A conservative-minded friend of mine recently posted on Facebook, an article lifted from Vox.com, by Emmett Rensin, suggesting that it might be a challenging read, “for some”, and asking “who’s up for it?”
As usual, that kind of verbal hand-grenade has my name written all over it.
The Rensin article was written well before the election of Donald Trump, and is therefore somewhat dated, but there are still a number of points concerning the current state of left wing political attitudes, that are worth consideration.
Rensin, is a self proclaimed Marxist, writer, and essayist, and in his article: “The Smug Style in American Liberalism”, he offers a sharp critique to those he characterizes as epitomizing this style.
In large degree, Rensin made his mark by publishing “Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Works in Twenty Tweets or Less” , a mocking send up of classic literature that seemed “like listening to teenagers jabbering on the bus.” according to The Guardian.
Nevertheless, the literary jabbering turned into a best seller, and Rensin, was launched.
Since then, he seems to have developed something of a love-hate relationship with the social media app; using it frequently, but with barely disguised disdain for its brevity and lack of substance.
In this article however, he’s basically he’s talking to left wingers who are so certain of the absolute validity, and superiority of their own beliefs, that they have alienated their own one-time allies from the working classes; who find such attitudes elitist, and out of touch with their own reality.
And he has a lot to say.
Many commentators, in addressing this 7,000 word treatise from Rensin, quibble over whether the author should correctly identify this specifically smug element of the left as “progressives”, rather than “liberals”, but for the purposes of the Rensin critique, I think the point is moot.
He has an issue with liberals of every caste, and he uses the broad brush of generalization to sully them all.
He attacks the Tweets, and “videos” that “smug” liberals have posted on the internet to “settle the debate for good”, between themselves and those who are not swayed by what Rensin calls the “Good Facts” of the smug.
To a degree, he leaves the impression that this unavoidably glib social media app is the exclusive purview of liberals, who unjustifiably wield it as some sort of stenographic cudgel, against their conservative opponents.
Which conveniently ignores the fact that Conservatives use Twitter too. And for the same purposes.
Is the complaint then, that liberals use Twitter at all? Or is it that their “tweets” are just too good?
Clearly, he feels let-down, and betrayed by his own side. That the left, both liberals and progressives, have badly misplayed their advantages, and by doing so have managed to alienate a massive swath of America which should naturally be encompassed as allies and fellow-travellers.
In addition, instead of recognizing the blunder, liberals have decided to shrug their shoulders and dismiss this extensive cadre of kin, as rubes who refuse to vote in their own self-interest, or dumb hicks who just don’t get it.
The irony here seems obvious. It wasn’t the white working class that failed to vote in its own interest, it was the entire Democratic National Party, and the DNC, which failed to recognize that its best interest lay in the hands of Senator Bernie Sanders.
Those who are encompassed by Rensin’s label of “smug”, are easily identified by their approach to politics.
“ A politics that is just the politics of smart people in command of Good Facts. A politics that insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts, the kind that keep them from “imposing their morals” like the bad guys do.”
“ The Good Facts are enough: Anybody who fails to capitulate to them is part of the Problem, is terminally uncool. No persuasion, only retweets. Eye roll, crying emoji, forward to John Oliver for sick burns.”
This particular brand of Liberal is also easily identified by postal code apparently, as in more than one instance, Rensin says something like this:
“Ten or 20 of Brooklyn’s finest gather to say how exasperated they are, these days, by the stupidity of the American public.”
The sneering tone seems at odds with one of the basic threads running throughout the essay: that the left cannot simply write off as “dumb hicks”, a significant segment of people who may at heart, share a common belief in working together to make society better for all.
By the same token, you can’t alienate and write off the hipsters who rail against inequity, racism, and environmental degradation. They may come off as galling elitists, but that doesn’t mean that their core political interests are opposed to yours. They are essentially the same.
If you are trying to round up all of the fractious left into the same fold, you can’t castigate the hipsters, any more than they can exclude the “rubes” and the “hicks”.
