Like many people who think about politics, I have grown impatient with the Left/Right distinction. It’s not just the obvious abuses to which media put these terms, as when reporters call hard-line Communist generals in China “conservatives.” It’s more than that; there’s something almost insane about attempting to use a one-dimensional spectrum to describe something as complex as political philosophy. It’s like trying to build a house using only chopsticks and a hammer. You can see this more clearly by trying to apply a left-right distinction to something much simpler, such as cooking.
In fact, let me propose that food writing — a topic near to my heart, which in fact dwells just below it, in the stomach — be simplified and clarified by setting up a Left/Right spectrum for national cuisines.
Logically, the Japanese kitchen should situated on the far Left, for its Bauhaus simplicity; its grimly Soviet portions and militaristic cruelty: Japanese regularly consume live, writhing lobsters, shuddering oysters, or struggling crabs. The uniform, collectivist nature of traditional Japan has left us few names of innovators or beloved chefs. Then there are those sushi dishes containing large doses of poison, which — like left-wing social policies — demand to be administered by experts who hold the consumer’s life in their hands. Finally, think of the Japanese kitchen’s reliance on vastly overpriced, state-subsidized rice. All these considerations place Japanese cuisine as the leftmost extreme of the culinary continuum.
What cuisine epitomizes the Right? Why French, of course. Rich, creamy, aristocratic dishes, replete with historically-derived inflections, baptized after kings and their queens (or mistresses), or more piously after saints, abbots and monasteries. (Coquilles St. Jacques, Dom Perignon and Chartreuse come to mind.) The French kitchen is replete with great names of great individuals, men who toiled in the kitchens of the rich, whose achievements “trickled down” to the ordinary fare of lady cooks in the provinces. Conversely, inventions of the common folk arose — through a truly Western social mobility — to grace the tables of the great. Bouillabaisse was once a cheap seafood stew enjoyed by Breton fisherman; now it’s $23 a bowl at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. French foods give life to the libertines’ pursuit of happiness.
One then might try to place somewhere on the spectrum between these two extremes the cuisines that arose in Italy, Germany, Ethiopia, India, and China. Those that use some sauce, some spice, but a modicum of fresh ingredients would fall between the Japanese and French extremes, forming “Center-Left” or “Moderate” cuisines. Purists would scorn such compromise, of course, and street fights inevitably erupt over minor factional differences dividing Cantonesians from Szechuanites, Czech-deviationists from orthodox Slovakians.
If that strikes the hungry reader as absurd, how much more so to take the vastly wider, more complex variations of political philosophy — not to mention religious contributions to the debate — and lay them out according to such a system? A two or even three-dimensional model of politics makes much more sense — but it’s hard to fit a sphere inside a magazine.
The Left/Right spectrum made sense in its original context — in the seating plan of the deputies in the French National Assembly during the Revolution. There, Royalists sat grouped to the right, and Jacobins to the left. The single issue at hand — the question of the monarchy — defined their positions, and made other concerns secondary. In the absence of the monarchy, one’s attitude towards the Church became the governing issue of French politics.
The social disruptions of the Industrial Revolution provoked a wide array of political responses, ranging from laissez-faire defenses of the market system, to Utopian socialist schemes. It was possible to group such responses according to the old Left/Right continuum, but by no means necessary. The positions adopted did not fit neatly on it. Tory radicals favored a mix of Christian aristocratic governance and social reform, while Social Darwinists saw religion as a fading myth, to be replaced in time by a rigorous, biologically-based social science of human inequality.
Eventually, as Marxism in various forms came to dominate the politics of self-styled reformers, it began to define the political spectrum. Marx replaced the monarch as the governing figure in politics. Were you for or against the workers’ revolution? How quickly did you want it to happen, or how ruthlessly were you willing to oppose it — such questions, from the end of World War I until the Cold War’s end, shaped the politics of Left and Right. And they made a kind of sense, at a time when the most dynamic force in world politics was the revolutionary Left, later supported by a massive, thermonuclear-armed superpower.
But the Left-Right spectrum was always a ham-handed simplification of the complex political responses to modernity. What sense did it make, for instance, to group both revolutionary anarchists and centralizing Stalinists together on the Left, and neo-pagan racial collectivist National Socialists together with Catholic monarchists on the Right? Groups that hated each other, shared few or no common values, and actively sought each others’ destruction were thus unceremoniously dumped in categories that became so broad as to be virtually meaningless.
In the absence of Communism as an armed force in world politics, with Marxism utterly discredited in its native field of economics, the old one-dimensional spectrum has lost its anchor on the Left. And the king being dead, there is no throne to anchor it on the Right. We could try to craft a new spectrum by defining — arbitrarily — American secularist mass democracy as one pole, and fundamentalist Islam as the other. But which one would we posit as “Left,” and which as “Right?” Should the more religious worldview sit at the right, or the most pro-Western? The most individualist, or the most traditional? Who’s right-wing anymore — Pym Fortyn or Pat Buchanan?
The confrontation between extremist Islam and the post-Christian West makes nonsense of the old Left-Right distinction, revealing it as a cheap intellectual shortcut, of dubious usefulness, which it’s time to abandon altogether. There simply is no one governing value around which every combination of ideology and theology can be grouped. Instead of shoehorning complex philosophies of life, the afterlife, human self-governance and social organization into niches on a prefabricated line graph, much better that we simply identify political positions by their governing values and cultural origins. Thus George Bush could be meaningfully called a “Protestant pro-business interventionist,” Al Gore a “Pantheist Bureaucratic Globalist,” and Pat Buchanan a “Catholic Populist Isolationist.”
Reforming terms this way would benefit everyone. The sense people have that they’re being somehow inconsistent by adopting a complex position — being pro-life, say, and a conservationist who favors organic foods — would dissipate. The sterile debates over who’s a “real” conservative, or progressive, or moderate, would flicker and die in the dark expanses of the blogosphere. Political magazines would become more interesting, as they gave up the losing game of trying to enforce cheap orthodoxies, or hammer out a party line. I daresay this shift of vocabulary might usher in a new and happier era of eclectic thinking and intellectual honesty, as pundits and commentators gave way to genuine thinkers, men who fully engage the mixed and multiple values that motivate real human beings.
That said, I’m going off now to enjoy a center-right dish of gnocchi in pesto sauce, washed down by a glass of left-leaning carrot juice.