Let’s not make this “ liberal ” mistake again
I loved Phil Ochs. He was my favorite singer-songwriter from the 1960s. Phil Ochs was a brilliant lyricist. He could write the most militant protest songs on the one hand, and the most beautiful, sensitive love ballads on the other.
The introduction to the song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” reads as follows:
“In every American community, you have different shades of political opinion. The Liberals are among the shadiest. A frank group on many subjects. 10 degrees to the left of the center in good times, 10 degrees to the right of the center if it affects them personally … “
and the final stanza says:
“I was once young and impulsive
I wore all the pins imaginable
Even went to socialist meetings
I learned all the old Union hymns
But I got older and wiser
And that’s why I denounce you
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.
The song has become a mainstay of his concerts and a favorite of the radical left.
It also points to a much vaunted doctrine of the anti-establishment news leftists of the time. It is a position which serves to consolidate their identity by cutting a clear division between them and the liberals whom they denounce with an activism even more virulent than their contempt for the conservatives.
The argument was that with the Conservatives you at least knew where they were. But as for the liberals, they spoke the right words, positioned themselves as progressives, but they were, behind their supposed sympathies, hypocrites and impostures. Their declared progressivism masked the reality that they were on the wrong side of the struggle. Their real interest was not to make waves and to preserve the status quo. Despite their professed values, the Liberals were on the side of the establishment. Above all, they are committed to promoting their personal interest. Liberalism has served to grease the wheels of oppression.
I loved Phil Ochs, but in that regard he – and the New Left, whose values he expressed so powerfully – were pragmatically false and politically destructive.
This was wrong because this very attack on liberalism helped turn the term “liberal” into a dirty word for decades. It has contributed to the destruction of virtually any major left in the political landscape for nearly a generation.
The New Left has destroyed itself with its deterioration into Weathermen and its convulsions of violence. What followed was a conservative wall that slandered and stifled liberalism and grew increasingly powerful. He was embodied with a growing extremity in the administrations of Nixon, Reagan, George W. Bush, until metastasizing in what has just left the White House. It was not until the Obama administration that the word “liberalism” could once again be uttered and receive provisional acceptance in political circles.
But liberalism and the activist government came back in force with the presidency of Joe bidenJoe Biden Virginia GOP candidate for governor admits Biden was ‘rightfully’ elected BuzzFeed News finds Biden’s private Venmo account Kid reporter who interviewed Obama has died at age 23 MORE. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party has gained real traction thanks in large part to Bernie sandersBernie SandersSanders: Netanyahu cultivated ‘racist nationalism’ Former OMB choice Neera Tanden to serve as senior advisor to Biden Tensions are mounting among Democrats over US-Israel politics READ MORE. This is the turning point in American policy for which progressives have long fought.
Who would have thought that Joe Biden had it in him? But with his administration’s recovery and infrastructure plan, we are seeing the nail in the coffin of reactanism and the virulently destructive mantra that government is our problem. Not only are we seeing the Democratic Party go back to its roots, reminiscent of the FDR and the New Deal, but we are witnessing a transformation of the political landscape. It opens up new ground on which progressives from all walks of life can and must build. Personally, I find this very exciting and a sign of hope after an unprecedented descent into darkness.
Here I come to my point: we on the left must not waste this opportunity. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past. Critics of Biden’s extraordinary plans have already been voiced by sectors on the left: his plan does not include Medicare for All; it omits a federal minimum wage of $ 15 (although it now calls for it), and its plan is not ambitious enough to significantly tackle climate destruction.
I agree – it’s all true. But I would argue vigorously that progressives should not – should not – earn their subjective feelings of righteousness on the anvil of political purity. The issues, including the very sustainability and future of democracy, are at stake.
This does not mean giving up his vision or his ultimate goals, utopian or otherwise. But the ends themselves do not dictate the specific means by which to achieve them.
I argue that moving forward politically involves nuanced and calibrated pragmatism. Sometimes activism will be necessary; at other times, laborious compromises with others on the progressive spectrum who may adhere to a somewhat different view of the ultimate goals. The lack of compromise, when reality demands it, risks tipping the boat over and again opening the door for conservatism to enter and gain a foothold.
Anathematizing and marginalizing those on the progressive spectrum with whom we may disagree may be tempting, but we shouldn’t be going.
Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Let’s not have fun and be divided on questions of purity.
The dangers of doing so are too great.
It is a good time, and we must take inspiration from it: the future is too bright.
Dr. Joseph Chuman recently retired after 46 years as the head of the clergy for the Ethical Culture Society in Bergen County, New Jersey. He is also a professor of human rights at Columbia University.