The Common Good
September 2004

Fightin' Words

by Amy Sullivan | September 2004

Liberals rediscover their moral backbone.

The age of the wimpy liberal is over.

The age of the wimpy liberal is over.

If you should doubt that fact, drive over to your local bookstore and take a look at the titles crowding spine-to-spine in the displays of newly released or best-selling books. Where once Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter dominated key real estate on the shelves, you can now find The Lies of George W. Bush; Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right; Stand Up Fight Back; Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush; and Bush Must Go, to name just a few. In movie theaters, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is on track to become the highest-grossing documentary ever, breaking the record set by Moore’s previous film, Bowling for Columbine, and matching the success of his books Stupid White Men and Dude, Where’s My Country? Over in the previously conservative-dominated world of talk radio, the liberal Air America network has found a niche and an audience, beating out Rush Limbaugh’s show for listeners in New York City.

What caused this shift in political popular culture? For one thing, Clinton-bashing fatigue has set in. Even rabid conservatives can’t conjure up the same level of outrage for a figure who left office almost four years ago (although the popularity of the unseemly new book Ron Brown’s Body: How One Man’s Death Saved the Clinton Presidency and Hillary’s Future indicates some amount of persistent hatred). The trend can also be explained by the economics of the publishing industry—in a 50/50 country, there are plenty of readers for polemical books from both sides of the aisle.

Perhaps the best explanation, however, is this: Liberals have rediscovered their moral backbone. Forty years ago, at the height of the civil rights movement, liberals were not afraid to call a spade a spade, to declare discrimination and segregation "morally wrong," and to use the language of "values" in articulating their political priorities. It wasn’t very long, though, before liberals began to drop these terms for fear of being seen as judgmental and adopted a moral relativism for which they have often been mocked. In part, this was due to a genuine concern that political discourse did not reflect the subtleties of issues that could not always be characterized in terms of right and wrong. It was, as well, a reaction against the way that "values" and "morality" had been appropriated by Christian conservatives.

The "I’m okay, you’re okay, and even if you’re not, who am I to point that out?" mentality prevented liberals from developing compelling critiques throughout much of the past three decades. Pockets among the Religious Left managed to retain their prophetic voice on issues such as poverty, disarmament, and U.S. policy in Central America, but, more often than not, they were marginalized within the larger liberal community. Their frustration only grew as the language liberals had historically employed to fight slavery, poverty, and injustice was redefined to justify war, inequality, and greed.

BUT NOW THE tables are turned. The strict moralists in the White House and Department of Justice are busy with legal justifications explaining why it is sometimes perfectly acceptable to torture and abuse people who may or may not have done anything wrong. Supposedly squishy liberals have no such questions—religious liberals have even developed ads that are running on Arab television, condemning the prisoner abuse in Iraq and expressing the "deep sorrow" of Americans of faith for "sinful and systemic abuses." During the presidential primaries, Democratic candidates did not hesitate to reclaim moral language. Howard Dean charged that "the president has turned a blind eye to morality. We have lost our moral compass." John Edwards referred to the "moral responsibility" to eliminate poverty. And nominee John Kerry has talked about America’s "broken values system."

When authors such as Al Franken, David Corn, and Joe Conason deconstruct conservative rhetoric—particularly the communications strategy of the Bush administration—they do so not in a "on the one hand, on the other hand" sort of way; instead they seek to hold conservatives to account for both misleading and divisive statements.

They are backed up not only by their colleagues in the publishing and entertainment industry, but also by the knowledge that the gospel is pretty unambiguous about certain moral obligations. In Matthew 25, Jesus says quite clearly that while those who care for the least of their brothers and sisters will be blessed, those who do not will be condemned to eternal punishment. And lest the meaning of "brothers and sisters" be too vague, Jesus defines them as any who hunger, thirst, are sick, or are in prison. "I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me," he charges.

Our president may choose to avoid the implications of that gospel imperative, but—as the current surge of best-sellers indicates—he will not go unchallenged. From all appearances, the new tough liberal doesn’t hesitate to overturn the tables of the money-changers, aggressively confront the hypocrites, or insist that we remember our responsibilities to our brothers and sisters, both at home and abroad. Will this newfound moral backbone make the world a better place? We shall see.

In the past, whenever conservatives would tell me that liberals are moral relativists and don’t believe in evil, I would smile and reply that my religious liberal mother absolutely believes in evil—and she thinks it’s in the person of Dick Cheney. Now I can just point to the bookshelves.

Amy Sullivan is a doctoral student in sociology at Princeton University.

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