Suspicion and the Corruption of the Liberal Mind.

I had a cartoon on my office door in the 80’s. An elderly man, sitting in a beach chair next to an elderly woman, looks out over the ocean with a frown.  “I’ve come full circle.  I think things are what they seem.”

I begin to see why it has pleased me so much


I point you to yet another Quillette article, Suspicion and the Corruption of the Liberal Mind, by Stephen Harrod Buhner. I have grown fond of the site, and need to discipline myself to go over there more often. Buhner says he is a “liberal to the core,” but has grown weary of the current approach of other liberals. He in turn refers us on to Rita Felski, a professor of English at UVA whose most recent book, The Limits of Critique, discusses the liberal approach to culture and art in terms of mood. (Her definition of this occurs early on in Buhner’s essay.) She too is a liberal raising red flags.

I wanted to excerpt a quote from either Buhner or Felski to give you sense of their argument, but it took a while to settle on just one. This is Buhner:

Those who have absorbed the mindset now extend suspicious reading to everyone and everything anyone does: words, body language, dress, hair, music, art, even food. They actively reject the face value of communication, whether literary or social; hold nothing as innocent of power motivations, whether directly or through unconscious complicity in those power motivations.

To regard the majority of Western peoples as possessing malign motives; to base a life upon such a point of view; to approach all books, plays, art, and human interactions with this kind of suspicion is not, however, a sign of clear-eyed perception but rather, as one of my psychology professors once put it, a diseased mind. Like its more extreme cousin, paranoia, it becomes self-perpetuating: the more suspicious one is, the more vigilant one becomes; the more vigilant one is, the more evidence one finds in even the most innocent of behaviors; and the more evidence one finds, the more suspicious one becomes.

Comparing this type of suspiciousness to paranoia is what caught my eye, as the discussion now moves into my territory.  I have noted before (quite often, it seems) that the attitude of paranoia usually occurs before it has an object. The brain has a sense that something is wrong, or has a sensation that it interprets as a noise, and quickly after, calls it a voice. This kicks off a search for an explanation. This often happens with depression or anxiety as well. Scrooge’s explanation for what Marley’s ghost really is may be entertaining, but it’s not the way we actually think. We blame things on real and important events, not accidentals. These are not always untrue, certainly. Grief, illness, or mistreatment can cause misery. Yet if these are not present we still find similar explanations. Work has been really stressful lately. I’m worried because Jason has been arguing with his wife.

How then if this suspicious cast of mind also precedes the political and social outlook? Yes, yes, it may all be self-reinforcing as Buhner suggests.  Nothing would be more likely, as it would be rewarding to prove oneself right so often.  As evidence, I offer myself.  When I was a liberal years ago, this was very much my cast of mind.  I believed I saw what others did not, was sensitive to the hidden motives of others and meanings of seemingly innocuous cultural items. I have credited my rescue to CS Lewis, especially in The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, which affected me powerfully. Lewis often cautioned that such interpretations of others’ behavior must allow that such things are possible with ourselves as well.

While conservatives were often defensive and rationalising when their own searchlights were turned back on themselves, I found that liberals – and very especially public liberals – were unable to see it at all. The phenomenon would be acknowledged in the abstract, Of course it’s human nature and applies to everyone, then instantly forgotten. Or they would cop to lesser versions of  the (stereotypical) faults of conservatives, acknowledging that they also were materialistic or liked the comfort of things remaining the same, yet failed to see that there was another entire set of faults more typical of liberals.

In recently recalling a conversation I had in highschool, long before I read Lewis, I now doubt he was the cause of any change.  He reinforced it and gave me words for it, but I have always had both moods present – suspiciousness of everything, including myself, counteracted by an amused awareness that most things actually are as they seem.

Update: There is also the belief that someone out there has money they are hiding from the rest of us, the goal being to make them give it up.  Quoting Jonah Goldberg:

“It is grounded in an ancient romantic notion that economics — the
science of competing choices amidst finite resources — is a con. We can
do all the good things simultaneously. Everyone can become an American,
and every American is entitled to free housing, free school, guaranteed
work, and every other good thing. It is the ideology of the child or the
aristocrat — often the same thing — that holds we can of course have
our cakes and eat them too. And as with the more evil forms of ideology,
its advocates assume that those opposed are motivated by a desire to
deprive the deserving of something they could easily give them.”

8 thoughts on “Suspicion and the Corruption of the Liberal Mind.”

  1. People in general are amazingly peaceful creatures and get along well in most cases. The problem we all face is that a percentage of those people are psychopaths. I suspect its a last ditch survival mechanism built into the species, but its a serious problem.

    I would guess 50% of those in power have psychopathic tendencies. Democracy is no panacea as power attracts these people. As well most of these people are serious narcissists. What is important to them is adulation and more power.

    These people, who do run the world, are not anyone’s friend and their agendas mostly involve themselves. As they don’t care, we can get into serous trouble in so many ways.

