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Excuse Me Sir, You Forgot Something


That group of (mainly) East Coast contributors who James Wolcott has (gleefully) dubbed the “Hair Club for Men” got all wound up this past week over a long and thoughtful essay Peter Beinart wrote for the publication he edits, The New Republic.
Beinart’s essay said, in essence, what his magazine has been saying for years: Democrats need to move to the middle and get with the rest of the country. They need to jettison – forcibly — the peace-loving, Hate-America “soft” left represented by the MoveOns and the Michael Moores and become a party that embraces the real world. Democrats – Beinart cites Americans for Democratic Action’s WWII anti-communist Liberals — need to change their tune and articulate the need for an aggressive stance toward Islamic fundamentalism. They need to understand that the U.S. role in the world often means it must wage war. And they need to be proud of those things.

Beinart’s piece should be seen as the intellectual parallel of the fight that’s being waged to control the Democratic Party. He is airing in high-minded foreign policy language the conflict between Corporate Democrats and the Progressive Nostalgics. Corporate Democrats, as a rule, think moving right is a good idea; that’s what they think they need to do to win and The New Republic has always been their house organ. Progressive Nostalgics prefer the high Lefty ground which looks back to the 1960′s anti-war movement when virtue triumphed and Beinart is right to criticize them but not for the reasons he spells out. Because Beinart’s essay is a fine exercise in post World War II Liberal American history but it’s got some 21st Century flaws.
The White Man of the Web, Mickey Kaus, a Hair Club member in good standing, has breezed by some of the better points. Kaus first spotted the problem with Beinart’s equating Islamic fundamentalism and communism by talking about the elusive nature of what are, essentially on-line organizations bent on terrorizing their enemies through any violent means possible. Remember all that pie-in-the-sky idealism about how states won’t be necessary because we’ll all be on line, easily able to communicate and resolve our differences? Al Queda is that utopian visions’ dark and evil side. Kaus is also calling attention to the conflict between Liberals’ support of gay marriage and the horror that idea might arouse in other cultures. Of course, Kaus suggests that’s a reason Democrats abandon gay marriage. Another great piece of retro-reasoning.
Kaus is right on the first point however. Beinart’s essay doesn’t recognize that the current conflict between the West and Islam isn’t a state-to-state fight.That’s a failing at the White House, too, and it’s a weakness Muscular Liberals should take advantage of as they – finally! – make the distinction between fighting terrorism and the Iraqi War. Beinart does a good job tracing the Kerry campaign’s unsuccessful efforts in this direction but he gets bogged down in blaming Lefty peaceniks and doesn’t put the blame where it squarely belongs: NONE of the Democratic candidates could articulate the difference between the need to defend the country and people from terrorism and the need to invade Iraq. My professional Democrat buddies tell me this is too fine a distinction for the American public to grasp. I’m not so sure. Even if it is, I’m very sure it should not be abandoned. One man’s terrorism is another woman’s fight for civil liberties and this country better find a way to distinguish between the two as, more and more, networks, not states, wage these fights. The failure to make a similar sort of distinction got us – whether Corporate Democrats like Beinart like this parallel or not — into Vietnam, and it can and it will lead to more Iraqs.
Democrats have failed. But not for the reasons Beinart articulates. Since 9/11/2001 Democrats like Beinart, his fellow TNR alums – now calling themselves “Liberal Hawks” — didn’t do what the two-party system is supposed to do. The didn’t provide a stop-gap for a panicked and emotionally overwrought nation as it was rushed, pell-mell into war. Unsure of what Americans wanted and even less sure of the course of action they wanted to take, the part left that to the United Nations, a strategy that everyone knew – or should have known – wouldn’t work. This failure to communicate was systemic and it means that Democrats who are now criticizing the war effort because they “assumed” the Republicans would go in fully loaded and armed carry equal blame for this mess. On the campaign trail, Gov. Howard Dean for all his peace-mongering, couldn’t figure out what to say when Saddam Hussein was caught. Which makes me think he wouldn’t – or won’t if he gets to be Democratic Party Chairman — have known what to say if Osama Bin Laden had been captured. Dean’s inability to move from one narrow no-war message to a broader platform was one good reason his candidacy tanked. John Kerry, as Beinart outlines, suffered a similar fate for slightly different, almost opposite, reasons.
Another observation needs to be underscored and this, too, is one Beinart doesn’t make: There are substantive cultural differences between the West and almost all parts of Asia and the Middle East. At its core, Islam v. the West is a fight about economic parity in a world where physical strength matters less and less in securing that parity. And in a world where anyone with a rudimentary – and increasingly inexpensive – computer or a TV – can catch live glimpses of different cultures, the disparity between us and them, between them and their often corrupt leadership (sponsored by us) – gets very narrow and very stark. And very scary. For both sides.
In passing Beinart suggests that feminist groups in the U.S. begin tilting their influence to help mold a more tolerant Islamic culture. Yes, well, now we’re getting a bit closer to the essence of the thing. That’s why Kaus’ observations about gay marriage are important. For many – here in the U.S. and elsewhere — gay marriage is the final, last acknowledgment that the person who heads a household doesn’t necessarily have to be a strong, physically fit provider. A couple can be a union of equals. You want your feminism doctrine brought to life, this is it.
Since physical strength no longer determines economic standing – you can work with your brain as well as your back – women can start to make livings as good, maybe even better, than their male counterparts. In many cases, they have gotten help – the vogue for micro-loan payments to Bangladeshi villages is a good example – securing positions as the economic heads of their households. These are all well-intentioned good works. But they come with consequences that no one – Liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat – seems to want to grapple with. They have consequences and we – as a nation – are ignoring them. The old us v. them, feminists v. oppressors rhetoric ain’t gonna work here.
This is what Democrats need to do and while I agree with Beinart’s call for the party to come up with a better, more aggressive foreign policy, I think he takes the easy way out. It’s not just “soft” liberalism that’s standing in the way of this country’s inability to tie its foreign policy to real-live global economic consequences that have impacts on other cultures that we can’t possibly imagine. The Republican Party has decided that their response to the rise of a global information infrastructure is to claim control of any situation it doesn’t like, by force if necessary. That’s a short-sighted approach, one that Democrats should change. It is not defensible over the long-run. The economic consequences of what we are creating are deep and lasting – as deep and lasting as the transition from a rural agrarian economy to an urbanized industrial one that created the basic tenets of Communism. Looking back at a movement that’s crashed in upon itself is helpful. But, as Beinart demonstrates by what he doesn’t say, it’s not a guide for the future.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 10:32 AM | Permalink

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