Setting aside the tone of wounded petulance, however, we’re left to ask; “What about those Good Facts?”
Is the argument that the “Good Facts”, are not facts at all? Are they “Bad Facts”? Erroneous? False?And if so, which of the “Good Facts” are wrong, and where is the counter-argument to prove them so?
The assertion here, is that it doesn’t really matter whether they’re wrong or right, because this liberal elite is simply too disdainful to consider any information that runs contrary to its own pre-conceived notions.
This self-imposed aloofness has recently been attributed to something known as “confirmation bias”.
Our internet news feeds, and social network sites are all programmed to “give the people what they want.”
And if you want something that tells you that illegal immigrants and crooked politicians are responsible for unemployment and low wages; that kind of information will automatically find its way to your on-line feed, in the same way that stories about Hillary’s email, or Trump’s misogyny, made their way there, throughout the election process.
It’s true that some people are reluctant to abandon their individual perceptions of the world around them.
In fact, as Rensin points out, there is some evidence to suggest that liberals are particularly fond of their own beliefs.
With respect, there is no shame or wrong in defending any viewpoint with facts, or rational argument. If liberals are tough to dissuade, perhaps you just need a better argument.
So where then, are the “superior” facts that conservatives, or even other “un-smug” liberals might use, to convincingly counter the pronouncements of the“smug” ?
If the national conversation seems to be dominated by the left, what’s happened to the right?
Yes, I know, the intractably biased “liberal media” are to blame. They’ve drowned out sensible conservative policies by the sheer force of their number. Yawn.
As always, the media are a convenient scapegoat for whatever seems to be going wrong.
Look, since the earliest days of Rush Limbaugh, and on to Glenn Beck, Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter, Amanda Carpenter, and Sarah Cupp, conservatives have been steadily marching ahead every bit as convinced of their “rightness” , as the “smug liberals” of whom Rensin complains. ( I apologize for the pun.)
That their voices generally get lost, or drowned out in the mainstream media may have as much to do with the hysterical harpies chorus of their “Mad Hatter Tea Party” extremists, as anything else. It’s hard to take any of them seriously, when they refuse to disavow the lunatic fringe of their own party.
With a respectful nod to George Will, the right has sadly lacked an erudite, effective and reasonable champion since the death of William F. Buckley.
But Rensin is more concerned with the left. And so it may be more pertinent to ask, “ Where are the facts that will restore cohesion to the splintered left ?”
Who is making that case?
Well, no one, at the moment. Certainly not Rensin.
The tone of his lengthy article is dominated by a whingey, “shoulda, coulda, woulda” refrain so animated by frustration and anger, that it actually comes across as something written by a staunch conservative looking smugly down his nose to the keyboard.
He condescendingly asserts that, rather than embrace the issues afflicting the working class, “smug liberals” decided that the struggling unemployed of the Rust Belt, were too stupid to be bothered with.
For example: this passage,
“Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
But he later undermines his own assertion by pointing out that President Obama has recognized and acknowledged that large swaths of non-urban America have been devastated by the failings and policies of successive administrations, both Democratic and Republican, and that those failings have fuelled resentment in working class America.
“ “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania,” Obama said, “and, like, a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter. They cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
It’s the latter part that we remember eight years later — the clinging to guns and religion and hate — but it is the first part that was important: the part about lost jobs and neglect by two presidential administrations.”
The latter part may be what you remember, Mr. Rensin, but many liberals remember the first part of Obama’s observations as well. The fact that they do, is probably why the President made the observations in the first place.
Liberals are not unaware that advancing technology, urbanization, and income inequalities, have been in large measure responsible for the unrelenting deterioration experienced by rural Americans. They aren’t blind. They don’t see this decline as you do, a “force of nature — that has been happening in the passive voice”. On the contrary, the campaign of Senator Sanders clearly showed that liberals view this decline as a serious issue, for which politicians on both sides of the Congress have failed to find lasting solutions.
