TCS Daily


A Liberal Trademark

By Frederick Turner - June 3, 2003 12:00 AM

I have smelled the stink of fear in the most unlikely places.

In polite liberal gatherings of very nice academics, well-paid writers, journalists, even lawyers (who need fear nothing, surely) I have sensed a special kind of fear. It resembles, but is subtly different from, the unease that I dimly remember from my communist youth in the old British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, where if one said the wrong thing it might contradict the party line as it came down to us from time to time from Stalin's Moscow, together with the disguised funds that kept the office going.

It also resembles the fear I was taught to feel in Prime Minister Daniel Malan's South Africa, where as a boy I nearly got my parents arrested for saying loudly in a bus that "Malan is a bad man. He won't let the Africans have their own country." More recently I felt it visiting the PEN Club in Budapest before the fall of the Iron Curtain, where you had to watch what you said because there were still Soviet tanks in the countryside.

But what is this whiff of fear doing in the good old USA? I was at a party in the Northeast recently with the nicest people you could imagine. The conversation got on to Bush and Iraq, and at first it looked and sounded as if it was unanimously liberal. Bush was "scary," Texas was a dark and terrible place, the Iraq war was a catastrophe, it was all about oil, it boded the most terrible consequences for world peace. I started innocently asking awkward questions and citing awkward fact. At first people just tried to put me right, as if I hadn't understood. Then it looked as if the subject would be dropped; I had no desire to pursue it, preferring literary or scientific or philosophical questions anyway. I really didn't want to spoil the mood of the party, and people were beginning to look uneasy.

But then something odd happened. Somebody else started doing the same thing as I had, asking awkward questions, reminding people gently of facts they had forgotten; and then it turned out that this man's wife, who'd been silent, was quite fiercely in favor of the war and of free markets and democratic government. This couple had earlier struck me immediately as the most confident and intelligent guests present, though they were very quiet; and they were not yahoos at all, indeed they looked impressively Ivy League. The unease grew in the room. People shifted in their chairs and looked anxiously at the door.

Then another woman, who had been "going along" in order to be polite, turned out to have doubts of her own about the liberal agenda. The lovely mood of unanimity and solidarity was over. A couple of liberals slunk out into another room in order not to be contaminated. But then there was a real discussion, with fair expression of different arguable views on all sides - just as the Constitution intended.

I had two reactions. One was a sudden recognition that more and more people had been "coming out of the closet" in the way that the three people had, who had been so bold as to support George Bush. Michael Kinsey had done it in Slate. Dennis Miller had done it on Comedy Central. But their recognizable courage implies a prior risk. Why the fear in the first place? I had noticed it before, but the question needed answering. After all, these liberals at the party were people with the equivalent of tenure, living in a free country with all sorts of protection of speech - not like the communist party or totalitarian racist South Africa in the old days. What were they afraid of?

The fear, as I began to examine it, had two flavors. One was the same as the fear I had experienced in South Africa, in the communist party, in Hungary. It was fear for one's future, one's career. Even tenured faculty have lost their jobs and been disgraced because of an impolitic remark during the height of political correctness - I have known some of the hapless victims. One man, a friend whose health was poor, had been hounded, completely innocent, to his death by a whole conspiracy of gossip, secret caucuses and official administrative action. Milan Kundera, the Czech dissident writer "internally exiled" by the communist regime, would have understood the fear. The Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz describes what he calls "Ketman consciousness," the mask of enthusiastic support for the regime that ensured one's livelihood in Soviet Eastern Europe:

"Today man believes there is nothing in him, so he accepts anything, even if he knows it to be bad, in order to find himself at one with others, in order not to be alone. . . . But suppose one should try to live without Ketman, to challenge fate, to say: 'If I lose, I shall not pity myself.' Suppose one can live without outside pressure, suppose one can create one's own inner tension; then it is not true that there is nothing in man. To take this risk would be an act of faith."

Fear has become a liberal trademark. The Pulitzer Prizewinning New York Times reporter Chris Hedges used one of the favorite liberal words when, as invited speaker, having launched into a tirade against American imperialism and militarism at the commencement ceremony of Rockford College, he characterized the resultant outpouring of grief and outrage as "frightening." This word is becoming almost a trademark of liberal fear, as my friend Terry Ponick points out. "Scary" is preferred by female columnists. In the academy, "troubling," "disturbing" and "alarming" have the same atmosphere of impending reprisals about them.

