On Liberals

I might as well just admit it: I can’t stand liberals.  

Recently a regular reader wrote me to ask if I really disliked “liberals” and Democrats as much as “conservatives” and Republicans. The reader noticed that I had written numerous essays highly critical of Democratic politicians and the “liberal” New York Times, even going so far as to criticize such supposed “progressive” icons as Times columnist Bob Herbert and supposed “liberal” savior Barack Obama. “What’s up with you?,” the reader wrote. “A lot of us progressives get frustrated with those sorry  Democrats but isn’t it still the conservative Republicans who pose the greatest danger to peace and justice at home and abroad?”     

My response started off easily enough.  I pointed to numerous pieces I’d done against Bush and other Republicans and noted that I’d criticized the in-power right more frequently than Democrats. I reminded my correspondent that I had counseled leftists to vote against Bush (and thus “for” Kerry) in contested states in 2004, arguing that Kerry may have been corporate neoliberal Coke but the messianic militarist Cheney-Bush cabal was hyper-plutocratic, fundamentalist, and proto-fascistic Crack.  

I observed that many Democrats, including Obama,  aren't terribly “liberal” (much less “left”) and steer down the corporate-neoliberal center. By the same token, I argued that Republicans have been advancing radically reactionary, repressive, and regressive policies for some time now and are therefore not really  “conservative.”

I suggested that part of the problem is proximity. Radical democratic leftists tend to tangle more in their daily experience with liberals and Democrats than with “conservatives” and Republicans.  We’re upset that our submissions are not given a chance and that our books are not reviewed at The Nation, The New Yorker, and The New York Times‘ and the Washington Post’s opinion-editorial pages, not at National Review, New Republic, Commentary, The Weekly Standard or the Wall Street Journal.  We wouldn’t bother to submit to the latter outlets. 

We apply for and get rejected for jobs at the Economic Policy Institute or the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, not the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.   

We feel frozen out of PBS and NPR, where the world’s leading intellectual, who happens to be a U.S. citizen (Noam Chomsky) is considered too far left to be interviewed.  It wouldn’t enter our minds to feel frozen out of Fox News or the Rush Limbaugh Show.  

If you are a radical historian, English professor or sociologist catching Hell for alleged politically incorrect behavior (like advocating American withdrawal from illegally occupied Iraq or something like that) within or beyond the classroom, the chances are pretty good that you are hearing it from a liberal and Democratic department chairman..  There aren’t very many Republicans in the liberal arts and humanities since most self-respecting Republicans with a professor’s skills (such as they are) would be using them to get rich in business and/or law.

When a radical’s applications for academic positions are rejected out of hand because they have a record (a defacto FELONY record as far as “higher education” hiring committees are concerned )of  explicitly left and political publications, chances are it’s liberals who throw the blacklisted vita into the “Do Not Consider” pile. Why would the nice little liberal professors want to complicate their lovely little bargain  – lifetime job security, reasonable (in some cases lucrative) incomes, and significantly “self-directed” (though rampantly self-censored) work in return for agreeing to leave established institutions and hierarchies substantively unchallenged and following innocuous, power-worshipping research and teaching agendas (yes, there are exceptions) – by bringing on board someone who promises to profess against concentrated power and the interrelated evils of Empire and Inequality, Inc….and make them look rather boring and Uncle-Tom-like along the way?.

If you are too radical for your bosses and/or funders in a labor union or civil rights organization or nonprofit social service and/or advocacy organization, you get the riot act read to you (and have your job security threatened) by liberal-Democratic coordinators, not Republican superiors.    

It’s “liberals” and Democrats, not “conservatives” and Republicans who police the leftmost boundaries of acceptable discourse and behavior in the academic, media, activist and nonprofit worlds.

This is part of why a lot of us radical sorts seem to dislike “liberals” and Democrats more than we hate and fear Republicans and “conservatives.”  It’s a problem of immediacy and a related issue of subordination.  If we worked under the supervision and closer to the far right authoritarians then we’d probably be more worked up about the Republicans than we already are.

But thinking about all this, I still had to catch myself.  My special distaste for liberals and Democrats isn’t just about closeness and power within the various liberal-run institutions I’ve inhabited over the years.   It’s also about honesty and straight shooting. 

Liberals would like this —  it fits their tendency to lump left radicals together with the right (as two peas in the same fanatical and overly "ideological" pod) — but I've long tended to get along better with Republicans and "conservatives" (with the crucial exception a particular and rare kind of Republican: the ex-leftist turned reactionary) than with "liberals" and Democrats.

