Yey Rich Old Pussies

The Article: The American Left’s Silly Victim Complex by Matt Taibbi in AdBusters.

The Text: 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. If it were an animal it would be something squirming and hairless, something that burrows maybe, with no eyes and too many legs. No child would bring home a wounded liberal and ask to keep it as a pet. More likely he would step on it, or maybe tie it to a bottle-rocket and shoot it over the railroad tracks.

The word has a chilling effect even on the people who basically agree with most of what it stands for. I myself cringe, involuntarily as it were, every time someone calls me a liberal in public. And I’m not the only one. When I called around for this article about the problems of American liberalism to various colleagues who inhabit the same world that I do – iconoclastic columnists and journalists who’ve had bylines in places like The Nation – they almost universally recoiled in horror from the topic, not wanting to be explicitly linked in public with the idea of the American left.

“Fuck that,” responded one, when I asked if he wanted to be quoted in this piece. “I’d rather talk about my genital warts. I’d rather show you pictures of my genital warts, as a matter of fact.”

“Ugh. Not sure I want to go there,” read one e-mail.

“I really wish I wasn’t associated with the left,” sighed a third.

When the people who are the public voice of a political class are afraid to even wear the party colors in public, that’s a bad sign, and it’s worth asking what the reasons are.

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.” Mike Savage says liberalism is a mental disorder, Sean Hannity equates liberals with terrorists, Ann Coulter says that “liberals love America like O.J. loved Nicole.” These people have a broad, monolithic audience whose impassioned opinions are increasingly entrenched. In the pseudo-Orwellian political landscape that is modern America, to self-identify as a liberal is almost tantamount to thoughtcrime, a dangerous admission that carries with it the very real risk of instantly and permanently alienating a good half of the population, in particular most of middle America. That reason alone makes it, in a way, wrong and cowardly to abandon liberalism and liberals. If Ann Coulter wants to call all of us fags, well, then, fine, I’m a fag. For the sake of that fight, I’ll stay a liberal till the end of time. 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.

The sad truth is that if the FBI really is following anyone on the American left, it is engaging in a huge waste of time and personnel. No matter what it claims for a self-image, in reality it’s the saddest collection of cowering, ineffectual ninnies ever assembled under one banner on God’s green earth. And its ugly little secret is that it really doesn’t mind being in the position it’s in – politically irrelevant and permanently relegated to the sidelines, tucked into its cozy little cottage industry of polysyllabic, ivory tower criticism. When you get right down to it, the American left is basically just a noisy Upper West side cocktail party for the college-graduate class.

And we all know it. The question is, when will we finally admit it?

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.

Bernie Sanders, the new Senator from Vermont and one of the few American politicians in history to have survived publicly admitting to being a socialist, agrees that this peculiar demographic schism is a fundamental problem for the American political opposition.

“Unfortunately, today, when you talk about the ‘American left,’” he says, “as often as not you’re talking about wealthy folks who are concerned about the environment (which is enormously important) who are concerned about women’s rights (which are enormously important) and who are concerned about gay rights (which are enormously important).

“But you’re not really referring to millions of workers who have lost their jobs because of disastrous trade agreements,” he says. “You’re not talking about waitresses who are working for four bucks an hour.” As often as not, he says, you’re talking about “sophisticated people who have money.”

David Sirota, author of Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government – and How We Can Take it Back, is a guy who frequently appears on television news programs defending the “left” in TV’s typical Crossfire-style left-right rock-‘em-sock-‘em format. Like a lot of people who make their living in this world, he’s sometimes frustrated with the lack of discipline and purpose in American liberalism. And like Sanders, he worries that there is a wide chasm between the people who speak for the left and sponsor left-leaning political organizations, and the actual people they supposedly represent.

“Perhaps what the real issue is that the left is not really a grassroots movement,” he says. “You have this donor/elite class, and then you have the public . . . You have these zillionaires who are supposedly funding the progressive movement. At some point that gets to be a problem.”

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.”

This is another dirty little secret of the left – the fact that, at least when it comes to per-capita income, those interminable right-wing criticisms about liberals being “elitists” are actually true. According to a 2004 Pew report, Americans who self-identify as liberals have an average annual income of $71,000 – the highest-grossing political category in America. They’re also the best-educated class, with over one in four being post-graduates.

