I wrote this essay almost a decade ago now. And here we are now, in the age of treason.
What’s Left When the Left Turns Right?
How Minutiae on the Left Looks Like Big Government to the Rest
I’m about to throw a kickass dinner party, and I’m excited. I’m also a little nervous. I’m a decent cook, but I live in Boulder County, a place where even the most decadent tailgate parties grill up tofu-sticks sprinkled with chia seeds. As I prep for the meal, the menu cheat sheet that hangs from my fridge is a little like one of those biblical scrolls where you keep thinking (mistakenly) that you’ve finally reached the end of who begot whom begot whom. It tells me what people eat, don’t eat, what they will and won’t combine with other foods, how raw or cooked the food must be, if the glasses of water should hold ice or not, or maybe the guest prefers no water, or no wine, or no beer, or at least no beer with gluten in it, but rye is okay, and wine without sulfites is okay too, as long as it’s biodynamic wine. Dutifully, I muddle through the minutiae.
As I prepare for the party, I’m also a little agitated because, well, I love my Leftie friends, and I proudly count myself among them. But I fear we’ve traded over-processed foods for over-processed language and ideologies. Just this morning, as my partner and I walked on an open space trail in Boulder, a woman yelled at us for taking a slight off-trail detour when we ran into an aggressive dog that charged one of our beloved pups. When I explained the situation to the hollering woman, her lips turned to the shape of a hard, wrinkled walnut shell, and she shook her head like a chiding first grade teacher. “When we choose to walk this land, we make a commitment to the farmer who owns the property,” she said, unaware, I guess, that the land was not owned by a farmer at all, but by the City, and it was not farmland but ranchland that was grazed daily by animals who outweighed my dogs by a ton, give or take a few pounds.
And then there was this: After a recent attempted burglary of my house, the police officer who came to investigate suggested I install some motion-activated spotlights as a means of security. When I went to the store to buy the lights, I was grilled about where, exactly, I lived in the county. He informed me that Boulder proper had outlawed any light that pointed sideways or up. Only “down-lights” were allowable by code—which is something I secretly think is kind of cool because I love the night sky, but really? I could not, by law, install any light that pointed even slightly sideways so I could see into my backyard more clearly at night? Could I, without fear of incarceration, point a flashlight into my lilacs, or would sirens descend upon me as I stood frozen and caught in my frayed doggie-print pajamas?
Last but not least was the ongoing conversation I’d been having with a young, conservationist who works in her basement, not in the field. She had contacted me after I published an essay that referred to mountain lions as predators. “Predator is an unsavory term,” she explained. The new and improved term, I learned, is native carnivore.
Is a hawk a bird of native carnivorousness, I wondered. Or do the words “bird of prey” sound sufficiently different from “predator” so that my utterance might not cause the undoing of an entire species?
Don’t get me wrong. I think words matter—a lot. But if the pen is mightier than the sword, then we have to wield it with a little grace. I’m no markswoman, but common sense tells me that sometimes when you wield a weapon awkwardly in self-defense, that weapon blows up in your face—not your opponent’s.
And that’s what the Left’s over-processed language and attention to detail has done: it has backfired horribly. Until recently, I’d never understood how the Right could claim to be the party of “small government.” As my celebrity crush Rachel Maddow has said, during the Bush-Cheney administration, “with a Republican President and a Republican controlled congress, [Republicans] increased the size of the federal government by more than any other time since World War II when they created the Homeland Security Department.” The inaptly named group of Americans called “small government Republicans” says Maddow, are responsible for putting into place indefinite detention, which allows an American citizen to be held without charges for years; enacting laws to censor textbooks, and passing no less than three acts limiting a woman’s right to choose an abortion if she is pregnant, one of the most intimate and tough decisions any woman will ever face. Though the Patriot Act extension failed (phew!), 210 Republicans still voted to extend it, while twenty-six brave souls went against their own truly big government Republican colleagues and voted against it. And yet, the Left represents “big government”?
Clearly, the Right has been masquerading in this small government garb for a few decades, because there’s a sleight-of-tongue magic that makes Republicans seem like the party of “small government” and portrays democrats as the party of “big government.” Over and over again, people are duped by this slick trick. Why? Because we, as individuals, virtually never experience “government” directly. But we do have direct experience interacting with our fellow human beings. And by and large, on the interpersonal level—not the institutional level—it’s people on the Left who will micromanage your face off and send you screaming from the Whole Foods raw bar in search of the tiniest sliver of life that has not been controlled, tightened, legislated, defined and redefined for you, for your own convenience and the betterment of your own body and soul.
