Before me is a New York Times essay, ominously titled "The mask slips," in which William Kristol deconstructs Barack Obama's garbled remarks at a California fundraiser. As Kristol paraphrases Obama's analysis of religion:
"It is the opium of the people." Or more succinctly, and in the original German in which Marx somehow always sounds better, "Die Religion - ist das Opium des Volkes."
Wow -- that's much more succinct.
Actually, Barack wanted to deliver the entire speech in German, to capture the nuance of the Hegelian dialectic. I suggested that he should do most of it in English. "Harold," he replied, "I might as well give it in German. If I say that Pennsylvanians are bitter after decades of economic decline and no effective help from Washington, some Republican will still translate my speech into German. He'll do this to portray me as a faintly un-American Eurosnob while simultaneously showing off his own erudition to his old Harvard roommates."
Joe Lieberman chimed in that it's a fair question whether Obama is a Marxist. My morning Tribune includes an op-ed by George Will critiqued Obama's theories of false consciousness, and condemned the "liberalism of condescension." Coming from the aristocratic Will, author of The pursuit of virtue and other Tory notions, and The leveling wind: politics, the culture, and other news, this one hurts. Adding insult to scripted intended injury, Will adds:
The ironic public intellectual of liberal condescension was Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter, who died in 1970 but whose spirit still permeated that school when Obama matriculated there in 1981.
That's an embarrassing stretch regarding Obama, but Hofstadter's supposed condescension certainly suffuses the columns of one George F. Will . A three-minute scan of my bookshelf yields:
It was, as historian Richard Hofstadter said, an age of intellectual rubbish....
Evincing what historian Richard Hofstadter called "the ruthlessness of the pure at heart..."
Historian Richard Hofstadter should be living at this hour to savor the new flavors of what he called "The paranoid style of American politics."
Who could disagree.
Based on these conservative pundits, I'm bummed to have missed that California fundraiser. As luck would have it, I myself attended Columbia University in 1981. I was nominally taking math and physics classes since my high school didn't have these AP courses.
My parents never knew that I spent most of that year hanging out in a now-defunct basement annex at City College of New York arguing the finer points of Marxism with a young Obama. We would spend hours arguing about whether Karl Kautsky or Ira Magaziner was the true embodiment of socialist revolution, how to apply Leon Trotsky's insights in health reform.
Friends would stop by. Then Sinbad would torment us with impossible trivia questions from Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program. Relations between Barack and Hillary were cordial. Yet even then, we could see the strain. Between spiels about improving Kibbutz crop yields, Hillary would regale us with stories about storming the ramparts in Catalonia with Orwell, attending bullfights with a drunken Hemingway in Madrid. One day, James Carville stopped by. Emitting a gaseous belly laugh, he said, "Hill -- that Lincoln Brigade tale is the biggest bunch of horsecrap since the cleanup after the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte." Barack flashed Carville a light-hearted smile. Tight-lipped, Hillary glared at both of them. "I'm not bitter," she told me. "Anyway, he says I'm crazy."
OK I exaggerate, but my tall tale isn't much worse than the spectacle of pampered conservatives trashing Barack Obama for looking down on common folk.
It takes special chutzpah for neocons like Kristol to condemn elitism and snobbery, for that matter to comment on anyone else's bitterness. When I was 15, my Aunt Gwen got me a lifetime subscription to Commentary, neoconservatives' flagship journal of opinion. For a brief period a quarter-century ago, Commentary held surprising influence. It had some useful things to say, for example in Nathan Glazer's insightful essays on social policy.
But its anger really distinguished it. A surprising number of neocons were divorced Jewish atheists who were angry with other Jews who didn't attend synagogue. They were angry with others, too. They were angry with African-Americans because of affirmative action, welfare, crime, Jesse Jackson, and Louis Farrakhan. They were angry with feminists for upsetting gender roles. They were angry with gays and lesbians because....well because. They were angry with college students who took gut courses, smoked pot, and made love rather than fighting the Vietnam war. They were angry with ordinary Americans, especially that small group referred to as "indulgent baby boomers," for not being more upset about these things. Allan Bloom's mega-seller, The closing of the American mind may be the frankest defense of snobbery ever to grace the best-seller list.
Above all, neocons resented liberals. This animating passion jumps from every page in Commentary and later the Weekly Standard. Neocons railed against "cultural elites"-- a category that strangely excluded themselves, not to mention other economic and politically privileged groups. Jeanne Kirkpatrick condemned the "San Francisco Democrats" years before Vice President Quayle condemned Murphy Brown. Commentary published countless articles that opposed affirmative action and championed the virtues of meritocracy -- right up to the moment they installed the distinguished, if obnoxious editor's rather less distinguished son as his de facto successor. If any prominent liberal wrote a book, produced a movie, sang a song, you could be sure that Commentary would savage it.
Commentary is barely read these days. The scowls got to be too much for most readers to bear. The magazine lost its influence after a succession of Republican presidents made many of its points moot. Its sectarian incivility, a vestige of its editors' factional old-left roots, still flourishes.
Yeah, they were bitter. Aunt Gwen certainly was, though like many Pennsylvanians she would not have cared for anyone describing her this way. In her youth, she was drawn to meetings of various New York left-wing causes. At one such meeting, she met a brilliant black man and married him. The marriage didn't last. Her commitment to left-wing causes didn't, either.
For years, my dad and his wife, my sister, and I would drive into the Bronx to visit her walk-up, in a union-built development down the street from Van Cortlandt Park. We would climb several flights of stairs to her apartment, where she would serve us a wonderful simple breakfast while cooking up pungent kidney treats for the succession of affectionate but eccentric felines with whom she kept company in the years I knew her.
Her politics changed for many reasons, not least being the atrocities and misfortunes inflicted under Communism. What embittered her was watching the Bronx crumble. She spent the last decades of her life afraid to go outside, horrified by the tragedies and social pathologies that unfolded virtually in front of her apartment window.
She would have respected and admired Barack Obama as a person. She might have seen in him the face of her own two children. And she never fully trusted Republicans. Yet I'm not sure the Senator could win her vote. From her perspective, the liberals who ran New York had no answers to the once-fine schools that failed to teach, the parents who failed to discipline and nurture their children, the legal and law enforcement systems that failed to keep elderly people safe when they walked to the grocery store.
Aunt Gwen was a lovely and generous woman. I very much disagreed -- still do -- with her neoconservative views, and with the increasingly tart social attitudes that sometimes accompanied them. Yet these views emerged from her own lived experience, from the very real way that urban crime and social pathology diminished her life.
Republicans will try to defeat Obama by running him through the right-wing freak show. He will be depicted to be, at once, a Chablis-sipping snob, an angry Black nationalist, a radical Marxist, an anti-American figure with shady Islamic and terrorist ties. Will these attacks work? No one can know. It's scary just now because Hillary Clinton is giving the Republicans too much help. People with experiences like my aunt's are one obvious audience.
Faux populist attacks on Obama certainly deserve ridicule. Yet the only way to close the right-wing freak show is to show that liberals have real answers that improve people's lives and reduce people's pain. There really is something the matter with Kansas, the Bronx, the south side of Chicago. It's not fair that the political burden is often placed on Democrats to fix these places. It's the way things are.