The Mullahs and the Postmodernists

In October I got an e-mail from a historian I know who teaches at a college in the Northeast. She was gloomy about the terrorist attacks and anxious about the war, but much of her distress stemmed from the reactions of some of the people around her. One of her colleagues had appeared at a teach-in and declared that Americans were the "terrorists," because of their policies in Iraq. Others described the U.S. military action as naked aggression against an innocent, oppressed, and poor population. On another campus nearby she saw a graffito that read, "After Timothy McVeigh did we bomb Michigan?" Such sentiments cast their proponents into an incongruous ideological alliance—not with mainstream campus liberals like my professor friend (she was mystified and appalled) but with radical Muslims on the other side of the world.

There is nothing new about objections from the American left to the exertion of U.S. power abroad. Nor is there necessarily anything wrong with them: on more than one occasion they have been prescient. Yet this time the far left's reaction was strikingly reactionary. If the left seemed as anti-American as it was anti-terrorist, that was because it was in fact anti-everything, offering no program for American self-defense in the face of a direct attack and no substitute for either Western materialism or Islamic fundamentalism. The left failed to be constructive; it managed only to be, excuse the expression, deconstructive. That was disappointing to those who believe, as I do, that a vital and intelligent left wing is an important ingredient of a healthily self-critical society; but it was also clarifying, because it demonstrated the extent to which radical egalitarianism has displaced all other values on the postmodern left.

Radical egalitarianism? How could that explain the bizarre convergence of postmodern Marxists with anti-modern mullahs, who are anything but egalitarian? An underappreciated book by the late Aaron Wildavsky offers an answer.

Wildavsky taught at the University of California at Berkeley for thirty years, until his death, in 1993. He was one of the great political scientists of his generation. I was lucky to know him, and not a day passes when I don't miss his wisdom. That wisdom, infused with an incandescent passion, shines from a collection of essays titled The Rise of Radical Egalitarianism (1991).

Wildavsky wrote at the time when "political correctness" had only just burst into full flower on university campuses, and he wondered what lay behind it. He concluded that its many impulses—the impulse to regard all whites as oppressors and all minority members as victims, the impulse to see America as incorrigibly racist and classist and unfair, the impulse to impose admissions and hiring quotas and then lie about them, the impulse to politicize all academic disciplines, the impulse to snuff out dissent—were all aspects of a single controlling imperative. "That common factor," he contended, "is egalitarianism—the belief in the moral virtue of diminishing differences among people of varying incomes, genders, races, sexual preferences, and (especially) power."

Wildavsky got it right. Whereas not long ago the American left was multivalent, valuing freedom, for instance, no less than equality, it now values just one thing. That is what makes radical egalitarianism radical. Even "diversity" has come to mean centrally administered sameness, with portions allotted not to persons but to five or so standardized categories of person. The postmodern left has become as fixated on its one value as the anti-modern mullahs are on theirs.

Were he alive, Wildavsky would have no trouble understanding why two such seemingly opposed groups might join forces against the modern West. In an essay titled "Who Wants What and Why? A Cultural Theory" he sorted political and cultural preferences into three broad categories. Individualistic cultures, he wrote, believe that all is right with the world when people are mainly self-regulating, with decisions made by bidding and bargaining, so that the need for centralized authority is reduced. Hierarchic cultures believe that all is right when each is in his proper place, with particular people or groups making sacrifices for the good of the whole. Egalitarian cultures believe that all is right when everybody's status is the same.

The relevance of Wildavsky's categories today is immediately evident. The American mainstream is predominantly individualistic. Postmodern leftists, in contrast, are radical-egalitarian to the core. With Marxism in ruins, they can offer no viable social system that will reliably produce equal outcomes; yet so fiercely do they burn with egalitarian zeal that they insist more stridently than ever on the unfairness and wickedness of capitalism and materialism. Thus their new turn toward nihilism—toward ideology and action that always protest but never propose, toward suggestions, as in Seattle, in the form of rocks hurled through plate-glass windows.

If the enemy of your enemy is your friend, then it is not so surprising that postmodern Marxists should make common cause with radical mullahs. Islamic fundamentalism is hierarchism incarnate: the world will be a just place when Islamic law is the only law, with Muslims ruling infidels, men ruling women, and God ruling man. Although the radical-Islamic and radical-egalitarian senses of justice could hardly be more different, they are less opposites than counterparts in opposition to the dominance of individualism. If they differ as to ends, they share a sense of grievance at having been humiliated by history and a desire to torment what they see as the smug societies of the West.

The Marxists and the mullahs are natural enemies, as Stalin and Hitler were, and their alliance, such as it is, will prove equally fleeting. But their convergence is as revelatory in today's context as the Hitler-Stalin pact was in 1939, and for much the same reason: it brings two usually opposing pole stars into temporary conjunction, and reminds the rest of us where we stand.