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Posted by: Doug Henwood | September 1, 2009

Tongue-tied liberals

Every passing day reveals the toxic side-effects of the Obama presidency more clearly. The activist liberal left has largely either gone silent or cast itself in the role of apologist for power.

Let’s look at two sad examples. First, the war in Afghanistan. The other day, the New York Times reported that the antiwar movement plans a nationwide campaign this fall against the administration’s escalation of the war in what we’re now calling AfPak. Among the challenges facing the campaign, aside from the usual public indifference when it’s mostly other people being killed, is that “many liberals continue to support Mr. Obama, or at least are hesitant about openly criticizing him,” in the words of the reporter, James Dao.

Armed with a magnifying glass, Dao spied some signs of a growing disenchantment among liberals with their Pentagon- and Wall Street-friendly president. But such disenchantment has its limits, at least for now. Ilyse Hogue, a mouthpiece for MoveOn.org, disclosed that “There is not the passion around Afghanistan that we saw around Iraq. But there are questions.” How’s that for boldness? Questions.

Robert Greenwald, most famous for his anti-Wal-Mart movie, is now doing a documentary called Rethink Afghanistan, which is being released serially on YouTube and the like. Greenwald says his approach is “less incendiary” than the Wal-Mart film. “We lost funding from liberals who didn’t want to criticize Obama,” says Greenwald. “It’s been lonely out there.” Well-off liberals are entirely comfortable blasting Wal-Mart, which is vulgar and largely Republican. But don’t be too bold in criticizing—I mean questioning—our president, who is an elegant Democrat.

And then there’s health care. The Internet and the liberal weeklies are full of defenses of ObamaCare against the slurs of the right. Now there’s no denying that some of those slurs are truly demented concoctions. And there’s no doubt that Obama’s harshest critics on the right are racists, xenophobes, and mouth-breathing reactionaries who move their lips when they read. No doubt. They’re now the major source of Keith Olbermann’s nightly material.

But you’d be hard pressed to find a liberal who could actually explain the substance of the health care proposals, or even tries to. They’re presumed to be good, just because they come from “our” guy and they’re wrapped in expansive rhetoric that effectively disguises their corporate-friendly content.

And the quality of much of the opposition has only deepened the liberals’ defensive ardor. A few weeks ago, I heard someone I love and respect, an otherwise sophisticated and thoughtful person, say that “we” have to support the scheme just because “they” oppose it. Professional journalists, who should know how to scrutinize the content, typically do little better. So we’re condemned to dueling caricatures, and our health care system will continue to suck enormously.

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Responses

  1. “But you’d be hard pressed to find a liberal who could actually explain the substance of the health care proposals, or even tries to. They’re presumed to be good, just because they come from “our” guy and they’re wrapped in expansive rhetoric that effectively disguises their corporate-friendly content.”

    Uh, whoa…. I’m afraid your brush a wee bit broad. I’m happy to talk specifics if you are.

  2. Well, I think I was missing the context here…. Sorry, that was a knee-jerk reaction. On the whole I agree w/ your piece (we’ve got dueling caricatures indeed).

  3. This was all predictable, based on what Obama said during the campaign.

  4. Has to be time to focus on the man behind Mr Obama. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEq1Xho1h3Q

  5. Hey, I said “hard pressed to find.” That doesn’t mean no one. Glad to find an exception, and I’m all ears!

  6. I actually have no clue where you stand on things (we might agree completely, or might disagree vehemently). I think I *can* formulate some fairly cogent arguments about why we need universal care, why govt is uniquely suited to the task (and why private ins. companies are uniquely ill-suited), the tragedy that is this “ownership” society, death of the commons, etc. There is an infinite number of reasons people might chose one side or another — I agree that when the “side” you are on becomes more important than the issue, we are in trouble. But often the “side” is informed by a deep-seated philosophical outlook (whether someone can articulate that clearly shouldn’t be the measure — it could as easily be a function of the family/community we are raised in). The real tragedy happens when we are no longer able to examine out own biases, informed as they might be by a status quo that is deeply pathological.

    I’d prefer spending time (and would encourage popular bloggers esp. to do so as well) looking at the forces that have become invisible — an undue faith in the “market,” the poisonous influence of money in our politics, the politicization/corporatization of scientific and medical research, the etc. I don’t think it’s all “capitalism bad” by any means, but I think capitalism/corporatism has run amok.

