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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Monday, 4 April 2005

Topic: For policy wonks...

Liberal Wimps: The Allure of Calm Reasoning With the Powerful Right

A friend from undergraduate days sent me this –

Goodbye to All That
Kevin Mattson, The America Prospect, Web Exclusive: 03.28.05

Synopsis? The spirit of '68 still lives on in some quarters of the left. Too bad -- there are much more effective ways to be an opposition party than by reliving the past.

In it Mattson comments on the Mark Kurlansky book 1968: The Year that Rocked the World and the allure of those days: “People under twenty-five do not have much influence in the world. But it is amazing what they can do if they are ready to march.” Breaking from the limitations of the sidewalk into the streets now conjures a feeling of exhilaration and radical accomplishment.

Yeah, yeah. And as for 1968 -
Authenticity of the self and actually living in a democratic community with other citizens who hold varying opinions are two very different -- if not, in fact, irreconcilable -- demands. In Chicago, the two ideals clashed, and authenticity won out. Protesters pitted themselves against the inauthentic masses -- the police, those who believed in the Vietnam War, the “pigs.” When this occurred, participatory democracy no longer supplemented representative democracy but replaced it; authenticity displaced the challenge of deliberating with other citizens who might disagree. To be authentic meant to give direct expression to desire rather than to work through a longer process of changing representative institutions. It focused on what George Cotkin, the historian of American existentialism, called “catharsis.”
Dense prose, but you get the idea.

Mattson suggests we go back to 1948 –
Younger thinkers today are going further back than the ’60s to rediscover good ideas. It’s been the Cold War liberalism of the ’40s and ’50s that has garnered the most interest. Books like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s The Vital Center or Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History or John Kenneth Galbraith’s American Capitalism seem much more interesting than The Making of a Counter Culture. There’s good reason for this, because though we might feel closer to the ’60s chronologically, our own age is much more parallel to the ’40s. Then, as now, liberals faced an international enemy -- Niebuhr’s “children of darkness” -- willing to murder for salvation. Then, as now, liberals confronted conservatives who entertained dangerous ideas of launching preemptive wars abroad while slashing social programs at home. And, if we take the ’48ers up to 1952 and the election of JFK in 1960, then, as now, liberals were often an opposition party.

The ’48ers knew they had to articulate a public philosophy, the way conservatives would later. They sketched out broad principles that transcended liberal interest groups. Those principles grew out of their faith in the American nation as a community of citizens sharing mutual obligations to one another -- the sort that they saw during World War II and that they hoped could live on afterward. The ideas of national greatness and patriotism grounded their political thought. They upheld a public purpose that highlighted the weaknesses of the libertarian right and led them to criticize the “social imbalance” of a society enamored of consumerism and markets, and not America’s civic fabric. Politically, they supported the idea of a “pluralist” government with many voices participating, not just those of business and privilege. They wanted influence on the inside, not protest from the outside. In The Vital Center, Schlesinger wrote, “Our democratic tradition has been at its best an activist tradition. It has found its fulfillment, not in complaint or in escapism, but in responsibility and decision.”

The ’48ers, so far as I know, never marched against American actions abroad. What they did do was construct a framework for a liberal foreign policy, a robust alternative to conservative emphasis on military action and “rolling back” the enemy.
Okay, fine. If there is an opposition it needs to get serious and patriotic. Got it.

So forget 1968.
Instead of embracing those styles from the past, liberals should take their lessons from the right during the 1960s. Liberals will never be as powerful as the right. That’s not just because the right is richer but because the liberal faith is, by definition, weaker. Unlike evangelical Christianity, liberalism can never provide absolute zeal or commitment. We can draw some inspiration from the “fighting faith” of the ’48ers’ liberalism, but we also face challenges that they never faced, especially the infrastructure the right has built over the last few decades. With this said, liberals don’t need to be as weak as they are now. We need not recycle protest and alienation from the past. Liberals have been in the opposition before, and they’ve managed to win back political power. But it took care and precision and some serious thinking about strategy. That’s our charge today.
Is it?

From Saturday, 24 April 2004 see this in these pages - a comment on the Mark Kurlansky book. (And a brief review here from January 25, 2004)

As I said then, I guess this is a book for the old folks, those of us who remember 1968 as a strange year. I was a junior in college in the middle of Ohio. The Vietnam War was raging. Home in Pittsburgh in August I remember I was driving my nutty uncle somewhere or other and on the radio we heard the first reports of the Soviet tanks rolling into Prague. The Prague Spring was over, and he was so angry he was purple - his side of the family was Czech and my father's side Slovak. The elegant, soft-spoken Dubcek was out. The Soviets were back. One minor thing.

January, the International Cultural Congress in Cuba and the beginning of the apotheosis of Che Guevera. Revolution in the air. April 4, 1968 - King was assassinated. May - the student uprising in Paris. June 5th, 1968 - Bobby Kennedy assassinated. Then the Democratic Convention in Chicago with Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies and Mayor Daley and his police. …

Those days are gone.

We need to make ideas resonate?

I doubt that can be done. “Liberals will never be as powerful as the right. That’s not just because the right is richer but because the liberal faith is, by definition, weaker.”

Yep. But maybe a bit of passion might help.

