Friday, February 26, 2010

Love Me, I'm a Liberal

Today at Counterpunch there was a rather odd article by Clancy Sigal, complaining that liberals have "lost their thunder."
There is an astonishing lack of anger among liberals, progressives and radicals who have abandoned emotion to the right. Our role model continues to be not FDR, still less Malcolm X, but our "bipartisan" and apparently tone-deaf President Obama. In this second or third year of a devastating depression, not just recession, that has inflicted an epidemic of suffering on the lower half of the American nation, Obama is very busy being fluent and civil while being essentially untouched by the rage felt by so many of us. Our world, as we have known it, is being annihilated, and nobody in power shows signs of giving a damn.

The real anger is all on the right, kidnapped – or authentically voiced – by the all-white Tea Partiers, Palinites, Oath Keepers and "armed and dangerous" patriot groups, some but not all of whom are native-fascistic but also include pissed-off libertarians and the disappointed and dispossessed at the bottom of the pile.

I grew up in a boisterous, immigrant, loud neighborhood where everyone had an opinion and voiced it full throttle. Somewhere along the line, maybe when I shifted from working class to middle class, I lost my rough, grating, empowered, assertive voice – and maybe the anger that had fuelled it. If so, that's a pity.

We need liberal anger now more than ever.

I've written of my wish for a liberal backlash, though I realized long ago that it was like hoping for compassionate conservatism (though, as you'll see, that term sums up American liberalism very well). I've also written about the popular confusion between radical ideas and anger as a performance style, and Raymond Williams's reflections on his own Welsh working-class background are also relevant, I think.

I think that Sigal goes wrong from the beginning in lumping "liberals, progressives and radicals" together, since liberals have been at odd with radicals for as long as I can remember, and I remember quite a ways back. The oddest thing about his article is its apparent belief that liberals used to be angry, assertive, and rough-hewn -- when in fact, they have always been notorious for being wishy-washy and ready to sell out when the going gets tough (and it always gets tough). It's not necessary to go very far back to see this, since so many liberals fell into line behind George W. Bush before the dust had settled on the rubble of the World Trade Towers, and many supported his invasion of Iraq a couple of years later. That could be explained partly as their fear of being accused of pacifism, but that's why we have cruise missile liberals, to give their reluctant but enthusiastic support to mass slaughter. (Unfortunately, Edward S. Herman's original article delineating the species seems to have vanished from the web, but this piece is still up. CORRECTION: Here's Herman's original article.) Liberals are always quite ready to get angry at the left: the name of Ralph Nader still gives them conniptions, even more than those of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, and if you want to see an angry liberal, just badmouth Barack Obama or John F. Kennedy.

This is why liberals have such an enduringly bad reputation. As far back as the mid-1960s, the protest singer Phil Ochs wrote and performed "Love Me, I'm a Liberal." Updated covers have been produced by Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon, Daniel Cioper, Evan Greer, and others. I've always thought Ochs was overrated as a performer and as a writer ("Tears ran down my spine"?), but his heavy-handed satire catches the type in this song.
Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I've grown older and wiser
And that's why I'm turning you in
Long before Ochs, though, there was Langston Hughes, probably the best-known writer of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes has become canonical, and I don't think he's usually thought of as a radical. (Jonathan Kozol did get fired for reading one of Hughes' poems to fourth-graders in his inner-city Boston classroom in 1964, though, so who knows?) Hughes wrote a popular series of stories about Jesse B. Semple, or "Simple," commenting on the issues of the day, and one of them, from 1949, was called "Liberals Need a Mascot":
"Just what is a liberal?" asked Simple.

"Well, as nearly as I can tell, a liberal is a nice man who acts decently toward people, talks democratically, and often is democratic in his personal life, but does not stand up very well in action when some social issue like Jim Crow comes up."

"Like my boss," said Simple, "who is always telling me he believes in equal rights and I am the most intelligent Negro he ever saw -- and I deserve a better job. I say, 'Why don't you give it to me, then?' And he says, 'Unfortunately, I don't have one for you.'

"'But ever so often you hire new white men that ain't had the experience of me and I have to tell them what to do, though they are over me. How come that?'

"'Well,' he says, 'the time just ain't ripe.' Is that what a liberal is?" asked Simple.

"That's just about what a liberal is," I said ...
That's not to say, of course, that all liberals are pious hypocrites, or that all radicals live consistently with their principles; of course not. For that matter, conservatives often take surprising stands. But given the history of the term "liberal", I am mystified by Clancy Sigal's appeal to liberalism's shining, or gritty, past. Do we need "liberal anger"? I suppose it wouldn't hurt, if it could make President Obama feel pressure from somebody else than his corporate sponsors. I like anger, it's nature's way of telling us something is wrong, but I don't think one ought be a slave to it. I also think that dwelling on anger misses the point. If someone gives me that "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" line, I want to ask them what they're angry about, why their anger is any more interesting than mine or someone else's, and how throwing a tantrum is going to make things better. Smashing a plane into a government building, or blowing one up for that matter, may be dramatic, but who's going to get hurt? George W. Bush was angry at Saddam Hussein, and we know how well that turned out.