jimsleeper.com » Why They Can’t Stop Flailing Ghosts of Left-Liberalism Past

Why They Can’t Stop Flailing Ghosts of Left-Liberalism Past

Nov 9, 2006

By Jim Sleeper | bio

As control of the Senate hung on the Virginia tally for a day after the election, no political analyst was going to belabor a race that was done and had nothing to do with Senate control, anyway — Sen. Joe Lieberman’s victory over Iraq war opponent Ned Lamont in Connecticut. Right?

Not right, if you’ve been following the continuing fulminations about Lamont by pundits such as David Brooks. Like a weather vane snapping back and forth in a storm, the wrenching, ongoing embarrassment of Brooks’ attempted public political makeover on the New York Times’ op ed page has produced wildly varied columns throughout the run-up to the election.

One column touted Barack Obama’s deliberative mind and Periclean prospects. Another defended Rick Santorum’s war on poverty and his own potential as a philosopher king: Santorum’s “discussion of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre… is as sophisticated as anything in Barack Obama’s recent book.”

Another Brooks column heralded the end of ideology and piously urged a new civility in public discourse, while yet another demonstrated Brooks’ own mastery of such discourse by characterizing Lamont’s “vicious,” “Sunni-Shiite style of politics,” whose “flamers… tell themselves their enemies are so vicious they have to be vicious, too.” And in Thursday’s election post-mortem, Brooks announced that Lieberman had “defeated the scion of the Daily Kos net roots, Ned Lamont.”

All this variety isn’t intelligent complexity, much less comity; it’s sophistry, driven by an odd desperation. Even the word “scion” is malicious: Lamont, the scion only of a formidable American civic-republican family tradition, was little-acquainted with bloggers and other activists who backed him.

What we have here is an obsession with more than Lamont. The Ghost of Left-Liberalism Past is what’s spooking aging neoconservative and liberal war-hawk pundits. They keep summoning it to displace a gnawing, growing anxiety borne of hypocrisies they dare not face in themselves: They’ve done a bit too well in corporate America as we know it now to challenge its increasingly swaggering and degrading seductions, its inequalities, and its outright scams. Yet they’re too well-intentioned to be comfortable defending it, either — except when they can find enemies and evils that are far worse, at home and abroad.

There are indeed such enemies, and how liberating it feels to find them! Fighting “the good fight” against Islamic fascism and its supposed domestic enablers, such as Michael Moore and Ned Lamont, excuses the critics from thinking too much about threats to the American republic and social justice coming from much closer to home.

Some of their targets do deserve criticism, indeed condemnation. Neo-cons and liberal hawks aren’t wrong to charge that the left’s economic determinism, false populism, and worse have sometimes undercut serious civic-republican challenges to the tawdry consumer marketing ethos in which we live and move and have our beings. Equally misguided (as I argued a decade ago in Liberal Racism) has been the inflated racial and sexual identity politics that collapsed struggles for justice into narrow group demands, which liberals tried to accommodate without really touching the deeper inequalities that now divide blacks from blacks and women from women, as well as blacks from whites, and women from men.

Yet however maladroit and politically self-destructive some left-liberal reactions to racism and inequality have been, they’ve been reactive, not causal. Focusing on them lets neo-cons and liberal-hawks off the hook for misconstruing the deeper causes of our national discontent and for missing the wellsprings of a stronger civic-republican center. Obsessing about what the late Michael Kelly called the left-liberal “sandalistas” is fundamentally a dodge. It only reinforces a taboo on criticizing new configurations of capital, employment and consumption that are eviscerating social trust. Tuesday’s vote was in part a protest against that evisceration, for which Republicans, their apologists and some Democratic fellow-travelers like Joe Lieberman bear a lot of responsibility and have no answers. To shout that most liberals have none, either, isn’t itself an answer.

Blaming liberals, liberals, liberals and the left remains these pundits’ first and last resort, though, and Lamont-bashing is only the most egregious recent instance of it. Three years ago, New Republic editor Peter Beinart led a pack of Iraq War supporters in bellowing that Michael Moore was more dangerous to the national anti-terrorist strategy than Donald Rumsfeld. More recently, some of the same savants cried that Harvard’s politically correct, self-protective academic faculty had martyred former Harvard President Lawrence Summers for trying to shake things up.

These were all anthropologically perfect reenactments of Salem witch-hunts of the 1690s, which (I am old enough to remember) enlisted the most prominent opinion-makers of that time in finding false targets for a community’s unexamined fears. Just as the “witches” then weren’t the real dangers to the Puritan settlement, the liberal academics at Harvard now aren’t the real threats to the academy; it wasn’t they who ousted Summers for turning liberal education into a game of money, marketing, and public perception. The New Republic’s Martin Peretz had a public meltdown over the alleged left-liberal subversion of Summers, and the Wall Street Journal’s fact-challenged editorial page likened Harvard’s faculty to the “People’s Congress at Pyongyang,” but hard reportage by Institutional Investor and Economicprincipals.com on Summers’ persistent flunking of Management 102 and Ethics 102 persuaded the high-capitalist Harvard Corporation to show him the door.

