»  National Review

December 4, 2000

   'Twixt Heaven and Earth


There are two components that together decide how a person votes: interest, and imagination. The smaller the scope of the office being voted for, the larger the component of interest, and vice versa. When voting for Superintendent of Highways, I want to know if my roads will be looked after, and very little else. As it happens, I know the name of my Superintendent of Highways here in Huntington — it is painted on all the sweeping trucks and snowplows — but I have no idea whether he is a Republican, a Democrat, or a member of the Nation of Islam. What does it matter, so long as he fills the potholes?

When voting for Governor or President, imagination predominates. Interest is not absent; but even where it exists, it is colored by imagination, and imagination very often overrides it. If presidential candidate B offers an across-the-board tax cut, while candidate G favors a cut "targeted" at the lower-middle class, a rich person's interest plainly lies with B. A lot of very rich people — great swathes of Beverly Hills and Manhattan's Upper East Side, probably — will none the less vote for G. Their imaginations have swayed them, in defiance of their interests.

This is natural and reasonable. Presidents and Governors have powers of wide scope. My Superintendent of Highways cannot send me to war, control my rent, audit my finances, appoint Supreme Court judges or have me arrested. Of course I have to approach candidates for these higher offices with some concern for large, general matters of philosophy and style. That is where imagination kicks in. Possibly presidential candidate B, if elected, will give me more tax relief than candidate G. Still, candidate G seems to be a person who shares my view of the world, of the national interest, of the harmonious society.

When it comes to imagining an ideal for society, our natures take one of two paths. The politics of any free society reflects these two paths. There is always a party of the left and a party of the right; there are always liberals and conservatives. There is always a party of Heaven, which seeks to raise us up by freeing us from the shackles of the past, to transform us into angels by vanquishing all those evils — racism, militarism, ignorance, tradition — that oppress and confuse us. And there is a party of Earth, which takes us for what we are without any promise that our clayey natures can be much improved, and which, like the great Samuel Johnson, laughs at schemes of social improvement. Muddy these tendencies up with some elements of interest, and you have the politics of a democratic society.

The party of Heaven in modern America is, of course, the Democrats. The lax, coddled, titillated society of today, with its multitude of choices for almost everyone, is in a way their natural environment. When racism, war and poverty were great glowering beasts, it was natural to suppose that the reduction of them would be a long and dogged process, not much of which could be accomplished in a single lifetime, so that perhaps there was little point in any effort against them at all. "The poor they are always with us." Now, when those evils seem to be mere shadows, it is easy to believe, like the generals of World War One, that one last push will do the trick — if only there were not a few fools and reactionaries still standing in the way. Hence the great passion of the Left in petty matters, as documented in Richard Bernstein's 1994 book Dictatorship of Virtue:

Out of the burning wish for betterment grew what has now become a kind of bureaucracy of the good, fighting battles that have already been won, demanding ever greater commitments of virtue from a recalcitrant population.

(Except that, alas, the population has proved less recalcitract than Bernstein hoped, baring their backs obediently to be scourged by the Virtuecrats, minding their tongues, purging their thoughts. One of the most depressing experiences of my life was attending a compulsory seminar on "sexual harrassment" held for the employees of a firm I worked for. Knowing the firm had to put us through it as a hedge against torts, we all sat silently, dutifully under the farrago of gibberish about "appropriate speech" and "sensitivity," only on the way out whispering to each other: "What a load of crap!")

There can be no doubt that the Democrats have seized the moral high ground in our society. Never mind Heaven and Earth: the Democrats have fixed in the imaginations of very large numbers of Americans the image of themselves as the Kind Party, while Republicans are the Mean Party. Thus when, in the recent campaign, Al Gore accused George W. Bush of killing elderly nursing home patients in Texas, or when Gore's friends at the NAACP put out TV advertisements suggesting that Bush was an accessory to the lynching of James Byrd, millions of Americans nodded in agreement. There are no corresponding accusations of nastiness we Republicans can make in return. We may grumble about the gutting of the military, the tribalizing of the populace and the squandering of public funds, but these things do not have the force, the gut-punch of James Byrd's daughter snarling: "It was as though my father was killed a second time."

At a deeper level, the moral arrogance of the Democratic Party draws its inspiration from one of the oldest, most potent and most persistent of all the dispositions the human political imagination is prone to: utopianism. We live in a progressive age, and both our great political parties are, by any reasonable historical standard, progressive in their views, as are most Americans. But while Republicans seek to improve our condition, Democrats want to perfect it. Indeed, at their most ambitious, they seek to perfect us, our very natures. Flawless justice; absolute equality; the purging of all impurities of speech and thought; you do not have to be long among liberals before you spot these longings. The sensitivites of the modern Left have been refined to those of the Princess in Hans Christian Andersen's story The Princess and the Pea. They cannot sleep while any injustice anywhere, no matter how trivial, stands uncorrected, any offense taken by how dimwitted soever an offendee ("niggardly"), any second-grade girl "sexually harrassed" by a classmate, any ballot spoiled.

