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WHAT IS LIBERALISM?


Edward S. Herman

In

a May 22 editorial in the liberal The American Prospect (TAP), which he edits

along with Paul Starr, Robert Kuttner lauds radicals, for keeping moral demands

to the fore and for pioneering on major issues that were central to democratic

advance (as in the struggle against slavery). In his editorial, entitled

"Why Liberals Need Radicals," he notes that "nearly every great

social justice movement was initiated by radicals before it became safe for

liberals." It is radicals who "push out the boundaries of the

possible….In a ferociously capitalist society, liberals in government and

politics need pressure from radicals." Kuttner notes that radicals

"are more likely to appreciate the political dynamics of capitalism as an

obstacle to the reforms that liberals would like to carry out." And he

admits that "Neoliberals are often too quick to accommodate to power."

But

Kuttner nevertheless declares himself to be a liberal, and asks "Why, then,

publish a self-consciously liberal journal? Why not just join the

radicals?" His answer is as follows: "Too many radicals think that

most ills in the world can be traced to the United States of America. On

balance, I consider the United States — its Constitution, its political

liberties, the economic opportunities it offers, and its openness to invention

and reform — a force for good in the world. America needs redemption, not

contempt. Radicals, as zealots, are often demagogues and dictators when they

attain power. Too many have excused dictatorships that brutally ruled in the

name of workers."

Kuttner

does not explain why he couldn’t be one of the radicals who DON’T blame the

United States for all the world’s ills and apologize for dictators, but who

believe that "redemption" requires fundamental change. He seems to be

illustrating his own observation that liberals are not able "to appreciate

the dynamics of capitalism as an obstacle to the reforms" liberals claim to

want, and their ready accommodation to power. But it is also clear from the

statement, with its patriotic double standard, that he feels that the status quo

is pretty good and that U.S. foreign policy is more than acceptable, even if

some marginal changes might be desirable. Perhaps this is the defining quality

of liberalism.

Kuttner

berates radicals for excusing dictatorships "ruled in the name of

workers," but the fact that the United States has supported numerous

dictatorships "ruled in the service of transnational corporations" he

glosses over with vague rhetoric about "on balance…a force for

good." He confuses the internal freedom of the United States with what it

does abroad, and even as regards U.S. internal affairs he is awfully complacent

about "political liberties," "economic opportunities" and

"openness" to reform. Radicals might be concerned that plutocracy had

eroded those political liberties and reform possibilities, and that the ongoing

racist reaction and the increased power of police and moves toward a law and

order state designed to control rather than serve the poor and minorities are

ugly and ominous. But Kuttner mentions only the positives without any

qualification.

Kuttner

pats the WTO and IMF protestors on the back for making global issues debatable.

"Defenders of the prevailing global order now feel compelled to offer

decent space to dissenters. Even The New Republic, as the saying goes, published

World Bank dissenter Joe Stiglitz." This grossly exaggerates the openness

of the media to dissenters on global issues. Stiglitz is part of an

establishment that has its own tactical dissenters, and their access does not

extend to those with radical messages. Radical messages are still almost

inaudible. In their treatment of the Washington protests, the media’s defense of

the police, hostility to the oppositional forces, and huge skewing of the debate

on substantive issues, was a throwback to their pro-NAFTA crusade of 1993-1994.

As Rachel Coen points out in her analysis of the media’s coverage of the

Washington actions, "the small broadening of coverage was accompanied by a

formidable backlash on op-ed pages, and by a rash of reports more interested in

tittering at activists’ fashion sense than in examining their politics"

("Police Militarize D.C., Media Provide Cover Story," EXTRA!, July

2000 [forthcoming]). A similar massive bias has characterized the media’s

handling of the current debate over the granting of Permanent Normal Trade

Relations to China, where the media have once again manned the barricades in

service to corporate community demands.

Despite

this deep apologetic thrust, Kuttner’s own journal TAP has had many good

articles opposing the ongoing conservative revolution and sometimes even

assailing the Clinton abuses and contributions to the erosion of the welfare

state. The journal generally eschews foreign policy issues, however, although

the Kosovo war impelled co-editor Paul Starr to put up a crude apologetic for

the U.S. and NATO actions ("The Choice in Kosovo," July-August 1999).

Interestingly, TAP refused to publish a letter of criticism I wrote on the Starr

position, as well as at least one other critical letter. (It also refused to

publish a letter criticizing Kuttner’s "21-Gun Salute" to the retiring

William Buckley, who according to Kuttner has been a "role model" in

both openness and success in demonstrating "the power of ideas" [Jan.

3, 2000]; an editorial that demonstrated Kuttner’s integration into the

mainstream power structure rather more tellingly than the "power of

ideas").

So

TAP doesn’t feel any compulsion on its own part to offer "decent space to

dissenters" on something like the Kosovo war or an accolade to William

Buckley. Its editor may claim to need radicals, but perhaps more in historical

retrospect, honoring their leadership in former battles, rather than in allowing

them to contest and debate the liberal apologetics of today! But it is good to

know that the struggles of our ancestors are respected.

 

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