences of specific practices–e.g. the benefits of recycling glass, or the dangers of genetically modified food–on the whole it's still a good thing for people to have good intentions. The alternative is to be cruel, hateful, spiteful, vengeful, and destructive, or at best thoroughly self-interested and indifferent to the well-being of other people and the planet. (The old saw “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” isn't a criticism of good intentions per se. Its primary meaning is simply that it's much easier to have good intentions than to act on them.)

Second, much of what's wrong with the world is due to there not being enough wibbles. If wibbles had had their way in the US, for instance, there would have been no invasion of Iraq in 2003 (with immediate casualties in the hundreds of thousands and further dire consequences still being played out), no fifty-year US embargo of Cuba, and a decent national health care system. There would be a carbon tax to encourage energy efficiency, strict and sensible gun laws, campaign finance reform, a humane and enlightened immigration policy, better environmental protection, a much higher minimum wage, no executions, same sex marriage rights in every state, far less spent on the military, and far more spent on alternative energy research and foreign aid.

Third, the differences between wibbles and their left-wing detractors are much smaller than the latter make out. Presumably, even critics like Zizek would wish people all over the world to be less subject to certain kinds of suffering and injustice: for instance, violent death, torture, wrongful imprisonment, poverty, disease, discrimination, domestic violence, unsafe working conditions, and gross exploitation. The fact is, wibbles and their left-wing critics actually share plenty of basic values. The critics will argue that conventional pink liberalism's understanding of politics is naïve, or that their notion of the good life is too individualistic; and these criticisms may be legitimate. But both parties are largely agreed on fundamental questions of right and wrong.

What about the wibbles' insufferable self-righteousness? Well, you know what? It really is better to not smoke, reduce energy consumption, recycle, buy organic if you can afford it, try not to be prejudiced, try to keep your kids from ingesting too much junk food or junk TV, and not believe conservative rubbish about climate change being a hoax, Obama being a Muslim, and the theory of evolution being “only a theory.”

Pride is still a sin, of course, and pride in such small achievements as remembering to recycle and not being taken in by Rush Limbaugh is, I agree, pretty pathetic. But it's preferable to–or at least no worse than­–many other kinds of pride, such as being proud of your distinguished family blood line, your wealth, your fancy house that you've paid other people to beautify, your looks, your native talents, or your nationality.

Anyway, it's a bit rich for anyone to look down on wibbles on the grounds that wibbles self-righteously look down on those they consider less enlightened or less virtuous. Pot and kettle! And exactly what sort of advantage do the critics enjoy that justifies their superior attitude? Are we to suppose them unusually free from small hypocrisies and self-deceptions? Perhaps they're simply free from good intentions.

In fact, it's perfectly in order to be morally critical of some people: e.g. racists, sexists, homophobes, rapists, wife beaters, vandals, bullies, and litter-louts. And where we are morally critical, it's hard to avoid looking down on the guilty party. But if we are to avoid looking down on those who don't act the way we think they should, the key is surely to reach for a sympathetic understanding of why they are the way they are and do what they do. The vandal may feel an urge to express himself but can't see a way to do so creatively. The racist may have absorbed racist ideas and attitudes since infancy from everyone around him he was taught to respect. And who are the foremost champions of sympathetic understanding? Think Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking.

In short, let's keep things in perspective. In modernized countries, the main enemies of progress towards a more humane, equal, just, and environmentally responsible society are the rich captains of industry and finance who put their own financial interests above all else, the politicians who they bribe (legally or illegally) to do their bidding, the ignorant and prejudiced voters to whom politicians pander, and the owners of media that actively fuel said ignorance and prejudice. Guardian-reading wibbles driving their hybrids to the recycling center are not the enemy.

For sandals over socks, however, there is no defence.

[1] I'm using “liberal” here in the American sense, where a “liberal” is well over to the left of the political spectrum.

[2] Decca Aithenhead, “Slavoj Zizek, Hujmanit OK, but 99% of people are boring idiots,” The Guardian, June 10, 2012.

[3] Slavoj Zizek, “Liberal multiculturalism mask an old barbarism with a human face,” The Guardian, Oct. 3, 2010.