STINK OF FEAR

Frederick Turner has a long post on liberalism, political correctness, and social class. Glenn likes it. Ogged doesn’t and semi-Fisks it. I find Turner’s essay interesting if not entirely original and, while I agree with Ogged that it makes some problematic logical leaps, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the arguments are thereby worthless.

The first part of Turner’s essay, wherein he argues that there a pockets within America’s cultural elite where being openly conservative or Republican can be, to say the least, uncomfortable, is unassailable.

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’ve certainly had this feeling. In most academic settings, especially in the “elite” schools, this mindset prevails. This is not to say that there aren’t vast pockets where liberals would feel uncomfortable–clearly there are–but they are not in the Ivy League, the most influential newspapers, the most prestigious media outlets, or other places where the self-appointed “best and brightest” gather.

Turner also notes a phenomenon that I have observed as well, of former lefties “coming out of the closet” and supporting causes associated with Republicans. While I’m sure there have been many examples that escaped my attention, Chris Matthews coming out against Bill Clinton may have been the first that I noticed. Certainly the emergence of Dennis Miller as a conservative pop icon is a new one. Or the fact that Christopher Hitchens has gone from the Extreme Left* to one of the most eloquent proponents of the Iraq War.

The rest of the column–and, to be fair, this is the part Ogged comments on–is somewhat more problematic. While I agree with Turner that there does appear to be a certain amount of fearmongering on the left, it is vastly overstated here:

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.

The ridiculous overreaction to the stupidity of the Dixie Chicks certainly demonstrates that plenty of folks on the Right use similar tactics.

Ugged hates this paragraph:

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.

Ugged is correct that the first sentence begs the question since it assumes facts not in evidence. Frankly, I accept it at face value because I have a good idea what Turner is trying to convey and largely agree; but it isn’t going to win any converts. The remainder of the paragraph is, in my judgment, quite indicative of how the Intellectually Superior denizens of Blue America view those in Red America. (See David Brooks‘ superb piece.) UOgged hates the “thus” in the paragraph, writing

What is that “thus” doing? What mountains of imputed motives are squeezed into that word? And how is it that the legacy of the 60’s, with its particularly Jewish disputatiousness, has become what has traditionally been identified in America with WASPs? And if Turner is correct that such a change has occurred, isn’t the WASPing of the Jews our clue that what we’re seeing is the becoming complacent of a new affluent class that has nothing to do with their beliefs?

I’m honestly not seeing any anti-Semitic undertone in Turner’s piece. Rather, I see a very abbreviated version of what John Stuart Mill argued in his essay On Liberty, namely that unpopular views can be suppressed through ridicule just as easily as by government censorship:

But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant — society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.

From all this, though, Turner comes to a conclusion that is rather bizarre: That the liberal elite takes positions which harm the underclass, not because they are mistaken in their judgment as to the best policy, but intentionally in order to preserve a peon class that requires the lordship of the liberal elite. While I think this may be true of the Al Sharpton’s of the world, I’ll need substantially more evidence before I believe it’s true of any significant portion of the Ivy League professoriate.

*Despite my post yesterday noting the problems with the Left-Right dichotomy, I’m going to continue to use it as a shorthand until better language overtakes it in the popular discourse.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. ogged says:

    Who you calling Ugged? There’s another semi-defender of Turner over in the comments at Unfogged.

    One clarification: I’m not saying in any way that Turner is being anti-semitic. Just that it’s funny to hear someone claim that a movement with what I think you could pretty uncontroversially call a “Jewish sensibility,” is being characterized in terms that have normally been applied to WASPs.