By Elliot Kaufman
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
He arrived at the party wearing a blazer over a black T-shirt. He sported one of those fancy, new-age haircuts and wore jeans that revealed nearly half his legs. I instantly knew what I was looking at, a campus archetype more than an individual: The ripped-jeans revolutionary.
His name was Sam, and as I soon discovered, Sam was a Communist — a Maoist, he quickly added, presumably worried that I might mistake him for one of those sellout Trotskyists. At 18 years of age, studying English at Stanford University, Sam wanted to assure me that he was on the Right Side of History.
I had encountered leftists like Sam before — there are usually one or two in every large humanities class — so I knew how to proceed. Let him talk and keep a running mental tab of his most hilarious quotes.
“You can’t deny the industrial achievements of the USSR,” he remarked. Or better, name-dropping three philosophers in one sentence: “Zizek, though he understood Hegel much better than he understood Lacan, makes a good point.” There was the curious: “Doesn’t Judaism make so much more sense without God?” And my personal favorite: “Do you really think our wage-slavery is any better?”
Ah yes, I had forgotten: Who are we to judge the Soviet gulag system?
One is tempted to shake such people, like an old television that has stopped working. It might bring him to his senses. But there is no need. Does this teenager really have a thoughtful objection to Zizek’s reading of Lacan? Does he have the requisite knowledge to assure me, as he did, that “everything would have been fine” if Lenin had lived a little longer? Of course not. He probably just gets a thrill from the shocked looks he generates upon informing his peers that “Bernie would have won if he wasn’t so moderate.”
Roll your eyes and move on.
Across the table from me in class, a different type of campus leftist rears his head. Again. In fact, Luke constantly injects his politics into class. Luke is a Clintonite, shot all the way through. He started volunteering for Democratic candidates in New York City at the age of twelve. He even got paid to consult for the Clinton campaign this time around. What they could possibly need from this 19-year-old “consultant,” I haven’t a clue.
“I don’t think people realized how good of a candidate Hillary was,” he remarked to me a few days ago. Gee, I wonder how they missed that about her, I thought. But unlike the ripped-jeans revolutionary, the bloodless Clintonite’s flaws do not usually emerge unless they are drawn out. For his Achilles’ heel is that he has no vision — unless you consider center-left, incrementalist technocracy a vision.
Luke opposes the $15 minimum wage, finding Hillary’s suggestion of $12.50 to be “a more reasonable compromise.” He wants “commonsense regulation of Wall Street” but thinks that Bernie Sanders’s antagonism is “unhelpful to the cause.” He called his congressman to register his opposition to Betsy DeVos but has no suggestions of his own for improving education other than “we need to invest more in our children.”
The campus Clintonite is hyper–politically active but has no idea what he wants from politics. Why is this? The moment of clarity came when we spoke about Aristotle. “Why would you read him?” Luke chortled, “His science has been totally disproven.”
Putting aside the fact that I do not read Aristotle for an actionable understanding of physics, I probe deeper and discover that Luke does not believe there is anything “to be gained” from reading the Ethics, or Politics either.
Rather than give a one-sentence summation of Aristotle’s contributions, I try out an appeal to authority and explain that Aristotelian thought has heavily influenced many major traditions, citing St. Thomas Aquinas and Maimonides. Realizing that my interlocutor remains unimpressed, I go more modern, and note that both Marx and Burke profited from Aristotle’s teachings.
But this only reinforces the Clintonite’s beliefs. “So why waste time on a guy from thousands of years ago when I can just read Marx, or someone even more modern?”
“Do you not see the value in reading what people who’ve come before us thought?” I respond.
He doesn’t. “They barely knew anything back then. Even I know more about how the world works than Aristotle,” he protests.
Then it hits me. The Clintonite has no vision because he cannot escape the present.
This is what Irving Kristol was getting at when he asked, “Who, for example, reads Harold Laski today?” Because the present is always becoming more beneficent than the past, the non-revolutionary Left inevitably finds past thinkers — even its own progressive champions such as Laski — inadequate, retrograde, or boring. It finds nothing of value when it looks back into the past and soon stops looking at all.
These two campus leftists are worth examining for the factions they represent. The edgy, ripped-jeans revolutionary might go on to comfortably rage against the machine in the pages of Jacobin, or perhaps he’ll give in to his parents and attend law school. The intellectually impoverished Clintonite is destined to work on Capitol Hill and continue striving. Having forgotten — on principle — not only Laski but also Aristotle and all the rest, he will search in vain for the right combination of modest policy proposals to capture voters’ hearts. Should he gain the power he so desperately seeks, he will not have the faintest idea what to do with it.