Outside the Asylum
Ursula Le Guin
As you all may have noticed, I often use my writing to poke holes in the ideas of the right. This includes the Trumpian right (which appears to function more or less like a cult of personality); it includes the fascist right (George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, George H.W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, John Brennan, John Bolton, Don Regan, Ronald Reagan, etc.), and it includes people who are, in what amounts to a triumph of modern propaganda techniques, falsely labelled as “left” because they work toward fascist outcomes from within the Democratic rather than the Republican party.
I think it’s important from time to time to subject left-wing assumptions and habits of thought to a similar critique; we obviously can’t assume that leftists never fall victim to fallacy nor trip ourselves up with unfounded assumptions. It would be easy to become complacent if we compared ourselves too often to the right, especially the corporatist right, because their fallacies are so much worse than ours. Usually, our fallacies have a fairly low chance of actually killing anyone.
Maybe that’s because, unlike our right-wing corporatist counterparts, we want to maximize not profit, but life, and something that might as well be called “happiness.” This thing I’m calling happiness requires both the freedoms elucidated in the Bill of Rights and the Four Freedoms that were described by FDR in 1941. There is a bit of overlap, because FDR’s “four freedoms” include the freedom of speech and of religion:
To put it simply, a human being, in order to become the best it can be, should be free from both tyranny and want. You don’t prove that you are the best by succeeding despite tyranny and want. That would assume a pre-existing natural meritocracy operating in a vacuum, independent of all circumstances: an underlying talent or virtue which is just waiting to be revealed under pressure. The right-wing idea seems to be that such a natural meritocracy does exist, and it is unveiled to the uninitiated by the pressure of adverse conditions. Those who win against the odds are superior to those who are crushed beneath those same odds.
It’s true that winning against the odds makes a good story. Americans, on both the left and right, are in love with such stories. I like them myself, probably because it’s fundamentally reassuring to think that one need not be defeated by ill fortune or malice.
Unfortunately, such stories can also lead to the notion that tyranny, want, and all other manner of hardships should not be eradicated or mitigated because they are the great winnowing hook that separates the wheat from the chaff. Under this ideology, all forms of hardship, including injustice, are merely the opportunity for greatness to put itself on display (and also, though this is less often stated aloud, the opportunity to cull the herd of inferior stock). There are multitudes of problems with this belief. One only has to poke at it a little to find a nasty smell reminiscent of eugenics, Calvinism, and other atrocious dogmas.
They never seem to ask these questions:
Granted, there are some people who will never succeed by any of the current definitions of that word, so I suppose a third question is in order: And a fourth:
The left has been on the right side of these questions for around a hundred and seventy years or more. We believe that the world would be better, and humanity would do better, if we maximized both our survival chances and our capacity for self-realization (two things not entirely unconnected). To do so, one must struggle against the common enemies of man: poverty, tyranny, disease, and war itself. These products of malice or misfortune are seen, from the left wing point of view, as obstructions to excellence, in the same way that it’s an obstruction to your corn crop if you have the misfortune to undergo a forty-day drought—or if your enemy sows your field with salt. Excellence and happiness are not inimical to one another; you don’t create the largest number of successful individuals, nor, possibly, even the most successful few individuals, by making people miserable. Our world as it’s currently constituted provides fairly compelling evidence of that statement. If misery created success, we should be up to our ears in success; yet one would have to be a sociopath to describe our current historical trajectory as “successful." If success has anything to do with survival, it's arguable that Homo sapiens has rarely been less successful.
Yet, despite being dedicated to maximizing human happiness, the left has become embroiled in an odd fallacy: we have gotten the idea that misery is virtue. The argument goes something like this. There are people in the world who are enduring agony for no reason (or at least, no justifiable reason). They are being experimented on by pharmaceutical corporations in Africa, or they are being worked to death by Apple Corporation in China, or they are being tortured at Guantanamo Bay, or they are being carpet-bombed in Palestine, or they are starving in…well, many places. Maybe they are being jailed for no reason, or are being murdered with impunity; maybe they had the misfortune to live in a place targeted by the global elite and consequently a war exploded over their heads and killed them by the thousands, leaving the survivors struggling in a junk heap that used to be their lives. How can I possibly be happy in a world that contains such atrocities? In fact, if I *am* happy, I must be an immoral lout, redolent of privilege, insulated behind walls of wealth, able to ignore these atrocities whenever I like.
It sounds really convincing.
The problem is, my misery has no appreciable benefit for the victims of injustice. My being unhappy has no more effect on them than my being happy. In fact, my feelings are pretty much completely beside the point—as is my virtue, or lack of it.
Whether I have a bad character, or whether I'm the 21st-century answer to Mother Teresa, it is not my lack of good character that’s causing pharmaceutical corporations to use Africa as a lab; it’s not my feelings that keep Chinese people working in a closed facility where the conditions are so bad that they have to stretch nets between floors to prevent workers from committing suicide; when I broke down in tears, several years ago, after reading an article about Guantanamo Bay, my grief did the inmates of that horrible place no good whatsoever, just as my good mood today (against the odds) does them no harm. Because it’s not about me. My individual moral character is not the sun around which these issues revolve; my feelings are not interchangeable for actions, and certainly are not interchangeable with the kind of actual, material change for the better which would relieve the suffering of these people.
The point of leftism is not to prove how sensitive I am to the suffering of wronged others; the point is to end their suffering by changing the world.