The same is true of the political media in Washington – not just the few journalists on the left, but all of the media. Reporters in Washington of both the liberal and conservative variety tend mostly to be interested in issues that they themselves care about, and as a result they end up defining the political landscape in terms of orthodoxies that make sense to them.

“With the media, it’s like, ‘Are you pro-choice? Yes? Then you’re a liberal.’ It’s bullshit,” scoffs Sanders. The senator went on to point out that a recent Senate hearing on veterans’ issues attracted over 500 angry war veterans – and no reporters. “It’s just not their thing,” he sighs.

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.

To them, the essentially patrician structure of the political left is mostly a logistical political problem, one that can theoretically be solved, as Sanders solved it in his state, by shunning corporate campaign donors, listening to voters again, and re-emphasizing working-class issues.

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.

“I share the position of a lot of those people, and some of that feel-good Bush-bashing is okay, I guess, but also – can I get some information here?” says Christian Parenti, a journalist who frequently writes for The Nation. “I think just reporting the facts can be enormously empowering, but there’s not enough of that. That moralistic thing . . . I think it’s something that’s built deep into the culture, not just on the left but everywhere.”

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. I’ve got no problem with long hair and weed and kids playing “Imagine” on acoustic guitars at peace marches. But we often make the mistake of thinking that the “revolution” of the sixties is something that rightly should continue on to today.

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. In the sixties, college kids had to fight for their right to refuse to become bankers, soldiers, plastics executives or whatever other types of dreary establishment lifestyles their parents were demanding for them. And because they had to fight that fight, the interests of white college kids were briefly and felicitously aligned with the blacks and the migrant farm workers and the South Vietnamese, who were also victims of the same dug-in, inflexible political establishment. Long hair, tie-dye and the raised black fist all had the same general message – screw the establishment. It was a sort of Marxian perfect storm where even the children of the bourgeoisie could semi-realistically imagine themselves engaged in a class struggle.

But American college types don’t have to fight for shit anymore. Remember the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill album? Remember that song “Fight for Your Right to Party”? Well, people, that song was a joke. So was “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “And the Cradle Will Rock.” 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.

That, in sum, is why I don’t call myself a liberal. 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.

In a few years it will be half a century since the 1960s began. The Baby-Boomer generation that shaped modern liberalism will soon be moving on to the nursing home, many of its battles – for civil, gay, immigrant and women’s rights, for workplace protections, and against the Vietnam war and Richard Nixon – already won. They did a lot of good things, but their fight doesn’t always make sense anymore. In any case, you can smell something new rising out of the mess in Iraq and the changed American labor market. From among the veterans of this new bad war and the refugees of the global economy, some kind of movement is bound to arise. Who knows what that will be called – but it’s safe to say it won’t be called liberalism.

The Analysis: Well the reaction to this was much better than the article itself. Blah blah blah, how dare you call us out! I know I’m rich and well-educated and I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to these sorts of things and darn-it, I like myself! But most importantly, I fucking care about people! And even better than caring, I pity them. I literally shit myself everytime I smell a poor person (ech! the stench!). Of course while it may provide a little fodder for the illiterate right, a little self-critique is good every now and again boys.

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  1. Every time I consider how negatively liberals are portrayed, I remind myself that anyone who cares enough about someones sexuality to prevent them from getting married having kids and joining the military-anyone who resorts to the violence of war before considering differences is a whiney pussy whose too fearful of a larger picture to open their fucking eyes.

    Being a liberal is about manning up.

  2. AlvinBlah says:

    but it’s true that the majority of liberals are made up of an elite base that spends more time worrying about fuel standards and not enough time worrying about how to get that family in a trailer home a better and cheaper way to get to work.

    There is a real disconnect between intellectual liberalism and the real world of hard broke living.

    I think that this article hits it spot on, there needs to be, not only a better reaching out to the majority of Americans, but better priorities with the issues. Liberals are a large mass of people that are politically active, however they are also self serving in their issues, and always forced into a reactionary corner.

    It does need to change.

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