Thursday, October 10, 2013

George Will is Half-Right

In today's The Washington Post, conservative columnist George Will writes about the aftermath of President Kennedy's assassination, "When Liberals Became Scolds" Echoing Jacqueline Kennedy's lament that her husband "didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights" but it was instead "some silly little communist," Will recalls how immediately Oswald himself was marginalized as elite sermonizing focused on "the hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots (Earl Warren). Will argues that liberalism - "a doctrine of American celebration and optimism" - transformed itself into "a scowling indictment," preaching "the necessity of national repentance for a history of crimes and misdeeds." Liberalism became, Will argues, "the doctrine of grievance groups owed redress for cumulative inherited injuries inflicted by the nation's tawdry history, toxic present and ominous future."
Unlike so many contemporary noisemakers on the right, Will is at least partly correct. It is certainly true that after its Great Society successes - Will mentions the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, and Medicaid - contemporary American liberalism degenerated, becoming as Will correctly notes "less concerned with material well-being than with lifestyle and cultural issues." Will contends - correctly in my estimation - that contemporary American Liberalism's "curdled conception of the nation marked a ruinous turn for liberalism, beginning its decline from political dominance." (The one major exception, which Will never mentions, is, of course, the Affordable Care Act - which Will would presumably call "Obamacare" - which stands in the great New Deal/Great Society tradition of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid). 
But all that is sadly only half the story. When Kennedy made his fateful trip to Dallas, he warned his wife that they were entering "kook" country. Right-wing irrationality, hatred, and bigotry did not kill Kennedy. A "silly little communist did." But right-wing irrationality, hatred, and bigotry really were rampant in the early 60s (and not just in Dallas). Right-wing irrationality, hatred, and bigotry were on display in the Goldwater movement's takeover of the Republican party in 1964 (which is not to say that Goldwater or the majority of his supporters were irrational, hateful, or bigoted). Like all fringe movements, the "radical right," as it was then often termed, had various causes and components, but a major common thread was a sense of loss and consequent fear and anger. The intense fear that America might be losing the Cold War paralleled a sense that America was changing in unwelcome ways and that too much was being lost in the process. Such themes have persisted in right -wing circles right up to the present. Even the Cold War theme persists in the rationally inexplicable fear, for example, that making it possible for more Americans to acquire health insurance represents something called "socialism."
After the Goldwater debacle, the  so-called "radical right" was eventually eclipsed by the radical left-wing movements of the late 60s and the 1970s. For all their heady Marxist jargon, those movements were also often irrational, hateful, and bigoted. In their time, they did more damage to the culture than the less influential "radical right" was doing. Their legacy is what Will rightly recognizes as contemporary Liberalism's "doctrine of grievance groups" and remain at the root of much of today's "culture wars."
Liberalism's political collapse into irrationality, hatred, and bigotry, however, did not clear the field for something better. Rather it empowered right-wing irrationality, hatred, and bigotry,  which has since gotten a new lease on life and has brought us to where we are now. Notwithstanding the New Deal/Great Society resonance of the Affordable Care Act, Liberalism remains hobbled by its culture of grievance. Meanwhile, the other side has escalated its own sense of grievance to record intensity - its own "curdled conception of the nation."
While Will is certainly right to trace how "liberals became scolds," right now it is the other side's intense sense of loss, fear, and anger about a society which is irrevocably changing that is presently proving the immediately greater threat to any vestige of "American celebration and optimism." 

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