The Revealer has a short excerpt from a new Mother Jones article by Garret Keizer. To get the entire article online, you need a subscription – which I don’t have (I’ve been trying hard to reduce the number of periodicals that come to our door). But the whole issue looked good enough – with other articles on, e.g., wildlife management incentives, asthma epidemics, and tax policies – that I bought it when I spotted it at one of my favorite used bookstores.
The article is “Left, Right, & Wrong: What’s missing from the debate over values in America.” It’s like a really good sermon: it shakes you up and inspires you at the same time. The Revealer folks said, “This is not Jim Wallis. This is so much better.” And I have to agree, all due respect to Jim Wallis (I am trying to squeeze in God’s Politics when I finish my assigned reading each night). I know – from talking to friends and reading the (increasingly rare???) comments on this site – that a lot of liberals and progressives are tired and dispirited right now. I include myself in that group. But I was really charged up after reading Keizer. For one thing, it’s just great writing:
The Christian right preaches an extremely selective version of its own creed, long on Leviticus and short on Luke, with scant regard for the prophets and no end of veneration for the profits. Its message goes largely unchallenged, partly through general ignorance of biblical tradition and partly because liberal believers and nonbelievers alike wish to maintain a respectable distance from the rhetoric of fundamentalism. This amounts to a regrettable abandonment of tactics. One of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” was “Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules” – a tough act to pull off if one doesn’t even know the rule book.”
True, the “right” seems to be completely unperturbed by evidence of their own hypocrisies — partly, I sometimes suspect, because they think anything they can get away with must have God’s blessing. Cheat on an election? Hey, if it gets the candidate of the Christian Right elected, then it’s OK!
Keizer takes on liberal reluctance to embrace religious language, noting that just because Bush uses the word “evil” in appalling and offensive ways does not mean liberals should stop using it when the situation calls for it:
Tell me what else you would call the predicament of 9 million American children with no health insurance? An oversight? Is a preemptive war in which thousands of innocent people get blown to pieces simply “a mistake”? Are the annual and largely preventable workplace deaths of nearly twice as many Americans as died on September 11 merely a glitch in human evolution? Does anybody do anything wrong anymore – or is everybody just doing the best that they can, in which case isn’t the most progressive course simply to go with the flow? Perhaps if we wait a billion years, Dick Cheney will be the Dalai Lama.
Whether you choose to call it evil or simply the truth, the widening inequality fostered by the social policies of the right effects the very same “eroion of moral values” from which the right promises to defend us.
But here’s the part I’m still chewing on:
The essential problem of the American left is not that it uses the wrong language or doesn’t read the Bible or doesn’t know how to relate to just-plain folks. The essential problem of the American left is that it has been displaced. Its current position in the liberal imagination is that of a dumped first wife.
What now sleeps on her old side of the bed is a purportedly leftist solution to the same bougeois conundrum that faces the right: namely, how to maintain a semblance of moral decency while enjoying the spoils of a winner-take-all economic system. Or, put another way, how to maintain the illusion that you can be a good person and want a good society without either kind of goodness costing you a dime.
(Pause for reflection.)
The solution of the right, which now masquerades in the costume of “values,” is to locate a domain of bogus moral absolutes at the gray zones of moral decision – e.g., those having to do with prenatal life, terminal illness, matrimonial law, and Oval Office blow jobs – while pursuing a foreign policy based on preemptive violence and a domestic policy based on theft (or whatever is the preferred value-neutral term for the disinheritance of an entire country unto the third and fourth generations).
The current liberal solution is slightly more subtle and perhaps more benign: a multicultural caste system in which people of all races, creeds, genders and sexual orientations eat dinner at the same upscale restaurant (where I eat, too), while people of all races, creeds, genders, and sexual orientations eat dinner out of the garbage Dumpster out back. And the only thing more global than the menu is the crew scrubbing the pots.”
Both solutions are marked by a wily propensity to talk about any kind of conflict except class conflict. Having duly explored the polarities of black and white, male and female, gay and straight, we now distract ourselves by talking ad nauseum about Blue States and Red States, a construction that wants only a Dr. Seuss or a special edition of Dungeons & Dragons to achieve its final apotheosis in the realm of Whoozits and elves. The true enemy of progressivism is not the Red State Voter. The true enemy of progressivism is preciousness.
If the prevailing left-liberal response to the 2004 election is yet another change of position, another revisionist move toward centrist policies, we will have done nothing more than to demonstrate that our theocratic adversaries on the right are right: namely, that the secularist tradition of democratic liberalism lacks a moral core. Democrats seem prepared to subordinate every value to that of winning, failing to realize that they can never win – especially in a time of international terror and domestic disarray – until they subordinate winning to conviction.
I know he’s not the first person since the election to say that. In fact, many of us have in our myriad, clumsy ways. But it really rings out when it follows – as it does here – Keizer’s challenge to the so-called progressive agenda, which he says “has to consist of something more radical than reminding the minimum-wage custodian to sort the recyclables when he takes out the trash…It might mean that we have to relinquish more of our disposable income in order to reduce the numbers of disposable people. It might mean something as radical as saying so.” By the time I finished this article, I felt like I’d just “heard” one of the best sermons of my life (no offense to a few of those very good sermon-givers who happen to read this blog!). It ends on this note:
So what am I saying? I am saying the best way for the left to discover the values suitable to a pluralistic society is in a committed struggle with those forces that are hell-bent on reshaping America as a sentimental Victorian empire where Mammon is Lord and compassion is king and all the luck that any poor person needs is for a rich man to be visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve. This is a struggle that promises to be hard and protracted. It promises that we will live through a formative time, a potentially glorious time – but only if we can accept what Martin Luther King Jr. told us, that a person who has nothing to die for has nothing to live for. If we on the left can conceive of no value worthy of sacrifice, then we live for no worthier purpose than to grouse and grow old. I am finished with the politics of incest and retreat, with wayward glances to Canada and nostalgic mooning over the ’60s and the cyberspace Rapture of the virtual Elect. I am done with equivocal thanksgiving. This is a good moment in which to be alive, or as a Lakota warrior is supposed to have said before riding out to meet a man named George at a river named the Little Bighorn, “It is a good day to die.”