Friday, February 10, 2012

When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Swing to the Right

Much as I enjoy his blog, I do have the occasional disagreement with Whatever It Is I'm Against It, as when he posted this note to liberals
... who support Guantanamo and killing people with drones: you are not liberals. That is all.
It's probably not worth going into this again, but when has that ever stopped me before? What we have here is a good example of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy, or, if you like, of linguistic prescriptivism:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master -- that’s all.”
But I'm a descriptivist, so I look at what liberals actually do. "Liberal" and "liberalism" mean many different things, even limited to an American context. American liberals supported the US entrance into World War I, and managed the propaganda campaign that justified it. They supported the Korean War, and though many eventually fell away from the anticommunist faith, it was Kennedy liberals who escalated the US invasion of Vietnam. The supposedly liberal corporate media backed the war until at least the Tet Offensive of 1968 made it clear that the war was going to be harder to win than America had thought, but even there what opposition arose was tactical (the war was "unwinnable"), not principled, and the US couldn't withdraw without looking like a pitiful helpless giant. The same applied to both invasions of Iraq and to the War on Terror.

American liberals have a long and troubled record, thanks to their perennial readiness to sell out their avowed values when the going gets tough. As Langston Hughes had one of his characters say in the 1940s,
"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."
(True to form, a good many American liberals were alienated by Martin Luther King's opposition to the US invasion of Vietnam and his growing concern with labor and class issues.) Christopher Hitchens wrote something similar in The Nation in 1985, before he became "unpredictable" himself, a textbook example of what he criticized:
[I]n the charmed circle of neoliberal and neoconservative journalism, however, "unpredictability" is the special emblem and certificate of self-congratulation. To be able to bray that "as a liberal, I say bomb the hell out of them" is to have achieved the eye-catching, versatile marketability that is so beloved of editors and talk-show hosts. As a lifelong socialist, I say don't let's bomb the hell out of them. See what I mean? It lacks the sex appeal, somehow. Predictable as hell.
Dennis Perrin wrote a concise and entertaining account of liberal Democratic perfidy in Savage Mules (Verso, 2008). Richard Seymour did a fuller, more detailed job in The Liberal Defence of Murder (Verso, 2008), extending the shameful tale to progressives and leftists, in England and Europe as well as the US.

So, given the history of American liberalism and progressivism in action, I don't see a good reason to deny that liberal supporters of predator drones and Guantanamo are liberals; at best it's a waste of time and energy, like arguing whether someone is a true Christian or not. I could only justify doing it, I think, if someone tried to defend his or her support for predator drones and Guantanamo by pointing to his or her liberal credentials, and even then, who cares? The party label is unimportant compared to what the party is doing.