Monday, September 29, 2008


Op-Ed Columnist - How McCain Wins - Op-Ed -

The core case against Obama is pretty simple: he’s too liberal...the only Democrats to win the presidency in the past 40 years — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — distanced themselves from liberal orthodoxy. Obama is, by contrast, a garden-variety liberal. He also has radical associates in his past...Obama quotes from the brochure of Reverend Wright’s church — a passage entitled “A Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness.” So when Biden goes on about the middle class on Thursday, Palin might ask Biden when Obama flip-flopped on Middleclassness.

That's strange: I thought that the whole point of liberalism, in particular the orthodox garden-variety, was precisely to promote middleclassness by seeing to it that more people could achieve it. I did take a quick look at some sites to get a better idea of what it was that Rev. Wright meant to repudiate under the rubric of "middleclassness." The National Review site, much as I gag to quote it, was actually illuminating:

Vallmer Jordan, a church member who helped draft the precepts, said..."The big question mark was racism"...He acknowledged that the principle on "middleclassness" was a hard sell, even then. "There was a hunk of resistance to that principle," Jordan said. But eventually committee members came to understand its intention: "Any black person who identifies himself as middle-class psychologically withdraws from the group and becomes a proponent of strengthening and sustaining the system," he said. Harris-Lacewell, the Princeton professor, said the "disavowal of the pursuit of middleclassness" is simply an argument against materialism and the pursuit of the American standard of wealth. Many white Christian churches also preach against materialism.

Seems pretty innocuous--indeed, edifying: exactly what one expects to hear in church, and thoroughly uncontroversial. It's in the Bible too. After the Israelites get out of Egypt, Moses tells them never to forget that they were sojourners in Egypt, where they were treated harshly, and so that they should remember to treat resident aliens amongst them well and to maintain solidarity with those who were less well off. That to me is one of the most remarkable passages in the Old Testament because it would have been easier to make quite a different inference in defense of the hazing principle: "You got beat up on. Now you're in power and can beat up on other people. Have fun!"

What's puzzling is why Rev. Wright identified materialism and indifference to plight of those who were less well-off as "middleclassness." But it's not all that puzzling if we remember that Wright was formed during his seminary days in the late '60s. At that time, when Marxism was still a viable ideology, "bourgeois" was bad and the rich brats who shaped the New Left of the period, were contemptuous of middleclassness because they'd never seen the alternative, lowerclassness, close up. They believed that the proletariat was populated by gonzo journalists, folk singers who composed rousing union songs, and working class intellectuals, ready to be organized into "circles" for the study of Marcuse and ripe for Revolution.

This was pure adolescent fantasy, but became institutionalized in the New Left. At puberty, my peers, like most other children, discovered that their parents were imperfect and inferred that they were positively evil. By mid-adolescence they had concluded that it was not only their parents but their parents' friends and all adults like them, middle class adults, who were thoroughly wicked and that the source of all this evil was "middleclassness"--because they hadn't seen the alternative, and because they didn't understand that even though middleclassness was not sufficient for basic human decency, it was necessary.

Beyond that, critics of middleclassness also had an extremely simplistic view of the springs of human action and assumed that it was a universal truth that people would only be motivated to work for the benefit of others if they thought well of them and liked them. So political activists who were committed to promoting social justice refused to recognize that the individuals who they recognized were treated unjustly and whose situation they wanted to improve were hateful, despicable, thoroughly sickening, disgusting human beings who detested them and rejected their most fundamental values. Given this assumption, these good liberals had to practice self-deception and virtuoso-level double-think to avoid recognizing that the alternative to middleclassness, lowerclassness, was a compound of bigotry, violence, ignorance, stupidity, brutality, sexism, and unreflective dogmatism.

I vividly remember one episode: I'm not sure when it happened--it may have been on a slumming expedition in Chicago in which I participated as an undergraduate. I was walking through a white ethnic slum with a group of fellow students who were exuding admiration for the life and color of the neighborhood, and the virtues of the local residents who, they marveled, were "real"--not dull, uptight puritans or hypocrites like their parents, their parents' friends, or middle class people like their parents and parents' friends. A man appeared, dragging a boy by the collar, yelling incomprehensible obscenities at him and beating him over the head. "There you have it," I said, "the proletariat"--but I don't think anyone paid any attention because they didn't dare.

I grew up with this and watched my childhood playmates' fathers treat them this way. The men, in sleeveless undershirts sat in beach chairs on the sidewalk during long summer evenings and expounded their views on politics, family values and a variety of other issues. "All deese kids unnerstand is de strap." And if there was a kid around on which to demonstrate, they would: BAM! "Shut up yer mouth and don't give yer mudder no lip." BAM, BAM, BAM! The women for their part were whining drudges who dragged around in housedresses, watched soap operas, and for light entertainment discussed obstetrical problems. This is the alternative to middleclassness.

I suppose one might wonder why, given that I hate people like this, I would have any interest in improving their lot. Several reasons, I suppose, the most important one being that I don't want people like this to exist. I want them fixed, made middle class, and I believe that that is feasible. I also recognize that it is nothing more than a matter of pure dumb luck that I am not one of them--and that this is grossly unfair. The pretense that they are decent people, that their way of life is worthy, does them no favors: they want out, if not for themselves, for their children--they want middleclassness but don't have the resources or the knowledge to achieve it.

Of course Rev. Wright didn't mean what I mean by "middleclassness" having been schooled in the Black Liberation Theology that was popular during his seminary days. And it is the ambiguity of "middleclassness" that conservatives like Kristol play to their advantage. When Wright preaches against middleclassness he is using the rhetoric that was in fashion 40 years ago to repudiate selfishness and promote solidarity with those who are less well off, re-packaging Moses' agenda. But, when the majority of Americans, who desperately want middleclassness, hear Wright they imagine that he is repudiating everything to which they aspire: a decent standard of living, an orderly, secure life, a comfortable house in a safe neighborhood and a good education for their kids. And people I came up with did repudiate this, though I can't imagine why. What on earth was their problem? What did they imagine the alternative to middleclassness was?

Of course there were features of this life I didn't want--in particular, the obligation to dress up and take care of my appearance but that is peripheral and it wasn't just this that my peers didn't want. I can't understand what the problem was or what it was that they didn't want. But whatever it was, liberals have got to understand, and not only understand, but empathize with the aspirations of most Americans. People want middleclassness because they know what the alternative is and Democrats have got to make it clear that middleclassness is that they will deliver--and stop despising people for wanting it.

1 comment:

MikeS said...

The great thing about your polemics is their transparent conviction. It is not so much that I agree with most of what you say, it is that you say it with a passion. Please carry on blogging.