    They do run your country and have nearly got back control from the orange one. I have developed an affection for him, but I doubt he will last much longer

  2. As I drive around, especially on my commute to Phoenix, I am listening to Stephen Pinker’s “The Blank Slate,” which I read years ago.

    I agree partly with PenGun that there are people who are attracted to power for its own sake. We call them “The Deep State” and they act as principle agents who are faithless. They use the power we have given them but not for our benefit, just for their own.

    I posted this a year ago.

    In recent years, political parties have mislead their voters, the worst offender being the Republican Party. The Democrats posture as the party of the working man but it has become a party with two wings, the rich who want social liberties, and the poor who want to be taken care of. Jay Cost has written a good book about the Democrats Party called, “Spoiled Rotten, which explains the current policies of the party that has adopted “Identity politics” in which race and victim status has become a principal focus. My own review of the book is here.

    America is not the only country recognizing this problem.

    Malcolm Turnbull is in trouble because of the insane drive for “renewable energy” which has lead to blackouts in Victoria.

    Amid internal party dissent, he abandoned signature policies this week designed to restore energy security and give tax relief to big businesses.

    Energy “security” means blackouts.

    Better ideas for Australia are here.

    Anthropogenic global warming is a theory with very little evidence of its validity. To base our power generation on some madcap idea that we will be saving the planet at some unknown date in the future by savaging our industry, raising the cost of production in Australia and lowering our standard of living is a form of masochistic economic suicide that should be ended right now.

    Sanity seems to be returning.

    Merkel is also in trouble.

    Trump, contrary to Pennie, is a sign of the return of sanity.

  3. “Trump, contrary to Pennie, is a sign of the return of sanity.” I wouldn’t go that far. He has been a remarkably good hatchet against particular types of insanity. Which may be more useful at present.

    I liked that book of Pinker’s. I find his writing style no very gripping, however.

  4. Also from the article: Felski is, by the way, poignantly aware of the irony in exploring and finding hidden dynamics within a critical approach that focuses on the hidden motivations of others. But there is one significant difference between her approach and that of critical theory. As she makes clear, while critical theory is useful for some of the insights it uncovers, it is at its core destructive. It possesses within itself no hermeneutics of reparation or redemption, hope or love, compassion or forgiveness. It can tear apart but it cannot rebuild. It is a binary, either/or view of life which denies the complexity of the human heart. And it is a compassionate understanding of that complexity that I believe we most desperately need now.

    I believe over 20 years ago David Lodge had a character in novel, say, “Deconstruct? You mean destroy.”

    Other than ‘nicely written,’ my response to that article is, “what, again?”

    Is there anything in Deconstructionism that could serve as a basis for repudiating (and so providing an ethical critique of) Nazism? Grant for a moment that the theory does not logically entail Nazism, and that lots of perfectly respectable persons have taken a shine to the theory. Does the theory provide a basis for criticism of that sort of political program? I doubt that it does, and this because it renders theoretically unintelligible basic moral terms such as “good” and “evil….”

    From “Morally Suspect,” Charles L. Griswold, New York Review of Books, 12 October 1989

    Thirty years ago.

    It’s too late to wise up now. Academics who failed to oppose this over their lifetimes, if they won’t burn in Hell should be de-Liberalised (as in de-Nazified) in this life, beginning with being fired, stripped of citizenship, tenure, pension….

    Even the exposure of Yale’s academic superstar Paul de Mann as an actual I-denounced-Jews-&-wore-a-Swastika wasn’t enough to halt the transformation of “liberalism” (may that word always be spat out) into “Progressivism.”

  5. I grew up on the upper west side in the fifties and we had a few communists ( literally) ,who never acknowledged what they were. The term they would use was “progressive”as in “is he progressive?”

  6. There is also the belief that someone out there has money they are hiding from the rest of us, the goal being to make them give it up.

    Well, I’d assert that a lot of this is because the typical liberal’s idea of “wealth” comes from Scrooge McDuck.

    They REALLY DO imagine that somewhere, out there, there are Rich Bastards who keep all the money for themselves in giant money bins, so they can swim in it, and toss it in the air, and let it fall down on their heads….

    ASK them, and they’ll deny this. Then do or say something that CLEARLY only makes any sense if you actually believe such a preposterous notion.

    Barks’ Ducks are wonderful storytelling, but hardly a great treatise on geoeconomic processes.

  7. OBH – excellent analogy.

    I think this is in part the intersection of identity politics and blank-slate-ism.

    If you’ve been told your whole life that you have the right to achieve any goal you can imagine but you are not able to attain that goal, you have two choices. You can either accept that you aren’t going to make it, and then either live with the level of success you reach, or find an alternate goal that might be more in your grasp. On the other hand, you can blame nefarious outside forces for thwarting your efforts to reach the goal. Identity-based victimology just greases the skids for a slide down the second path, and encourages looking for those scapegoats.

    Conservative-minded people aren’t immune from this but do seem to be more likely to identify things that had real negative impacts, even if those trends aren’t going to go away (like de-industrialization).

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