Washington Post pundit Charles Lane is the former editor of The New Republic. So you might suspect him of being a liberal (though given the magazine’s well-known embrace of neoconservative foreign policy tenets, and the constant stream of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim invective it publishes, this is a more complicated story than it initially appears to be). So when Lane wrote a column in the Post recently attacking “liberals” for their alleged lack of civility, one must figure that he had quite a case.
“Liberals,” Lane insisted, “are in deep, deep denial about their own incivility issues.” His primary example? Recently installed New York Times pundit Joe Nocera’s column, which employed terrorism and jihad metaphors to discuss how Tea Party Republicans held Congress and the Obama administration hostage during the debt negotiations.
Moreover, Lane was offended that Nocera used adjectives like “intransigent” regarding Republicans and said they were indifferent to “inflicting more pain on their countrymen” via “the terrible toll $2.4 trillion in cuts will take on the poor and the middle class.”
To most liberals—indeed, to many if not most Americans—the above is simply an accurate description of Tea Party goals and tactics. (Indeed, it’s probably accurate in the minds of many Tea Party partisans.) What’s more, Nocera’s bosses on the Times editorial board only recently condemned “many on the right” for “exploit[ing] the arguments of division” and “demonizing immigrants, or welfare recipients, or bureaucrats.”
Right-wingers, the Times notes, “seem to have persuaded many Americans that the government is not just misguided, but the enemy of the people.” Once again, these terms do not appear terribly harsh or inaccurate, given the statements one frequently hears both in Congress and on the presidential trail. But Lane’s tender sensibilities find them to be overly harsh.
There are two ironies here. First, since when is the business writer Joe Nocera such a famous liberal? The last time I had reason to notice him in print, he was cheering Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget plan. “Even if Ryan’s solution is wrongheaded,” he writes, “he’s right that Medicare is headed for trouble.”
Lane apparently accorded Nocera the honor of the “liberal” label merely for the purposes of attacking “liberals” in general. This is consistent with the way many in the media treat the term—a “liberal” is anyone who does not reject science out of hand and does not want to murder immigrants with electric fences—but only for the purposes of attacking them.
The second, equally painful irony is that the attack—and one supposes others like them—apparently worked. Nocera took it all back. In a mea culpa column, he wrote that he had learned that “Businessmen were not the embodiment of evil, as liberals sometimes seemed to think.” (I don’t actually know a single liberal who thinks this, and of course neither does Nocera, which is why he uses the weasel word “seemed to.”) He added that he “came to see [him]self as a pragmatist who favored common-sense solutions over ideology.” Not so liberal after all.
But merely attacking himself was not enough. Nocera had to attack liberals as well. And what better liberal to attack than the grandest of them all for the past generation: Ted Kennedy.
In a recent column entitled “The Ugliness Started With Bork,” Nocera insisted that Robert Bork—Ronald Reagan’s nominee to the Supreme Court in 1987 whom Kennedy fiercely attacked on the Senate floor for being radically conservative—could not “be fairly characterized as extreme.” In doing so, however, he was forced to ignore the fact that among his many odd legal views, Bork did not believe the Constitution contained a protection for privacy. He added, in reviewing the experience, “Democrats can be—and have been—every bit as obstructionist, mean-spirited and unfair” and were responsible for “the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics.”
To prove this point, he quotes the far-right legal activist Clint Bolick, who coined the angry verb “to bork,” which meant to destroy a nominee by whatever means necessary. The line, he says, “from Bork to today’s ugly politics is a straight one.”
Nocera particularly objected to Ted Kennedy’s fiery speech describing “Robert Bork’s America” as a place “in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions [and] blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters” was a primary cause of our current conundrum. He calls it “despicable” but he does not claim it was untrue. And in fact, there were a number of cases before the Court in which it would have been possible for Bork to rule in exactly these directions. It wasn’t possible, however, given Bork’s belief that no right to privacy existed and that Roe v. Wade had been wrongly decided.
Again, quoting Bolick, Nocera says he thinks “Bork’s beliefs would have made him a restraining force.” He quotes with yet another attack on liberals: “Mostly, though, the point remains this: The next time a liberal asks why Republicans are so intransigent, you might suggest that the answer lies in the mirror.”
A few points in response. First, as I noted in Why We’re Liberals, this wonderfully moderate, judicious fellow Mr. Bork wrote in his 2003 book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, “There are aspects of almost every branch of our culture that are worse than ever before and the rot is spreading.” That rot derives from the nation’s “enfeebled, hedonistic culture,” its “uninhibited display of sexuality,” its “popularization of violence in … entertainment,” and “its angry activists of feminism, homosexuality, environmentalism, animal rights—the list could be extended almost indefinitely.”
Bork closes out his account by insisting that the country is “now well along the road to the moral chaos that is the end of radical individualism and the tyranny that is the goal of radical egalitarianism. Modern liberalism has corrupted our culture across the board.”
As Bork would have it, things have gotten so bad that he was willing to participate in a November 1996 symposium entitled “The End of Democracy?,” sponsored by the theoconservative journal First Things, in which the contributors addressed themselves to the proposition that “we [America] have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.”
Bork wrote that he found himself agreeing with his wife when she dismissed the Supreme Court justices as a “band of outlaws.” “An outlaw is a person who coerces others without warrant in law,” he wrote. “That is precisely what a majority of the present Supreme Court does.” How sad that we have been denied that moderate, civil, and sensible voice on our Supreme Court.
Second, as Rutgers professor David Greenberg points out in Slate, as a historical matter, Nocera could hardly be more wrong. “[T]he Bork battle was nothing new. Fighting over Supreme Court nominees is practically built into the Constitution. And an actively involved and sometimes obstreperous Senate has been the norm, not the exception, in our past.”
And as for nasty comments about one’s political opponents, well, it is simply impossible to take Nocera seriously if he thinks they did not predate the Bork battle, and I will do him the courtesy of refusing to do so.
The upshot? A former New Republic “liberal” now employed by The Washington Post attacks a New York Times “liberal” (who isn’t really a liberal at all) for incivility. And just to prove it, the latter goes on to attack genuine liberals for incivility by rewriting and ignoring history to make phony accusations to pretend that the first fellow was right in the first place.
It’s true that many liberals won’t take their own side in a fight. But it’s harder when there aren’t any actual liberals present in the first place.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.