Saturday, June 16, 2007

Matt Taibbi on Liberals

I have just read a provocative new article by Matt Taibbi in Adbusters Magazine. It explains why political "liberalism" is widely disrespected and why we need a "progressive" political movement that fights for the right things in the right ways. I think he makes some very good points, and I am increasingly inclined to agree with his indictment of so-called liberalism. I could spend a disproportionate amount of time I cannot spare struggling to summarize Taibbi's article. Or I can simply excerpt selected portions of it and let the author speak for himself far more ably than I could ever hope to speak for him. The following is the result:

The biggest problem with modern American liberalism may be the word itself. There’s just something about the word, liberal, something about the way it sounds – it just hits the ear wrong...

A lot of it, surely, has to do with the relentless abuse liberalism takes in the right-wing media, on Fox and afternoon radio, and amid the Townhall.com network of newspaper invective-hurlers. The same dynamic that makes the junior high school kid fear the word “fag” surely has many of us frightened of the word “liberal.”...

But between you and me, between all of us on that side of things, liberalism needs to be fixed...

At a time when someone should be organizing forcefully against the war in Iraq and engaging middle America on the alarming issue of big-business occupation of the Washington power process, the American left has turned into a skittish, hysterical old lady, one who defiantly insists on living in the past, is easily mesmerized by half-baked pseudo-intellectual nonsense, and quick to run from anything like real conflict or responsibility...

It shies away from hardcore economic issues but howls endlessly about anything that sounds like a free-speech controversy, shrieking about the notorious bugbears of the post-9/11 “police state” (the Patriot Act, Total Information Awareness, CARNIVORE, etc.) in a way that reveals unmistakably, to those who are paying close attention, a not-so-secret desire to be relevant and threatening enough to warrant the extralegal attention of the FBI. It sells scads of Che t-shirts ($20 at the International ANSWER online store) and has a perfected a high-handed tone of moralistic finger-wagging, but its organizational capacity is almost nil. It says a lot, but does very little...

Here’s the real problem with American liberalism: there is no such thing, not really. What we call American liberalism is really a kind of genetic mutant, a Frankenstein’s monster of incongruous parts – a fat, affluent, overeducated New York/Washington head crudely screwed onto the withering corpse of the vanishing middle-American manufacturing class. These days the Roosevelt stratum of rich East Coasters are still liberals, but the industrial middle class that the New Deal helped create is almost all gone. In 1965, manufacturing jobs still made up 53 percent of the US economy; that number was down to nine percent in 2004, and no one has stepped up to talk to the 30 million working poor who struggle to get by on low-wage, part-time jobs.

Thus, the people who are the public voice of American liberalism rarely have any real connection to the ordinary working people whose interests they putatively champion. They tend instead to be well-off, college-educated yuppies from California or the East Coast, and hard as they try to worry about food stamps or veterans’ rights or securing federal assistance for heating oil bills, they invariably gravitate instead to things that actually matter to them – like the slick Al Gore documentary on global warming, or the “All Things Considered” interview on NPR with the British author of Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. They haven’t yet come up with something to replace the synergy of patrician and middle-class interests that the New Deal represented...



[Vermont Senator Bernie] Sanders agrees, saying that “where the money comes from” is definitely one of the reasons that the so-called liberals in Washington – i.e. the Democrats – tend not to get too heavily into financial issues that affect ordinary people. This basically regressive electoral formula has been a staple of the Democratic Party ever since the Walter Mondale fiasco in the mid-eighties prompted a few shrewd Washington insiders to create the notorious “pro-business” political formula of the Democratic Leadership Council, which sought to end the party’s dependence upon labor money by announcing a new willingness to sell out on financial issues in exchange for support from Wall Street. Once the DLC’s financial strategy helped get Bill Clinton elected, no one in Washington ever again bothered to question the wisdom of the political compromises it required.

Within a decade, the process was automatic – Citibank gives money to Tom Daschle, Tom Daschle crafts the hideous Bankruptcy Bill, and suddenly the Midwestern union member who was laid off in the wake of Democrat-passed NAFTA can’t even declare bankruptcy to get out from the credit card debt he incurred in his unemployment. He will now probably suck eggs for the rest of his life, paying off credit card debt year after year at a snail’s pace while working as a non-union butcher in a Wal-Mart in Butte. Royally screwed twice by the Democratic Party he voted for, he will almost certainly decide to vote Republican the first time he opens up the door to find four pimply college students wearing I READ BANNED BOOKS t-shirts taking up a collection to agitate for dolphin-safe tuna.



But money and campaign contributions aren’t the only reason “liberal“ politicians screw their voters.

“It’s also a cultural thing,” Sanders says. “A lot of these folks really don’t have a lot of contact with working-class people. They’re not comfortable with working-class people. They’re more comfortable with environmentalists, with well-educated people. And it’s their issues that matter to them.”...