But there is another flavor in the fear. I recognized it with astonishment, and once I did, it was unmistakable. It was the fear of losing one's class standing, of being "cut" by one's "set," of being labeled not quite "pukka," not quite "our sort," a loss of caste. What had happened, I realized, was something absolutely astonishing; that in some way the cultural revolution of the '60s had begun an attempt to reinstitute a class system that America had, out of its own inner nature and best genius, rejected. Rejected in the American Revolution, rejected in the Civil War, rejected in the decision to welcome immigration from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe and China, rejected in the Civil Rights movement. But still the urge toward the pleasures of snobbery kept reasserting itself in new forms; this time it was a snobbery of radical liberal intellectuals in the university, the school system, the press, the judiciary, and the charitable foundations, with wannabes in government, the caring professions, and even the hipper reaches of the corporate campus.

Aspiring middle-class folk adopt this snobbery in order to sound "Ivy"; Ivy people wear it like a comfortable old pair of $500 loafers; the rich, once the best educated people around, put it on in order to keep up with the better-educated professionals that define its canons.

So Eustace Tilley, the gentleman with the monocle on the cover of The New Yorker, is now the heir of Berkeley's Sproul Plaza protests, beards and beads and all. You can see the class system evolving in the movie "The Big Chill," where William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, and Meg Tilley all articulated its characteristic cool and style. Of course it has settled down since then, and has adapted to tweeds and fume blanc and Francophilia. It is an entirely unconscious snobbery, and thus it cannot be recognized and laughed at - which makes its potential loss only the more "frightening" for being a nameless terror, a shapeless menace. Déclassé - what fate could be more terrible, especially if one has no vocabulary to recognize it as such and to construct a rational defense against its threat? This is why they slink away from real debate, to rejoin the company of the "like-minded."

Over the years all the real arguments for the left-liberal position, involving evidence and rational deliberation, have been exploded one by one. Thus rational discussion itself has become a sign of bad taste, of a pugnacious Appalachian kind of insensitivity, with a hint of a possible tendency to tobacco chewing, gun racks, talk radio, pickup trucks, wife-beaters and incest. There is left but one simple rule for the new upper crust: by all means prefer victims to oppressors, but always prefer oppressors to true liberators.

The class rationale for this odd paradox is complex. Karl Marx was right when he identified the phenomenon of a class having policies even when none of its members would necessarily recognize them - and the people I am talking about here are eminently nice, even good people, who would be horrified by the class motives they serve. But here it is: their class privileges are preserved by means of the continued existence and allegiance of a peon caste who will vote for the upper crust's leaders at home, and confuse and frustrate the great class enemy, the U.S. military, abroad. (If you want to "shock and awe" one of these folks, just mention that your son is in the Army. The look of horror is instantaneous, though it vanishes quickly.)

True liberators, as we can now see, would deprive the world of victims, and thus dry up the supply of peons that constitute the new class's constituency. This is why, even though the new class disliked Saddam Hussein, they hate Bush infinitely more. Just as Palestinian refugee camps justify the failures and secure the tenure of Arab despots, so the poor and downtrodden of the world justify the ascendancy of the new upper crust. At home, school vouchers are opposed in the teeth of the urban poor that want them, because decent education might help put an end to the urban poor who vote for upper crust leaders. The same goes for the inclusion of privatization in the Social Security portfolio, and any form of tax relief that might result in turning the majority of Americans into owners, and into people too proud to consider themselves victims. And without victims, where would Lady Bountiful be then?

If one has had the privileges - or aspires to them - of a "liberal" education in the post-1960s academy, the privileges of "set" and caste, one subconsciously doubts whether one's own talents would sustain one if one were cast out. One's unexamined intellectual premises have an unsound feel to them, so that one doesn't want to "go there." It's not what you know, but who you know, so the greatest terror is to be shunned by the in-group. And this is where the fear comes from.

In this light it seems rather amazing that, as I and others have begun to notice, so many people are coming out of the closet and daring to ask why the emperor is wearing no clothes. Has the courageous spirit of our young men and women warriors started to revitalize the intellectual kidney of the home country? What is going on here?
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