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by Ashley Frawley
Tuesday, 25
February 2020

The Left and Right outrage machines are stuck in the past

Today's identity politics stems from 18th and early 19th century reaction to the Enlightenment
by Ashley Frawley
The reading of Voltaire’s tragedy in a salon: Left and Right identity politics echo each other because they are rooted in reaction to the Enlightenment

There’s an interesting article over at Arc Digital in which the author argues that, contrary to the oft-discussed social justice warriors and campus activists of the Left, much less attention is paid to the Outrage Machine of the Right. Pointing to the endless stream of ‘Owning the Libs videos’ on YouTube and elsewhere, the author writes:

The right-wing outrage machine is nothing if not entertaining. Indeed, its narratives about the “left ruining everything” are a perfect case in point. Complicated philosophical and political disputes are boiled down to a them/us binary. “They” are an evil, destructive force while “we” are invariably on the side of facts, logic, morality, and, of course, truth (unless the facts become inconvenient)
- Matthew McManus, Arc Digital

Why do today’s Left and Right seem to mirror each other so much? For instance, the Left’s obsession with identity and cultural differences is matched in the Right’s framing of immigrants vs the indigenous population. The Left’s seemingly endless sense of outrage is matched by the Right’s own ‘outrage machine’. These similarities aren’t coincidental. Right and Left today are really the Right and Left wings of the old reactionary right. History repeats itself, as the famous phrase goes, but first as tragedy, now as farce.

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Left and Right identity politics echo each other because both are rooted in the 18th and early 19th century reaction to the Enlightenment. Horrified by the excesses of the French Revolution, conservatives railed against its lofty ideals — and ‘human universals’ in particular. For French reactionary philosopher Joseph de Maistre, there was ‘no such thing as man.’ ‘I have seen Frenchmen, Italians and Russians’, but ‘as for man, I have never come across him anywhere’.

Worse, revolutions spawned by such ideals seemed to produce the opposite of what they promised. Enlightenment philosophers had talked of reason, equality, freedom and fraternity. Yet the world seemed dominated by unreason, inequality, unfreedom, and war. This failure demanded an explanation. For the Right, the answer was human difference. Innate differences between human beings account for inequalities, they said. More, such differences should be nurtured not destroyed. This found cultural expression in celebration of the volksgeist, or the unique spirit of the people. Its biologized expression was racial difference.

We can still see these two poles today. The Left’s extreme emphasis on culture and apparent reaction against science is matched on the Right by an extreme embrace of scientism, or the misapplication of simplistic scientific analogies to complex human societies. In an unsettling re-enactment of the 1930s, some even appear to be flirting with eugenics.

But there is something missing in this melodrama. The space once occupied by the Left — where liberal, socialist and communist movements once sat — is vacant. For those like Karl Marx, it was not innate human difference that mattered, but the economic base of society. Real human progress would require revolution against the forces of reaction. Who still believes in this today?

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