What Motivates Phony Attacks on Liberal "Phoniness"?
There's been quite a spate of newspaper columns recently accusing liberals of hypocrisy.
First, there was Robert Samuelson in WaPo, deriding liberals for driving the Prius. (As you may know, this is now a personal insult in our home.) Samuelson calls the hybrid "a hippy car" and "a fashion statement," a way for liberals to compensate for lacking the guts to push for the tough political measures that are really necessary to avert global warming--measures that include enacting tougher automotive mileage standards so as to reduce auto emissions.
Of course, Samuelson ignores the fact that the Prius actually performs up to tougher mileage standards today, thereby reducing auto emissions immediately, which might seem to undermine the contention that owning a Prius is a meaningless symbolic gesture. One might also think that the fact that Samuelson himself has consistently opposed tough political measures to avert global warming also undermines his criticism. But never mind. The column may have been devoid of logic, but it provided Samuelson with an opportunity to mock liberals, which evidently was his only real purpose.
Then there was this article by Noam Schreiber in The New Republic. Schreiber attacks John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama for their stance on the legal loophole that allows hedge-fund managers to pay taxes at a lower rate than ordinary workers. All three advocate eliminating the loophole--and they do so despite the fact that they've raised campaign money from hedge-fund managers who benefit from the loophole.
Now, Schreiber actually agrees with the stance taken by the three Democrats. But he's annoyed with them because their position has not proven to be politically suicidal. Schreiber complains that the Democrats' pro-tax stance is not "heroic" because it hasn't harmed the party's fund-raising efforts:
According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, employees of the eleven firms represented by the Private Equity Council, an industry lobbying group, gave Democrats 51 percent of their $2.7 million in political contributions in 2000. Democrats spent the next several years opposing George W. Bush's income tax cuts for the affluent, along with his efforts to cut the capital gains tax and the tax on dividend income. All of these measures dramatically lowered taxes for the private-equity-fund set. And, when all was said and done, giving by Private Equity Council members had shifted dramatically--toward Democrats. The firms gave 69 percent of their $3.4 million in political contributions to Democrats in 2006. Suffice it to say, there's little evidence from the last six years that rich fund managers take offense when Democrats try to raise their taxes.This means, Schreiber concludes, that the candidates' position on taxes is "pretty costless," and a form of self-righteousness that the media should "call them on."
Evidently the spectacle of liberals adopting a policy position that Schreiber agrees with leaves him totally unimpressed--unless they are made to pay a heavy political price for it. I guess Schreiber would be really turned on by a replay of the Mondale or Dukakis candidacy. Now there were candidates who did a great job of alienating potential supporters! What heroism!
Today, the third piece of the trifecta fell into place: Stanley Fish's latest column in the Times, which uses (of all things) ABC's forthcoming sitcom about the Geico cavemen as a platform for attacking liberals who worry about discrimination against racial minorities. (I'm not sure how a bunch of comedy writers became representatives of political liberalism, but I guess this makes sense in Fish's universe.) To mount his attack, Fish leans on logic borrowed from The Trouble With Diversity by Walter Benn Michaels:
Michaels's big point is that Americans, especially Americans on the left, love discrimination. Not that they love to practice discrimination; they love to deplore the fact of discrimination. And they love to propose strategies for lessening it: affirmative action, the celebration of diversity, the promotion of a culture of respect.Quite an insight! Those liberals who deplore racism certainly are phonies. If they really cared about Black people, they wouldn't be fussing over racist attitudes. Instead, they would support policies that could make a genuine difference in the lives of poor Blacks. They'd oppose massive tax cuts for the affluent and would favor using the higher tax revenues generated to support programs for housing, health care, and better education. They'd defend Medicaid, Head Start, infant nutrition programs, job training initiatives, and similar programs. In short, if liberals were sincere, they would back the entire conservative platform for combating poverty rather than opposing it as they do. Oh, wait a minute . . .
The reason we love those strategies, Michaels says, is that they involve cosmetic changes that allow us to feel good about ourselves while also allowing us to turn our eyes away from the economic inequalities that remain untouched as we busily respect everyone in sight.
Respect is an easy coin to proffer; it doesn't cost much.
Michaels argues that if we think "racism is the problem we need to solve," all we have to do to solve it is "give up our prejudices." But if we think our problem is that too many people are poor, hungry, homeless and uneducated, solving that problem "might require us to give up our money."
However, the three columns illustrate the fact that a large number of people with prominent platforms in the mainstream media find liberals personally distasteful. They don't necessarily disagree with liberal ideas; in fact, these writers often claim to agree with them. However, they associate "liberalism" with personal qualities they profess to abhor, such as "hypocrisy," "posturing," and "preening."
Yet it's difficult to see how any actual hypocrisy, posturing, or preening by liberals is involved in the cases these writers angrily cite. Are Prius owners "hypocritical" because they drive a car that actually reduces carbon emissions? Are Clinton, Obama, and Edwards "posturing" because they advocate a tax policy that most people agree would be fair and effective? Are liberals who deplore racism and are willing to back up their beliefs with genuine social action "preening"? I don't see how. (And I certainly don't see how liberals deserve labels like "hypocritical," "posturing," and "preening" more than conservatives who use "family values" as a cudgel against their political opponents . . . but I digress.)
The truth is that the "liberals" being derided by Samuelson, Schreiber, and Fish have done absolutely nothing wrong. Their sole offense is taking a public position on something on avowedly moral grounds. Liberals oppose reckless pollution of the atmosphere, tax loopholes for the rich, and racial bigotry because it's the right thing to do. But saying so offends cynical columnists--especially conservative ones--because it challenges one of their cherished assumptions: namely, that self-interest is the only real motivation behind any public behavior.
Being cynical columnists, they can't wrap their minds around the idea that someone might actually care enough about doing the right thing to behave in ways that conflict with pure self-interest. Yet liberals do this all the time. (My taxes will go up if the liberal policies I advocate are enacted.) The only way for the cynics to resolve the resulting cognitive dissonance is to assert the phoniness of the liberal positions.
And so the cynical columnists set out to demonstrate that phoniness--facts and logic notwithstanding.