But Rensin bitterly blames the liberal cohort for making a bad situation worse.
“Well, sure. In the past 30 years of American life, the Republican Party has dedicated itself to replacing every labor law with a photo of Ronald Reagan’s face.
But this does not excuse liberals beating full retreat to the colleges and the cities, abandoning the dispossessed to their fate. It does not excuse surrendering a century of labor politics in the name of electability. It does not excuse gazing out decades later to find that those left behind are not up on the latest thought and deciding,We didn’t abandon them. The idiots didn’t want to be saved.”
If the liberals are not excused for “surrendering a century of labor politics in the name of electability”, (and in hindsight, even electability was compromised ) then certainly, there is no excuse for the conservatives who gleefully dismantled the accomplishments of that labor policy, destroyed unions, eviscerated wages, benefits, and protections in the workplace, all the while simultaneously ensuring, that a greater and greater share of wealth would accrue to a smaller and smaller group of rich, conservative oligarchs.
The wealthy don’t support the Republican party in order to pursue the dream of egalitarianism; they support it, because it continues to make them increasingly wealthy.
Is it such a sin then, for liberals to “beat a full retreat” to the cities and colleges where there may be an opportunity to improve and advance their own lives and level the playing field, with the hope that they may be able to bring about the fundamental change that could one day restore hope, and opportunity to all Americans?
Isn’t that what conservatives urge every individual to do? Pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and succeed despite the odds?
Are those liberals who do then, to be criticized for their effort? Or are they all expected to nobly wallow in the soul-crushing despair that burdens those who, either by lack of means or will, find themselves trapped in a version of The American Dream, that has become a daily nightmare?
If it can be suggested that liberals abandoned “ the dispossessed to their fate”, then perhaps this “sin” might be viewed from the perspective that at least they did not abandon 99 percent of their fellow Americans, to provide shameless benefit to the one percent.
But again, it is the left that takes the blame:
“It was not Ronald Reagan who declared the era of big government. It was not the GOP that decided the coastally based, culturally liberal industries of technology, Hollywood, and high finance were the future of the American economy.”
And yet, Reagan and the GOP were in charge for most of the period in which these changes occurred.
Suggesting that liberals, all on their own, decided to embrace technology as a primary economic engine, and then subsequently decided to base those technological industries on the coasts of America, to the exclusion of the red states in the Midwest, and South, is ludicrous.
Technological development is organic, and became an engine of growth on its own strengths.
That it required more formal education than the farm, the mine, or the mill could provide, is the fault of no one.
That the cultures within these industries may lean more to the left than the right, may or may not be a by-product of the educational system that led individual candidates to the doors of these establishments, where they became the employees who created such a culture.
And, that they ended up on the coasts of America instead of the interior is hardly surprising, considering that those who began the technical revolution were, in many cases, either natives of those coastal areas, or completed their educations there.
And, let’s not forget that recent conservative presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina, is the CEO of one of the largest of those tech giants; Hewlett-Packard. Should she have moved the corporation to Peoria? Is she guilty of abandoning “the dispossessed” for the coast, as well?
But it’s not just the economic challenges for which smug liberals are to blame. In addition, they have insulted the morals and beliefs of the traditionally midwestern and southern working class.
That insult, Rensin suggests, helped to drive one time liberal allies into the arms of the Republicans.
If no-one was paying attention to their economic issues, at least the Republicans didn’t castigate them for their faith.
And that defection, Rensin argues, was proof to “smug liberals” that obviously, white, working class, Christian evangelicals were too stupid to recognize their own self-interest. They were deplorable.
One clear example Rensin cites of that mocking, “smug liberal” scorn, involved the case of a Kentucky registration clerk who went to jail for embracing the outdated notion that homosexuality is a moral transgression.
“ On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court found that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples constituted a violation of the 14th Amendment. After decades of protests, legislation, setbacks, and litigation, the 13 states still holding out against the inevitable were ordered to relent. Kim Davis, a clerk tasked with issuing marriage licenses to couples in her Kentucky county, refused.
