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By Marc Auerbach
I have lately been taken aback by the frequency with which a single, divisive theme is being repeated in conservative commentary: that liberals harbor a kind of hatred for America and its current leadership. "Why the Left Hates America", a recent book by Daniel Flynn, starts from a premise that appears to have gained a certain amount of credibility, judging from the work of conservative writers such as Dinesh D'Souza, Ann Coulter, David Horowitz , Mona Charen, Jamie Glazov, Ron Marr, Brian Yates, Ben Johnson, and Daniel Pipes, among others. I have no way of knowing how influential some of these writers are, but the sheer repetition of this mantra poses the risk that it will come to be believed. At a minimum, it signals a worrisome trend towards the polarization of public opinion and the transformation of essential public discourse from a good faith debate into a war over who should rightly speak for America.
William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, recently wrote,
These liberals--better, leftists--hate George W. Bush so much they can barely bring themselves to hope America wins the war to which, in their view, the president has illegitimately committed the nation. They hate Don Rumsfeld so much they can't bear to see his military strategy vindicated. They hate John Ashcroft so much they relish the thought of his Justice Department flubbing the war on terrorism. They hate conservatives with a passion that seems to burn brighter than their love of America, and so, like M. de Villepin, they can barely bring themselves to call for an American victory.(1)
There are three aspects of this excerpt that I find needlessly inflammatory and divisive.
First, there is the use of the word "leftist", which might as well read "socialist" to many eyes. Yet these are candidates for the Democratic party of America he is speaking about. By so casually affixing the leftist label, Mr. Kristol invokes a phantom enemy from the days of the cold warthe "leftists" who go to baseball games by day but secretly hate America by night, and work with its enemies to bring about its demise. The dreaded enemy within. The object of this not so subtle trick is to arouse fear by blurring the line between a legitimate political platform (from a party that shares no small part in the present greatness of America) and the failed political systems that have been entirely discredited in the century past.
Second, I am particularly dismayed by the use of the word "hate" as it implies the desire to bring about the destruction or complete transformation of the offending object. The attribution of hate also puts the burden squarely on the shoulders of liberals, who obviously must learn to control their blind rage. What are conservatives to do to explain themselves to these liberal berserkers? This is the sort of demonizing that is a tool more appropriate to propaganda than to discourse.
Finally, there is the suggestion that liberal hatred is so strong that liberals would prefer to see things go horribly awry (as in Iraq, for example), and even that American lives be lost, in the service of being proven right. This is a calumny that will not stand. Can Mr. Kristol truly believe that American liberals want to see America defeated in battle? Or to fail in the interdiction of every possible terrorist threat? It is so patently absurd that one has to wonder how Mr. Kristol could come to believe it (he offers no evidence) and why he would want to spread such opprobrious comment.
No, it is not hatred many liberals feel but fear and mistrust. And its object is assuredly not America. To the contrary, while we liberals love America and truly American values, we fear that American domestic and foreign policies are not consistent with those values. Liberals love America, but liberals also love the idea of what America can become: namely, a kinder and gentler nation than current policies appear likely to engender.
Understood in this way, liberal reaction to current policies should evoke a more thoughtful compassionate, and less confrontational response from conservatives. Overtures to calm our fears and secure our trust would doubtless be more productive than absolving conservatives of responsibility by dismissing liberals as America-haters. After all, Conservatives are in power. The conservative agenda is moving ahead on most fronts. Why expend so much energy on a disinformation campaign rather than address the fundamental questions all Americans need to have answered: like just exactly what are the American interests and values that we should be promoting both at home and around the world?
It seems to me that the reason many liberal-minded people seem so recalcitrant in the face of the Bush administrations success and obvious public support is not that we are atheists, Marxists, socialists, bitter about the 2000 election, amoral, utopian, or love paying higher taxes, but rather because we have a different vision of the future of America. A vision that has not been well articulated by the Democratic Party perhaps since Mario Cuomo's speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984.(2)
I believe for many of us this vision is rooted in the application of liberal thinking to the idea of America. Notwithstanding astonishment among conservatives that liberal ideas have any currency whatsoever after the Berlin Wall, after the USSR, after Kuwait, after Afghanistan, after Iraq, here are but a few examples I find meritorious:
This list is not exhaustive by any means, and neither does it describe ideals and concerns of liberals only. We share a great many beliefs about America, the state of the union, and its role and conduct in the wider world. However, there is a seeming inability or unwillingness among some conservatives to frame issues in such a way that they admit of reasoned, sensible and principled debate on the question of how best to tackle them.
In particular, there seems to me an increasing tension between the political need for compromise and some communities need for absolute standards. If the discussion is not going to admit to some flexibility and is reduced to a stand-off between those who love America and those who hate it, and to those who are right and those who are wrong, then we will be bound up in an endless morass of name-calling and strident rhetoric.
There are plenty of substantive, legitimate disagreements on the future of America, and Liberal ideas will continue to have an important role to play in their resolution. Mr. Kristol and his colleagues may not like that fact and indeed they may argue that some or all liberal ideas merit exclusionbut it is reprehensible to demean the reasoned aspirations of American citizens as hateful. I am liberal, a US citizen, and I love America. To stigmatize seeking change as somehow equivalent to hating America, unpatriotic or even treasonous seems to me to fly in the face of the most basic of our founding principles. If the ability for a thoughtful, well-intentioned individual to speak his or her mind is not a core value that we can agree on, then I am ready to hear the arguments against it. Until then I will not give in to fear-mongering. I intend to wear the liberal appellation with pride, and I will argue vociferously for the inclusion of liberal views in the future of America.