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October 13, 2004

the wrong kind of liberalism

I yield to no one in my commitment to the core moral principles of the center-left. In fact, I will support radical ideas if I am convinced that they will work. However, nothing annoys me more than sloppy argumentation and bad faith on the part of people who vote the same way I do.

A case in point is Joseph Epstein's "Mystery in the Heartland" from the Oct. 7 New York Review of Books. This is a review of Thomas Franks' What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, a book that I have not read. (Thus my criticism is solely directed at Epstein, not at Franks.) The puzzle that Franks poses is why people in America's very poorest county, which happens to be located in rural Kansas, should vote for George Bush by 80%. Epstein's answer is that they hate and demonize "the latte-drinking, school-bussing, fetus-killing, tree-hugging, gun-fearing, morally relativist and secularly humanist so-called liberal elitists, whose elders have been 'soft on communism' while they themselves coddle criminals, women, and same sexers, eat brie, drink chardonnay, support Darwin, and oppose capital punishment in defiance of the 'moral values' of ordinary, God-fearing, flag-waving, assault-gun-carrying Americans."

Why should people adopt this picture of the world? According to Epstein, deeply cynical conservative elites have fooled them into it, most recently by following Goering's advice at Nuremberg. Goering said:

people don't want to go to war.... But, after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship.... Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger. It works the same way in any country.

Epstein invokes Goering's spirit in his critique of conservatism. There is also a huge photograph of the Reverend Fred Phelps to illustrate his review (in the print version). Phelps is an elderly Kansas pastor who holds a "God hates fags" sign.

But Epstein thinks that the real problem is deeper than cynical elites and hate-mongering reverends. In times of peril, people always turn to fundamentalism, to absolute certainty and stark moral simplicity. In such circumstances, liberalism tends to lose, because, as Learned Hand wrote, the spirit of liberty "is not too sure that it is right. ... [It] is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women." Liberals understand what Keats called "Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."

I wonder if it has occurred to Epstein that he is absolutely certain about the advantages of mid-twentieth-century liberalism. He is a perfect fundamentalist who sees his opponents as wicked and ignorant and his own program as self-evidently superior to theirs. On point after point, he fails to understand the minds of his fellow Americans or to concede any possibility that he might be wrong. Viz ...

  • Pace Epstein, George W. Bush is no Herman Goering. To manipulate public opinion into a war against a cruel dictator, if that's what the President did, is wrong; but it is not the same as seizing foreign countries and slaughtering Jews by the millions. Also, the Iraq war, whatever its motivations, has turned into a net political liability for Bush, who could otherwise run as the victor of Afghanistan.

  • The Reverend Fred Phelps is horrible. I refrain from linking to his site because I don't want him to get extra points with Google. But even if he is personally dangerous, he is completely marginal. His Anti-Defamation League profile notes that many of his "congregants are related to Phelps by blood. His wife, several of his children and dozens of his grandchildren frequent the church." This is not a man with a mass movement behind him. On the contrary, his views contradict the explicit principles of evangelical Protestantism. Using his picture to illustrate a critique of conservatism is like appending a photograph of Fidel Castro to a critical article about liberals.

  • Epstein thinks that Kansans have been snookered into privatization of electricity and Social Security and rollbacks of the capital gains tax. I'm against those policies, too. But we ought to ask whether Kansans have good reasons to support what the center-left has offered them as alternatives. Is it possible that they don't want to pay taxes--or even ask rich people and corporations to pay taxes--because they distrust existing public schools, welfare systems, and regulatory agencies? Maybe it's not people with glasses of chardonnay who worry them, but bureaucrats and public employees who patronize them and shut them out of public institutions--and deliver mediocre results.
  • Surely a liberal in the tradition of Learned Hand would start by asking what's wrong with liberalism, before he excoriated his opponents in such a way as to make his side look completely blameless.

    October 13, 2004 11:11 AM | category: revitalizing the left | Comments


    Frank's book is worth a read and so is David Denby's review of a book in the latest* NYorker about the 18th C. Scottish philosophers. Both are reminders of what our real "base" is and what we've lost to the corporate culture and contemporary know-nothings.

    Your point 3 on the mediocrity of public institutions is right on target. Highly recommended (something I did last year): a slow trek through Kansas and Oklahoma on backroads with plenty of stops and conversations.

    *Possibly not the latest for those closer to the coast.

    October 14, 2004 5:31 PM | Comments (1) | posted by PW

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