NEW HAVEN, Conn. — I was thinking about how 2012 is a good time for liberals to reclaim the rhetoric of patriotism and religion that they ceded to conservatives more than 40 years ago, when an acquaintance invited me to contribute to his publication. It's called The Point and it's a fantastic journal of culture and politics out of Chicago. Its website has a spot for what he and his colleagues call "Points." These are mini-essays that get you thinking about something vital.
As it happened, I was watching YouTube footage of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal tetchily trading views of the Chicago police riots of 1968. They were witnessing a pivotal moment in U.S. political history — the foundational break-up of the Democratic Party. Just before, but mostly afterward, the party was breaking along factional lines we still see today: the anti-war New Left, the flight of white southerners to the Republican Party, and the beginning of the Democratic leadership's abandonment of the working class.
What struck me was how different their exchange was, compared with today's talking heads (though they were indeed a pair of proto-talking heads). For one thing, they spoke in paragraphs, not tweets. They didn't use talking points, cliches, slogans or whatever counts for legitimate debate now. And that's the point: They took this seriously. There were stakes.
They were well-known public intellectuals by this time: Buckley as the founder of the National Review, Vidal as a novelist, screenwriter and essayist. This wasn't a notch in their respective curriculum vitae. TV was still novel to these men. And besides, how could the stakes be higher? The legitimacy of the republic was cast into doubt after the police attacked U.S. citizens.
Back then, politics was not entertainment
The seriousness of the moment was underscored by a brief burst of pettiness. At one point, Buckley interrupts Vidal, who responds: "Shut up a minute." Buckley says he won't shut up and then says that law enforcement has a right to "ostracize" those U.S. citizens who encourage others to shoot U.S. marines. That's when Vidal calls Buckley out: "As far as I'm concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi here is yourself." To which, Buckley gives as good as he got: "Now listen, you queer. You stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamn face and you'll stay plastered."
As I say, it was petty, but it was also illustrative of much larger themes. No one is neutral on a moving train, as it were. The texture of U.S. society was fundamentally changing and even figures as sophisticated as Buckley and Vidal were not immune to that era's spasms of upheaval. And their ad hominem moment said something else, something about our political moment. They disagreed, but disagreeing didn't prevent them from engaging each other in intimate combat. Face to face. Mano-a-mano.
This sensibility is almost entirely absent from today's punditry. There's a lot of posturing and preening, but most of it is theatrical and most of that is from conservatives. Rush Limbaugh blusters and bloviates behind a microphone. Sean Hannity carps and snipes in front of a camera. Buckley and Vidal were a lot of things — Buckley was kind of fascist and Vidal, who claims bisexuality, was often an irritating gadfly — but they were not showman. This was not entertainment. Politics was significant. As significant as getting your face pushed in by your ideological foe.
Talking about God and country with heart and guts
That was my "Point" for The Point. They don't make conservatives like Bill Buckley anymore. No matter what you thought, you had to admire a guy who smiled while fighting. As effete and stuffy as he was, there was seamless swagger to Buckley, a rare kind of muted machismo.
While liberals aren't as guilty of showmanship as conservatives (Keith Olbermann is the exception), they are as guilty of not taking politics seriously. Conservatives often resort to name-calling in the absence of debate, but liberals ignore whole categories of discussion. Like patriotism and religion. I suspect the reason is discomfort with talking about them, and I suspect that that's partly because they don't want to risk sounding like conservatives.
Well, it's time we got over that.
By not talking about patriotism and religion, and by not talking about God and country with heart and guts, liberals needlessly allow themselves to be discredited with accusations of being un-American and godless. Yes, many liberals — especially the educated secular northeast breed — are critical of U.S. hegemony and have little affinity for Christ, but neither precludes fealty to the flag and at least lip-service to God. While liberal ideals such as liberty, equality and justice for all are terribly important, they are terribly abstract. If you want to win people over with your ideas, you have to strike where emotions run hot. That means getting over your quaint discomfort with patriotism and religion, and wrapping your ideals in the rhetoric of red meat.
If pragmatism doesn't sway you, consider this historical moment. Conservatism began ascending partly as a reaction to the 1960s, but also as a reaction to the Democratic Party's and liberalism's crack-up. Now it's the GOP's turn. There is a growing consensus that it is too radical to be taken seriously, making their appeals to God and country sound hollow. This is a good time to reclaim that rhetorical terrain. Here are some suggestions:
Republicans have pledged never to raise taxes. Fine. Then they don't care about America. Schools, roads and other investments in our country don't happen on their own. Those who do pay taxes and want others to pay their fair share are patriotic. Anyone who sends his money off-shore, as Republican Mitt Romney does, is not a patriot. Worse, he has paid $2 million since 2000 in taxes to foreign countries, where he hides his money from the IRS.
Republicans who scapegoat the poor, the vulnerable and the sick are not Christian (or from any religion that respects the pre-Christian doctrine of the Golden Rule). Christ didn't turn his back on them. Why should we? Most religious arguments in favor of some kind of conservative objective can be countered with religious arguments. Gay marriage? The Sermon on the Mount. Abortion? The primacy of the conscience. Free market theology? My brother's keeper. In general, when a conservative proposal is socially exclusive, dehumanizing or otherwise cold-blooded, bring up Jesus.
Otherwise, man up
There was a time when conservatives were the tough guys and liberals the crybabies. Conservatives went to war while liberals stayed home to protest. That was a misconception, obviously, but a popular one. Now conservatives are more likely to cry, literally. Glenn Beck's show of tears became so influential that even House Speaker John Boehner cried. Conservatives are now in the habit of bewailing everything, making constructive debate nearly impossible. So it's time liberals start taunting conservatives for their crybaby ways. Yeah, it's tough living in a pluralist society with competing views and values, but that's life. Get over it. Can the complaints and get to work.
John Stoehr is a lecturer at Yale University. His writing about politics, religion, business and culture has appeared in American Prospect, Reuters, The Guardian, Dissent, Religion Dispatches and The Forward. He is a frequent contributor to the New Statesman, Al Jazeera English and the Boston Review. This column originally appeared via Al Jazeera.
God bless America sign photo, Tony Mathews / Shutterstock.com