John Powers - "A Vision of Our Own" (LA Weekly - January 2005)
Monday, January 24, 2005
John Powers - "A Vision of Our Own" (LA Weekly)
I would quibble with some aspects of the argument in this piece. But overall I think the advice that John Powers offers here to American democrats and progressives, including what now passes for an American "left," is largely correct and important. Especially the following (and especially points #1 and #2):
Yours in struggle,
1. It must reclaim virtue. After the election, you heard endless talk about how Bush won on "values." This wasn’t true — the so-called values vote was no more powerful in 2004 than in earlier years. But what is true is that conservatives are scarily comfortable talking about morality, while the left (still influenced by "scientific" socialism) is made nervous by moral language. Because of this, our political culture’s idea of virtue has been whittled into a sad, mingy thing, a question of private behavior. Yet one historic strength of the left was its belief that morality is also a matter of public virtue — justice, equality, generosity, tolerance. The loss of this idea has been catastrophic. While Republicans rouse their troops by attacking Clinton’s immorality or gay marriage, Democrats couldn’t make hay from the moral outrage of corporate executives (who make 1,000 times their employees’ wages) selling off stock options for top dollar while letting pension funds collapse. Morality should be our issue, not theirs. Where’s The Book of Liberal Virtues?
2. It must reclaim freedom. One of the left’s glories has been its tradition of heroic internationalism, still alive in the anti-globalization movement’s insistence on workers’ rights around the world. (Typically, though, "anti-globalization" sounds negative rather than positive.) But when it comes to foreign policy these days, the left appears lost. I get depressed hearing friends sound like paleocon isolationists or watching them reflexively assume that there’s something inherently tyrannical about the use of American power. It’s not enough to mock Norman Podhoretz’s insistence that the battle with Islamic terrorism is World War IV. Just as the left lacked a coherent position on what to do with murderous despots such as Milosevic and Saddam — it won’t do to say, "They’re bad, but . . ." The left now needs a position on how best to battle a Muslim ideology that, at bottom, despises all the freedoms we should be defending. America should be actively promoting the freedom of everyone on the planet, and the key question is, how would the left do it differently from the Bush administration?
3. It must reclaim pleasure. For the last 30 years, the right’s been having fun — Lee Atwater playing the blues, Rush Limbaugh giving that strangulated laugh, The Weekly Standard running those mocking covers — while the left has been good for you, like eating a big, dry bowl of muesli. This isn’t simply because leftists can be humorless (a quality shared with righteous evangelicals), but because, over the years, they’ve gone from being associated with free love and rock & roll to seeming like yuppified puritans; hence the Gore-Lieberman ticket talked about censoring video games and brainy leftist Thomas Frank tirelessly debunks the pleasure of those who buy anything Cool or find Madonna meaningful. (Clinton was an exception — he enjoyed a Big Mac and an intern as much as the hero of a beer commercial — and he was the one Democrat in recent years that most average Americans really liked.) While the left is correct in talking about the gas-guzzling horror of SUVs, it’s a losing cause to tell a nation full of proud drivers that they should feel guilty about the car they love. Rather than coming off as anti-consumerist puritans in a consumerist culture, the left should be fighting on the side of freedom and pleasure — for instance, arguing that ordinary people should have more time off from the endless hours of work that increasingly devour our souls. This is the kind of idea we should own — and force the right to argue against.
4. Finally, and above all, it must try to reclaim utopia. Back during the horrors of mid-20th-century Germany, the great Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote, "This is not a time to be without wishes." He knew that any successful political action had to begin in hope and dreams. The same is true as we enter the second Bush administration. The right controls the machinery of government and isn’t shy about using it to change the world to make it fit the twin religions that drive it — Christianity and untrammeled free-market economics. To fight such a radical, all-encompassing vision, we need an equally big countervision of our own. I’m not talking about some mad fantasy of heaven on earth (those usually lead to death camps), but a dream bigger than hopes that the Democratic Party will come back into power four years from now. To create the world we want, we have to regain the hopeful belief that we are trying to create a world thrillingly better than the one we now live in. Promising more prescription drugs for seniors just won’t cut it.
January 21-27, 2005
A Vision of Our Own
Four ideas for the left to redefine itself
by John Powers
[Read the article HERE]