Crossing the Varwicon

05.4.2005 | Fred Siegel | National Affairs | 1 Comment

Put yourself in the place of a moderately liberal Democratic member of Congress from New Jersey. Your party has lost control of the presidency as well as both houses of the legislature, and the liberalism you grew up with no longer commands the respect that once attracted you to it. You’re looking for guidance on how to restore the lost luster of your party and its politics. On the advice of one of your staffers, you begin reading Doug Massey’s “The Return of the ‘L’ Word: A Liberal Vision for the New Century” (Princeton University Press, 204 pages, $24.95).

Mr. Massey’s credentials seem in order. He’s a Princeton professor and the former president of the American Sociological Association. He’s an expert on urban racial issues and a convinced free trader with no for time postmodern theory. Encouragingly, in the introduction, Mr. Massey makes a point of mocking campus liberalism as having become an “Orwellian parody itself, suppressing free expression” while “seeking to instill through indoctrination what it could not achieve politically at the polls.” He promises to “offer a coherent liberal alternative to the reigning conservative ideology.”

Early on, you note that Mr. Massey repeatedly picks up the themes of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, as when he insists that “rather than seeking alternatives to markets, liberals must work to manage them in ways that promote” a more equitable distribution of rewards. Again sounding like a DLC-er, he wants an education system designed for a “life-long process of learning” so that workers can adjust to shifts in the global labor market.

This is the case centrist Democrats have been making since the mid-1980s, and it was the basis, before Monica, for much of the Clinton presidency. But then Mr. Massey takes a strange turn. After mimicking the DLC’s program, he goes on to denounce it as “watered down Republicanism” and “Republicanism lite.”

Now you’re puzzled, until you realize, looking through Massey’s copious footnotes, that he seems to have never actually read anything written by the DLC. Nor has he read the essential book on the DLC, Kenneth Baer’s “Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton” (Kansas). Instead, he’s absorbed the Deaniac assumptions of the left-liberal academy and just assumes that the DLCers must be the bad guys because that’s what he’s heard time and again.

While not a postmodernist, Mr. Massey seems to have steeped himself in works by a variety of left-wing cranks from Mike Davis and Joel Kovel to Jonathan Kozol. From the latter he draws the dazzling assumption that the problem with education is that we spend too little. But nearby Newark, the congressman will note, spends more than $14,000 per year per pupil for minimal results.

At about that point, the congressman will cease to bother with this mercifully brief book and move on to something more interesting. And it’s just as well, because it only gets worse from there. Mr. Massey, a purported expert on urban affairs, has written his chapters on the decline of liberalism without mentioning the riots of the 1960s or the rolling riot of crime that followed. But any North Jersey pol knows that Newark has never recovered from the 1967 riot.

Odder yet, though Mr. Massey teaches only 90 minutes from New York and goes on about the excessive reliance on prisons to curb crime, he seems not to have noticed that, under Giuliani and Bratton, Gotham dramatically reduced crime without increasing the number of people incarcerated. Evidently it hasn’t shown up in either the academic literature or the left-wing blogs in which he’s immured.

Alternating between turgid academic prose and paraphrases of Web-based conspiracy theories, Mr. Massey has almost nothing to say about terrorism or the Islamist challenge. But drawing on the conspiracy blogs that outline the Varwicon (his acronym for the vast right-wing conspiracy), he claims to have uncovered a 1997 right-wing plot to go to war in Iraq. He is unaware of the bi-partisan backing for the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which was approved with the unanimous support of the Senate and signed by President Clinton. Was this, too, a right-wing plot?

In the 1970s, Mr. Massey argues, “liberals undertook a disastrous shift away from a materialist to a post-materialist politics, focusing on values and rights rather than concrete economic outcomes.” Mr. Massey is right about the shift and its effect, but he has little say about how to reverse it or curb the power of the Democratic Party’s rights based interest groups. He does have practical suggestions for the press: He wants to re-regulate it so that liberals can do “a better job of managing the media.” Having begun by rejecting the Orwellian world of academia, Mr. Massey in the end adopts his own Orwellian approach to the press.

Shorn of his academic pretensions, Mr. Massey is just another Deaniac who is convinced that Democrats have been losing because they’ve failed to show sufficient ideological fervor. By the time you finish “The Return of the ‘L’ Word,” you realize the problems of academia go well beyond postmodernism. Mr. Massey has made his case: He is the disease of which he proclaims himself the cure.

Alexandrovna - OK, so now to Congress. They approved the war. I know we have discussed the post-9/11 reality and the pressure of not seeming unpatriotic.

Ritter - Yes, but they also approved the war because Congress had been locked into a corner by the neocons in 1998. Our policy in Iraq since 1991 has been regime change.

How many times did G. H. W. Bush have to say 'we will not remove sanctions until Saddam is removed from power?' Bill Clinton inherited this policy of regime change, but the Bush policy was not an active policy, it was a passive policy to strangle, as it were, Saddam. It was not our policy to take him out through military strength. Saddam, however, was able to out-maneuver this policy, he did not get weaker he got stronger. The neocons played on the political implications of this, to box the Clinton administration and Congress into a corner.

When you declare Saddam to be a threat with WMDs and then do nothing, you have a political problem. The neocons played on this. In 1998, the Heritage Foundation, Paul Wolfowitz and the American Enterprise Institute basically drafted legislation [that] became the Iraq Liberation Act. This is public law. So when people ask why did Congress vote for the current war in Iraq, it is simply that they had already voted for it in 1998, they were trapped by their own vote.

Alexandrovna - So your implication is that in our current foreign policy the neocons have set the tone via thinktanks or supposed thinktanks?

Ritter - Yes. Look at who funds the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, and I think you'll have your answer.
05.5.2005 | Alexandrovna / Ritter

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