When I was first into politics, I was liberal, because all of the conservatives were humorless and hostile. It was around the time of Jimmy Carter. I probably liked him because we had the same name, and he seemed like a nice enough guy. I was 8. Lots of conservatives were needlessly gratuitously mean to him, so I decided that they were all assholes.
By the time I made it to college, and started a bunch of peace activism clubs on my Community College campus, I had noticed that the world split more easily into the camps of “people who read” and “people who don’t read” — and my best friends on campus were as likely to be found in the right wing organizations as my own clubs. I still felt that they were wrong, but if they could argue about things, and if they cared enough to have opinions, then the door was open. I still basically liked liberals more.
Then the culture wars started. Maybe it’s just because I’m a white het male — and we were the target of the decade, you are certainly welcome to think that, if I have been unable to convince you that I think about things abstractly, if you want to insist that it is all about category and advantage in the end, then of course it must be like that. But all of the sudden, one year I woke up and all of the liberals around me were sneering and name calling to beat Nixon. You couldn’t hear the whining for the complaining. And the whole liberal paradigm became negative. We got a centrist democratic president who did more for the country than anyone since Kennedy (or since Regan if you credit Regan with the end of the cold war, which I don’t, but I realize it’s a going argument.) But it wasn’t about getting things done, it was about agenda thumping and opposing colonialism. The cold war had ended, but in the victorious west the liberals decided it was time to immolate ourselves in penance for imposing electricity and refrigeration on the world.
And sometime around 1999 all of the liberals had some kind of millennial fever. I would have guessed, if you had asked me in 1990, that it would have been the Christian right that would have freaked the fuck out over a calender change — they are the ones who go bonkers for holidays, and flags and such. And it was the WTO riots in Seattle (which I provided some logistical support for, despite being unable to attend in person because of chasing a girl down the coast to Santa Monica because of a Rock and Roll song) that convinced me that the left was not dangerous and wrong, but psychotic and incoherent.
No-one actually agreed with anyone else, or even had a rationally articulated position, but everyone wanted to be in the streets yelling and blocking traffic. And then they complained when the police under-reacted and arrested a couple hundred of them. I appreciate that the whole thing was a put on for the press, like that ninny that got himself tasered at the John Kerry talk, but man did those guys eat their own dog food. You had people who’s sole reason for marching was that they were opposed to the flow of immigrants across Americas borders. (That was your anti-NAFTA contingent) you had people who were anti-science animal rights activists from the same organizations that the FBI would ultimately deem to be domestic terrorists, but they wore cute costumes so it was OK. You had anarchists who were very deeply read in a very narrow brand of history. And there were a large group of people who had read a lot about the 60’s and felt like they missed something and this was their chance.
But for the chant: “This is what democracy looks like.” No it doesn’t. Because there was no dialog. There were only monologues all at the same time. Sure they got in the papers, but go ahead and ask anyone what they were actually protesting. People will say “Globalization” — but then go on and ask them what that means. You won’t get two overlapping answers. The term is massively broad and overloaded. Is Oxfam part of globalization? Is that bad? Are you opposed to Oxfam? How about legalization of illegal immigrants? How about debt forgiveness? The fight against AIDS?
Clinton (history will be good to him) stood at the head of it, and pretended that it was a call for greater transparency of the WTO proceedings — but there was not a single person I met in the 6 months leading up to it that would have said that. It was the best thing he could have asked for — and my respect for him was greatly increased by his ability to paint what was essentially a police failure as a coherent statement. But I don’t credit the people in the street with that. The WTO has not been closed down (whatever that would mean) — it has become the best chance of developing economies to compete with developed ones. Which is what was supposed to happen in Seattle, and happened in Doha instead because of the craziness. It has become the best chance to grow a mature economic rule set in China. It is an organization for and by grown-ups, and while the activists and anarchists went on to burn cars and laboratories and spend their parents money in coffee shops in Olympia and Amsterdam, it has gone on to open economic flows into the third world and ease poverty.
I still don’t like suits. But it seems that a lot of people anymore wear a stinky tie-dye the way people used to wear a suit. I don’t want so passionately to be on the site of what-is-right anymore, as I want to have a few friends who read and don’t freak out on dirty jokes. Intellectual poise is double-plus-good, and a heart which opens more to human beings than doctrine.
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