At the distance of six months, it is surprising that she was, beyond a few short-lived and empty efforts, the only civil bureaucrat to do so. One imagines a hundred or a thousand Kim Davises in the country, small administrators with small power, outraged by the collapse of a moral fight that they were winning just a few years prior.”
If one takes Rensin at his word, and can imagine the legion of small administrators holding the same beliefs and convictions of Davis, then it may be worth asking why didn’t they all respond as she did? There may of course have been dozens of different reasons, from a fear of losing employment, to a weary resignation that resistance was futile.
One might also consider the possibility that many of the Legion of small administrators could have believed at some level, that the argument against same sex marriage was, at its core, a hollow one.
A failed premise that may, or may not, have rested upon religious dictates.
After all, there is much debate, even within religious circles, as to whether there is any definitive biblical prohibition against same sex relationships.
But even if one is to take the stance that such proscriptions do exist, they must legally exist outside of the bounds of The Constitution, which clearly separates Church and State.
One cannot claim to be a defender of those constitutional principles, and insist in the same breath, that fundamental Christian religious beliefs must be the foundational underpinning of all legislation.
Rensin concedes as much, when he writes:
“It did not take long for the law to correct Davis. On August 12, a judge ordered a stay, preventing Davis from refusing any further under the protection of the law. The Sixth Circuit, and then the Supreme Court, refused to hear her appeal.”
Rensin then castigates the liberal internet trolls that began to pile on Davis, in commentary that thinly veils his own apparent inclination to denounce those critics as hypocrites. Yet, in the next breath, he goes on to criticize the more moderate and reasoning liberal commentators who attempted to temper the excess.
“ The ridicule of Davis became so pronounced that even smug circles, always on the precipice of self-reproach, began eventually to rein in the excess. , Mocking her appearance the incarceration of an ideological opponent — these were not good looks.”
The language infers that he does not see any honest conviction on the part of those who sought to “rein in the excess”. Rather, he assumes that they do so merely because of the optics. A concern that the harsh commentary might damage the liberal “brand”, in some way.
That, in itself, is a very large assumption not burdened by “Good Facts”.
And then there is an odd, non-sequitur, in the form of this question:
“How many of these critiques were issued by atheists?”
In what way, would that matter? Is Rensin suggesting that atheists were more mean to Kim Davis than devout believers? Or is it the opposite? In any case, would that make either group more “smug” and culpable than the other? There is no clear answer, in what follows.
“But to the smug liberal, it isn’t that Kim Davis is wrong. How can she be? She’s only mistaken. She just doesn’t know the Good Facts, even about her own religion. She’s angry and confused, another hick who’s not with it.”
I beg to differ, here. Liberals, smug or otherwise, believed in large degree that Davis wasn’t just mistaken, but fundamentally wrong.
That may not have been fair, or even accurate.
After all, God only knows what the real answer might be. Literally.
But in this particular case, “Good Facts” would make no difference, whatsoever, to either side.
Should we then label Davis as a “Smug Conservative”, who knows what the truth is when it comes to Christian faith, and merely pities the ignorant god-forsaking atheist liberals, who will most assuredly burn in Hell? Are they the sinners who just aren’t “with it” or worth it?
Nope. According to Rensin they may in fact be simply amoral.
“This, I think, is fundamental to understanding the smug style. If good politics and good beliefs are just Good Facts and good tweets — that is, if there is no ideology beyond sensible conclusions drawn from a rational assessment of the world — then there are no moral fights, only lying liars and the stupid rubes who believe them.”
This, is simply fallacious.
There’s a considerable ideology which underlies the process. That ideology is, in part, that the world can be made a kinder, gentler place by the application of “sensible conclusions drawn from a rational assessment of the world.” A place where tolerance and understanding are not mere “shibboleths” as Rensin suggests, but rather goals worth striving toward.
Instead of trying to remove morals from the argument liberals are, in many cases, appealing to the fundamental moral precept of “Do Unto Others”.