Progressive politicians in Washington frequently complain that the political mainstream’s abandonment of working-class issues opens the door for Republicans to seize the ignored middle-American electorate, mainly by scaring them with bugaboo images of marrying queers, godless commie academics, dirty bearded eco-terrorists, and so on...



But having rich college grads acting as the political representatives of the working class isn’t just bad politics. It’s also silly. And there’s probably no political movement in history that’s been sillier than the modern American left.



What makes the American left silly? Things that in a vacuum should be logical impossibilities are frighteningly common in lefty political scenes. The word “oppression” escaping, for any reason, the mouths of kids whose parents are paying 20 grand for them to go to private colleges. Academics in Priuses using the word “Amerika.” Ebonics, Fanetiks, and other such insane institutional manifestations of white guilt. Combat berets. Combat berets in conjunction with designer coffees. Combat berets in conjunction with designer coffees consumed at leisure in between conversational comparisons of America to Nazi Germany.

We all know where this stuff comes from. Anyone who’s ever been to a lefty political meeting knows the deal – the problem is the “spirit of inclusiveness” stretched to the limits of absurdity. The post-sixties dogma that everyone’s viewpoint is legitimate, everyone‘s choice about anything (lifestyle, gender, ethnicity, even class) is valid, that’s now so totally ingrained that at every single meeting, every time some yutz gets up and starts rambling about anything, no matter how ridiculous, no one ever tells him to shut the fuck up. Next thing you know, you’ve got guys on stilts wearing mime makeup and Cat-in-the-Hat striped top-hats leading a half-million people at an anti-war rally. Why is that guy there? Because no one told him that war is a matter of life and death and that he should leave his fucking stilts at home.

Then there’s the tone problem. A hell of a lot of what the left does these days is tediously lecture middle America about how wrong it is, loudly snorting at a stubbornly unchanging litany of Republican villains. There’s a weirdly indulgent tone to all of this Bush-bashing that goes on in lefty media, a tone that’s not only annoyingly predictable in its pervasiveness, but a turnoff to people who might have tuned in to that channel in search of something else...



But to me the biggest problem with American liberalism is that it hasn’t found a new legend for itself, one to replace the old one, which is more and more often no longer relevant...



While it’s true that we’re still fighting against unjust wars and that there’s unfinished business on the fronts of women’s rights, civil rights, and environmental preservation, there’s no generational battle left for America’s rich kids to fight...



The only thing American college kids have left to fight for are the royalties for their myriad appearances in Girls Gone Wild videos. Which is why they look ridiculous parading around at peace protests in the guise of hapless victims and subjects of the Amerikan neo-Reich. Rich liberals protesting the establishment is absurd because they are the establishment; they’re just too embarrassed to admit it.

When they start embracing their position of privilege and taking responsibility for the power they already have – striving to be the leaders of society they actually are, instead of playing at being aggrieved subjects – they’ll come across as wise and patriotic citizens, not like the terminally adolescent buffoons trapped in a corny sixties daydream they often seem to be now. They’ll stop bringing puppets to marches and, more importantly, they’ll start doing more than march...



To me the word “liberalism” describes an era whose time is past, a time when a liberal was defined more by who he was fighting against – the Man – than what he was fighting for. A liberal wielding power is always going to seem a bit strange because a liberal always imagines himself in an intrepid fight against power, not holding it. I therefore prefer the word “progressive,” which describes in a neutral way a set of political values without having these class or aesthetic connotations. To me a progressive is not fighting Mom and Dad, Nixon, Bush or really any people at all, but things – political corruption, commercialism, pollution, etc. It doesn’t have that same Marxian us-versus-them connotation that liberalism still has, sometimes ridiculously. It’s about goals, not people...

2 comments:

Tom said...

A lot of Taibbi's article relates to what Ken Wilber calls Boomeritis, or the Mean Green Meme.

I don't think that changing the names of movements on the left would have any real effect, as Taibbi supposes, since the real issue is the worldview/perspective of the liberals/progressives he is referring to.

IMHO, what Taibbi wants, but doesn't know it, is for the left to become "integrated," or second tier as Ken Wilber and other Integralists write about, exhaustively.

But for the Democrats to become more of a creature of labor unions again isn't progress, but regress, in my opinion. America is never going to be so isolated, again, as it was in the 50s - and that isn't a function of globalism; instead it's the inevitable outcome of the improved technology, making the world smaller.

Also, the Democrats' impotence in congress REALLY REALLY is a function of their tiny majorities in congress, and not girly-man skittishness as Taibbi proclaims.

But I agree with Taibbi that a new breed of corporations-challenging, compassionate leaders need to emerge that are also mature realists.

tom said...

Also, the Democrats haven't had a new idea since the 1960's.