Entry from January 5, 2010

Good news, everybody! According to two writers I respect enormously, the intellectual underpinnings of the progressive world-view have just been washed away by events. We can doubtless look forward to a much-transformed political climate in which the most egregious sort of left-wingery will simply cease to exist. In today’s National Review online, the magazine’s editor, Rich Lowry, finds this putative epiphany in the new year’s top story: “Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab couldn’t ignite the bomb in his underwear on Flight 253 on Christmas Day,” he writes. “All he managed to blow up was a worldview.” Fortunately, it is a worldview that we both think could do with a good blowing up. The would-be bomber’s abortive act of terrorism, writes Mr Lowry,

put paid to the notion that terrorism is the byproduct of a few, specific U.S. policies and of our image abroad. This view dominates the Left and animates the Obama administration. It informs its drive to shutter Guantanamo Bay, to get out of Iraq, and to cater to “international opinion.” If we are only nice and likable enough, goes the theory, the Abdul Mutallabs of the world will never be tempted to violent mayhem. Only the young Nigerian didn’t appear the least bit moved by Pres. Barack Obama’s commitment to close Gitmo in a year. He didn’t seem to care that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will get a civilian trial in New York. He didn’t appear to be fazed at all by Obama’s Cairo and U.N. speeches, or a year’s worth of international goodwill gestures. He just wanted to destroy an airliner.

Quite right. Who, therefore, could any longer continue to “minimize or deny,” as Mr Lowry rightly says the left does, the fundamental truth that the cause of terrorism is not our attempt to combat it but the terrorists themselves, who are “in the grip of a violent ideology with an existential hatred of the United States at its core”?

By coincidence, in today’s Wall Street Journal, Heather MacDonald has found in a simple correlation of crime and economic statistics the information that cannot but destroy an even more venerable fantasy of the American left, namely that poverty — or “income inequality and social injustice” — causes crime. “As the economy started shedding jobs in 2008,” she writes, “criminologists and pundits predicted that crime would shoot up, since poverty, as the ‘root causes’ theory holds, begets criminals. Instead, the opposite happened. Over seven million lost jobs later, crime has plummeted to its lowest level since the early 1960s.” So much for the conventional liberal wisdom of that era!

If crime was a rational response to income inequality, the thinking went, government can best fight it through social services and wealth redistribution, not through arrests and incarceration. Even law enforcement officials came to embrace the root causes theory, which let them off the hook for rising lawlessness. Through the late 1980s, the FBI’s annual national crime report included the disclaimer that “criminal homicide is largely a societal problem which is beyond the control of the police.” Policing, it was understood, can only respond to crime after the fact; preventing it is the domain of government welfare programs.

Surely, no one can believe that anymore. Yet I can’t help doubting that the left will be persuaded. In spite of what I, along with Mr Lowry and Miss MacDonald, consider overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there seems some resistance on progressives’ part to the evidence that their understanding of the way the world works is fundamentally flawed. Certainly the Obama administration continues to believe that being nice to terrorists will prevent terrorism since, as Rich Lowry himself points out, the administration’s counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, has promised to continue its program of returning Guantanamo detainees to the terrorist hotbed of Yemen, while Mr Mutallab is being treated as an ordinary criminal and given all the protections of American law instead of being regarded as an enemy combatant — so showing that “it can’t give up its operating theory of terrorism, no matter how tattered.” What’s the betting that it can’t give up its theories of crime and deprivation either?

For it is not just an erroneous theory about what causes terrorism or crime that inspires the progressive world-view but something much bigger than that. I think it is the progressive faith in human potentiality to control all the contingencies of life — a faith which we call, under other circumstances, utopianism. This is the faith not just of liberals and lefties and their friends in the media but of an increasing number of ordinary Americans in our fantasy-ridden culture who aspire to political relevance only by this means. That is to say, they believe that the purpose of political action is to create “a better world” — by which they quickly come to mean a perfect world in which such permanent features of the human condition as hatred, conflict, poverty and misfortune will have disappeared through omnicompetent human agency. That’s why, as David Brooks noted on New Year’s Day, so many people suddenly seem to have forgotten what was once taken for granted by everybody, namely “that human institutions are necessarily flawed” and that “history is not knowable or controllable.” If you believe implicitly in human perfectability, then, you will have to find a theory, however flawed, which will allow you to go on believing, which is why the progressive-utopians will go on believing that the effort to oppose terrorism is what causes terrorism and that income inequality causes crime.

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