Monday, August 15, 2011

"Paleo" vs Modern Liberalism

Victor Davis Hanson expounds on liberalism of the 40's-60's vs. the liberalism of today. I was touched by this paragraph:
Most of my parents’ and grandparents’ friends, however, were Grange/Farm Bureau/Chamber of Commerce Republicans. I emphasize “friends” since in the early sixties, pre-Vietnam-protest age, politics still never impeded friendships. Most of my mom’s rural friends were amused rather than angered by her genuine liberalism, since it was directed at trying to improve the lot of the working poor, who were ubiquitous and often next door.
Those were obviously the days when politics wasn't everything. I've taken to "unfriending" a couple of people on Facebook because everything they write is some left-wing screed, and I have no desire to be assaulted with that kind of writing each time I look on Facebook. I wonder if some people today are nothing more than their politics, if that's all they care about.

But back to Hanson's column:
I detour here, because late 1950s liberalism was in some sense conservative, given the rural poverty, the lack of high-tech appurtenances, the coming end of the U.S. postwar monopoly in manufactured goods, and the worry over “commies.” Of course, JFK, like FDR, personified noblesse oblige, but mostly the heroic Democrats were guys like Truman and Humphrey. For my dad, FDR had built the B-29s, Truman stopped the North Koreans, and JFK had stood down Castro — some mythic history in that, but not much.

You might think their square-deal politics were na├»ve, but they were salt-of-the-earth types, whose lifestyles reflected the politics that they advocated, and whose personal tastes were simple. To the best I can recall, there was no manifest contradiction in my grandfather’s voting for JFK in 1960, and his stern warnings about “lazy” “no-goods” who came out to prune for a week, abruptly to quit when they earned enough money for “booze” and “were up to no good.” The new pocket transistor radios, he swore, only encouraged sloth and poor work habits — and he wanted no one on the farm listening to one, us included.

In those days, liberalism, if we can even call it that, was clearly an equality of opportunity idea — whatever the intrinsic contradictions of the prior New Deal that logically led to the Great Society and the other failed “societies” to come. It was still not socialism of the European type, but singularly American and predicated on a “fair shake” as the majority of its adherents’ lives were not too distant from the objects of their worry.
So what happened?
I’ll skip the next half-century, since the tragedy is too well known, and focus instead on the vastly different, contemporary liberal mindset. To be blunt, what strikes us about its recent and most vocal emissaries — politicians such as a Barbara Boxer, John Edwards, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi; or the Hollywood celebrities; or the great fortuned like a Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, or George Soros; or the credentialed technocrats who run the foundations and government agencies, or the high-paid media types in the NY-DC corridor — is how vast apart are the circumstances of their own lives from the objects of their concern. In addition, present-day liberalism finds its most numerous adherents among the upper-middle class suburbanites and those who work for government and enjoy de facto tenure (e.g., the public employee unions, teachers, the public professoriate, etc.).

Let Them Eat Steak

Insulation is the common theme here. To the degree that one’s job insulates one from the vagaries of the marketplace — not just the danger of losing a job, but often the petty humiliation so often integral in making a scarce buck, by selling, peddling, hawking, or working for a business — one is now more likely to support the redistributive state and all its satellite philosophies. And to the degree that one has a good salary and capital, and can buy such insulation — where one lives, where one sends one’s children to school, where one vacations — one is most likely to advocate a sort of politics that will not affect directly oneself. The key then is to insulate oneself from the worry over losing a job and livelihood, either by guaranteed employment or ample wealth. (When the London riots started to hit the “better” sections, then suddenly the police appeared in real numbers and the unapologetic public anger increased.)

In other words, if one opposes charters and vouchers, supports teachers’ unions, praises the present-day public schools, and champions the therapeutic curriculum, one is still hardly likely to put one’s child in the L.A. or Fresno school system. If one is a strong advocate for more state subsidies and redistributive policies, one will not live in an East Palo Alto, an Orange Cove, or the wrong side of St. Louis or Baltimore where the money is aimed. Liberalism is, like all politics, self-interested, embraced by those who receive transfer payments and those in charge of administering the redistributive state. But it also provides psychic exemption to a new upper class and asks little concrete in return — no tutoring of the illegal alien, no side-by-side residency in the Section 8 apartment to help create “community,” no hiring in the progressive law firm of a ghetto intern in lieu of the Yale undergraduate. It is the worst sort of petty hypocrisy: an exemption for the guilty soul through support of the redistributive state aimed at the noble but unapproachable poor —and through a clear disdain for the crass and aspiring middle class, which lacks the taste of the elite and the supposedly tragic nobility of the impoverished and victimized.
I'm reminded of the quote by Orwell: "The notion that you can somehow defeat violence by submitting to it is simply a flight from fact. As I have said, it is only possible to people who have money and guns between themselves and reality." I guess money can insulate you from a lot of crazy beliefs.

I'm reminded of one other quote, by French writer Jean Francois Revel: "A civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself." According to Hanson, the "paleo" liberals were genuinely interested in helping the poor, but they did so without trash-talking their own country and denigrating their fellow Americans. Compare that with today's liberals....

1 comment:

socalmike said...

This is a good post, Darren, and right on the money. I remember as a kid thinking about those around me helping out each other, and never did I think about their politics - it was always about helping. Conservatives help, too, quite a bit, but we don't like being compelled to do so - that's the difference.