Saturday, May 22, 2010

Chirality of Ethos

Chemists call molecules chiral when the molecules come in mirror-image pairs.  The term is applied to molecules that share a common chemical formula and are built from the same numbers of the same kinds of atoms. They differ in the geometrical arrangement of the atoms. That’s all. Same content, just rearranged to create mirror-image reflections. The right- and left-handedness of chiral chemistry provides a handy metaphor for the politics of Left and Right: mirror images built from a common substance and a common formula.

For reasons probably unimaginable, chemistry came to mind when I found the movie Return Engagement on the Internet Archive (it follows the Bob Costas interview). The movie documents a series of debates between notorious pitchman for the colorful ‘60s psychedelic counterculture, Timothy Leary, and G. Gordon Liddy, notorious henchman for the disgraced U.S. president Richard M. Nixon. This odd couple toured the U.S. in the 1980s, staging debates that pitted Leary’s libertine individualism against Gordo’s conservative authoritarianism.

In debate Leary preaches a gospel of self-discovery and invites individuals to liberate themselves from the suffocating conventions of polite society, to spread their wings and fly free from the strictures of the hive. Liddy counters by accusing Leary of reckless self-centeredness and hedonism, sounding like the soviet pundits who dismissed Leary's anti-establishment campaign, because, by stressing the transcendent, he de-politicized young people. Liddy argues for the duty of individuals to subordinate their desires to the needs of social orderliness. Gordo preaches a communitarian, collectivist ethos.


Liberal? Conservative? Is anybody paying attention?

Tune into partisan polemic today and you get a mirror image of the Leary-Liddy debates. The Left is all about community, and if you hear invocations of freedom and liberty, it’s more likely coming from the Right. Listen to right-wing talk now and you’d think community was synonymous with gulag. An hour of MTV or network prime time makes clear how diligently capitalism works to de-politicize young people and encourage their hedonism. So, between 1984, a fitting year to make such a movie, and today, what happened to political Left and Right?

They became what they beheld.

The Right adopted the “Do your own thing” ethos and adapted it to the cult of the business entrepreneur. The Left internalized a tut-tutting stance, condemning the “greed” of the self-centered striver, while striving itself to be “socially responsible.”

How long before the mirrors switch again and Lefties snap, “Don’t tell me what to do with my brain,” and the Righties castigate them for their recklessness?  Stay tuned.


  1. Interesting point. Some of the reason for this crossover undoubtedly is the influence of the "neoconservatives," a term that originally referred to '60s leftists who shifted to a strongly libertarian conservativism during the '70s.

    I'd argue, though, that the individualism of the conservative free-marketarians is qualitatively very different from that of the hippies and their affiliates like Leary. The main difference is that the '60s version was strongly influenced by Eastern religion/philosophy and thus saw the individual as an expression of a unifying higher reality. I think the present-day libertarian version is rooted in Social Darwinism and thus has an inherent disuniting tendency.

  2. It does get pretty mixed up. Leary himself crossed over and promoted capitalism (free enterprise) as a friend of individualism.

    The Rand Paul flap throws a light on the impossibility of consistent libertarianism. So long as the gov't grants you sanction (via license, certification, corporate charter) to operate a business, there's no clean break between public sector and private sector.

    I have libertarian leanings, but if my hypothetical enterprise enjoys the tax breaks granted to a business, then the gov't is justified in stipulating that I serve Blacks along with Whites at my lunch counter.

    The individual and the community necessarily blur into one another, so any ideology based on a clean break between the two must break down.