The Intelligent Liberal’s Guide to Foolish Principles
In Tony Kushner’s moving—and mind-bending—new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…, the 72-year-old ex-longshoreman and (yes) Communist Party activist Gus Mercantonio pronounces of a long-forgotten strike, “We did something utterly remarkable then, which no one now appreciates…working-class guys…facing down their own fear of being called bums and featherbedders and crooks and insisting not merely on the worker’s right to a wage but the worker’s right to share in the wealth…. When we won the Guaranteed Income, we took hold of the logic of time and money that enriches men like them and devours men like us, and we broke its fucking back.”
It turned out, however, that the income was negotiated only for those workers with seniority, with many of the rest getting the boot. “When we agreed that some, not all, would get, we gave up the union, we gave up representing a class, we became,” he admits, “each one for himself…. It all came out to nothing…. I pretend to forget…what I can’t bear to have in my head.” Gus sold out his fellow union members’ lives in pursuit of a principle that almost no one could remember—or understand—not long afterward. In the meantime, friendships were destroyed and lives were ruined. One former comrade even committed suicide as a result.
Gus is (yes again) an unrepentant commie, but I think this is a syndrome to which liberals are particularly susceptible. Recently, the liberal New York Times editorial page scored Democrats who are trying to raise money under the post–Citizens United rules, owing to the editors’ belief that “a political system built on secret, laundered money will inevitably lead toward an increased culture of influence and corruption. Democrats would attract more support as a principled party that refused to follow the Republicans down that dark alley.”
Oh really? How about a political system in which only one side has any money with which to run campaigns? Rosanna Fiske, chair and chief executive of the Public Relations Society of America, wrote to the editors, warning, “We must be careful not to vilify those businesses that legally and ethically take advantage of their newfound freedom of speech.” And you can be sure that groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which, according to the Times, “has set a fund-raising goal of $120 million for 2012,” have no interest in any such principles. Nor does Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who believes all disclosure-of-donor regulations to be “a cynical effort to muzzle critics of this administration and its allies in Congress.” He is supported in this belief by the Wall Street Journal editors, who insist, “Disclosure sounds good, but liberals have begun to wield it as a weapon to vilify business donors.” In other words, the Times editors are demanding unilateral financial disarmament by the Democrats in the face of what we already know will be a massive and unscrupulous right-wing attack. It’s hard to believe their position could survive even a moment’s scrutiny with regard to its real-world consequences. But ignoring the real world is one of the charms of punditry. The danger lies in the fact that some naïve liberals will follow the Times’s lemminglike advice and imagine they will improve our corrupt campaign finance system by guaranteeing that the only people who exploit it are the same people who have been using it to conduct their successful decades-long conservative class war against the poor and middle classes.
An even more egregious example of a suicidal commitment to “principle” was on display not long ago when the prominent liberal pundit Jacob Weisberg took to cheerleading for Paul Ryan’s regressive right-wing budget proposal. In a column titled “Good Plan,” the editor in chief of the Slate Group and Newsweek columnist allowed that Democrats were “within their rights to point out the negative effects of Ryan’s proposed cuts on future retirees, working families, and the poor,” but he called Ryan’s scheme “brave, radical, and smart” and urged Democrats to get behind it because, he said, “it’s hard to make a principled liberal case for the program [Medicare] in its current form.” I swear I’m not making this up.
Today the joke is quite obviously on Weisberg. Pretty much nobody wants to see Medicare destroyed. House majority leader Eric Cantor has dropped it from the debt-limit talks, undoubtedly impressed by the opposition of fully 70 percent of professed Tea Party supporters, to say nothing of better informed, more sophisticated normal people. Gracious me, even Newt Gingrich—the Pied Piper of ridiculous right-wing radicalism—termed the plan “radical” and “right-wing social engineering” and said he wanted no part of it. I suppose it is possible that Weisberg is genuinely committed to the need for “a principled liberal case” for absolutely every measure he supports. If so, however, it’s a bit difficult to understand how he could have allowed himself to be used by the not-so-principled Robert Rubin as the “co-author” of his memoirs, but perhaps that’s just me.
Of course, there’s another potential explanation for Weisberg’s otherwise inexplicable attachment to this liberal “principle” of his. As a veteran of “even the liberal New Republic” in its heyday, Weisberg might have noticed that “liberals” are never so celebrated in the punditocracy as when they embrace conservative arguments, no matter how wrongheaded and illiberal they may be. Coincidentally, Weisberg says he also approves of the Ryan budget’s desire to further cut the tax burden on wealthy people like Rubin and himself (and thereby presumably shift it onto the backs of teachers, nurses and other conservative class-war targets). Funny how arguments based exclusively on “principle” tend to be consistent with the material interests of the people pushing them. But unlike Tony Kushner’s commie labor leader, they are, after all, “representing a class.”