Friday, July 17, 2009

Salutin vs Steyn

And life itself told me this secret: 'Behold,' it said, 'I am that which must overcome itself again and again.'
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Two opinion columns, one by Mark Steyn in Macleans dated July 16, the other by Rick Salutin in the Globe and Mail dated July 17, have some interesting elements in common.

Salutin, on the left, defends Sonia Sotomayor's statements about the importance of her Latina identity by arguing that one's experience of overcoming life's challenges can "put us more in touch with what it is to be human" and that situating this experience within an identification with a visible group is existentially important:
Speaking as a Jew, I think one reason North American Jews identify so powerfully with Israel is a sense that the soulfulness of past Jewish experience is missing in their generally comfortable lives. They'd never want to repeat the horror, but they miss the intensity.

Meanwhile, on the right, Mark Steyn argues that
when government takes too much of the trouble out of things, it makes it impossible to lead a satisfying life. “Trouble”—responsibility, choices, consequences—is intimately tied to human dignity. And thus the human dignity in working hard, raising a family and withstanding the vicissitudes of life has been devalued. And society is just a matter of passing the time.

As if the Romantic sentiment expressed here needed to be more explicit, Steyn suggests that in today's modern welfare states, people's lives cannot read like "a 19th-century social novel" when maybe they should.

What's remarkable about this is that both writers argue that the members of ethnic groups within larger society should maintain their unique cultural identities for existential reasons. Although Steyn does not suggest that people experience Nietzsche's "overcoming" qua Latina or qua white male in his column here like Salutin does, from Steyn's other writings it is obvious that Steyn believes cultural identities should be preserved.

Where the two part, is that Steyn believes the preservation of cultural identities means limiting immigration. "Larger society" in the above paragraph thus means human society, not a multicultural nation-state. It's a key reason why he calls himself a "social conservative" (which he does in this column). For Salutin, one presumes that "larger society" can be a sub-global group, a nation state, and that it's permissible, even advisable, to take pride in one's particular heritage if the group one identifies with is struggling against oppression as opposed being the agent of oppression.

Now I'll grant that I am forcing Steyn and Salutin into boxes in order to make my argument. But my point is not really about what Steyn and Salutin believe anyway but rather what I am suggesting the right and left in general believe.

The true libertarian would disagree with both Steyn and Salutin because the views of Steyn and Salutin both follow from a Nietzschean depth psychology instead of fully conscious reason. The libertarian would point out that logic, and therefore right and wrong, does not change with a human's concrete particulars. And so it is that the libertarian finds Sotomayor's statements unacceptable for a would-be judge in a pluralistic society, the white male conservative finds them unacceptable because they imply a bias against his group, and the leftist finds them acceptable because a bias is appropriate when it is being applied on behalf of the long suffering underdog. For the libertarian, it is the process that matters and the abstract process alone. For the leftist and the conservative, concrete results matter as well because they are skeptical about the perfectibility of the process.

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