Yes, soul, because we are spiritual, but not religious.
What we, as progressives, legislate on the local level—the language we impose, and the tacit rules we create for what it means to be a “progressive” person—is utterly trivial when compared to the invasive and retroactive legislations enacted by the Right at the federal level. But, by and large, what the Right legislates affects us on a distant plane that the average citizen cannot pinpoint and feel—at least, not immediately. As I write this essay, huge freedoms are slipping away from us, while city councils in the most liberal communities of the nation are holding special meetings to discuss light bulbs. Take away our civil liberties, and many people won’t feel it until it’s too late. But take away our plastic bags at the grocery, and whoa, that’s a problem. That looks like huge government. It’s nameable and touchable and it changes your life choices today. It feels immediately restrictive, and it’s something tangible that people on the right can buck against.
Sadly, our comrades who are speaking eloquently and powerfully about America’s gradual slide into a state that is so conservative that today’s “Left” leaders look a lot like yesterday’s “Right,” may never be heard by the masses because our attention to detail in language and local legislation is so cluttered with minutiae. Furthermore, we want to be noticed for our good deeds. When Toyota proposed a sportier model of hybrid that didn’t have the Prius jelly-bean shape, polls determined that the sportier lines would not sell as well. They didn’t look like hybrid vehicles. It’s like driving a Jaguar to flaunt your wealth. But conspicuous consumption is “not trending” now on the Left. Conspicuous conservation is.
What we’re missing with our ostentatious good deeds is that they lay a foundation for a moral and ethical hierarchy that looks an awful lot like exclusion, even (dare I say it, that thing Republicans so often accuse us of?), snobbery. All the tiny, well-intentioned things we do to make our lives better might be making our lives worse.
I realize I’m generalizing here. But generalities are exactly my point. “Image” doesn’t care about specifics. Image prevents people from looking further into something they don’t understand. Image is hurting us these days. Yes, I’m worried about all sorts of specifics, too. But I’m almost more worried about the fact that we’ve taken progressive ideals and plugged them into a pattern and style of communication that has, traditionally, belonged to the Right. Traditionally, the Right has upheld a narrow and staunch definition of how a person should act, dress, talk, eat, and so on. Traditionally, the Right makes rules about what can and cannot be said (censorship). These days, the list of what a person must look like, talk like, eat like, drink like, drive like, and so on, in order to be considered “progressive,” is lengthy. We are now self-censoring our own language and feeling quite smug about it. Though the Left has always known that fundamentalism doesn’t work, what is our micromanaging if not an overly literal translation of a variety of terms and values, aka: fundamentalism?
And so the sweat that has been building on my brow as I prepare for my dinner party is not just from the heat of my no-doubt inefficient electric range. The moisture beading on my unbotoxed forehead and dripping into my eyes stings me because I fear (indeed, I know) that no matter how I try, I am cooking some kind of food that is unethical, speaking some term that is newly offensive, wearing some item of clothing that causes mass planetary destruction, and lighting my house in a way that degrades the quality of living for every human being who is not me. And the bigger fear beneath that fear is the ongoing fear that part of the reason the Right and Left have quit talking to each at all other these days is because, at long last, we all speak the same language: a language of, you guessed it, fear, along with narrowness, censorship, and the desperate need for control. No one likes to look in the mirror and see what they detest. And as the Left mirrors the Right (a movement that has been “trending” for decades now), the country as a whole moves farther and farther to the right, without noticing it.
There’s a strong sense these days that America’s two main ideologies (Right and Left, to generalize) have drifted too far apart; there’s an ideological chasm, and we believe we can’t close it. But that split is a myth. The Left has been drifting Right for decades. We’re the great compromisers—not when it comes to light bulbs, but, you know, on bigger issues. Like civil liberties. (Thank you, Bill Clinton, for the Defense of Marriage Act.) It’s image that makes us believe we’re divided as a nation. But take a step back from all this animosity between the two sides, and you’ll see something like two fraternal twins fighting to split from their parents. We all want our own identities. And right now, the Left has turned Right, and we’re duking it out in the ring, hoping one of us remains the victor with an identity all our own.
But unless we step back and see who we are and how we’re acting, they’ll win by default. We’ll gradually become a totalitarian nation. Slowly, slowly, slowly… but very surely, every word, thought and deed will be legislated, and we will be Right, and there will be very little Left for anyone.