This messianic, chiliastic program is as old as humanity. It is one of the inspirations of Plato's Republic, and seems, from the little we know, to have guided the Spartacists in their rebellion against Rome. Chinese peasant uprisings, from the "Yellow Turbans" of the second century to the Maoists of the twentieth, preached chiliastic, end-of-history, City of the Sun doctrines of human perfectibility. Such doctrines run wild in our universities, as Bernstein's book makes abundantly plain.

The utopian virus was carried to these shores by the Puritans, of course, and it is their descendants who form the cadre of modern American utopianism. Look at the county-by-county map of the 2000 presidential vote put out by USA Today. Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut were Gore's best states, and you can almost follow the wagon-ruts of New England emigrants across the midwest to Washington State, Oregon and the north California coast.

While the Party of Heaven was consolidating its grip on New England in the 18th century, the Party of Earth was pouring into the colonial back-country, the Appalachians and the south. These were the Scotch-Irish: rough, loud, belligerent people from the battle-scarred disputed lands of Ulster and the Scottish borders. Devoted to their weapons and their natural liberty (and inclined to think that those less devoted did not deserve liberty at all), intensely but only spasmodically religious, always ready for a fight, they took over the southern and much of the western part of the country, creating that fundamental division shown in the USA Today map, and in a state-by-state version on our TV screens November 7th. If you doubt the division is fundamental, check the series of electoral-vote maps in the concluding section of Fischer's Albion's Seed. The maps for 1896 and 1948 are especially good matches for this year's vote.

If you probe still deeper down into political psychology, you spot something darker and more frightening, something everyone who has studied the utopian impulse closely, or been gifted with special insight into it, has remarked upon. Teaching Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four to young people, one thing that always raises puzzled questions is the name he gave to the prevailing philosophy in Eastasia: "Death-Worship." What did Orwell — a writer who chose his words with utmost care, and knew Asia well — mean by this? And in his essay on Gulliver's Travels, why does Orwell speak thus of the Houyhnhnms, a race of placid, intelligent horses who lord it over the brutish, humanoid Yahoos?

It is not because they oppress the Yahoos that the Houyhnhnms are unattractive. They are unattractive because the "Reason" by which they are governed is really a desire for death.

Human society is nothing but the human soul at large, and a part of the human soul yearns for its own extinction. This yearning has been most powerfully voiced in poetry: Tennyson's "Tithonus," Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," and the lovely song in Cymbeline are its finest expressions in English. It finds its political outlet in utopianism, the longing for a society of perfect equality, perfect peace — conditions that can actually be attained in only one place. Standing at the graveside while they buried his Down-Syndrome child, Charles de Gaulle murmured: "Now she is like all the others."

The bluntest expression of this theme was given by the mathematician Igor Shafarevich in his book The Socialist Phenomenon. Using "socialist" as a synonym for "utopian," Shafarevich surveyed the utopian impulse down through the ages to his own time in Brezhnev's Soviet Union, concluding that: "The death of mankind is not only a conceivable result of the triumph of socialism — it constitutes the goal of socialism." He went on:

There is no doubt that if the ideals of Utopia are realised universally, mankind, even in the barracks of the universal City of the Sun, shall find the strength to regain its freedom and to preserve God's image and likeness — human individuality — once it has glanced into the yawning abyss. But will even that experience be sufficient? For it seems just as certain that the freedom of will granted to man and to mankind is absolute, that it includes the freedom to make the ultimate choice — between life and death.

Lesser folk have apprehended the same truth by even more direct experience. A Buddhist Cambodian interviewed in Francois Ponchaud's book Cambodia: Year Zero, lone survivor of a horrible massacre by the utopian Khmer Rouge, described them with innocent accuracy as "servants of the Prince of Death."

We can reasonably hope that our institutions are sufficiently well-rooted (and our people sufficiently well-armed) that we need not fear utopian despotism. There is always, though, in every human society, a persistent tug in that direction. In our society, that tug comes from the left of the Democratic Party. The utopian tendency springs from the fundamentals of human nature, and can never be eliminated, but it must be contained, countered and exposed. It must also be mocked: there is no laughter in the City of the Sun, and a robust sense of humor is one of our best defenses against those who seek to make us perfect by stripping us of our ancient liberties.