Thursday, April 14, 2005

Hi. I'm Harry Truman, and I Approved
This Stupid Historical Analogy.

Harry Truman

Among the research projects I've stuffed beneath my desk — quite literally; there's an unruly pile of articles and books there, about which my wife berates me periodically — is an article on the ways that some conservatives and even some liberals have reanimated the ghost of Harry Truman and the whole prospect of a "fighting faith," Cold War liberalism to make a body of claims about the war on terror, national identity, and the moral weaknesses of contemporary liberalism in a time of global crisis. Democrats, they say, should reject the outdated anti-Americanism bequeathed them by the anti-Vietnam War movement; they should recognize the parallels between the struggle against communism and the struggle against "Islamofascism"; they should exile the weak from their midst (e.g., MoveOn, Howard Dean), stop being such insufferable wussies, and get down at last with the Pax Americana. Some wingnuts have even claimed that the Democrats have forever severed their ties to that glorious past and that Republicans are the rightful heirs to their cold war legacy. Jeff Jacoby, the conservative columnist for the Boston Globe, has argued this several times, while the slightly less witless David Brooks suggested in his usually dopey way that the Dems had a choice in 2004 to be "the party of Kennedy" or "the party of Carter." (What do you expect from a man who, like Noah, only thinks in twos. No wonder he's so easily mocked.)

The most recent bit of straw-manhood comes from Joel Engel in the Weekly Standard, who on Tuesday wrote one of those "take back the word" articles entitled, uncreatively, "Take Back the Word." Writes Engel
In the not-so-distant past, liberal FDR believed that the enemies of other democracies were, by extension, America's enemies--and liberals eagerly joined him in taking on the America Firsters here before fighting fascism over there. In his footsteps followed liberal Harry Truman, whose doctrine reflected the view that Soviet expansionism was insidiously anti-democratic and therefore innately illiberal. Then came JFK, the presidential avatar of modern liberalism, which he defined on his first day in office when he announced that America would "pay any price, bear any burden . . . in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." His statement seemed interwoven into the fabric of the burgeoning civil rights movement that was to become liberalism's high-water mark at home--the one issue that ipso facto determined whether you were indeed a liberal. And it was ennobling to be one, sharing Martin Luther King's dream that "all of God's children" would someday be free.
Observing that the word "liberalism" has been "perverted to the point of Orwellian inversion" (and then refusing to elaborate on who the perpetrators of this Orwellian inversion might actually have been) Engel proceeds with a list of unattributed attributes of contemporary "liberals." You know, the people who are "rooting" for Iraqi insurgents, cheering on the neck-slicing "Islamofascists," laughing at cartoons of Condoleezza Rice as a "thick-lipped mammy who speaks ebonics," and feasting at the usual buffet of anti-Semitism, PC thuggery, and terrorist apologetics. The ones, in short, who stand against everything that Truman, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and King encouraged. The message, in the end, is that "those of us who consider ourselves classical liberals--and believe that language has power--ought to take back the word 'liberal' from those on the left who debase its meaning."

Surely, to quote John McEnroe, Engel can not be serious. Leave aside the sloppiness of his accusations (do my objections to the war in Iraq really mean that I'm cheering for more beheadings? In all my reading and writing on the war, I've yet to encounter anyone who is rooting for more death.) Ignore as well the disingenuous and incoherent plea for the Right to claim the word "liberal" as their own (although I'd actually love to see more liberal Republicans out there. Leave it to DeLay and Frist to make someone like me nostalgic for the Eisenhower years.) No, the real howler in Engel's argument — and it is, I've noted, an argument being put forward quite regularly by people who appear serious about it — comes in his baffling historical amnesia. In his silly ode, Engel forgets the complex and ambiguous legacy of Truman and the "cold war liberals" he so admires. He forgets that they eventually brought us the unremitting disaster in Vietnam. He forgets that they presided over economic policies that helped enliven (and not garrote) the middle class. He forgets that they generally wished that MLK would drink a big glass of shut-the-fuck-up. And he forgets that they were skewered by the far right (for "losing" China, for botching the invasion of Cuba, for funding the "socialist" Marshall Plan, and so on) in a way that would have made Ann Coulter proud. Oh wait — it does make Ann Coulter proud! As Coulter writes in Treason, her long, bony middle finger extended in the general direction of liberals and their kin,
"The portrayal of Senator Joe McCarthy as a wild-eyed demagogue destroying innocent lives is sheer liberal hobgoblinism. Liberals weren't cowering in fear during the McCarthy era. They were systematically undermining the nation's ability to defend itself while waging a bellicose campaign of lies to blacken McCarthy's name. Everything you think you know about McCarthy is a hegemonic lie. Liberals denounced McCarthy because they were afraid of getting caught, so they fought back like animals to hide their own collaboration with a regime as evil as the Nazis."
"Liberals are very big on taking 'the long view' when evaluating their foreign policies. They create horrendous foreign policy disasters, but then eventually, a Republican is elected President and cleans up the mess. They said containment would work and, lo and behold, forty years later -- right at the end of the Reagan administration -- the Soviet Union was stopped dead in its tracks. That's taking 'the long view.' Praise God President Bush is not 'another Harry Truman.'"
To paraphrase an old episode of the Simpsons, I'm issuing a restraining order: John Engel and the Weekly Standard must keep 500 yards from historical discourse until further notice.