Saturday, September 20, 2008

Why are there liberals?

Of course, liberals will be appalled and offended at the question. One may as well ask, they will say, why are there trees or clouds or people. And why are there conservatives? But their genuflections before the child-king do, ah, render them culpable to a little friendly curiosity.

Call me a slow learner, but I have only just in the last week listened to Rush Limbaugh's radio show for the first time, Rush ("talent on loan from God") who has been on the air for who knows how many years. Though repetitive, it is great fun, even downright addictive. But I can't listen to it at work because I suspect it would drive customers away. The people who buy wine would probably tend not to want to hear Rush eviscerating the Messiah, Lord Obama, on entering their quiet and good-smelling domain. And therein lies a tale.

Rush likes to try to explain liberals, as do other media figures of his stamp -- Jonah Goldberg in Liberal Fascism, or most of the fun people contributing to the site for example --
in a variety of ways. I've been collecting "tropes" on the subject. One of the latest, from Thomas Sowell, suggests that liberals tend to be sheltered and petted souls, celebrities, highly paid journalists, federal judges, big important professors, "or what have you," who have never matured and lived a life of painful trade-offs and disappointments out in the real world. Year to year survival is not their concern, so they can devote themselves to Obama-esque abstractions which they fancy should make life better, more just, for the little people who they dimly realize are busy, not with abstractions, but with surviving. They rarely meet anyone unlike themselves, but they tend to live in big, bustling urban areas and this fosters within them the illusion that they are at the vital center of things.

That's one of the friendlier tropes. A less kind one is that liberals, especially Obama, are all frankly socialists or Marxists who know exactly what they are about, are outraged by "inequality," and desire the personal power to redeem this flawed world by recreating the United States as another Cuba, living out the Marxist abstractions of From Each According to his Ability, To Each According to his Need, and Jail for Those who Disagree or would like to keep their own Money or manage their own Property. Or not be taxed to death. ...or they may just want power.

A third trope is that liberals, especially intellectuals and artists, despise American "exceptionalism," for whatever reasons shuddering at the possibility that the country's founding on individual freedoms protected by a government deriving its authority from the consent of the governed, has indeed fostered the nation's peace and well being. Liberal intellectuals would much rather feel, according to this trope, that any nation's well-being comes from obedience to brilliant Them.

Want more? Yet another explanation for Why Liberals Exist -- moving down the ladder from celebrities and academics -- is simply that the core constituencies believe as they are told. Burt Prelutsky, one of the fun people contributing to TownHall, said this. Poorer blacks, he thinks, accept that government must solve their problems and create a better world (with other people's tax money) because they've been told for decades that this is so. Middle class blacks accept it because their ministers tell them to. Jews accept the idea of the regulatory nurse-state "helping" people because this sounds like social justice, and social justice is most religious Jews' substitute for Judaism; for non-religious Jews, social justice, a la the Democratic party, is religion.

These are all interesting ideas -- tropes, what an intellectual word -- but they don't necessarily fit the nice liberals who enter the wine shop, for the sake of whose feelings I hit the "Mute" button while I'm listening to Rush. I've heard them. Nice people. They say, smiling:

Oh ... we're not the type to listen to that station. Without going crazy ....
Oh, I can't wait to listen to the speeches tonight. The governor of a five-and-dime state, who will be president when a seventy-two year old, cancer-ridden ....
Heh ... we just got back from Alaska. Gas there is the most expensive in the country. She didn't do much about that, did she, while she was 'reforming'....
...and if you're a conservative, and always setting yourself up as better than other people, how do you have a pregnant teen daughter? Shouldn't your values have affected your family in some way?

These are nice, ordinary Americans who are neither isolated intellectuals nor movie stars nor highly paid smug journalists nor flat-out Marxists. They are not necessarily blacks or Jews. One was a woman. They are of all age ranges. Their loathing for Sarah Palin is visceral. Equally so is their continuing excitement, turning fierce now that he seems to be in trouble in the polls, about Obama. A few weeks before Palin arrived on the scene, one young white man bought a bottle of champagne the morning that the Senator was officially to cinch the nomination at the Democratic national convention. "Me and my friends have been waiting a long time for this," he said. He couldn't possibly have explained what. It's visceral.

No, none of the above proffered explanations for "why there are liberals" fit them. They, of course, would say Well of course we're liberals. Decent people are.

So I've spent some time thinking about what I can add to the collection of ideas, based on what I see and hear. Great big important explanations stretching back toward history or philosophy or economics don't seem to fit my nice customers either. Choosing one of two basic beliefs about human nature -- either that it can change and improve through enlightenment and forward thinking, or that it remains forever flawed and in need of guidance by tradition and experience -- is not something they have consciously done. Apparently no community college professor ever startled them at nineteen with the pronouncement "You can have either freedom or equality, you can't have both," prompting them to choose their political affiliations accordingly. They don't see themselves as bought off by Franklin Roosevelt, who created the American welfare (more taxes) state in the 1930s, (says Rush) so as to permanently bind the American people to the Democratic party as clients rather than as free citizens responsible for themselves. They don't fret about being classic liberals ("hooray for the free market") or Progressives ("you must reduce your carbon footprint for the good of all, and if you don't we'll make it a law").

