Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Are liberals "still" condescending to regular white folks?

Yippie Abbie Hoffman: he was not a Democratic Party official in 1968, no matter what conservatives and the occasional badly confused liberal might think

I suppose I need to read Rick Perlstein's two books on the childhood of our current "culture war", Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001) and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008). I hear they are good. Since I haven't read them I can't comment directly on them. But Perlstein's posts about Nixonland in the TPM Book Club, those I can comment on.

His post Taking the Adversary Seriously: History and Condescension 05/26/08 has got me wondering whether he may not have taken the "adversary" (the authoritarian Republicans) a little too seriously on some points. He argues that those naughty liberals really were elitist and condescending to the poor misunderstood conservative white guys back in the 1970s and 1980s. But all of us have, like, totally cleaned up our acts by now:

... I gave all those examples [in Nixonland] of the mind-numbingly idiotic ways left-wingers condescended to the right during the period I was writing about, the very ones [George Will] deploys to show how annoying condescending liberals are - Newton Minnow, August Hecksher, the knuckleheads at Newsweek who disparaged Louise Day Hicks's supporters so ham-handedly that, as I point out in the book, Hicks was able to run the Newsweek quotes in her own ads! ...

The liberals and leftists I write about were condescending asses. That's one of the main points of the book! Let me throw down here: I damn well I think I'm a better critic of liberal condescension in the 1960s and '70s than George Will is. It's just, simultaneously, there's simply no way to sustain the argument that liberals are condescending now in anything like the way they were then. I'd warrant I'm better at explaining the organic reasons why Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew appealed to ordinary white middle class Americans embrace conservatism - "the inner dynamics of the Roosevelt coalition have shifted from those of getting to those of keeping"? That's my quote, too - than George Will is, as well. (my emphasis in bold)
Well, all good liberals I know have spent many hours reading the collected works of Newton Minnow and August Hecksher. NOT!

Before I read this post, I don't recall ever having heard of either of them before. Via the George Will quotes Perlstein uses, I learned that Minnow was "the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (and formerly Adlai Stevenson's administrative assistant)" who declared television a 'vast wasteland,' thereby implicitly scolding viewers who enjoyed it." Hecksher was "the patrician commissioner of parks under Mayor John Lindsay" who "sniffily declared that people clamoring for law and order were "scared by the abundance of life." (And, no, I have no idea what "organic" reasons for the appeal of Richard Nixon Spiro Agnew might mean; some still undisclosed biological weapon experiment maybe?)

Louise Day Hicks was a prominent leader of the Boston antibusing movement in the 1970s. That would be the movement that I posted about Christopher Lasch's discussion in which he tried to accuse liberals of being bad, bad liberals for suggesting that some white people opposing busing my be racist, but then had to concede that maybe some of them kinda were, writing:

Liberals were predisposed to see nothing but racial prejudice in the antibusing movement, but the movement itself did very little to correct this misunderstanding. Antibusing agitators sometimes appealed to the example of the civil rights movement, but they had no understanding of its moral self-discipline. They deplored violence but subtly encouraged it by dwelling on the duty to repel the outside "invasion" of their communities. They protested that "although we're opposed to forced busing, we're not racists," in the words of Dennis Kearney, a South Boston politician; but antibusing mobs undermined such claims with their favorite slogan, "Bus the niggers back to Africa!" "We are racists," said a white senior at South Boston High School. "Let's face it. That's how we feel about it." Ione Malloy, the English teacher who recorded this defiance in her diary of the busing conflict, tried to persuade her students that South Boston's position was more complicated than that. When students complained that "blacks get everything," she challenged them to change places. When they threatened to "start trouble so the plan won't work," she predicted, quite accurately, that the authorities would close the school. She urged them to avoid violence and provocation, to no avail. As the situation deteriorated, she confessed to a feeling of "futility." "We seem to be going to a dead end."

