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Politics: Left and Right or Large and Small?

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(Are you a Lily, a Nag, or a Gull?)

The political labels Left and Right originated in French Revolutionary times, arbitrarily associating the legislative seating arrangements of revolutionaries and reactionaries with their ideological perspectives. It’s not an intrinsically meaningful identification, and it’s tended to alienate some people from a sense of belonging to their natural political community. Who really wants to be called a “lefty” or a “righty”? It’s become a point of pride for some to proclaim themselves transcendent of the political spectrum, even though their every-day attitudes might put them solidly in fellow-bed with one wing or the other.

The terms liberal and conservative are better grounded in history and politics, but they too are inexact, often ambiguous labels, and they feel just as confining to many people. Besides, the average, more-or-less politically distracted person can find herself “liberal” on some issues, “conservative” on others. Actually, nearly everyone can be “liberal” or “conservative” at times, depending on the situation and persons involved. For example, think of the most “conservative” person you can – I’ll take a stereotypical Klansman here: His politics may be consistent with self-described conservatives on every issue, except maybe his exceptional enthusiasm for ropes and knots, until one of his brothers is caught, say, bombing a church and killing several little black girls. Suddenly the Klansman’s concept of justice for the perpetrator is beyond liberal – all the way to molly-coddle. We might hear him say the killer has suffered enough, or that he’s just a victim of his upbringing. Could we not say “liberal is as liberal does”? A more common, less extreme example of the problem with the political spectrum can be seen with the person who describes herself as liberal on domestic issues, conservative on foreign affairs. Bomb them? Bomb us? The dropping of bombs on people can be regarded as two entirely different matters for the liberal-conservative or conservative-liberal, depending on who’s bombing, and who’s being bombed.

I believe the ambiguities and contradictions of the left-right, liberal-conservative identification can be resolved by a different approach to political classification, using the model of a circle rather than a linear spectrum. A more resonant way of thinking of one’s political views is to consider the size of one’s community, or “in-group”, in terms of a metaphorical circle that includes some people, excludes others. A political circle in this sense includes those we identify with, empathize and sympathize with. By this means I believe it can be determined that the left-right or liberal-conservative continuum is really just an expression of the radius of one’s circle of inclusion. As a rule of thumb, a person’s circle can be identified as the limits of her liberality.

It’s easy and natural to consider the Us and Them in terms of an imaginary circle. For some of us the circle is large, and might even embrace all of humanity. For others of us it’s quite small, maybe as small as a family unit, or maybe even limited to oneself alone. The psychopath has a hardbound circle of one. A vegan animal-rights activist might include all living things, except maybe molds and mosquitoes.

If we look closely at what are commonly considered conservative views, they can be seen as based on a relatively small-circle perspective. Liberal or progressive views correspond to larger circles. And an apparent conflict of political affiliation, as with the domestic-policy liberal, foreign-policy conservative is just the expression of a circle of moderate size, probably coinciding with one’s national borders.

Even if many people like to think of themselves as transcending the liberal-conservative, left-right continuum, everybody can be seen to have their individual circle. Would you favor the execution of a stranger but not your mother for the same capital offense? You’re probably somewhat small-circle – not because you wouldn’t want to execute your mother, but because you would readily exclude someone you don’t know from humane consideration. More realistically, would you favor execution of a stranger but not, say, someone who’s given you special favors, for the same offense? Small circle. Do you favor banning abortions (in other words, do you exclude pregnant women from your circle but include their bellies) while opposing universal health care for infants? Let’s face it, that’s really small. Do you include a lesbian couple in your circle if one of them is your daughter, but condemn all others to burn in hell? Very, very small. Do you tolerate the torture of a foreigner but not an American, or more precisely, not an American with one of the stock surnames? Do you accept the idea of dropping cluster bombs on city folk in another country but not in the U.S.? Would you even accept dropping cluster bombs on Blacks or Hispanics in a U.S. ghetto but not (heavens no) in a gated all-white suburb?

