You can shine your shoes and wear a suit.
You can comb your hair and look quite cute
You can hide your face behind a smile
One thing you can’t hide
Is when you’re crippled inside
--John Lennon “Crippled Inside”
From the moment I first heard it, I liked John Lennon’s “Crippled Inside”. Over the years, it has percolated up into my consciousness with surprising persistence, especially at those times when I have needed to make important life decisions.
There are, of course, many ways to interpret the song. But I have always seen it as addressing that proverbial search for inner harmony. To be “crippled inside” is, for me, to live in ways that contradict one’s natural desires or inclinations.
The drive to achieve harmony--bring what is thought and felt inside into line with one’s daily praxis--has always been an issue of central importance to most cultures. Indeed, the term “integrity” comes from the idea of “being of one piece”, that is, having few if any fissures between the inner and the outer self.
Maybe it is just me, but I don’t hear much about people in public life or in positions of authority over our children talking much about the goal of achieving internal harmony anymore. And on the rare occasions when I do, it is usually with the purpose of mocking such seekers as superfluous or flaky.
My sense is that this failure to promote or celebrate the search for inner harmony may have lot to do with the presence of in our lives of massive, and therefore seemingly insurmountable, moral inconsistencies.
One of the more confounding cultural phenomena of the last decade or so has been the failure of the people on the nominal left to mount any more than fleeting and largely symbolic challenges to the organized depredation of our economy and our civil society orchestrated by the right. The presidency of Obama is the farcical culmination of a long-running show perhaps best compared to a game between the always-sharp Harlem Globetrotters and the paid-to-be-hapless Washington Generals.
Intelligent people have come up with numerous theories for explaining this phenomenon. Most touch in one way or another on the unchecked presence of illicit money and overly entrenched interest groups in our political system.
And they are, of course, right.
But I’d like to suggest that these well-diagnosed flaws are subsidiary elements of a larger and more embracing problem: large numbers of our nominally “left” political class, along with a healthy number of the people that vote for them, are “crippled inside”.
What does it really mean to be a liberal?
When you cast aside the many superficial answers to the question generated and circulated in recent years (reading the NYT, driving a Volvo, voting Democratic, exclaiming repeatedly in public how much you really love people of all different colors and persuasions) and go back to the genesis of the term, a few salient qualities emerge.
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One is that you place a concern for the inherent dignity of the individual, --all individuals from all places--at the very center of your political concerns. Another, intimately linked to the first in that it is the only way that individual rights have ever been durably preserved, is to favor consensually agreed upon legal processes--rooted in what are believed to be universal concepts of justice--over the capricious exercise of power.
Put another way, true liberals are, or at least should be, intrinsically and fervently skeptical of any authority other than the rule of law.
But as I look around, I see all sort of nominal liberals who are deeply and openly invested (either in the role of wielder or the role of wannabe) in schemas of authority that have nothing whatsoever to do with the rule of law and the pursuit of human dignity.
Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that many self-identified liberals pay homage to all sorts of hierarchical and fundamentally authoritarian ways of framing reality, practices that admit, without actually coming out and saying it, that might does, in fact, “make right”, that beneath any verbiage we might employ in public the thing that really matters is currying favor with the people at the top, those with effective control of the goodies we feel we deserve.
This why, I suspect, so many of them passively accept Obama’s imperial and often lawless presidency, Hillary Clinton’s daily lectures to sovereign leaders of other countries, spy-and-arrest-first, ask-questions- later “justice”, the idea that US lives are inherently more valuable than the lives of people in other places, the notion that invading Afghanistan and Iraq were “necessary”, that killing Bin Laden or Khadafy in cold blood is something to cheer about, that the US need not be subject to the international laws that bind other “lesser” entities, that money should “naturally” accord the rich more access to political power, that legal process and legal accountability are only really important when it comes to the poor and the unconnected.
I know that things don’t happen in a vacuum. I realize that the “winner take all” brutality so many people in this country have suffered in the workplace over the last three decades has probably played a large role in fomenting these hierarchical and authoritarian attitudes among the citizenry.
But I also know that in academia, where many people (but certainly not all) have labor protections that have long since disappeared in other sectors, and where, as everyone knows, self-denominated liberals are a strong majority, there has been a sharp rise both authoritarianism and a disdain for process in recent years.
There are numerous people in the academy who, while active and deeply versed in progressive politics, wouldn’t think twice about using their small parcel of institutional power to ruin or seriously sidetrack the career of a colleague because they do not like one aspect or another of his or her worldview. As they say in Spanish, autoritarismo puro y duro.
So I guess in the end, it comes down to what some used to call an “examination of conscience”.
How deeply do we, and the “good” liberals and progressives we know, really believe in the need to hammer out consensual agreements even when we know that an “executive decision” might be more efficient in the short run? Do we really believe that all lives are of equal value and thus worthy of respect and dignity? Or that power is a gift subject to limits rather than weapon to be used as we see fit? Do you really look at the person before you look at his or her title or ability to potentially improve your financial or professional lot? Do you join the crowd and snicker at the discordant voice or make the uncomfortable case that he or she deserves to be heard?
As melodramatic as it may sound, the future of our culture may depend on it. The last decade and a half have shown us what happens when we turn our parcel of progressive power over to “crippled” liberals. We need to stop indulging them and let them know in clear and unequivocal tones at work, on the street, wherever our paths cross, that “Cute in a suit” will no longer do.