There's a certain kind of liberal who gets upset when people on the left exhibit intense feelings. This is the kind of liberal who talks a lot about "civility" and frets continually about the possibility that left-wing "loonies" spouting "anger" and "conspiracy theories" will alienate middle-of-the-road voters and thereby help Republicans get elected.
This kind of liberal believes that being polite and restrained and moderate and reasonable will not only elevate our national discouse but will also pave the way to Democratic electoral victories.
Today's case in point: Richard Cohen of The Washington Post, who is feeling understandably uptight because of the hostile reaction he received to a recent column, in which he declared, as a self-proclaimed expert on humor, that Steven Colbert's performance at the White House Correspondent's Dinner was not funny. The thousands of angry emails he has gotten--prompted, he believes, by vitriol from the left wing of the blogosphere--illustrates why Americans can't abide the angry left and will therefore vote Republican in the upcoming elections.
It's an interesting theory. I wonder how Cohen explains the Republican victories in 1980 and 1984 and 1988 and 1994 and 2000 and 2002 and 2004. For most of that time, there was no blogosphere to speak of, and little sign of the angry left. In fact, for several of those elections, the big media story was "angry white men" who were joining the right-wing culture army, rallying behind Pat Buchanan, forming militias and border patrols, tuning in to Rush Limbaugh, signing up for the Christian Coalition, lashing back against affirmative action and "political correctness," and protesting abortion rights and judicial activism. Remember all the cover stories analyzing those angry white men and their profound economic and cultural grievances? I sure do.
Funny, but all that seething anger from the right didn't seem to cost the Republicans a lot of elections. In fact, over the past two decades, whenever the Democrats came close to winning elections, Republican operatives like Karl Rove redoubled their efforts to energize their base of angry white males, using phony issues like flag burning and gay marriage and the "war on Christmas"--just to make sure the anger didn't subside before the next election day. And for this, Rove was hailed as a genius in the mainstream media.
So I guess anger is only a turn-off when it comes from the left.
I remember hearing from the polite and reasonable liberals--Richard Cohen's counterparts--back in the 1960s. They subscribed to a double standard then, too. They were constantly warning about the terrible danger to American democracy posed by "anger" and "violence" from the left. It scared them so much that they tacitly or explicitly supported efforts by people like J. Edgar Hoover and the Johnson and Nixon administrations to demonize left-wing groups and target them for infilitration, investigation, harrassment, and prosecution.
Those polite, centrist liberals were oh so concerned that civil rights "agitators" would alienate well-meaning whites and set back the progress that Blacks had made. And angry talk about "Black Power" and "self-defense" by groups like the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims evoked thousands of words from the polite liberals about the danger to the nation posed by these "violent," "anarchistic" organizations. Meanwhile, oddly enough, only Blacks were dying on the front lines of the civil rights struggle, from Emmitt Till and Medgar Evers to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
Throughout the sixties, the same liberals fretted about the "hatred" and "violence" they feared from New Left groups like SDS. They urged those opposed to the Vietnam War to "work within the system" and do nothing to shake the foundations of our precious democracy. Yet oddly enough, there were practically no victims of politically-motivated violence in the sixties except liberal Democrats like the Kennedys or antiwar activists like the five kids murdered by the National Guard at Kent State.
A teenager at the time, I could never understand why, every time someone on the left got murdered for his beliefs, the government and the mainstream media declared it was time for a crackdown . . . on the left.
Now here it is, forty years later, and it's deja vu all over again. We're again mired in a pointless war based on government lies and saddled with a right-wing administration bent on stifling dissent, eliminating oversight by Congress and the Courts, evading Constitutional limits on its power, and using extra-legal violence against those it declares enemies.
In these dire circumstances, the overarching danger, according to the polite and reasonable liberals like Richard Cohen, is incivility from the left.
I just edited a selection of articles by the great I. F. Stone, who had more journalistic genius in his pinky (his left pinky of course) than any three Richard Cohens. Stone was a learned, intensely rational man who deployed historical insight and a deep wisdom about human nature in his political writings--a humanist in every sense of the word. He would have shared Cohen's discomfort with the over-the-top anger that one sometimes encounters in the blogosphere (on the left and the right).
But Stone also had a sense of proportion. In 1970, when the right was cracking down on dissent with the tacit approval of polite and well-meaning liberals, he wrote a great column titled, "Only the Bums Can Save the Country Now."
"Bums," of course, was what right-wingers like Nixon and Agnew called those who dared to get angry over what was being done to their country. Those bums were marching in the streets, chanting obscene slogans and demanding politically impossible things like an end to the draft, equal rights for Blacks, withdrawal from Vietnam, and the impeachment of Nixon. Loony stuff, you see.
I. F. Stone wasn't one to block traffic or chant obscene slogans or throw balloons filled with blood on the walls of draft board offices. He channeled his anger at the right into startling, fact-filled exposes and pages of vivid, white-hot prose. But he also knew better than to turn up his nose at the incivility of those bums in the street. He would have known, in times like these, where the real obscenities--and the real dangers to American democracy--can be found.
Tags: Richard Cohen, civility, I. F. Stone