The Mythology of the Populist Left (and Perhaps Also the Church)
The three myths are called the Dark Knight, the Puppet Master and the Golden Age. (Having good, pithy names helps.) Here is Aaronovitch’s summary of each (emphasis added):
The Dark Knight is the underlying belief that the struggle for the future is between light and dark, that all virtue is on one side and all vice on another. So those who oppose you are not wrong, they are immoral. The day after the election, on camera, a young woman Labour supporter wished the prime minister “a horrible death” before disconcertingly revealing that she planned to work in the NHS. As to those ordinary working-class people who had voted for the Tories, what they had done was “disgusting”. The problem here, suggests Clarke, is that if this is what you believe, then a dialogue with others is next to impossible.
This is often claimed to be a bigger problem on the left than the right (hence the cliche that the left thinks the right is evil, while the right thinks the left is mistaken). In our generation it probably is, for the reasons highlighted by Haidt and Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind, although I wonder if it is as much to do with age than with political alignment. But a moment’s thought reveals that it is a tempting consolation for any group that finds itself embattled in a hostile culture, including the church. “It’s dark out there, but light in here” may be reassuring and comforting, but it doesn’t help win people over, whether they are people who don’t go to church, or working class people in Bishop Auckland.
The second myth is the Puppet Master. If what you want to do is noble and in the People’s Interest, how can you explain why the People may fail to support you? The answer is that powerful forces are “rigging” the game against you. The Puppet Masters may be the “MSM” (the mainstream media, including, according to the shadow transport minister, Andy McDonald, the BBC), may be Zionists “weaponising” antisemitism against Corbyn, or may just be infernally clever advisers who, in the words of The Guardian’s George Monbiot “instinctively or explicitly understand the irrational ways in which we react to threat, and know that, to win, they must stop us from thinking.”
Again, though I am sure this is an issue on the left, it is equally an issue in the church. Often the same actors are invoked: the mainstream media, the Biased Broadcasting Corporation, the Jews (our history of antisemitism is far worse than the Labour Party’s). It should give us pause, or in the political vernacular, prompt “a period of reflection.” I often think of Kevin DeYoung’s wise counsel here: “It is probably true that every group needs a devil. In which case, ours might as well be the Devil.”
The third myth is the Golden Age. This is the belief that there was once a better place from which we have been expelled. The Corbynite Left believes the current lapsarian disaster to have been the fault of “neoliberalism”, an ideology binding Margaret Thatcher with Tony Blair and which is leading to people on trolleys in A&E and wars in the Middle East.
The analogy draws itself. Our Golden Age will depend on our church tradition—ancient Constantinople, medieval Rome, Calvinist Geneva, Puritan New England, the Welsh revival, Azusa Street, the early days of the Charismatic Movement, or whatever—but most of us will have one. False nostalgia for a bygone age is a powerful force in politics, as Yuval Levin showed beautifully in The Fractured Republic, as well as in church history. It also, like most errors, contains a fair bit of truth; some periods in history have indeed been more conducive to people who believe X than others. But we should not forget that the story of God’s people points forward rather than backward. Our Golden Age is in the future, not the past, and we look for a city that is to come.