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.