Thursday, February 17, 2011

For All the Intellectual Snobs I've Known Before

(Image by the Great and Powerful IOZ.)

Salon ran a piece by Michael Lind the other day that left me ambivalent. (My normal state, of course.) Mostly it was an exercise in concern trolling, with Lind admonishing liberals and "center-left" media to spend less time mocking Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and more time on our comatose economy and the "revolution [that] is rocking in the Middle East." I suppose I agree, but I don't pay much attention to Rachel Maddow, so I don't know how much time she actually spends on the crazy sayings and doings of Beck, Palin, O'Reilly, Coulter, Limbaugh, and the rest. The left media I do follow don't spend a lot of time on them, though of course such clowns do make entertaining copy, and heaven knows we can all use a laugh now and then. Maybe Lind thinks that any time spent mocking them is too much, but would he write an equivalent piece for Fox News or National Review Online, urging them to spend less time mocking liberals?

Some of Lind's arguments make sense to me, though I'm not sure what to do about them.
Since the '60s, conservatives have managed to recruit populist voters by claiming that the intellectual elites look down their noses at them. By theatrically sneering at less-educated politicians and media loudmouths, progressive pundits seem to prove that the left consists only of snobbish members of the college-educated professional class making fun of the errors of people who did not attend prestigious schools.
Good point, and one I've written about myself, but what to do? Should I pretend that Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, et al. are deep thinkers who should be engaged and debated seriously? The trouble with that idea is that their fans aren't interested in engagement and debate. The right-wingers I've talked to can't cope with disagreement, though they are like liberals in that respect. For most of the past two or three decades, though, I've mostly argued with educated people from a range of political positions, who tend to think they're a cut above Joe Sixpack, rather than with Joe Sixpack himself. When it comes time to talk to Fox News fans, though, I think I have to do the same thing: disagree with them forthrightly and challenge them to defend their position. I'm in an awkward position, though, since I'm a kitchen worker and a dropout from a decent but not exactly "prestigious" university on one hand, but an intellectual and a bookworm on the other. Even if I'm not Joe Sixpack, though, I'm a working-class taxpayer, which does distance me from many of my fellow leftist writers. And where does Michael Lind fall in this spectrum?

I also agree with Lind's argument that "If you're going to be an intellectual snob, at least get your facts right", but I'm not so sure about the example he gives.
A few weeks ago Chris Matthews mocked [Michelle] Bachmann for suggesting that most of the Founders were against slavery and that the three-fifths clause in the Constitution was intended to insult black people by calling each one "three-fifths of a human being." As conservatives gleefully pointed out, before it was endorsed by Bachmann, the theory that the Constitution, despite its concessions to the practice, embodies disapproval of slavery was shared by Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The same viewpoint was held by Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy, who declared in his "corner-stone" speech of March 21, 1861:
The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.]
I'll try, when I have time, to track down some of the arguments that Lincoln and Douglass thought that the Constitution opposes slavery. I'm skeptical, though, because Stephens doesn't quite seem to be saying that. He thinks that most of the framers thought that slavery was wrong and if left alone would wither away by itself, but he says explicitly that this belief was "not incorporated in the constitution" and that the Constitution "secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last". That doesn't sound to me like a claim that the Constitution "embodies disapproval of slavery." The three-fifths clause was a compromise with Southerners' desire to have their slaves count as full human beings in the census for apportionment purposes while counting as zero for every other purpose; I think someone could oppose that desire, regardless of one's opinion of the morality of slavery, simply because it amounted to wanting to have their cake and eat it too. (Should cattle and other property also be counted in the census? The slaveowners claimed that their slaves were chattel, but they still wanted them to be represented in Congress.) If those "gleeful" conservatives' evidence for Lincoln and Douglass's positions is as good as this, then Chris Matthews (no center-leftist, he) should go on poking fun at Michelle Bachmann.

I'll speculate that Lincoln and Douglass might have claimed that the Constitution "embodies disapproval of slavery", if they did so, for the same reason that contemporary Christians assume that Jesus and the Bible, properly interpreted, also agrees with their values -- on slavery, to take an example off the top of my head: to get the support of a sacred authority for their position.

Lind even offers a constructive suggestion:
The center-left needs its own village explainers, with their own charts and their own blackboards. In the plain language used by FDR for his Fireside Chats, they could show how liberalism is rooted in American values and history, instead of being an alien transplant from socialist Europe. They could sketch the relations between today’s radical right, with its loony theories about a Muslim-leftist world revolution, and the similar conspiracy theories of the Liberty Lobby in the 1930s and the John Birch Society in the 1950s. They could put up diagrams on the screen to explain elementary Keynesian concepts and show the need for public spending, or exports, or both to make up for depressed private consumption in a near-depression like the present. They could ...

Oh, never mind. It’s easier to run a clip of Palin, Bachmann or Beck, and then roll your eyes and ask a fellow pundit to join you in snickering at those idiots.
The fault in his concern-trolling is that it's possible to do both. The Nation has a couple of good articles this week on public employees, and one of them argues:
Liberals and progressives don’t understand why, in poll after poll, Americans support Social Security, Medicare and money for their local parks and other services but oppose “big government.” If we want to close the gap in the often bimodal results of polling, we don’t need more polling: we need well-trained and highly skilled organizers who can help facilitate conversations among next-door neighbors and co-workers. We have good “framers.” We have smart policy wonks with big degrees who can write good policy. We have lawyers to defend the policy. And we have no one in any serious way out talking with Americans about this crisis. It’s organizers who help people in large numbers to come to the self-realization that things aren’t working and that it isn’t their fault. Good organizing is really the only way that workers, the unemployed and the poor can overcome the impulse to blame themselves for the crisis they face. Yet liberal foundations often balk at funding such efforts, believing that it won’t add up to policy change and channeling money instead to policy, legal and “communications” work.
Unions and progressives need to return to engaging large numbers of people in one-on-one conversations. Unions should kick-start the campaign by sponsoring and unleashing the biggest Union Summer program of all time and pay student interns, and unemployed rank-and-file workers, to work with union groups and nonunion allies in a mass education campaign that seeks to change the narrative from “We all go down together” to “It’s time to return to the American Dream we all deserve.” Unions must stop pretending to be engaging the base by setting up call centers or buying cellphones for their members. Foundations must stop pretending that unions don’t matter, and that messaging strategies can overcome America’s cultural norms of extreme individualism. Real conversations, where people have a chance to understand the war that is being waged against them and the power they must build, are the only thing that will save us.
I agree: the author is describing the kind of tactics that worked against the antigay Proposition 6 in California in 1978, and might have worked (but weren't deployed) against the antigay Proposition 8 in 2008. The commoditization and professionalization of what should be progressive, even left, organizations appears to be a large part of what has hurt the American left in the past half century or so. Maybe one small step for humanity would be to give up on "foundations" for support of anti-corporate, pro-labor activism.

But never mind! It's so much easier to roll your eyes at the stupidity of the "center-left" than to recognize that they're not quite as out of touch as you'd like to think.