The good people who come into my wine shop are simply emotional liberals. They are as rock-ribbed Americans as "the conservatives." They work hard, are good neighbors, watch football, pay their taxes, eat and sleep and read, love their families, and aren't home studying Saul Alinsky every night. I've come to the conclusion that what liberalism gives them, as they look at the flawed world where Ability and Need go begging, is a feeling of interior power -- grace, perhaps -- a confidence that they understand the wicked, slimy workings of the great, even if they can't always do very much about them right now. It's a satisfying bolt of psychic electricity connecting them with divine truth and with a future when the truth shall be vindicated and all flaws corrected. It's a jolt connecting them with each other now.

This is why they relish emotional bumps, inconsistencies, hypocrisies, or even surprises of circumstance -- the conservative woman's pregnant, unwed teen daughter! -- anywhere near political candidates or ideas that are illiberal. To them, politics is an emotional radar tuned to eternal abstractions, eternal problems, injustice and greed, the fact that there are rich people. If you are unlike them, if you lack the radar or interpret its reports in some other way, then you may as well be among the slimy great. If you are going to muck about in concreteness and dull old daily life and personal choices and such, then they'll pay you back in kind: every circumstance of your life is therefore a potential joke and a corruption. Liberals, on the other hand, even a candidate like Obama, can attend the church that he did for twenty years and be excused. His emotional commitment to an abstract Justice, to "Hope" and redemptive "Change," is what matters. He's got the radar. He lights up the radar. We won't talk about taxes.

Coming to the profound conclusion that liberals are emotional, unreasonable, sounds too trite for words. Any sensible liberal is going to say the same of conservatives. Both sides use the same language and make the same complaints about the other and about themselves. They're divisive. They're not rational. We don't do a good job telling our story. The mainstream media are biased.

But listening to Rush is quite a lesson, if nothing else in exposure to the just plain old bold statements of a man who comes to similar conclusions, but without apology. There is a corollary to the conclusion about liberal emotionalism, which I can just hear him whispering in a marvelous portentous rumble: their world view is not benign. And yes, both sides could say this of each other, especially liberals since they've mastered the smear that conservatives are wealthy and heartless. But in their case, whether they are sheltered movie stars or my nice wine shop customers, it's true. Their worldview is not benign, and this is a startling conclusion to come to about fellow 'Mericans. A future filled with hope and change, when all injustice and inequality will be wiped away by the imposition of wealth redistribution schemes (taxes) that have been historically proved to impoverish everyone just for a start, is not a benign future.

It's odd. Throughout the modern era liberals were quite right to ask the good questions they did: why must kings always govern, or why should men of property, only, vote. But I suspect their basic problem now is that logically there is nothing much of their fundamental work left to do. You can't extend the vote to children (probably); certainly you can make something like gay marriage or abortion pet issues, but that neither reduces hereditary privileges nor shrinks government's reach into life or the market, nor reflects the people's wishes. Those were classic liberalism's jobs. There is nothing left to liberal politics but emotion and the search for power, somewhere. And, for all that electric jolt of interior grace running through them and connecting them intuitively with a perfected future, I don't think my wine shop customers would be any too thrilled if really aggressive wealth redistribution schemes kicked in now, pulling a lot of tax money out of their pockets now, even if it was all for the sake of hope and change. I don't think they'd realize what was going on. To them, untoward events are by definition caused by the slimy great -- by power, by inequality, by conservatives. My high school-age children have been taught that conservatives are the ones who want a powerful government to control more of everything.

"Moral guardians of the permanent revolutionary attitude." In his book Citizens Simon Schama defined the French Revolution's Jacobins, the left-est of the left, thus. My wine shop customers aren't Jacobins, nor are the bloggers out there displaying Obama's blue-and-red "Hope" portrait as a badge of moral superiority, but anyway it must be satisfying to have a version of that attitude always simmering, always ready to ladle out. They're very proud. (How many conservatives would walk into a Starbucks -- or a wine shop -- hear National Public Radio, and then relieve themselves of some comment to the effect that of course they don't listen to that?) Obama's simple embodiment of their pride in understanding injustice is what has deified him. Important political commentators who think that the Democratic party has only been able to win elections by becoming centrist had better re-think that analysis.

I'm not sure what would ever change their attitudes. Being mugged, perhaps, as the old joke goes. Not that I require them to change. But it must be difficult for them to see a future of perfect human behavior and righted injustices forever spiraling out of reach, every time their fellow citizens vote improperly. Yesterday an opinion column in the Chicago Tribune demanded that, in these days of financial worry, the government take steps to limit greed (Jim Wallis, "It's the Morality, Sinner," September 19, 2008). Last night someone in the wine shop said that we shouldn't buy advertising on WLS radio, because the demographic there makes no sense for us to reach. "It's a very conservative, right-wing station -- the kind of people who listen to Rush Limbaugh." And he rolled his eyes and gestured that it would be of course distasteful to elaborate.

I just said "Oh really?" because I couldn't think of a quick riposte that would tie up an equal number of ignorant assumptions, unspoken insults, and self-congratulation as that statement did. What's a clever and accepted way, a trope, to dismiss left-wing liberals based on the talk show hosts they like and the beverages they may not? And yet, he's got a point, the very point I began with, an emotional point. I hit the Mute button on Rush myself, when I'm there. Why? I spare their emotions. It's only disturbing -- revealing? -- that the emotion involved, among these nice liberal caring people, is so like hate.

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