Tag Archives: moral ambiguity

Worldviews Black and White

On Sunday, the Washington Post had an article tracing the influence of what it called “shadow charities” on shaping the political climate that led to the election of Donald Trump. It focused upon the career of

David Horowitz, a former ’60s radical who became an intellectual godfather to the far right through his writings and his work at a charity, the David Horowitz Freedom Center. Since its formation in 1988, the Freedom Center has helped cultivate a generation of political warriors seeking to upend the Washington establishment. These warriors include some of the most powerful and influential figures in the Trump administration: Attorney General Sessions, senior policy adviser Miller and White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.

The article raised several issues, including the blurred line between actual charities and the current IRS definition of not-for-profit organizations entitled to tax exempt status. That issue is important; taxpayers are subsidizing nonprofit “educational” activities that are more accurately described as promoting political propaganda.

That said, absent a wholesale revision of the tax code and a considerable reduction in the categories we deem eligible for tax-exempt status, this will not be an easy problem to fix. My version of propaganda is likely to be very different from, say, Mike Pence’s.

What was particularly interesting to me was the description of Horowitz, and his trajectory from far left to the even farther right.

Horowitz was a “red diaper baby” of communist parents in New York City. After attending Columbia University in the 1950s, he enrolled as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, an anchor of leftist thinking.

Over the next two decades, he took on prominent roles in the New Left. He served as an editor of Ramparts, an influential muckraking magazine in San Francisco.

But by the late 1970s, he had decided that the left represented a profound threat to the United States. On March 17, 1985, he and a writing partner came out as conservatives in a surprising Washington Post Magazine article headlined “Lefties for Reagan.”

In August 1988, Horowitz launched the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles, a nonprofit group that would become the Freedom Center.

We all know literary and political figures who have made the journey from Left to Right, or Right to Left. Horowitz reminds me of a relative of mine who was a pontificating “Young Socialist” in college, to the great consternation of his much more conservative family; when I ran into him many years later, he was an equally rabid and doctrinaire right-winger.

I have come to realize that most of these “conversions” have very little to do with the content of the political philosophies involved. These are not people who have mellowed with age and softened formerly rigid worldviews. For whatever reason, they have “swapped” Certainty A for Certainty B. We live in a complicated world, where “right” and “wrong” are often ambiguous, and bright lines are hard to come by. For many people, that moral ambiguity is intolerable. They need certainty. They need to be able to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.

And they desperately need to believe that they are with the “good guys.”

We see much of the same phenomenon in our churches, synagogues and mosques: there are members who value their congregations for the warmth of community, who listen to sermons for illumination into life’s “big questions” and for the insights and guidance offered by their particular doctrines. There are other members who see those doctrines as literal commands from On High, as blackletter law removed from any historical context or nuanced interpretation.

Some people have a psychological need to hold tight to dogma–whether Left or Right, political or religious–in order to function. They need a world that is reliably black and white, where  rules are clear and unambiguous, and where good guys and bad guys are easily identified.

The messy uncertainties and complexities of modern life are challenging to all of us. Accepting a doctrine that purports to explain what is otherwise confusing and threatening–a doctrine that identifies friends and enemies– is a huge temptation.

It’s a temptation we need to resist.