And while Rensin is eager to denounce postings about the Davis case in The Onion, and Gawker, as offensively smug pronouncements from liberal allies, he seems to have developed selective amnesia when it comes to the equally outrageous excesses from Conservative quarters, be they the pages of Breitbart, or the lips of Ann Coulter.
The reference to The Onion, is particularly perplexing, since it’s a satirical on-line magazine, not pretending to offer serious pronouncements on anything. Is Rensin guilty here, of stumbling onto the very same “precipice of self-reproach” that he mocked in the Kim Davis case?
Equally puzzling, is a narrative side-trip into the Presidency of George W. Bush.
In it, is the suggestion that smug liberals somehow concluded that “W.” was a dumb hick, taken for a ride all the way to the White House, “by the scheming right-wing oligarchs around him.” That somehow this “patrician born in Connecticut and educated at Andover and Harvard and Yale.” simply didn’t know his own “best interests”.
“Smug liberals said George was too stupid to get elected, too stupid to get reelected, too stupid to pass laws or appoint judges or weather a political fight. Liberals misunderestimated George W. Bush all eight years of his presidency.
George W. Bush is not a dumbass hick. In eight years, all the sick Daily Show burns in the world did not appreciably undermine his agenda.”
That’s exactly correct. But the assumption that liberals somehow saw George W. as something separate from his agenda, is simply wrong. Liberals very clearly saw that Bush was, in fact, one of the scheming right wing oligarchs profiting very directly from the policies of his own administration. Just another Washington “good ole boy”, perpetuating the trough-feeding status quo. Sort of a more avaricious, Bill Clinton populist.
Whether Bush made a conscious decision to “deliberately cultivate the confusion”, engendered by his malapropisms, and hayseed buffoonery might be a matter of debate, but there was little doubt that flinty-eyed self-interest lay just beyond his facetious facade.
That liberals showered him with scornful mockery is no more a surprise than the eight-year chorus of anguished conservative wailing over the surprisingly effective policies of Barack Obama. Policies that drove debt and unemployment down, and the economy forward, in spite of itself.
But Rensin seemingly believes that only the left is guilty of using more than occasional sarcasm to defend a position that they’ve established, with some conviction.
“We have long passed the point where blithe ridicule of the American right can be credibly cast as private stress relief and not, for instance, the animating public strategy of an entire wing of the liberal culture apparatus. The Daily Show, as it happens, is not the private entertainment of elites blowing off some steam. It is broadcast on national television.”
And so too, is “Fox Morning”, but that of course, is different.
He puzzles too, how liberal readers of the New York Times could so blithely accept bold pronouncements such as this:
“ It’s an accepted, nearly unchallenged assumption that Muslim communities across the U.S. have a problem — that their youth tend toward violent ideology, or are susceptible to “radicalization” by groups like the Islamic State,” began an editorial that appeared last December in the New York Times.”
“… I have been wondering for a long time how it is that so many entries to the op-ed pages take it as their justifying premise that they are arguing for a truth that has never been advanced before.”
If, after reading the editorial, the opening sally can be seen as anything other than a deliberate canard used to illustrate the kind of wholly unjustified declarations about Muslims kicked around by the organs of the legal, and security establishment, then I think he’s missed the entire point.
And maybe that is the point. In lashing out at a segment of the political left that has angered and disappointed Rensin, he has taken the side of “the dispossessed”, instead of attempting to reconcile the multiple factions of the political left. He hasn’t helped the problem, but exacerbated it instead.
Perhaps, in this case, the wise words of nobel laureate Bob Dylan, are the most appropriate riposte to be offered.
In a soldier’s stance I aimed my hand
at the mongrel dogs who teach..
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy,
in the instant that I preach.
My existence led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
Ah but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.
If there is anything that the political left should be able to agree on at the moment, it is this:
Truly, change is needed.
And, the election of Donald Trump puts a bigger exclamation point on that truth, than anything either liberals or conservatives have said, since the turn of the millennium.