“We have no real democracy at the present time, because again and again the people have voted for decisive action, yet again and again their will has been thwarted by obstruction in the talking shop at Westminster. Democracy only begins when the will of the people is carried out.”
Sir Oswald Mosley, 1931
One of my all-time favourite fictional stories about the nature of political belief is Flannery O’Connor’s The Barber, published in 1948. This remarkable short story, written when O’Connor was just 20 years old, follows a number of interactions in the life of George Rayber, a college professor who decides to visit a new barber just prior to a governor’s election. Rayber is a typical liberal, blindly convinced of his progressive beliefs and his own intellectual powers. In contrast to Rayber, the Barber and his other customers are supporters of the racial status quo. As Rayber sits for a shave, and discussion moves to the election, the interaction between college professor and barber becomes a masterful allegory for competing political philosophies and behaviors. Rayber finds himself arguing with an audience that is grounded in reality, immune to abstraction, and who seem to understand the economic interests he has in the election better than he does. It is the Barber who repeatedly reminds the conceited, and self-deceiving, college professor to really “think” and to use his “horse sense” rather than blindly follow progressive fantasies and intellectual fashions. Rayber, incensed by the reactionary views of the Barber, is nevertheless unable to offer an articulate, factual rebuttal, sitting mute and angry. Frustrated and embarrassed by someone he sees as an ignorant bigot, he then neurotically spends the night writing a “systematic analysis” for why voting for his candidate is a good idea, and plans to confront the Barber with it before the election. The story reaches a climax when Rayber finally gives his impromptu lecture in the barbershop, is greeted with laughter and derision, and subsequently lashes out by punching the Barber — confirming, with his violent loss of self-control, his own ideological, intellectual and personal defeat.
Although it’s been noted by biographers that she enjoyed “racist jokes,” O’Connor was politically ambiguous and her precise intentions in this story went with her to the grave when she died of lupus aged 39. In this case, however, I subscribe to the school of formalist criticism in that I see The Barber as possessing a life and existence beyond its author and her intentions. Regardless of what O’Connor intended, or how other critics have interpreted it, the story remains one of the most profound and succinct fictional portrayals of modern left-liberalism. We know, for instance, from several scientific studies that although leftists believe themselves to be agents of rationality they are in fact more likely than Rightists to be swayed by emotion. They are also prone to weaker levels of emotional regulation and to “extreme acts of solidarity … with groups to which they do not belong originally.” The ongoing tragicomic presence of Antifa, recently filmed screaming “Nazi” at a milquetoast female conservative approaching her eighties, and the growing culture of censorship, are surely proof that the spirit of George Rayber is alive and well. The Left continues to evade debate, forfeiting argument in order to punch the “ignorant” in the smug belief that the Left, and the Left alone, are both intellectually and morally correct. Read more