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Whining about Whining

June 20th, 2007 · No Comments

I normally dig on Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi, but his Adbusters piece on the sorry state of the American left is pretty weak sauce. (See Ross Douthat for a similar take.) First, the essay opens and closes with some rather odd reflections on the word liberal—its aesthetics and connotations—that treat the term as though it were coined by Tim Leary around 1964, rather than a longstanding label for a tradition going back centuries. (Though as I’ve said before, if he wants to let us have it back, I’m happy to take it.)

Then there’s this:

A lot of it, surely, has to do with the relentless abuse liberalism takes in the right-wing media, on Fox and afternoon radio, and amid the Townhall.com network of newspaper invective-hurlers. The same dynamic that makes the junior high school kid fear the word “fag” surely has many of us frightened of the word “liberal.” Mike Savage says liberalism is a mental disorder, Sean Hannity equates liberals with terrorists, Ann Coulter says that “liberals love America like O.J. loved Nicole.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but what sort of liberal gives a fuck about the opinions of Savage, Coulter, Hannity, or anyone who regards them as anything other than a punchline? Intelligent conservatives regard these people as embarrassing sideshow freaks; why on earth would anyone on the left take their hostility as anything but a badge of honor?

His main beef, though, is that the left is full of effete college kids more concerned with culture wars and street puppetry than the grim battle for economic justice. Far be it from me to deny there’s something grating about Ivy Leaguers adopting an “oppressed” pose, but neither of the component gripes here really flies.

Yes, prominent liberals—intellectuals, journalists, activists, wonks—are unrepresentative of the broad liberal base in various ways. This is unexceptional in both contemporary politics and historically. The staff of a conservative magazine is probably going to be a lot more culturally “blue” than the general population, let alone the conservative base. The bulk of them will be either quiet secularists or theists of a distinctly intellectual stripe, unlikely to feel especially comfortable at a revival meeting. If liberals on the whole are an especially affluent political group—and I’m a little dubious here, since we only get an average that could break down any number of ways—that’s probably got a lot to do with lower-income voters’ concern with the very cultural issues Taibbi regards as frivolous.

As for the left’s supposed fear of economic populism, has Taibbi been paying attention for the last few years? The DLC wave crested and crashed long ago. The Democratic candidates I hear spend a lot more time talking about universal healthcare than gay marriage, and you couldn’t swing a dead cat at a newsstand last year without hitting a cover-story about the new Democratic populism. Is Taibbi really writing about contemporary politics, or just bitching about his annoying friends?

Tags: Journalism & the Media



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