Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Liberal Demagoguery

Leon Wieseltier has a review of Nicholson Baker's new novel, "Checkpoint," in Sunday's "New York Times" book section. This is the novel whose essential plot is a long discussion between "Jay" and "Ben" about killing President Bush.

Wieseltier is the literary editor of "The New Republic," and anchors one of the consistently important sections of that publication, which, as I read it, occupies a space somewhere between Clintonian pro-business Democrats and Bush Administration neocons (real neocons, not the bloody-fanged caricatures of the left).

After reviewing the book itself, Wieseltier take the one step aside that brings him from Baker's plot into the real political world of modern America. And the essay-within-an-essay that he delivers is wonderful:

The striking thing about Jay's analysis of the [Iraq] war -- that it is the consequence of George W. Bush's religiosity, and servility before American corporations, and alliance with neoconservatives who are "not humble enough before the mystery of a foreign country" -- is that it is not Jay's alone. The same account is familiar from newspapers and television shows and Web sites everywhere.

In a sense, Baker has slandered the opposition to George W. Bush by representing it with a disordered mind bent on murder. In this season of ferocity, therefore, it is worth insisting that Bush-hatred is generally not a plot to kill the president. Yet the discussion of Bush-hatred, and of Baker's book, cannot be concluded with a polite absolution.

For the virulence that calls itself critical thinking, the merry diabolization of other opinions and the other people who hold them, the confusion of rightness with righteousness, the preference for aspersion to argument, the view that the strongest statement is the truest statement -- these deformations of political discourse now thrive in the houses of liberalism too. The radicalism of the right has hectored into being a radicalism of the left. The Bush-loving mob is being met with a Bush-hating mob. Liberals are forgetting why liberals are not radicals.

When Jay demands to know how Ben would feel if Bush were killed -- "won't part of you think, He's got it coming to him? Huh?" -- the most that center-left Ben can muster in the way of principle is this: "I don't -- I'm not -- I can't predict how I would react if the president were actually shot," followed by some sensitive mutterings about "the simple sight of any human being stilled." American liberalism, in sum, may be losing its head.

Except for the twisted conclusion that he draws from his dissent, Jay is not, as I say, a stranger in contemporary America. Late in the novel he explains that "we've reached a point beyond the normal -- we've reached a point of intolerability."

The opinion that these are not normal times, that the Bush years are apocalyptic years, is quite common. "We are no longer in the ordinary times we were in when the conservatives took out after Bill Clinton," Janet Malcolm recently explained in a letter to this newspaper. "We are in a time now that is as fearful as the period after Munich." Life in South Egremont, Mass., may be excruciating, but Malcolm's knowledge of the period after Munich has plainly grown dim.

And who, in her ominous analogy, is Hitler? If it is Osama bin Laden, then she might have a little sympathy for the seriousness of this administration about American security, whatever her views about some of its policies. If it is George W. Bush. ... Well, she continues: "Those of us who are demonizing George W. Bush are doing so not because of his morals but because we are scared of what another four years of his administration will do to this country and to the world." So whether or not Bush is Hitler, he is a devil. This is what now passes for smart.

The signs of the degradation are everywhere. In a new anthology of anti-Bush writings by distinguished journalists and commentators and a senator (Kennedy) and a congressman (Dingell), the pages are ornamented with exhilarating anagrams such as "The Republicans: Plan butcheries?" and "Donald Henry Rumsfeld: Fondly handles murder." The back cover thoughtfully calls Rumsfeld a "war pig."

In an advertisement that proudly lists "recent contributors," The New York Review of Books suddenly names Noam Chomsky, who has not appeared in its pages in decades; but this is the glory in which the journal apparently wishes to bask again. Al Gore denounces Abu Ghraib as "the Bush gulag," and Moveon.org publishes a huge ad instructing that "The Communists had Pravda. Republicans have Fox." And so on. All this is not much of a height from which to fall to the juxtaposition of pictures of Bush with pictures of Hitler in a recent concert by Black Sabbath, to gloss a song also called "War Pigs."

It is true that the Bush campaign recently ran an advertisement on the Internet that mixed Hitler's image with the images of various Democrats. But so what? Even if the Republicans are reaping what they sowed, these weeds should be allowed to die in the field. (Even Jay concedes about Bush that "of course he's not as bad as Hitler.")

Liberals must think carefully about their keenness to mirror some of the most poisonous qualities of their adversaries. It was never exactly a disgrace to American liberalism that it lacked its Limbaugh. But demagoguery now enjoys a new prestige. Thus, a prominent liberal thinker writes a book against George W. Bush that refreshingly prefers ideas to innuendoes, and a sympathetic reviewer in this newspaper laments that "instead of 'Reason,' which the left already has too much of, the Democrats need a book titled 'Brass Knuckles.' "

The argument for liberal demagoguery is twofold, tactical and philosophical. There are those who believe the Democrats cannot succeed without the politics of the sewer. These are the same people who believe it is the politics of the sewer to which the Republicans owe their success. This view significantly underestimates the depth and the nature of George W. Bush's support in American society, and significantly overestimates the influence of the media and its pundit vaudeville on American politics. Rush Limbaugh did not elect a president and neither will Michael Moore. All the professional manipulation of opinion notwithstanding, reality is still more powerful than its representations. If it is not, then all politics is futile.

The philosophical argument for liberal demagoguery is that it is merely an expression, or an exaggeration, of American democracy. But then this must be true also of conservative demagoguery, which also claims to speak (but rather less plausibly) in the voice of the common man. It is when politics becomes a competition in populist credentials that demagoguery, and the sophistry of the slippery slope, flourishes, and the voice of the common man is stolen.

The demagogue's gravest sin is not incivility, it is stupidity. Does the Bush administration love capitalism too much? But it is also possible to love capitalism too little. The greatness of capitalism, after all, is that it may be politically corrected. Was American power used improperly, or for ill, in Iraq? But it is also possible for American power to be used properly, and for good. Is the friendly opinion of the world a condition of American security? Often, but not always.

The incompetence of the Bush administration in world affairs, too much of which was ideologically ordained, does not alter the fact that the United States must sometimes deploy overwhelming force against extreme wickedness. It will be disastrous, for liberalism and for America, if the indignation against George W. Bush becomes an excuse for a great simplification, for a delirious release from the complexities of historical and political understanding that it took the American left decades to learn.

The good news is that the politics of Bush-hatred may be at odds with the culture of Bush-hatred. Neither John Kerry nor John Edwards appears to live in the universe in which "Checkpoint" was set or in the universe in which "Checkpoint" was written. Whatever the merit of their opposition to the Bush administration, the spirit of their opposition is not dark. They are not taking the radical bait. This is admirable not only on strategic grounds. When the Democratic candidate for president criticizes the conduct of the American war in Iraq but recognizes the catastrophic consequences of an American withdrawal, he is practicing the lost art of opposing two errors, two evils, at the same time. There are many good reasons to wish to be rid of George W. Bush, but there are no good reasons to wish to be rid of intelligence in our public life.