What's Tony Thinking

Sad Lefties


There was a time when liberals and the left-leaning were upbeat, optimistic, and enjoyed the fray. They were proudly “progressive.” Hubert Humphrey described himself as “a happy warrior.” Today? “Happy warriors” are harder to find. The planet is dying. White supremacy rules. And everyone is traumatized.

One element of Joe Biden’s out-of-touchness is that he seems to have missed the memo that to be left is to be sad, very sad. We are all victims. We have all been traumatized. But Joe, behind those aviator dark glasses, keeps smiling and telling us how good the economy is doing.

Meanwhile, for the thought leaders on the left, it’s bleak and not just on a day-to-day basis, but in the wide-angle historical frame as well. In a recent essay NYT columnist Ross Douthat took Ta’nehisi Coates as a sort of canary in the mine.

Douthat describes Coates, “the author of “The Case for Reparations” and “Between the World and Me” as the defining pundit-intellectual of the late Obama era, the writer whose work on race and American life set the tone for progressivism’s trajectory throughout the Trump years and into the great ‘racial reckoning’ of 2020.”

But today’s Coates would certainly not be the “pundit-intellectual” of an Obama era where the Oval Office carpet carried Martin Luther King’s aphorism about “the arc of history bends toward justice.”

Coates has written, “I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice.” “I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos … I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.”

“I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does,” seems unlikely to get you out of bed in morning. And yet, that seems to be where a fair number of those on the left, especially the younger ones, are hanging out these days.

Douthat says that the left once had its roots and grounding in two great belief systems that provided a basis for hope. The Christian Social-Gospel of late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the historical dialectic of Marxist theory which envisioned capitalism’s contradictions leading to the triumph of the working class. For both, the arc of history did bend toward justice.

But today’s left has no larger context or vision. It is shattered into an infinite number of identity constituencies and is as grievance ridden as the far right. As my grandmother used to say, “There is no way to make a whine sound attractive.”

Part of my work over the years has been to consult with once great, now declining, liberal and progressive congregations. The clergy and members seemed flummoxed about their aging and decline.

But maybe it isn’t all that big a mystery? The basic Sunday morning message is that the world is deeply unjust, most everything is pretty awful, and the world is divided into the oppressors and oppressed. Moreover, you — person in the pew are likely among the oppressors by virtue of race, class or education. Nevertheless, you must put things to right by your ceaseless efforts. People stagger out of such sanctuaries as if under the weight of 65 pound backpack.

“You can’t tell people, Sunday after Sunday, how guilty they should feel or how bad they are, and then expect them to agents of change,” observed a colleague. It’s still “sinners in the hands — but now not of an angry God — in the hands of an angry ideology and its self-appointed prophets.”

Insiders wonder, “Why aren’t people flocking to our churches? We’re on the side of the angels, or at last of the enlightened?” Turns out, most people are already carrying their own 35 pound pack. They aren’t looking for a way to add another thirty pounds.

As Douthat points out, the left has lost its moorings in any larger story of hope and grace.

The result is particularly felt among young people. “. . . amid the recent trend toward increasing youth unhappiness, the left-right happiness gap is wider than before — that whatever is making young people unhappier (be it smartphones, climate change, secularism or populism), the effect is magnified the further left you go.”

Douthat concludes, “This seems like where a good portion of the American left finds itself today: comforted by neither God nor history, and hoping vaguely that therapy can take their place.”






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