Similarly, the War on Terror has never been threatened by an anti-war movement, whether led by Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan or Ned Lamont, as much as it has been undermined by that war’s own architects and apologists. “The Good Fight” against terror isn’t selling because Beinart and others have distorted that undertaking badly. Lamont felt revolted enough by such nonsense and Lieberman’s truly awful record of supporting it to ignite the spark that changed the national conversation.

The war in Iraq certainly is different from the one in Vietnam, but not in the ways its apologists expected. Before its first shot was fired in 2003, they were assailing “deja-vu” dissenters who predicted reruns of Vietnam’s trumped-up pretexts, massive overkill, and bottomless quagmires. The Iraq war advocates squelched or deflected such dissent so effectively that they have made the war different in ways they didn’t intend. This time, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves when the Americans and half the Malaki government are helicoptered out of the Green Zone with the desert equivalent of Vietnam boat people clinging to their heels. This time, no antiwar movement will have “forced us to fight with one hand tied behind our backs,” as Vietnam war apologists charged. This time, no Jane Fonda will have gone to Saddam’s Baghdad to lend aid and comfort and or demoralize our troops in the field. This war’s masterminds and their pundit-cheerleaders have done all that themselves. Have they ever.

No wonder they have made Lamont the ghost of George McGovern, whom they saw as a dupe or front man for Very Bad People back in 1972. That ghost was summoned the day after Lamont’s Democratic primary victory by Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, son of two Chicago Democratic Party loyalists who’d backed McGovern. Many of McGovern’s supporters imposed identity politics on the party so fully that the columnist Mike Royko likened its new color-and-gender-coded delegate-selection rules, which nearly expelled white-ethnic men, to the regimen of a person who begins a diet by shooting himself in the stomach.

Royko had a point, and here I’ve always agreed with critics of left-liberal folly. Yet I couldn’t join Brooks, Weisberg, and others on Tuesday night in applauding the tableau of a victorious Joe surrounded by beefy, placard-bearing “Firefighters for Lieberman” (“We don’t forget our friends,” one said, recalling that Lieberman had increased their funding in good old party-machine fashion.) Even the pre-McGovern northern Democratic Party which the Lieberman tableau recalled so romantically had betrayed the country in 1968 by defending a hideous war conceived and run by “tough liberal” Democrats. Like Peter Beinart now, those “tough” liberals had been eager to prove that they could fight a grave threat abroad — world Communism, whose Vietnam victory’s subsequent absorption into world Capitalism rather makes you wonder why we sacrificed 50,000 American lives fighting Ho Chi Minh in the first place.

Since the War on Terror is indeed different from the one in Vietnam, Lamont supporters have protested it and its Iraq miscarriage very differently from the way anti-war movement of the 1960s and ‘70s protested. But that hasn’t stopped Weisberg from invoking McGovern’s ghost or Brooks from claiming that Lamont supporters “rationalize their behavior by insisting that circumstances have forced them to shelve their integrity for the good of the country.”

When someone writes this way without realizing how accurately he is describing himself, he certainly isn’t going to inform his readers that Lamont lost mainly because most Republicans voted for Lieberman — who estimates that 75 percent of his voters were either unaffiliated or Republican — and that, even so, Lamont carried Connecticut’s largest, poorest and least-white cities against Lieberman overwhelmingly: Hartford by more than two to one, Bridgeport by nearly two to one, New Haven by three to two. Is that a Net roots triumph? Hardly. Does Brooks’ “comic sociology” hold the answer? Silence.

Gazing intently instead into the rear-view mirrors of their historical imaginations, Brooks et al saw nothing in Lamont’s insurgency but Vietnam-era or Sunni lunacy. That helped them not to notice that they’ve bloodied themselves up to their elbows in a lunacy of their own, a web of assumptions, rationalizations, lies, and alarums that’s unraveling like their commentary. That’s why Brooks — who urged us last spring to give up “parlor purity” and meet “savagery with savagery” in Iraq, where insurgents “create an environment in which it is difficult to survive if you are decent” — could see nothing in Lamont’s insurgency but nihilists who “tell themselves their enemies are so vicious they have to be vicious, too.”

But who set up this hall of mirrors in the first place? Who, trapped in their own illogic and then their belated discovery that the world is a place too hard for Wilsonian idealism, wound up in the arms of a Senator who’d gone hook, line, and sinker with the Bush National Security Strategy? It’s time these scribblers stopped peddling the line that Lamont was the candidate of Moore, Al Sharpton, and Moveon.org That’s not who he is or ever was, and it’s not what 40 percent of Connecticut voters endorsed. Brooks, Beinart, and Weisberg should avoid a post-mortem account that insults Lamont and his supporters by reducing them to the demons in their own fevered imaginations.


