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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Speaking of liberals ...

by digby

I wrote earlier about the Gallup findings that show more people assuming the liberal label in the past couple of years. And I mentioned that while it's good news that people are no longer afraid to identify with the left side of the dial, the question remains as to what that left side of the dial actually stands for.

This conversation between Bill Moyers and Professor Adolph Reed delves into that question and the upshot is that modern liberalism leaves a whole lot to be desired. (Surprised?)

If you have the time today to watch this (or read the transcript) I urge you to do it.

Reed worries that liberals have come to depend upon electoral politics as their only path to progress and that this is short sighted. I think that is short sighted as well, but as people who read this blog regularly know, I take the Norman Solomon approach and say that "state power matters" and it's foolish to abandon it to the right wing or the "neos" on both sides. (Reed agrees as well, by the way.) His critique is aimed at liberals who only focus on electoral politics when obviously that's not getting us where we need to go.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how much expectation and pressure we are putting on semiotics to create the change we all believe in. So often lately it seems to me that symbolism, labels, totems and signs are becoming the ends instead of the means for progress. And I don't mean to suggest that those things aren't important. They are indispensable. But they aren't enough. The system must be challenged too. And on that I think Reed is correct in this exchange:

BILL MOYERS: You remind us of how leftist, progressive, liberals, a lot of everyday folks were swept up in the rhetoric and expectations surrounding Obama's campaign, his election, and his presidency. I'll bet you remember election night in Grant Park in 2008.

ADOLPH REED: Yeah, I do.

BILL MOYERS: Here it is.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is our time to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids, to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace, to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth that out of many, we are one. That while we breathe, we hope.

And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people. Yes we can. Thank you. God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.

ADOLPH REED: The clip is interesting, right? Because you think about the clip and his utterances, right, were a collection of evocative statements. But there was no real content there, right? I mean, he didn't say, I'm going to fight for X, and I have--

BILL MOYERS: Against inequality or for equality--

ADOLPH REED: Right, right.

BILL MOYERS: --or for wages, or--

ADOLPH REED: Right, right. So it was as he said himself in one or both of his books, his move is to encourage people to imagine a better world and a better future and a better life for themselves through identification with him.

BILL MOYERS: And you say in your article that his content, essentially, is his identity.


BILL MOYERS: I can imagine that if President Obama were sitting here talking with you or you were at the White House talking with him, he'd say, Adolph, I understand your diagnosis. But what you have to understand is that pragmatism can be and often is an effective agent or tool or weapon in the long-range struggle for social justice.

And I know you're impatient, I know you believe in this restructuring of society, but we're not going to get there with the wave of a wand. And it takes just as it did in the civil rights movement, a long time for me to get here to the White House, it's going to take a long time for this country to get where you would take it.

ADOLPH REED: Right. Oh, I am absolutely certain that he would say something like that. I admit that this is kind of treading maybe, into troublesome water, but among the reasons that I know Obama's type so well is, you know, I've been teaching at elite institutions for more than 30 years.

And that means that I've taught his cohort that came through Yale actually at the time that he was at, you know, Columbia and Harvard. And I recall an incident in a seminar in, you know, black American political thought with a young woman who was a senior who said something in the class. And I just blurted out that it seem, that the burden of what she said seemed to be that the whole purpose of this Civil Rights Movement was to make it possible for people like her to go to Yale and then to go to work in investment banking.

And she said unabashedly, well, yes, yes, and that's what I believe. And again, I didn't catch myself in time, so I just said to her, well, I wish somebody had told poor Viola Liuzzo, you know, before she left herself family in Michigan and got herself killed that that's what the punch line was going to be, because she might've stayed home to watch her kids grow up. And I think--

BILL MOYERS: This was the woman who on her own initiative went down during the civil rights struggle to Selma, Alabama to join in the fight for voting rights and equality, and was murdered.

ADOLPH REED: Right, exactly. I'm not prepared to accept as my metric of the extent of racial justice or victories of the struggles for racial justice, the election of a single individual to high office or appointment of a black individual to be corporate CEO.

Well, you can't really say there is no progress if women and people of other races aren't allowed to be avaricious greedheads just like middle aged white men. That's our "meritocracy" at work. But I take his point. And for the rest of us who are never going to be investment bankers or CEOs, there are more important concerns. Like the disappearing middle class. And personal debt. And hunger. And gun violence. And a government run by the rich for the rich. I do think it matters that we have an African American president. It matters a great deal. And it might even matter that we have African American Masters of the Universe. But to declare "mission accomplished" because of that is to leave the job undone.

Our society has undoubtedly made some very important social progress in the last few years, especially on race and gay rights. It was a huge lift and largely done by activists and allies on the left. And liberals must continue to fight for equality and human rights wherever and whenever it's needed. But most people of all colors, sexual orientation, creed, ethnic background etc, etc., are facing a decline in living standards and a drop in expectations for their children along with the prospect of some cataclysmic dislocation if we stay on our current path. And Reed and Moyers are absolutely correct that the only way to meet the challenges of our time is to band together in common cause.

It's an easy equation really: I'll fight for you if you'll fight for me. We're all in this together. It would be nice if we avoided our apparently natural inclination to fight amongst ourselves while the world is burning.