Now that the health tax bill, Pelosi-care, has passed the House in a Saturday night vote, the commentators, most of them I think genuinely distressed, are falling all over themselves to try to understand what it really means, and to predict what will happen next. They have been doing this since early summer when the fiasco emerged from under its rock -- from Harry Reid's desk drawer, or from the "liberal wet dream" where socialized medicine has always suppurated, Rush Limbaugh says. They are saying: it's a Democrat triumph, or no it isn't. If Queen Pelosi couldn't keep 39 of her minions from bolting and voting against it, then she's got nothing to be proud of. The party is still unraveling. One wise man at National Review Online even opines that now the bill is definitely dead; it will never pass the Senate because they will fear the wrath of the voter, even if the House can safely pretend not to. Wise people who are not that optimistic nonetheless agree the bill still might not pass the Senate, or if it does, then these Democrats will join all the others risking hell for it at the polls next November, and the rollback will begin. The commentators are saying, as they have said and wondered since early summer, do Democrats value being retained in their seats more than they do this bill, or don't they? Are they are so committed to it ideologically that they will vote for a ghastly abstraction they think is noble -- one that will be very hard to undo -- and accept being booted from office, so long as they can feel they have imposed a glorious legacy on us all? Is the left's will to power that intense?
The longer I watch politics, the more convinced I am that all of it boils down to something a professor of mine said many years ago. He said, you can have either freedom or equality, but you can't have both. He was not talking about equality before the law, but rather about the left's version of equality: everything will be somehow "fair" (and, depending on who defines this kind of equality, some pigs will be very much more equal than others). Individual commentators, distressed or not, can keep track of fast-moving events and important people better and faster than I can, which is why Jennifer Rubin and Michelle Malkin have careers doing it and I don't. (It's okay. As Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry character growls, "A man's got to know his limitations.") But at a time like this, when all our lives and futures have been essentially mortgaged by a few hundred indoctrinated fools in Washington, the professional commentators are no better off than I am. They are essentially saying, please God, there has to be a way in which this is not atrocious news. And there has to be a way for me to figure it out.
You can have either equality or freedom, Professor King said, but not both. It seems to me that all politics in the modern world boils down to two parties, two mindsets, perhaps to those two definitions of human nature which are also not my own discovery nor the Professor's, far from it: that either human nature is perfectible and can be schooled to know "fairness" by expanding knowledge, by expanding thought itself (whose?), or that human nature is everlastingly the same and needs, always, the hard-won guidance and merciful warnings of mankind's collected experience. The left stands on the side of equality, of perfectible human nature, and of schooling the ignorant to move forward bravely into a better future. Conservatives stand on the side of freedom, and of an infinite but healthily embittered respect for human nature, for what it is and what it is not. Hidden somewhere in here is the reason why the left increasingly loves group "rights," like homosexual "marriage," rather than individual rights. Creating new group rights helps create the conditions whereby humanity itself can be redefined, since, no matter what groups he has ever joined, no man has ever himself been a group -- and therefore no accumulated human wisdom can guide that. The door is open to the left, there. For them, there can be no end of fruitful new groups, as fruitful new sources of social experimentation, victimhood, and command. Where the individual resides, as of old, there resides human nature, much less tractable. Full of prejudice. Contrary. Unschooled.
It's hard to know what to call the left now. Perhaps "the left" has stuck because it is the purest term for them, probing directly back to their roots in the French Revolution and of course to their actual place in the debating chamber in Paris. It probes back to their determination to upend and recreate all human living, through violence if need be, to their rushing in to fill themselves the void in orthodox thinking and religious leadership that they created. It's no wonder that they, too, like the priestly hierarchy they displaced, still govern the arts, publishing, and the universities. (I'm indebted to Paul Johnson's Intellectuals for the idea that the modern leftist intellectual has replaced the cleric as self-appointed governor of all.) Jonah Goldberg calls them Liberal Fascists, and it's not a term he made up. It has a history. Some observers, I think, want to call them, more consistently than they have been, "progressives," to indicate their passion for progressing far beyond anything classic liberalism used to advocate. Indeed it's important to remember -- and one of the reasons we need a new word for them is -- that liberals used to espouse good things, things that mankind's collective experience has taught him were indeed very much worth striving for. The end of slavery is the great example.
But now they don't do good things anymore. They have outlived their usefulness. There are no more personal freedoms to get for anybody, unless they want to start doing things like extending the vote to children. As Calvin Coolidge said, “If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.” At this point, thinking of the absurd health care vote in the House last night, and the narcissistic, malicious, besoured little man in the White House now who is the exemplar of the creed, I would refer to the whole political phenomenon as simply the Messianic Left. These are people who will never tire of surging forward to a new world of glorious abstractions, mostly involving group rights and the state, that they will never have to pay for and that, they seem to trust, will all somehow prove to ennoble, to anoint their memories in the long distant end. They meant well. (That's the complaint Rush Limbaugh often and often voices about them, and about why they are never held to account for failure.) If they've literally got a charismatic messiah to lead them on their way, so much the better. He can even serve as a useful straw-man individual, to ward off criticisms about the creation of an endless new world of endless groups into which the individual man is ordered to fit as best he can.
And I think there is a reason why the messianic left finds it difficult to face and criticize radical Islam. (I turn to thinking of Islam because, brutal though it is to say, I suspect that the jihad at Ft. Hood this week was a godsend for the Democrats. If they were thinking of postponing the vote on the health care bill to Sunday or beyond, I believe it may well have changed their minds. It distracted enough attention from the party's losses in the elections also, and from the very fact of the health care vote coming up at all, to embolden them to carry on and do it.) If ever there were a religious creed that loves Equality, that wants all men to be the same -- all part of a group, as it happens -- it would be Islam. Of course there are many other reasons why the left shies away from this frightening thing. Open minded, perfectible people "don't make value judgments," as another professor of mine once said. Apparently it doesn't matter how much blood flows. But pound for pound and measure for measure, I think the left must at some deep level see in the faith very much the same human monolith that they are. Always surging toward a perfect future, preferably under messianic leadership, in which everyone is alike and everything is fair. And dissent is unthinkable. Dissent brings death.
And finally there's a reason why the messianic left's great enemy will also always be the United States. The founding fathers had the audacity, shall we say? -- to grant to future generations of individuals the right to govern themselves and to make their own decisions in almost all particulars. The soul of the born cleric, aching to plan, to control, to rise above his fellows and help them see the great sunny fields of common justice and joy lying just ahead, revolts in frustration at the idea of his fellows' not obeying him. And suppose behind their refusal lies the right to keep refusing, they and their children forever? The right enshrined in America's founding documents, in the actual Constitution, well thought out by extremely intelligent and educated men? It's a terrible prospect for group-messiahs, who care so much and mean so well, who used to have good and even heroic ideas about individual freedom, and who are accustomed to the fact that for a good couple of centuries now, they have shown they win in the end.
Duane Hanson, Couple with shopping bags (1976). Image from Surrealism & the body