The best argument against busing was that an "ethnically or racially homogeneous neighborhood respected another community's integrity more easily than a weak, threatened neighborhood did." According to this way of thinking, "strong neighborhoods were the solid building blocks of a healthily diverse city." The "preservation of community," accordingly, should have been recognized as a "value competitive with - yet ironically essential to - equality." But these were the words of a sympathetic observer from outside, Anthony Lukas, not an indigenous analysis of the issue. Leaders of the antibusing movement never resorted to this argument. They seldom rose above the level of resentment, self-righteousness, and self-pity. "We are poor people locked into an economically miserable situation," said Pixie Palladino of ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights). "All we want is to be mothers to the children God gave us. We are not opposed to anyone's skin. We are opposed to forced busing." (my emphasis)
Golly, it's a shame that just because those white folks were protesting with their favorite slogan, "Bus the niggers back to Africa!", that some of those naughty liberals might have been "condescending" to them. Why, it must have hurt some of those pore white folks' feelings!

Good Lord! Any "liberal" who can't call that racist because he doesn't want to be "condescending" is about 90% Republican segregationist already. And white folks wonder why some black church-goers listen to scary black preachers like Jeremiah Wright. With "liberal" allies like that, why would they think their whites friends might be inadequately committed to equal rights?

Perlstein in that post uses some tricks that conservatives also use to make the "liberal elitist" argument. One is to treat academic/intellectual writing as though it were a politician's stump speech. Any book or article on history or sociology or political science not written to be easily accessible to the least literate of newspaper readers is going to have parts that would sound stiff or snooty if they were inserted into a politician's speech, or into a response in a public meeting that might become a 15-second soundbite.

That's as true of conservative writing as of the liberal versions. Take the George Will quote Perlstein uses. Remember that Will is supposed to be a brainy Republican flack. Have you ever heard anyone say the word "sniffily" out loud? Would you know what the [Cheney] they were talking about if you did? It sounds like the name of some little island in the Mediterranean. Or maybe something from a song in My Fair Lady.

The second trick is that he does a version of the "FOX liberal" routine: find some alleged liberal that no one outside his own family has ever heard of who you can quote saying some controversial thing and then use him as an example of how tacky those "sniffily" liberals are. Newton Minnow? August Hecksher? Even after writing this post saying who they are, I likely won't remember who there were myself tomorrow without referring back here.

And aside from Louis Day Hicks' politics and the, uh, down-home, salt-of-the-earth attitudes many of her followers had about race, in what alternative universe was Newsweek a mouthpiece for liberal ideology? Oh, yeah, they were part of that big Jewish media conspiracy that Billy Graham got caught on the White House tapes chatting with President Nixon about, I guess.

The Youth International Party (Yippies): not the same as the Democratic Party; in fact, the Yippies were more like a "let's party, dude" party

Another trick is conflating "left" and "liberal" and using the terms interchangeably. Which is okay if you're talking about the more conservative and more liberal factions in the Senate, for instance. But in the 1950s and 1960s, both liberals and those who identified themselves as "leftists" - the latter being relatively more scarce in the 1950s - understood that there was a difference between "liberal" and "left". Self-identified left organizations in the 1960s like SNCC, SDS or the Black Panthers did not consider themselves liberals. And whatever coincidence in views some liberals may have shared with them, neither Democratic nor Republican liberals (that now-vanished species) considered themselves "left" in the way those groups did.

Here's how Perlstein uses that little trick:

The left has changed and matured; and our adversaries on the right haven't even begun to reckon with that change. They still think we're all John Lindsay and Abbie Hoffman (who is, truth be told, probably treated as harshly in my pages as Richard Nixon).
John Lindsey was the liberal Republican mayor of New York City in 1966-73 who had previously been a pro-civil-rights Congressman. In 1971, Lindsey switched to the Democratic Party and ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination. He was far more of a liberal and constructive mayor that Democrats Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia, Sam Yorty of Los Angeles or Richard Daly (senior) of Chicago. But today's liberals should be embarrassed to be identified with John Lindsey? Here is an excerpt from the CNN obituary of Yorty, Sam Yorty Dead At 88 by Jennifer Auther:

Known for being anti-communist, anti-Equal Rights Amendment and anti-busing, Yorty was a gravely-voiced maverick [!!] who lost more campaigns than he won, and he ran in about 20 different political races over 45 years.

His biggest splash came in 1961, when he became mayor of Los Angeles. Political consultant Joe Cerrell described him as "the last of the big city conservative Democrats."

