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9/23/2004

Read This

The New York Review of Books has posted Jason Epstein's review of Tom Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas. It's a great review, essential reading.

Last night, about an hour before the review was posted online, I got into a fairly shrill argument with some of my compatriots at Madame's Organ. With bluegrass in the background, a friend criticized John Kerry as a "liberal elite." I responded, a bit harshly, and with perhaps a tad too much profanity, eventually exclaiming that "there is no liberal elite." We have simply internalized a particularly pernicious GOP frame, and repetition of it is folly. Epstein's views on the matter:

When the Soviet Union peacefully collapsed of its own colossal ineptitude, thanks in part to Ronald Reagan's happy choice in Iceland of a Frank Capra ending rather than the Armageddon foreshadowed by the term "Evil Empire," with which he and his party had for years Goeringed the voters, the right wing was left without an external enemy against whom to mobilize. So it turned to a domestic substitute by demonizing the latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, school-bussing, fetus-killing, tree-hugging, gun-fearing, morally relativist and secularly humanist so-called liberal elitists, whose elders had been "soft on communism" while they themselves coddle criminals, women, and same sexers, eat brie, drink chardonnay, support Darwin, and oppose capital punishment in defiance of the "moral values" of ordinary, god-fearing, flag-waving, assault gun–carrying Americans. Frank believes that the Republican right echoes the classic formulas of anti-Semitism by which Jews are held to be "affluent, alien, cosmopolitan, liberal and above all intellectual."

Here Frank may go too far, but the demonizing of liberals by the Republican right surely calls to mind similar attacks in the 1930s by Nazis and Bolsheviks as well as the Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon, in which Northern liberals were seen not only as "soft on communism" but hostile to traditional "values" of the fundamentalist South. "Our culture and our schools and our government...are controlled...," according to Frank's summary of these attacks,
by an overeducated ruling class that is contemptuous of the beliefs and practices of the masses of ordinary people. Those who run America...are despicable, self-important show-offs. They are effete...arrogant...snobs.
But it is the Republican right and its neoconservative allies that now dominate American politics, relying upon the strategy of culture war to maintain their power as previous tribal and religious orthodoxies have done throughout human history, most recently the jihadi movement and al-Qaeda, whose indictment of an arrogant, manipulative, materialist, and secular United States somewhat resembles the rhetoric of the Republican right.
Every other paragraph deserves to be blockquoted, but I'll limit myself to one more:
To remain tentative, to be content, as Keats wrote, "with half knowledge," which Spiro Agnew's speechwriter with Bolshevik disdain dismissed as "the nattering negativism" of those "nabobs" who questioned the simplistic, and in retrospect absurd, justifications for the Vietnam War, is an uncommon quality. It was restated in American terms by the late Learned Hand, who identified "the spirit of Liberty as [that which] is not too sure that it is right.... The spirit of Liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women." This is the skeptical and pragmatic spirit of checks and balances in response to unpredictable challenges by which American democracy has survived so far.
I agree. Epstein seemlessly segues from a discussion of Kansas populism to Delay's corruption to the rejection of Richard Clarke's proposals for fighting terrorism. It really is a good read.

 

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