Saturday, April 19, 2008

Red-baiting, 2008

Molly, we miss you

Neoconservative honcho Bill Kristol devoted his column The Mask Slips New York Times 04/14/08 to the notion that Obama's "bitter" comment shows he's a Commie. Oh, excuse me, he didn't literally say Obama was a "Commie", he said his ideas reflected the perspective of that "old Communist" Karl Marx. Kristol devotes over a third of his column to make this point in his inimitable sneering style.

He's been joined by others, including "Independent Democrat" Sen. Joe Lieberman (Joe Lieberman Hints Obama May Be a 'Marxist' - After Hailing His Support in 2006 by Greg Mitchell Huffington Post 04/15/08), Todd Gitlin (Maul Game TPM Cafe 04/13/08, whose comment appeared before Kristol's column), Michael Lind (The rubes and the elites Salon 04/15/08), even Gene Lyons (Obama’s remarks feed class resentment Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 04/16/08).

Let's call this what it is, stock McCarthyist sleaze-slinging.

Now in the days when that old alcoholic "Tail Gunner Joe" McCarthy was running about acting like Rush Limbaugh with subpoena power, this kind of attack was called "red-baiting". But that was when the American political rainbow devoted red to Communists. (Red is still the color for social-democrats and "postcommunists" in Europe, where identifying parties by colors is more common than in the US.)

But now that the Republicans are the Reds in American politics, I don't know if we can still call it "red-baiting" when a hardcore Red (Republican) like Bill Kristol calls someone a Marxist. Is that now "anti-red-baiting"? "McCarthyist sleaze-slinging" works for me.

Slinging sleaze is what the Republicans do. With their coalition including the Christian Right, Southern segregationists and neoconservative ideologues, this kind of thing has become endemic to the Republican Party. The Reps and those in the mainstream media who take their cues from GOP talking points don't seem to be focusing on a "flip-flopper" theme against Obama, but rather approaching him more like Old Man Bush's campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988, attempting to paint him as a scary, bizarre, elitist character with kooky ideas.

The only one I've seen specifically calling out the "Marxist" label is Ed Kilgore, a DLC Democrat, in The Line You May Not Cross TPM Cafe 04/18/08, who writes, "no measure of 'friendship' for McCain can possibly justify [Lieberman's] recent remarks entertaining the possibility that Barack Obama, who endorsed him in [Lieberman's 2006 Senate] primary, may be a Marxist."

This is one of those dilemmas in which you have to wonder if you're giving too much credibility to a sleazy charge by bothering to refute it in some way, or whether you need to pay attention to it even though it's brainless because the Republicans are actually using it. But when a columnist for the New York Times is making an argument for this McCarthyist labeling, it's hard to see how the Dems can just totally ignore it. Particularly since it has been picked up by people like Gene Lyons, who I wouldn't consider one of the usual suspects.

It's times like these when I really, really miss the presence of the late Molly Ivins in the world of political commentary. This was the kind of cheap shot that she could knock out of the park with her unique style.

So, reality check here. However accurate or otherwise Obama's sociology may have been, the notion that voters normally vote heavily on their perceptions of economic prosperity and expectations thereof is as common as dirt in both the Democratic and Republican Parties. That's one of the things that's so very phony about this whole "bitter" flap. There's nothing unusual at all about pols and pollsters trying to explain voter behavior with reference to their economic circumstances.

And, no, boys, that doesn't constitute "Marxist" thought or any other form of philosophical materialism. If Bill Kristol read his old Marx-Engels Reader a little more closely, he might even find Marx's concept of class struggle is based on the structural dynamics of class, not on economic deprivation. He might even catch some hint in Engels' writings that "reproduction" - gender and family relationships - is as fundamental to the Marxist social theory as production relations, though the latter received far more attention in the writing and politics of Marx and Engels.

But Bill Kristol and the rest don't give a s*** about academic comparisons of Marxist theory to Obama's thinking. They're just slinging sleaze.

But while we're on the subject of Marxism, it's a fascinating bit of history to me that the trend of thought we now call neoconservatism actually has its historical roots in the Trotskyist brand of Marxism, more specifically in the sectarian Troskyist politics of New York City in the 1930s. I've often referred to their notion of spreading democracy in the Middle East by the US doing serial "regime change" as being a brand of Troskyist wars of liberation. Leon Trotsky was identified with the theory of "permanent revolution" and the idea that Soviet socialism could not survive in the USSR without worldwide Communist revolutions. There is more than a superficial resemblance between the neocons' Middle East domino theory of democratic revolutions via wars of liberation and the Troskyist idea of the urgent need for world revolution.

But the most obvious heritage from the 1930s Troskyists to today's neocons is their very aggressive polemical style of smears, accusations and ad hominem attacks on their opponents. Sid Blumenthal in his 1986 book The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power, which has just been reissued in paperback, charted the development of neocon ideology from its original Trotskyist roots. Bill Kristol, the son of Irving Kristol, a founding father of the movement, was only beginning to emerge on the national political scene at the time of that book. Blumenthal wrote that Reagan's Secretary of Education, now a professional moral scold (who dated Janis Joplin when they were at the University of Texas together!), Gamblin' Man William Bennett, "filled his department to the brim with right-wingers." He continues:

Among them was a young Harvard professor, William Kristol, son of Irving Kristol, named Bennett's special assistant. The elder Kristol's lobbying had been crucial in Bennett's appointment at [the National Endowment for the Humanities, where Bennett had been previously]. Now Bennett was using his power of appointment to facilitate the generational transition. Young Kristol received a patrimony of disillusioned leftism and abhorrence of liberalism without ever having to pass through the experiences that had led to these attitudes [in the previous generation]. Like father, like son: William had the character of a right-wing Trotskyist, a vanguard ideologue.
One of these days I'm going to blog some more about the interesting and disturbing heritage of Trotskyism outside the far left. There is a popular notion that it's somehow common for people to go from being either far-right or far-left politically to the opposite extreme. But except maybe for teenagers trying on one identity or another for a while, that is actually pretty rare.

In the case of Troskyism, the ideological links between the leftwing version and the neocon ideology include a ferocious hostility to political liberalism and the centrality of anti-Communism (they would call it anti-Stalinism) to the Trotskyists worldview.

But those of us who don't want to just carelessly slap labels on people have to be careful with the Troskyist-neocon heritage. Rightwing isolationists and Bircher types have been known to call this administration's neocons "Trotskyists" as a way to say that Commies control the government, which the Birchers claim has been the case anyway since roughly 1933.

Blumenthal's phrase, rightwing Trotskyism, is more accurate.

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