... "He knew how to play the unity that represented Los Angles, and also the divisiveness that existed in Los Angeles, and let me be very blunt, I'm talking about cultural and racial differences that existed at that time, in such events as the Watts riots in 1965," Fishman said.

It was under Yorty's reign that racial tension caused Los Angeles' Watts area to erupt in flames.

In 1969, Yorty would use race to win his re-election against Tom Bradley. Los Angeles Times reporter and columnist Kenneth Reich said, "It was almost as if Yorty had mugged the city ... The only way he felt that he would win, would be to exacerbate tensions and claim that Bradley was going to be elected by a 'black block vote,' which was silly because the black population in Los Angeles back then, was only about 18 percent."

It backfired in 1973. Voters made Bradley the city's first African-American mayor, toppling Yorty. (my emphasis)
But Democratic liberals today should be ashamed to be associated with ... John Lindsey?

Perlstein in that paragraph associates Lindsey with Abbie Hoffman as part of "the left". Hoffman was essentially a political clown when he became famous along with Jerry Rubin and their Youth International Party, which gave them the nickname "Yippies". Their schtick was basically being outrageous, including in-your-face advocacy of the use of illicit recreational drugs. In his 1997 book, The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968 in America, Jules Witcover (who knows the difference between a Democratic liberal, even a 1968 "new politics" variety, and a Yippie) writes of Hoffman at the beginning of 1968, looking ahead to the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968:

At a New Year's Eve party at the Greenwich Village apartment of Abbie Hoffman, he along with Jerry Rubin and other self-styled revolutionaries talked of how they would confront the establishment, and the war, in the year ahead. Hoffman later, to a federal investigator, described the birth of the Yippie Party this way: "There we were, all stoned, rolling around the floor ... Yippie! Somebody says 'Oink,' and that's it, pig [the Yippie label for police]. ... And so Yippie was born, the Youth International Party. What about if we create a myth, program it into the media. .. When that myth goes in, it's always connected to [the] Chicago [Democratic convention}. ... Come and do your thing - excitement, bullshit, everything, anything ... commitment, engagement, Democrats, pigs, the whole thing. All you do is change the H in Hippie for a Y in Yippie, and you got it. ... New phenomena [sic], a new thing on the American scene. ... You know as long as we can make up a story about it that's exciting, full of shit, mystical, magical, you have to accuse us of going to Chicago to perform magic."
I could make a few more sarcastic comments, e.g., just where in Bobby Kennedy's speeches to we find endorsement of these positions?

But you get the idea. Surely with the intensive research he's done on the 1960s, Perlstein must know that whoever may have confused the liberalism of John Lindsey or Bobby Kennedy with Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies' let's-all-git-drunk-and-screw brand of politics, it wasn't any real live liberal or any actual Yippies, except maybe a couple of the latter in moments of extreme chemical stimulation.

Now, maybe Perlstein's books give a more accurate and coherent picture of the politics of those days. But on those points in his TPM post, it seems he's either consciously scamming his readers, or he's been seriously bamboozled by conservative arguments. That's not "condescending" to say that. It's a statement of not wanting get scammed by an ideologically jumbled version of history.

One last thing. He refers to the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, saying, "I can't read more than a paragraph of Hofstadter on conservatism at a time. I find him teeth-gratingly condescending." (Oh, my! Bring the smelling salts!) He's referring in particular to Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965). Actually, I would say Hofstadter's analysis of the Goldwater movement and the radical right of 1964 have held up pretty well. Of course, Hofstadter sometimes used words with more than two syllables, so he might sound "condescending" to the average Rush Limbaugh fan.

And one last last thing. Perlstein's post doesn't mention it, but I've seen even liberal writers referring to the term "low information voter" as a sign of that naughty liberal condescension. I'm sorry, I just can't get so prissy about this stuff that I'm going to tippy-toe around the fact that some voters are better informed on political issues than others.

I'll leave that to the brand of liberals who hear a group of white protesters chanting, "Bus the niggers back to Africa!", and then furrow their brows and wring their hands over whether it might be "condescending" to think that those demonstrators might be just a bit racist.

Give me your average labor liberal any day. Somehow they usually manage to not get caught up in that kooky kind of thinking.

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