I’ve found Republicans more willing than Democrats to appreciate hearing a talk or even taking a class from an openly left and anti-capitalist speaker or teacher.  They tend not to mind a presenter or professor who takes an openly political, forceful, and confident position about past and current events.  They tend to agree on the basic nature of the underlying socioeconomic systemic: rapacious, selfish, business-dominated, exploitative, oppressive, racist, militaristic and imperialistic state capitalism crafted for and by the privileged few – the difference (yes, it's a big one) being that they want to get rich under that system and I want to overthrow it.  They don’t mind conflict – open, honest, and forthright contestation about basics. When they disagree they do so openly, honestly, and (usually) respectfully and don’t act as if I were a threat to everything decent on earth.

Things have been different with liberals. They’ve tended to be very uneasy with the taking of open, confident, forceful and unambiguous positions.  They recoil and shrink from honest and forthright discussion of the dominant, underlying system and its   terrible imperatives, insisting on trying to put some sort of human face on horrific structures: Neoliberalism/State-Capitalism Lite; Racism/White-Supremacy Lite; Imperialism/Militarism Lite; Nationalism Lite; Ghettoization and Mass Incarceration Lite; Sexism Lite, etc. They warn about the horrors of “extremism” – one of their favorite words to describe the left project of furthering the ideals of classic liberalism by advocating true social justice (literal equality) and radical-democratic transformation.  

“Liberals” are looking for a squishy, nauseating middle-ground that neither radicals nor “conservatives” care to waste time with.  They are trying to square a circle. They seem more interested in preventing and containing conflict than in having an open confrontation about things that matter.  They aren’t straight shooters.  They’re trying to have their cake and it too.  If you want to see what I’m talking about, read Obama’s recent, sickening book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream” (New York, 2006) – a ponderous monument to centrist “pragmatic” wisdom and related personal political ambition.  Audacity is a very slippery book and a tough read for a very obvious reason: it is dedicated to convincing “progressives” that the Overnight BaRockstar is one of them while simultaneously reassuring the dominant policy and funding establishments and political class that he will never act to challenge existing class, race, and imperial hierarchies.  It just slogs from one “on the one hand” to the next “on the other hand” until your eyes glaze over and – if you are a left radical – you want to ring the author’s neck until he learns how to… shoot straight and take an honest position.  It’s a terrible and reactionary book.    

Liberals substantively reject you while seeming to half accept you (see the way the “crank” Frederick Douglass is treated in Aduacity, p 97, consistent with Obama’s recent dismissal of Paul Wellstone as a “gadfly”). Of course, Republicans don't worry about being morally and politically outflanked on the radical left, of course. Liberals feel their position, status, and moral standing endangered by a radicals' approach in a way that “conservatives” never do.

In my experience at least – and it’s an especially bad one – liberals don’t disagree in an open, candid, or respectful fashion.  Their repsonse is often very passive-aggressive and therefore all the more dangerous.  They will knife a radical in the back with one long arm while smiling and shaking your hand with their short arm.They're duplicitous; two-faced.

Meanwhile and partly as a consequence of the way they mistreat radicals, “liberals” deeply accommodate and enable the Radical [-ly Regressive/Repressive] Republicans at whom they expect radicals to direct all our anger. Just look at the long record of ostensibly “liberal’ Democratic House and Senate votes on behalf of such atrocious policies as the invasion of Iraq, the No Child Left Behind Act, the Patriot Act, the Supreme Court appointments of Roberts and Alito, the appointment of mendacious war criminal Condaleeza (Chevron) Rice to (of all things) Secretary of State,  tax “reform,” “tort reform” and much more.   

There’s much less straight shooting with “liberals”/ Democrats than with "conservatives"/Republicans in my experience at least. The former are so busy trying to coopt, marginalize, evade, contain, soothe, and quietly triangulate and strangle you that substantive discussion ends.  But that’s part of their “good cop” job in the rapacious system they claim to be “moderating” and humanizing.

Thinking about my many years of working in proximity to contemporary “liberals” reminds me of the “relief” that Martin Luther King, Jr. felt when he returned to the Deep South after spending a year fighting racial segregation and inequality in the “liberal” North. More than simply showing “the South in the North,” King’s courageous campaign against the ghettoes of Chicago helped expose a distinctly Northern apartheid and oppression which functioned in a more insidiously covert fashion than Dixie's bigoted version.  Thus it was that, on returning to the South in late 1966, King “described regional differences as subtle but important.” It was “a relief in some respects,” King's biographer Taylor Branch notes, “for him to return to the clarity of outspoken segregationists in the Deep South.”  As King wrote in response to “moderate” white clergy’s criticism of his use of direct action techniques to fight segregation in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963: “I must confess over the last few years…I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”  It's like I've heard Chomsky say in discussing some perfidious comment or action of an outwardly “liberal” Democratic politician or commentator like a Thomas Friedman or an Obama: “just give me a straight-up reactionary.”   

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