Consider the classic mark of conservatism, the belief in small-government. In practice, the relative size of government actually coincides with the needs for government support and protection for the in-group. What does this mean in practice if not restricted services and minimal support for anyone except the in-group? Universal healthcare? Forget it - my people don’t need it, so forget it. Tax exemption for churches? Of course. Who would even question it? Special prerogatives and protections for corporations? It just makes good economic sense. Maximum law enforcement and legal protection for the property of the in-group? All the best people agree on that.

Factors of inclusion may be more telling indicators of the size of one’s political circle than exclusions. How much privilege is advocated or indulged for those inside, compared to those outside, who often aren’t explicitly considered? Who deserves special protection from the government? Who deserves special favors? Do you support tax cuts for the wealthy but (implicitly) not for the poor? Do you think good nutrition and education is important to your children and the children of your friends, but (implicitly) accept that children of the poor go hungry and under-educated? Do you think of corporate power as a matter of freedom, but union power as a tyranny? Do you tend to find extenuating circumstances to explain someone’s acts if she looks or talks like yourself but presume bad intentions of someone who looks like a foreigner? All these can be seen as objective circle indicators.

Do you favor the abolition of nation-states, and equal treatment for all? Big, big circle. Equality for all, but more equality for those who have servants and employees? Not very big. Open the borders and let in all the immigrants? That can be really big-circle, unless your purpose it to create an ever-larger class of indentured servants. How about vegetarians who object to killing animals for food, because they are “us” too? A circle can get really large.

The smaller the circle, it seems, the more extreme the difference in attitude toward those inside and those far outside the line. Segregationists of all kinds tend to have extreme contrasts in their advocacy for and against those inside and outside their circle. Torture and mass killings might be tolerated or advocated for an out-group while generous, virtually unlimited exceptions from the law are allowed for the in-group.

Interestingly, we can’t always assume that someone is at the center of their own circle. Sometimes a person’s circle can place herself at the fringe, as when a middle-income person favors special policies, credits, or exceptions from the law for the wealthy and powerful. Leader-worship can place the leader, the cult-figure, the führer, at the center of one’s circle, and fellow followers, including oneself, further out toward the edge. How strange would it be to actually place oneself entirely outside one’s own circle? A person described as a “self-hating Jew” or “quisling Norwegian” from the perspective of a self-loving or self-satisfied Jew or Norwegian might fit that description, at least from the perspective of the latter.

But I think my point is clear by now. Political affiliation is more accurately a function of the size of one’s circle of inclusion, not a position on a spectrum. People who identify themselves using the left-right model to be “liberals” on domestic policies and “conservatives” on foreign policy are actually just drawing their circles at the nation’s border. In this sense the association of political outlook can be seen as a continuum in the circular metaphor, rather than a paradoxical complex of affiliations with a linear representation.

The continuity of circle-size may make categorizing or labeling them difficult, but labels are important nonetheless. How else can we talk about a thing or concept, except by giving it a label? Granted, all things, imaginary circles included, have fluxing boundaries, and the place where the name for one thing becomes another is not always a matter of consensus. But that doesn’t eliminate the usefulness of labeling, unless for some reason you prefer obscurity to clarity.

The labels left and right are arbitrary, so why not the labels identifying the relative size of circles? I’m not wedded to the idea, but the first handy metaphor for big and small that springs to mind comes to me from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Everyone’s heard of Lilliput, the land of tiny people. Not quite so memorable, maybe because it’s not so cute a word – it is in fact rather awkward – is Swift’s land of giants, which he called Brobdingnag.

Borrowing from Swift, we could identify a political outlook with a relatively small circle as a Circumlily. A person with the small-circle outlook could be called a Lily for short. It’s not exactly flattering to anyone who might hold proudly tough and tight to the smallness of her circle, but it suggests whiteness, which is not so incongruous (in the West at least), and it suggests a certain frailty against changing winds. Neither is a lily a strong symbol for the mental hardness that’s often thought to correspond to conservatism, but the small circle might be more accurately attributed to a fearful mentality, which we could justifiably associate with a soft and pale flower.

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A former visitant of UC Santa Cruz, former union boilermaker, ex-Marine, Vietnam vet, anti-war activist, dilettante in science with an earth-shaking theory on the nature of light (which no one will consider), philosopher in the tradition of (more...)

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