Limits and Hope: Against the Anti-Tragedy Agenda of the Left

One of the reasons it’s difficult to win an argument with a leftist is that, while you may have the facts on your side, the leftist always has tragedy on his.

That is to say, liberals are against tragedy. This is one of the reasons they’ve gained so much ground in recent decades. Another reason is that once they established tragedy as something we can reasonably expect to avoid, they began defining more and more things as tragic. Whereas once upon a time things like wars or plane crashes were considered tragic, now everything from “misgendering” someone, to the emergence of Trump, to having to deal with post-nasal drip is considered tragic.

Politics today is no longer about the very real work of dealing with things like infrastructure, wars, and taxes, but the ongoing and all-consuming effort to avoid tragedy. The idea on the left today is that tragedy is something that can be escaped—to claim otherwise is considered heresy. 

Consequently, every small resistance to the building of the liberal leviathan is considered aiding and abetting a potential tragedy. Don’t think men can become women? You are a hater and because of you people will die. Not crazy about abortion? Don’t you know people are incapable of using contraception and that because of your obduracy people will die? Like Trump? Worlds will collide, and people will die. Women can’t have it all every second of every hour of every day? Expect in answer to hear, “I know someone who lost out on a promotion. She died.” MSNBC should be called MSTRAGEDY.

Of course, like all decent humans, conservatives are against tragedy, too. But unlike the left, the right also accepts that tragedy is an inescapable, if unfortunate, part of life.

The great historian and critic Christopher Lasch once summed up his complex and brilliant writings and ideas in three words: limits and hope. Modern politics, as Lasch saw it, has become a movement of “anti-tragedy” that tolerates no limits on either consumption or human freedom. As scholar Patrick Deneen observed in an essay about Lasch, Lasch saw that

… populist democracy … had during the twentieth century been routed by a liberalism that promised progress, meritocracy, cosmopolitanism, scientism, the ‘therapeutic’ regime, and secularism. By surmounting the natural sense of human limits, liberalism had sought to open up endless possibilities for advancement and individual cultivation, but it did so at the expense of democratic virtues that had once been inculcated in local communities—such ‘middle-class’ virtues as moderation, a sense of limits, and an acknowledgement of the inescapability of tragedy in human life.

The argument against tragedy is hard to combat because nobody likes tragedy. Nobody would characterize himself as “pro-tragedy.” Still, our leaders once displayed an understanding of limits. FDR was in a wheelchair. John F. Kennedy reminded us that “we are all mortal.”

There was a time, too, when leaders could speak in terms that recognized the existence of fates worse than the merely tragic. Ronald Reagan told this story in a 1983 speech to evangelical leaders:

A number of years ago, I heard a young father addressing a tremendous gathering in California. It was during the time of the Cold War when communism and our own way of life were very much on people’s minds. He was speaking to that subject. Suddenly, I heard him saying ‘I love my little girls more than anything in the world, but I would rather see them die now, still believing in God, than to grow up under communism and one day die no longer believing in God.’

Yes, it would be tragic for a person to die at a young age. Yet it would be far worse to live under communism. Do Americans still feel that way? They do not. Ironically, that’s an even worse tragedy. We have forgotten how rich our lives can be if we just accept our limits.

One final addendum on Lasch. In his seminal 1979 work The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch argued that the human personality had changed over the course of the latter half of the 20th century. Americans had transformed from a strong and well-adjusted people to a weak and dependent people—people who looked to government, corporations, radical politics, sex, and bureaucracies for a sense of meaning.

A central idea in Lasch’s analysis concerns the way infants develop. Citing Sigmund Freud, Lasch argued that for an infant, interactions with the world result in feelings of either omnipotence or helplessness. In his fantasy world, a toddler is either the king of the world, demanding his needs are satisfied now, or he is totally helpless and dependent on parents for survival. This, Lasch argued, represents the two extremes of the human personality that need to be evened out.

To make that happen, it is vital that parents, community, and what Lasch called “transitional objects,” including toys, games, siblings, and pets, introduce limits to the world of the child. These objects shrink the scale of fantasies, introduce reality, and allow a healthy transition into adulthood. In the latter part of the 20th century, much of the work of raising a child was farmed out to television, the helping professions, schools, and bureaucracies. 

Lasch expert George Scialabba once summarized the process this way:

Formerly, the presence of potent but fallible individuals, economically self-sufficient, with final legal and moral authority over their children’s upbringing, provided one kind of template for the growing child’s psychic development. As fathers (and increasingly mothers) become employees, with the family’s economic survival dependent on remote, abstract corporate authorities, and as care-taking parents were increasingly supervised or replaced by educational, medical, and social-welfare bureaucracies, the template changed. The child now has no human-size authority figures in the immediate environment against which to measure itself and so reduce its fantasies to human scale. As a result, it continues to alternate between fantasies of omnipotence and helplessness. This makes acceptance of limits, finitude, and death more difficult, which in turn makes commitment and perseverance of any kind—civic, artistic, sexual, parental—more difficult.

This is the tragedy of the modern left.

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