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The Left's Totalitarian List By: Theodore Dalrymple
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, April 10, 2009


It is one of the ironies of modern liberalism that diversity should so often come to mean uniformity, and tolerance so often to mean intolerance: that is to say, think and act like me, or else.

There was a good example of this last week in an article in the venerable British Sunday newspaper, The Observer, by Aaron Hicklin, an American journalist of whom I had previously not heard. He is the editor of a magazine for homosexuals called Out, and his article consisted largely of a justification for his magazine having revealed that the actress Jodie Foster is a lesbian, something that previously she had neither affirmed or denied, preferring, apparently, to preserve her privacy.

I print what he wrote in extenso, so that you get the flavour of the argument (it is significant that the argument has flavour, not logic):

Until I arrived at Out magazine three years ago, I never saw myself as the kind of editor who would stoop to outing celebrities. It seemed so 1990s, so bullying and judgmental, so very Peter Tatchell [a militant British homsexual] to be naming and shaming. But then we launched the Power 50, a league table of America’s most powerful gays and lesbians and a few glaring omissions leapt out. How could such a list be complete without Hollywood powerhouse Jodie Foster? There was just one problem. She had never publicly acknowledged her sexuality… She was a member of a glass closet who was not willing to take the final step. So we took it for her.

Am I alone in finding this deeply repellent in both its triviality and its nastiness? It is hardly surprising that the author decided to obtrude outrageously on Miss Foster’s privacy, since his initial objection to doing so appeared to be more a matter of fashion (not even of true aesthetics) than of moral principle. Would anyone say of a Ku-Klux-Klan lynching that it was so 1920s, or of vicious anti-semitism that it was so 1930s? Ascribing a decade to a form of behaviour is not a proper way to assess its moral worth.

What was the moral reasoning that led the author to change his mind? He decided, unilaterally, to create a list; he decided that the list would be less accurate if he failed to include details of the private life of another person, which she had indicated by her discretion that she did not want to be made public; and so (one can hardly put it ‘therefore’) he decided to make it public. This is not so much moral reasoning, as an almost psychopathic lack of moral reasoning.

Of course, this is not to deny that the ‘reasoning’ has a certain, deeply totalitarian worldview behind it. That worldview is the following: that human life, in order to become whole and completely without hypocrisy, should be an open book, that there should be no distinction between the public sphere and the private. The nearest analogy I can think of is the cult of little Pavlik Morozov in the Soviet Union, who underwent Stalinist canonisation for having betrayed his parents to the authorities for being ‘kulaks.’ This was the version of ‘telling the truth’ that the Soviet authorities tried to instil in children until very late in the Soviet Union’s day; it is the version of the denouncer, the informer, the snitch. It is also infinitely horrible, for it destroys, as it is intended to destroy, all human trust, to the benefit of the propagation of an ideology.

The other rather unpleasant aspect of the passage I have quoted is its implicit glorification and worship of power in itself, provided only that it is held by people with whom we have something in common of which we approve and with which we identify. There is nothing in the passage to indicate that power in itself is not in fact a good, and that a lot of political philosophy consists of thinking of ways to limit power, whoever holds it. Nor is there any indication that what the power is used for is of any interest to him. Reading the passage I have quoted, you might have thought that power ennobled, and that absolute power ennobled absolutely.

The author is not alone in his power-worship, however. I think (though I cannot prove) that power struggles in institutions have become both more time-consuming and more vicious since I first ever became aware of them. I suppose that this increased viciousness might be a mere figment of my perception as I grow older; but I am certainly not alone in such a perception.

If, on the other hand, it is true that such power struggles (which have always taken place, of course) are now more ruthless than they were, one might ask why this should be?

The answer, is that more people believe that power is an important goal, even the most important goal of all, and indeed that life is meaningless, as well as precarious, without it; and therefore more individuals, more professions and more groups contend for it.

At first sight this might seem like a good thing: it appears to democratise power. In the widened struggle for power, some of the formerly powerless will achieve at least a measure of power which they never had before.

At the same time, however, it delegitimates power. Where once power was allied to some higher social purpose, even if sometimes self-servingly and hypocritically, it is now divorced from any such purpose: it is sought for itself, merely to assuage the amour propre. No longer is it seen as the concomitant of some other achievement, but a sort of right.

It is a right of a peculiar sort, however, for there is not an infinite supply of the good of which the right is supposed to guarantee access. You might as well tell everyone that he has an inalienable right to a Vermeer, and let him fight it out with everyone else in the art galleries of the world.

Lists of the 50 most powerful a, b, c, d, e, or f, are therefore a sign of deterioration in our political culture. Whatever happened to the idea that power was to be mistrusted, and if possible restrained, rather than bowed down to and worshipped as if it were a golden calf?


Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


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