Sunday, July 4, 2010

"the ordinary frame of reference for political judgment has skewed so far to the right that reality is standing sideways."

In other words, as my father once said while trying clumsily to use sci-fi lingo, "I want to be in a perpendicular universe." Essayist-at-large Scott McLemee uses an appreciation of Irving Bernstein's newly-reissued books on labor history as an occasion to discuss how worker consciousness, popular rage, and the range of the conceivable differed in decades past from what we live with now.


Timmi Duchamp said...

A panel at WisCon this year-- "Left of Center F/SF"-- forcibly reminded me of this as I listened in frustration & near disbelief to the panelists cite as "left of center" not writers offering socialist, marxist, or anarchist depictions of reality or possible realities, and certainly not writers who deal explicitly with class issues, but rather any writers they could think of (or whom they'd read) who had at any time of their career depicted working-class (males, of course) or socialist or anarchist politics or who promulgated "environmental evangelism."

Throughout, I found myself repeatedly thinking that these days, Richard Nixon would be considered left of center (his policies having been far to the left of Obama's...). One panelist did comment that what is "left of center" is highly debatable, but since this wasn't the kind of panel where any kind of political discussion or debate was welcome, that comment was allowed to die unexplored. The audience, which was not allowed to participate in the panelists' conversation (I believe only three audience members were called on, in the last five minutes of the panel, despite the audience's restlessness & desire to offer challenges to the panel's list-making), engaged among itself in a lot of fierce whispering and flashing eye contact. I emerged from the panel feeling, indeed, as though political reality were standing "sideways."

Josh said...

Timmi, I feel your pain: I've attended a WisCon panel which was about listing names of authors, in which challenges to the politics of the discussants were hard to interject; and I've attended one in which only two and a half auditors got to ask questions (but to her credit, the moderator did try to compensate for that by inviting many people to participate in the book version of that panel!). Neither of those was a great trauma, but a panel that combines both problems is like mixing metallic sodium and water.

Now (so far as his domestic policy is concerned), Nixon's tricky: a guy I was talking to in a coffeehouse eight or nine years ago said, "Nixon wasn't a conservative: he was a megalomaniac." And remember all the columns where Safire said, "I had a visit last night from the late Richard Nixon, on a furlough from Hell where he is serving time for having imposed wage and price controls"? That was Nixon's great sin, according to people like Safire! Indeed, it's quite possible that Nixon was taken down for not being a good conservative. Who knew that a great bigot and paranoid and redbaiter would give us Harry Blackmun, the EPA, a nonpunitive drug policy, and an aggressive Affirmative Action policy, and attempt to give Americans a guaranteed annual income? It was not a WisCon panelist in 2010 but Chomsky in 2000 who styled Nixon "the last liberal president."

What's scary is that the teabaggers and the National Review are denouncing attempts to go back to Reagan policies as socialist and pro-terrorist.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

A lot of the Nixonian policies that look somewhat leftist today were actually efforts to rein in Lyndon Johnson's affirmative action and equal opportunity programs. One example: Legal Services Corporation, which was set up to control the lawyers working for the poor. Yes, it provided jobs for idealistic young lawyers (I was one) and yes, it did some good in the 1970s. But the structure put in place to finance and regulate it made it possible to block efforts by legal services lawyers to bring serious class actions or represent the undocumented.

I will grant that Nixon's domestic policies look reasonably good in retrospect (if you discount the imperial presidency), but then, so do Eisenhower's if you compare them to Reagan and the Bushes instead of to FDR.

The advent of Reagan pulled the center so far right that even with a Democratic controlled Congress we couldn't even discuss a single payer plan funded by taxes. I strongly suspect history will show that Reagan and his cronies undermined the U.S. government so thoroughly that the damage done by the Bushies -- especially Junior -- was almost a foregone conclusion. All those government agencies that aren't regulating (like the former Marine Management Service), all those government functions privatized so that they're done badly by people more interested in profit than service, all this extreme fear of taxation so that we have a crumbling infrastructure, those things started under Reagan.

Josh said...

Minerals Management Service.

And I'd add that the individual and the infrastructural support for these things began in the Seventies: you can't let Ford/Carter off the hook.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Check out this post at Echidne of the Snakes on the Republican Party's 1956 party platform. I'd totally forgotten that until Phyllis Schlaffley began campaigning against the ERA, women's rights had been more a Republican Party than a Democratic Party thing.

Josh said...

Hey, here's a relevant document.

Josh said...


Timmi Duchamp said...

Now why did the link get dropped off the comment, I wonder? Let me try again:
the post can be found here.

Josh said...

Yeh, before the Reagan revolution, equal pay and abortion rights weren't (on the level of party politics) liberal issues; they were libertarian issues, which the Republican party supported. Ford (like GHWB before he got on the 1980 ticket) was pro-choice; McGovern was not.

I guess Stevenson might have been better for health care rights and mass transit, but I'm not convinced he would've been able to avoid some of the Cold War crimes (Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Ethel Rosenberg) of Eisenhower. Or put four civil libertarians on the Supreme Court: for all Eisenhower's timidity in dealing with Joe McCarthy, those court appointments effectively ended the Red Scare years in addition to launching the Civil Rights Era. Probably Aldai'd've been as effective as Ike in ending the Korean War and averting war with China and would, like Ike, have maintained New Deal-era tax structures. But it seems to me, from his Smith College speech and his having put Sparkman on the ticket, that gender and race equality weren't big on his agenda.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I wasn't so much letting Ford and Carter off the hook as thinking that neither of them were ultimately very relevant in the long term. Carter's post White House work has been more effective than his presidential term.

I recently got an invitation to an event here in Texas for the Democrat running for governor (Bill White, former Houston mayor, smart guy, who's got a chance of actually winning), and was horrified to learn that I was on the same side as Ben Barnes, a former lieutenant governor of Texas who was John Connolly's protege. Barnes apparently stayed a Democrat even when Connolly went Republican. Back when I was young, I considered Barnes part of the enemy -- the right wing branch of the Democratic Party, which had Dixiecrat overtones and controlled Texas (with occasional exceptions, like Ann Richards) until the state shifted to the Republican Party without really changing its attitudes all that much. The center has definitely shifted if Ben Barnes and I are on the same side of it!

You can also look back at the tax rates during the Eisenhower years to see how much things have changed. If we taxed the wealthy at even half those rates, we wouldn't have the financial crisis in government spending we face on both state and federal levels.

(And yes, Minerals Management Service. I was pretty brain dead last night when I posted, but you poked a subject I care about deeply.)