Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Fellow Travelers

Just like covert fascists prefer to refer to themselves as the "alt-right,” clandestine libertarians identify themselves “centrists.” This is because they are very well aware that libertarians are seen as callous assholes and annoying Ayn Randroids,(1) so obviously they do not want to claim or carry that unattractive baggage.  Alas, the luggage tags have their names clearly marked.

There’s really no denying it. When they say "I’m a fiscal conservative, but a social liberal,” they are basically admitting they are libertarians, because that shorthand is their shared notion of sensible, superior thinking. Thus, these self-anointed "grown ups” are often adherents of the most painfully adolescent economic philosophy ever conceived.

Both libertarians and centrists are toxic byproducts of the 1990s. Yes, they existed before then, but the 90s was when they really arrived. That’s when these fringe philosophies infected the zeitgeist in earnest and dominated political thought. My point is that such dumb, utterly debunked conventional wisdom is conspicuously 1990s. And it not just dated: It was never a good look to begin with.

Remember the 1990s? Few centrists do. Certainly Clintonistas are too beclouded by nostalgia to acknowledge that the Clintons had enthusiastically joined Newt Gingrich in dismantling the achievements the New Deal and the Great Society. They ignore or rationalize Bill Clinton’s record just as they do his sexual assaults. (Remember when we called them peccadilloes?) They spin a litany of his travesties: The racist dog whistles, Welfare Reform, DOMA, DADT, NAFTA, the Crime Bill, you name it. In every instance, they insist Clinton’s hand was forced to by Gingrich or "the times.” But how can you possibly be nostalgic about those times if they forced such a good man do so many terrible things? JFK’s Camelot was never so compromised.

Never mind Bill’s record as Governor of Arkansas where he coddled corporations and betrayed teachers unions. Never mind he ran for president as a "New Democrat” and what that meant – an explicit repudiation of the party’s legacy. A 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign spot opened by crowing, "There's a new generation of Democrats - Bill Clinton and Al Gore. And they don't think the way the old Democratic Party did." (In other words, like liberals.) The ad next gave a list of of conservative positions they endorsed from welfare reform to the death penalty to slashing the budget. Washington did not break Bill Clinton's liberal spirit or force errors: He went to Washington promising to do these things. What followed was a bipartisan orgy of privatization with Bill and Newt trying to outdo one other. In politics, it's called stealing your opponent's thunder.

Not how you recall it? Well, consider this tidbit in the centrist Washington Monthly back in 1995: "I've never seen anything like this," marvel[ed] Bob Poole, chairman of the libertarian Reason Foundation. "It's a contest to see who can privatize better and faster."(2) That was not a leftist criticizing Bill Clinton, but a prominent libertarian celebrating the situation.

That was the Nineties in a nutshell: That was centrist consensus. Apologists call it "the times,” as if it were just something in the water. But it was a well-financed ideology pushed by the worst people inside the Democratic Party since the 1970s. Some well-intentioned centrists may have absorbed this pro-corporate libertarianism by osmosis, but it is in their bloodstream now. Everyone mocking Bernie Sanders’ policy proposals as "ponies” has drunk the Kool Aid one way or another because such "ponies" were mainstream Democratic polices in the 1960s.

Sure, libertarians and centrists mock each another, but this is little more than petty sibling rivalry. It’s superficial rather than substantive. It has the taint of people who instantly dislike one another because they are too much alike and loathe to admit it. To each, the other is an unflattering photograph. The passport photos of these fellow travelers are strikingly similar.

Their charade is similar to the Conservative Citizens Council’s. The CCC is the genteel KKK. They are often called the “uptown Klan” who “wear suits instead of sheets.” But, in this instance, centrists are genteel libertarians trying to skirt the stigma: They are anti-government without the vulgar trappings and excesses of survivalist gun culture. Many of them may be pro-gun control, but their unthinking lust to slash taxes and privatize every government function knows no bounds. On the goal of “devolving” federal power to the states, they are of one mind. Hence, Welfare Reform which turned food stamps into block grants to the states to dispense as miserly as they liked.

