GELFAND’S WORLD--Two articles separated by a year have been published in CityWatch under the twin titles Why I Left . . . the Left (Aug 28, 2017) and more recently, One Year Later: Why I Left . . . the Left (August 30, 2018).
Author Kevin Suscavage is to be complimented for raising issues about how the left side of the political spectrum presents itself to the world. However, I would like to suggest that the author's critique is itself subject to critique because there is a better way of defining how the choice between liberalism and conservatism should be made.
Briefly, the question as to whether I think of myself as belonging to the right or the left ought to depend on what core principles are represented by each of the alternatives. If I see that the fundamental posture of American liberalism is how I want the country to evolve, then I should identify myself as an American liberal, and the personal rhetorical styles of other liberals ought to be a lot less important in making the decision.
How then should we define liberalism as this word is meant in the United States? A little introspection will show that liberalism is the willingness to recognize that there are problems that are important enough to require our attention (poverty among the elderly, racism in our governmental institutions, environmental degradation), that some of these problems are susceptible to being changed, and that we have a moral obligation to engage in changing them.
As a corollary, we recognize that it can be appropriate for the central government to participate in the creation of such remedies. For example, it was common up until the 1960s that retired and elderly people were left without proper medical care for lack of income. Medicare has turned out to be an expensive solution, but it works.
Traditional conservatism (for example the point of view once exhibited by William F. Buckley and his colleagues) resists such change and treats resistance to change as a general principle. The conservatives can make a logical-sounding argument to the effect that our social and governmental institutions exist for a reason, and that destruction of social and legal mores such as Jim Crow is merely to be destructive. I disagree with this point of view, but both sides should recognize that our disagreement is on the level of morality and value judgment -- that is to say it's about the fundamental principles rather than whether Buckley used an odd form of the English language.
This is my fundamental disagreement with the argument set forth by Suscavage. I recognize the concerns he raises about rhetorical excess coming from the left, but I think he went a bit far. To take just a few of his concerns:
Suscavage began his 2017 piece by criticizing the mass protest marches aimed against the Trump presidency. He found fault with the suggestion coming from the march's organizers that protesters refrain from getting into discussions with Trump supporters. I fail to see the problem with such a suggestion, since there can (and should) be plenty of chances for such dialogue under carefully negotiated circumstances. But we have plenty of examples of how such "dialogues" work out in the context of public marches, not the least being the violent confrontations over Civil War monuments. We have had fights, beatings, and one case of vehicular homicide. Moreover, as Suscavage admits, the LAPD does its best to separate the opposing factions on the day of the parade.
Suscavage treats the request to avoid confrontation as something more sinister: "They are basically saying, 'If you support anything 'Trump' and if you are a woman, you have NO PLACE in a march to honor the INDIVISIBILITY of woman' God, I hope logic will 'Trump' emotion, and soon."
No. This was an attempt to cooperate with the LAPD, to avoid violent confrontation, and to run a peaceful, effective rally.
I suppose I could point out the fact that Donald Trump delights in calling for protesters to be thrown out of his own rallies, and his supporters have gone so far as to menace reporters. But we are talking about liberalism here, so the tu quoque argument is less appropriate. Still, the idea that a liberal protest march must include all manner of reactionaries, racists, and misogynists strikes me as strange.
Suscavage goes on to criticize the use of the term "resist" as anti-Trump forces have used it. Suffice it to say that there are strong reasons for resisting -- not the least being Trump's attacks on the free press and the courts -- and that Trump's own rhetoric at the beginning of his presidency implied a real danger that the United States would move in the direction of Fascism. Best selling books made this case in careful and logical ways.
You may disagree with this concern (and I'd like to think that by this point, the concern has somewhat abated), but it was quite real at the time.
In the more recent piece, Suscavage points out that the misuse of terms such as Nazi can confuse young children. He develops an argument implying that some children could misunderstand to the extent that they would fail to treat the real history of Naziism in its full horror. While conceding that this might happen -- rarely -- I must point out that I don't hear a lot of use of the term Nazi coming from the anti-Trump folks except when they point out the number of Trump supporters who wear swastikas and shout out American-Nazi slogans. There is an increasing use of the term Racist which is fact based. Trump's history over decades, his personal attacks on African Americans, and his support of voter suppression are all consistent with this terminology.
Suscavage also makes the point that (at least in his estimate) close to 90% of the mainstream media are opposed to Trump. To dust off the old joke, he says this as if it were a bad thing-- whereas I see the media gradually coming around to pointing out the uncomfortable truth that Trump lies habitually and maliciously.
Suscavage dusts off a couple of old jokes. "If President Trump found a cure for cancer, the CNN headline would read, 'Trump Cures Cancer . . . It took Long Enough, and He's Still a Racist." In the more recent article, Suscavage dusts off the old joke that if Trump were observed to walk on water, the CNN headline would read "Amazing Aquatic Occurrence where Donald Trump proves . . . He Can't Even Swim."
The underlying implication seems to be that Trump does good things and never gets any respect from the mainstream media. Allow me to disagree. Trump does a lot of bad things and very few good things. The fact that the mass media is beginning to point out just how bad it has gotten is, to me, a good thing. If Trump were to accomplish something really momentous such as bringing peace to the Korean peninsula or to the middle east, why then we would see how the bulk of the American people would react. To imagine that the media would be critical of a Trump success is speculative at best. Besides, to return to the tu quoque approach, the Republicans were vicious about Obama no matter what he accomplished, and they continue to lie about him obsessively.
To return to the main point, the question as to whether or not I am a liberal should depend on what liberalism stands for, not whether some of my fellow liberals are inadequate in the way they express themselves. At a deeper level, I would point out that liberalism is always going to be more complex than conservatism because there will always be some disagreement as to how the future should be designed. Conservatism is easier because it's merely a defense of the status quo (when it isn't a reactionary response to liberal improvements).
This complexity is apparent in Suscavage's concerns about the labeling of restroom facilities. He mentions that someone has identified more than 60 genders, and then extends this observation to the argument over who gets to use which bathroom. This is, of course, not what the real world argument is about. It's about the question of where transgender individuals have access. The right wing has intentionally confused the issue by suggesting that heterosexual males could contrive to use the ladies' facilities. The right wing seems to have an obsession with all manner of perversions, but to repeat, this is not the real argument. As in so many other cases, it involves the identification of a real problem faced by real people, and it further involves the ongoing discussion of possible remedies.
The issue of where we go from here is obviously complex. I would point out that the most obvious subject for a new liberal remedy is the American system for disbursing medical care. The problem of surprise billing -- where ordinary, working people are stuck with hospital bills running to hundreds of thousands of dollars -- is a big problem, and it will require a substantial revamping of the system. The point is that liberals talk about the problem and are looking for solutions, whereas American conservatism has concentrated its fire on trying to regain the pre-ACA status quo.
All this having been said, I think the two articles by Suscavage raise some real issues, not the least of which is his statement that he supports some definably liberal positions such as defense of the environment. If that is the case, does he defend Trump's cabinet appointments to Interior and the EPA?
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)