Digby over at Hullabaloo is more blunt here -
I don't know who this group of hippie protester strawmen are in Kevin Mattson's cautionary tale in this months Prospect, but I've not had the pleasure. I don't think there exists a vast number of nostalgic baby boomers and utopian youngsters out there who are planning to launch another Summer of Love, unless he's specifically talking about the anti-Iraq war protests, which of course, he is, but won't admit it. That's because those war protesters weren't trying to hop on a nostalgic magic carpet ride back to the days of Hanoi Jane, they were participating in a worldwide protest about a very specific unjust war being launched by an illegitimate president --- a war which the "fighting liberals" like he and Peter Beinert foolishly endorsed. I suppose the fact that millions of people all over the globe also marched merely means that they too were recreating the alleged glory days of People's Park.
Ah, that’s harsh, but true. There are some new specifics here now, and all that recent anti-war stuff wasn’t nostalgia.

Digby thinks Mattson is clueless -
My instinctive reaction to this entire line of paranoid ramblings about the wild and crazy lefites making a big scene and ruining everything is that if this guy thinks that a bloodless, wonkish liberalism is ever going to compete with the right wing true believers he's got another thing coming. American liberalism grew out of a passionate progressivism and a worldwide union movement, both of which featured plenty of "protest politics" in their day. And if he thinks that the modern GOP's political might hasn't drawn much of its power from pulpits and talk radio demagoguery, then he hasn't been paying attention. Nobody does political theatre better than the right wing.

… The author fails to realize, however, that just as the rabble on the right took to the airwaves, the rabble on the left is taking to cyberspace. This ain't no hippie protest movement, dude. It's as modern as modern can get.

People need to feel things about politics, not just think. It's a grave mistake for political types to insult and marginalize those who have passion and wish to express that publicly. These jittery fellows who are so afraid of "the left's" overheated energy need to remember that their golden post war age was populated by a people who had just been through a crushing economic upheaval and a cataclysmic war. They were willingly docile and conformist for good reason. Don't expect that to be present in other circumstances in a thriving democracy. It isn't natural nor should it be desired. It only lasted a very brief time even then.
Ah, so much for opposing the Bush wars, and all the rest, with dispassionate, patriotic thoughtfulness.

And why dismiss that?
All the wonky goodness in the world doesn't necessarily translate into votes. You've got to resonate on a deeper level with people and while I appreciate the need for an elegant foreign policy argument, I frankly wonder if this public wonkfest isn't just going to reinforce the Republican image of us as a bunch of weenies. In today's political climate nothing spells defeat for Democrats more than the image of a bunch of fey, ivory tower eggheads running the military.
Agreed. And yes, “it's ridiculous to completely place the Republicans as some sort of calm, reasonable suburbanites in contrast to us crazed extremists on the left then or now.”

So, more craziness is called for? Not exactly. Try more passion.

And there’s the history of the thing -
These critics of the unwashed rabble just can't seem to recognize that with great prosperity and political power the time had come for liberalism to act on its long overdue responsibility to fully extend the rights and responsibilities of the American experiment to women and racial minorities --- to use, as Dear Leader would say, its political capital. The social changes that were ratified in the 60's and 70's were arguably more important to the lives of more than 50% of Americans than anything that had happened in the previous century. That's not hyperbole. The women's rights movement alone is one of the greatest progressive leaps forward in human history.

My 36 year old mother couldn't get a mortgage in her own name in 1955. She had to have her father sign the papers. Birth control was illegal in many parts of the country until 1965. Women were routinely denied slots in education and were openly and without shame discriminated against in employment. African Americans, we all know, could be denied the right to enter even public buildings in many areas of the country until 1964. Their "right" to vote was a joke. I needn't even mention the fact that they were dismissed socially as second class citizens without a moment's thought by very large numbers of Americans until quite recently.

That is the world that the "fighting liberals" were protecting. And that is the world that was changed irrevocably during this allegedly frivolous time of liberal protest politics in 1960's. And it was done though the means that this writer seems to find so distasteful -- while he perfunctorily agrees that the ends were all in all a good thing. I'm sorry if all those changes subsequently made it difficult for policy wonks to make a good national security argument, but you know, tough shit. Sometimes you have to do hard things and there is often a price to pay for it.
How do the words go?
Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrive !
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L'etendard sanglant est leve !

Aux armes, citoyens !

Tremblez, tyrans et vous perfides,
L'opprobre de tous les partis,
Tremblez !
Oops! Wrong national anthem, of course.

But Digby has a point about the passions running high in 1968 - some things got changed for the better -
You don't make radical quantum leaps in social equality without there being a reaction. The reverberations of all of that are still being felt in the culture wars of today and it has made things difficult for Democratic party politics. However, the energetic political activism of the 60's resulted in tangible, everyday improvement in the lives of vast numbers of Americans who fought for and won the right to be equal under the law in this country. That betterment of real people's lives is what liberalism is supposed to be about.

The lauded "fighting foreign policy liberals" of the 50's were the dying dinosaurs of an establishment that was rapidly losing its energy in a stable, wealthy, globally dominant America. As the writer acknowledges, it was quite easy for them to ride the back of the liberal consensus because they were the inheritors of it -- a condition that does not exist today. It's harder now. That's the reality that we are facing.
So it’s harder now. Fine.

But as Digby says - We don't do nostalgia. Let's leave that to Pat Buchanan.

And I don’t remember 1968 being a particularly fine year. And that was a long time ago.

Posted by Alan at 20:38 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
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