The politics of resentment

Politics on the left in America has always been beset by a strange contradiction. On the one hand, as popular wisdom goes, our university professors tend to endorse a more liberal ideology (as the NY Times article above reiterates). Yet, on the other hand, despite the seeming monopoly on intellectual capital, the left has consistently been unable to mobilize its theoretical and intellectual powers in public discourse, which continues to be dominated by the right. It is revealing, for example, that the iconic figures of political rhetoric on the right are sophistic to be sure, but as Plato has shown the danger of sophism is that it is able to appear to us as philosophy. The counterpart for the left, however, is neither sophistic nor philosophical but rather a comic discourse. The right possesses masters of conviction such that even if any substance were lacking we would still be assured of the spectacle of righteousness; the left is content merely to roll its eyes.

The peculiarity of the contradiction lies precisely in the complicity of the left with sophism when ostensibly the university should be the one site where sophism is least tolerated. One might, disheartening as it is, be compelled to conclude not that philosophy is powerless against the sophism but rather that there is nothing other than sophism anywhere. Consider, for example, the explanation propounded by one group of sociologists to account for the accretion of liberal ideology in universities (reported in the above NY Times article): “when it comes to hiring, the majority of [institutions] will tend to support candidates like them in the matter of fundamental beliefs, values, and commitments” (i.e., liberals attract liberals). Yet, if this were true, what could be most anathematic to the philosophical purpose of a university than to insist that we should surround ourselves with people who think more or less as we do?

The last several months have demonstrated another strange contradiction between the left’s mandate and the failure of that mandate to be reflected in its own polity. Instead of thinking that the task of the left is to understand its opponents, the left has failed to understand itself. The left has, for all intents and purposes, quite simply ceased to exist, perhaps for more than forty years. Perhaps, one day, the left shall find a new voice, which we know will not be that of wisdom or of justice (in this, both sides agree that justice is not to be found on earth): when the objective conditions are such that the left no longer falls on deaf ears, it will be possible to speak only ironically.


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