On November 10, 2006 – 4:40am moshplant said:

If the idiots who supported the Vietnam War in the 1960s had realized their misstake and changed course, there would have been no take-over of the Democratic Party. McGovern was right about Vietnam.

And despite how people like Beinart cover their ears and close their eyes, McGovern was right about Iraq, too. A week after Colin Powell lied to the UN Security Council about how the US knew Iraq had WMDs, McGovern was interviewed by Judy Woodruff on CNN (http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0302/13/ip.00.html) and said:

You know, I think most people would agree that had it not been for that 9/11 attack, we wouldn’t even be here talking about Saddam Hussein. The irony of that is that he had nothing to do that with that attack. Iraq had nothing to do with it. This was Osama bin Laden’s. He was the mastermind. He planned it, and his al Qaeda network, that little band of desert radical young men that he’s assembled. So I don’t see the connect between that and this march to war in Iraq. And I disagree with the president. I don’t think Iraq is a threat to the most mighty military power in the history of the world.


On November 10, 2006 – 6:50pm madison idea said:

Great post

On November 10, 2006 – 2:55pm Voice said:

Beautifully articulated, Jim.
Thank you.

On November 10, 2006 – 2:56pm Karen444 said:

Would that we had a way out of Iraq like we had in Vietnam where we could just hand the mess over to the North and leave. The American public will not go along with an invasion and regime change of Iran, resulting in occupation of Iran. Our leaders are going to wind up having to deal with the Iranians, after demonizing them.

On November 10, 2006 – 3:08pm Bill Section 147 said:

So good I am going to have to print it out and re-read it the old fashioned way so I can highlight it and digest it all.

What a pleasure to actually read something thoughtfully written.

On November 10, 2006 – 3:29pm kenfair said:

I believe it was Digby who summarized this best as “an irrational fear of hippies.” And clearly, David Brooks is one of its most afflicted victims.

On November 10, 2006 – 4:44pm kj said:

I’m pretty sure that David Brooks is the product of two Manhattan hippie parents.  I remember him talking about it at a forum of some sort once.  I guess he’s still chasing those ghosts, trying his best to prove his parent’s wrong.

On November 10, 2006 – 4:09pm SteinL said:

David Brooks is desperate. Ever since they introduced Times Select, he’s been at the bottom of the pile in reads among the columnist “elite” there, and he rarely appears on the list of columnists whose entries are e-mailed to others.

He’s been trying to have it both ways to woo readers, before the editors figure out how irrelevant his voice is.

On November 10, 2006 – 4:53pm jimpol said:

Great piece, well written

On November 10, 2006 – 6:45pm bluebell said:

I can’t figure how they can obsess on CT without noticing that the 51st Democrat in Senate comes from Rhode Island and if that wasn’t an anti-war vote I don’t know what was!

Plus, these neo-cons types purely do not understand the Midwest either. The war is not popular out here in cities, suburbs or rural areas. Patriotic types may put out the flag and support the troops and enlist in the National Guard but they do it to defend their own country not to advance some ideologue’s utopian agenda.

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On November 10, 2006 – 7:39pm chancellor said:

A first class piece of writing. I’ve been aware that many in the neo-con pundit class are still trying to link Lamont and George McGovern, but, of course, this is nonsense. If one really chooses to select that analogy, it is Cindy Sheehan who played the role of George McGovern to Ned Lamont’s modern day Robert F. Kennedy. There hasn’t been anyone since the Kennedys to muster fanatical loyalty the way Ned Lamont has. For someone who came of age during the Kennedy era, there were even some eerie moments when Ned Lamont sounded exactly like John F. Kennedy–from his accent to the way he delivered a sentence in a speech. It must drive Brooks crazy that the NYT endorsed Lamont. It’s clear he still hasn’t gotten over it.

On November 10, 2006 – 8:14pm DanielGree said:

There is no doubt that David Brooks has an axe to grind against the very educationed upper middle class. He regularly goes after those he believes speaks for them and who ignore those who live in what once were called the edge cities.

However it, Jim, that you have your own scores to settle. You spend at least as much effort attacking Peter Beinart as David Brooks. As best as I can tell Beinart was largely right about Michael Moore. He over state Moores importance.

At one level the group that controls American politics wants to refight the 1960s. I recommend E.J. Dionne’s book “Why Americans Hate Politics. ” Obviously the Osama Bin Ladens aren’t the Soviet Union and the United States is much more powerful now than it was in the 1960s and the world is actual agreement with the United States far more now, Iraq excepted, than ever before.

You did not address the question of Lamont successfully winning over the bloggers and other anti-war Democrats but unable to carry one of the bluest of states. Was this just inexperience or did this election not hinge on only one issue?

Daniel A. Greenbaum