See also the corporate press’ longstanding fawning over Ayn Rand fan Paul Ryan. They have repeatedly painted him as a serious, courageous expert on the budget. This portrayal was routine in allegedly liberal newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post. That example encapsulates the establishment quite nicely. It’s a water sample of our polluted political river systems. And, like fish, we can’t seem to see what we are swimming in.

Today, most Democrats see Paul Ryan for the Scrooge that he is; but that’s no thanks to “serious” establishment opinion. Progressives had his number from the start. It’s one of many things we were ahead of the curve on. The War on Terror was another. Perhaps we should stop listening to the Very Serious People who are always wrong. But I digress. My point here is the centrist establishment shamelessly promoted a transparently callous libertarian fuckwit.

Centrists may see themselves as compassionate “bleeding heart liberals,” but their hearts bleed like stones if any social problem costs money to fix or any social program inconveniences business interests in any way. To them, raising taxes is always the greatest evil. But talk is cheap, so giving lectures always appeals to their penny wise but pound foolish sense of fiscal responsibility.

When centrists say we can’t have nice things because of conservatives, they are actually blaming conservatives for their reluctance to fight conservatives. They are basically saying, “We cannot fight our opponents because they will oppose us.” Of course, they oppose us even when we don’t fight them. Strange. It’s almost as if the fact that we run against each other in elections every few years means that conflict is somehow built-into our political system. Who knew?

The upshot of this defeatist thinking is obvious. Progressive programs are dismissed as non-starters and manifestly reactionary scams like privatization and charter schools are accepted as inevitable – if not hailed as exciting and innovative.

Other obscene upshots are also predictable. Since centrists are enthusiastic about lecturing others but reluctant to fight or even contradict conservatives; their joining conservatives in scolding the poor about personal responsibility should come as no surprise. As I mentioned before, Nicolas Kristof loves to do that. And the Clintons rolled out Welfare Reform with lots of tough love rhetoric.

Another thing I mentioned before was my suspicion that the Dunning-Kruger effect applies to compassion as well as competence: The least kind and caring people tend to think they are the most kind and caring – hence obvious oxymorons like “compassionate conservative” that get bandied about by those who feel they have already done plenty.(3) By contrast, those who actually do the most often feel like slackers and are tortured by the thought that they could do more. Therefore, the former feel complacency and the later feel inadequacy. Could this smug, callous self-delusion also apply to conservative-coddling centrists? The answer may shock you.

When push comes to shove, there is not much daylight between the white suburban matron in the pants suit and the white suburban spoiled boy in the twilby. Both are sheltered and too easily seduced by the word “entrepreneur.” Both have turned the work ethic into a work fetish – or at least weaponized it for rhetorical purposes against the working class who know far more about hard work.

The pants suit and twilby wearers may mock each another with regularity but they both enjoy hippie-punching and they reliably rally under their shared monarchist-white banner emblazoned with the motto “ME & MINE!” in gilded stitches.

They are the best of frenemies.

1) The term “Randroids” has been shamelessly stolen from Robert Anton Wilson’s Natural Law: Or Don’t Put a Rubber on Your Willie (Port Townsend, WA: Loompanics Unlimited, 1987), 56.

2) I should point out that the Washington Monthly is pretty decent for a centrist publication. As I wrote before, they supported single payer back in the 1990s, so I give them props for that. 

But the privatization article I linked to was not anti-privatization per se. It simply was pointing out the risks. Likewise, during the same period, the Washington Monthly had a cover story called "Downsizing: Is it Aimed at the Right Targets? The Promise and Peril of the Hottest Trend in American Business and Government." The cover showed a man with a big archery target on his chest. The thrust of such articles is not to decry these practices as callous or immoral but to say that there is a smart way and a dumb way to execute them.

3) I devoted a whole chapter of my book, 
Conservatism is Un-American & Other Self-Evident Truths, to the argument that compassion is essentially patriotism and vital to healthy civic activity. In that chapter, “Liberty, Equality, and Empathy,” I kept returning to Arthur C. Brooks’ outrageously dishonest book, Who Really Cares? The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism, which uses doctored data to argue that conservatives are more charitable than liberals.

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