    As in all things we rely on each other and our own networks of trust to shape our overall outlooks and our personal views. On the politics/health care side of things, I’ve found Paul Krugman an Larry Lessig to be particularly insightful (I’d recommend Krugman’s latest work especially). Of course my understanding and outlook regularly evolves (I’d been hoodwinked until recently to believe that a public option was not essential to real reform, and of course, it is). I’d also point to Brad DeLong, Andrew Sullivan, Adam Bosworth, among others.

    I have no idea what I’ll end up thinking about Obama as a president. I know the problem is way bigger than he can fix (the enormity of it is actually overwhemling), but he offers a way of thinking, a keen intellect, and a somewhat idealistic view that there is something better that’s worth aiming for. Bipartisanship? Not sure what to think of that, although it’s in my nature to think intelligent arguments will win the day when everyone has a hearing (gun-toting politcal “activists” notwithstanding). I *do* think that 28 years of the Reagan era offered this country an ultimately false greatness that may have destroyed our chance at the real thing. Interesting that folks are talking about Carter’s “malaise” speech lately. That was the crossroad right there — one way was a long slow struggle toward what we could’ve been, the other an ultimately mean-spirited, shelfish grab for an easier win. Too bad we took the second.

  7. Obviously, I’m not all that familiar w/ your work (so my message prob. comes off as pompous). Seems like this is probably a good place for me to learn more about the “invisible forces” I was talking about….

  8. Peter wrote: “I *can* formulate some fairly cogent arguments about why we need universal care, why govt is uniquely suited to the task (and why private ins. companies are uniquely ill-suited)…”

    Well, sure, I agree with that. As far as I can tell, though, that’s NOT what’s being contemplated by Congress or the Administration. In fact, Organizing (nee Obama) for America is calling it “health insurance” reform, having backed away from “healthcare” reform.

    In any case, universal care is certainly not “the substance of the health care proposals” that Doug originally referred to. Instead they’re talking about creating a public health insurance plan to compete in the market (maybe) or else some form of “co-ops.” I’m not clear on that concept. So even the public solution is to be semi-market-based rather than a pure public approach.

  9. Keane’s comments illustrate Doug Henwood’s point almost as parody.

  10. Yeah, they could definitely be read that way, as I am well aware. And not ashamed to admit it, actually. I look forward to hanging around her and learning more.

    That said, I honestly thought (originally) that this was a typical right-wing liberal bashing blog. If there is one thing I’ve learned in the last year to make clear is I have fundamental, philosophical differences with the tea-baggers that informs my view of the specifics. Honestly, the best I can do for specifics is to point someone to a particular Krugman or DeLong piece that I got something from. I’m not qualified to make a reasonable assessment of HR 3200 itself (I’ve read enough of HR 3400 to tell people who claim it’s a reasonable alternative that it’s just a gift to private insurers).

    Now if someone here wants to tell me how wrong Krugman or DeLong is, I’m all ears. Seriously — my horizons aren’t all that broad and I’d like to broaden them. But I have zero interest in libertarianism.

    Anyway, if my post was useful at all (even, as you say, a confirmation of DH’s gripes about typical liberals) I’m OK w/ that and will get something out of it. If it was (as I fear) a bit of pompous, ill-informed preaching, I apologize — this wasn’t the intended audience. I am concerned, though, that if democracy requires more knowledge/understanding than I exhibit, we’re in trouble and ought to talk about ways to fix it — the NYTimes ain’t going to do it for sure.

    One other thing — re: Obama. I’m ready to be disgusted by his ties to money, industry, etc. Unlikely I’ll come to feel the way about him that I feel about Clinton, but it could happen. But there’s a whole other significance to his presidency that means a hell of a lot more to a huge group of people with reasons that I’m sure you may wish to scoff at or laugh at. But that’s not for me, sorry. To *not* realize the importance of a black guy w/a foreign sounding name getting elected is, well, pretty ill-informed.

  11. P.S. For starters, I’d love to get some links to articles/books/postings that “actually explain the substance of the health care proposals.” Or, if HR 3200 itself (or specific sections) are the place to start, I’d very much appreciate it.

  12. Peter, I’ve found that the best resource on this issue is Physicians for a National Health Plan (they favor single-payer a la Canada). PNHP’s blog, in particular, is indispensable:

    Critique of the public option:

    1) link

    2) link

    3) link

    4) link

    Critique of individual mandates:
    link

    Critique of employer mandates:
    link

    Critique of co-ops and exchanges:
    link

    but on co-ops see also James Ridgeway:
    link

    Problem of costs:
    link

  13. […] Doug Henwood Every passing day reveals the toxic side-effects of the Obama presidency more clearly. The activist liberal left has largely either gone silent or cast itself in the role of apologist for power. […]

  14. @dermokrat Fantastic — thanks very much!


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