Thursday, June 30, 2011

Liberal Self-Consciousness

Regular readers of the blog know how much I like to ramble on about the regrettable lack of ideological self-consciousness in the community of liberals. This Michael Tomasky piece on the end of Glenn Beck’s television show on Fox News illustrates what I’m talking about. I haven’t seen enough of Beck to say how much of Tomasky’s standard-issue condescension is warranted. But from the little I’ve seen, I’m happy to concede that most of it is.

That makes Tomasky’s backhanded compliment to Beck and movement conservatism all the more interesting for what it says about Tomasky and the many liberals who identify with his point of view (my emphasis):
“He’s out of his mind, obviously, but here’s the thing: He is the only television personality I know of who uses his national platform to talk regularly and often about American history. And he makes me think, well, this is one of the ways in which conservatives are cleverer and more cunning than liberals.

Liberals very rarely talk about history, as my Democracy journal colleague Elbert Venture wrote recently in a fine essay. To them, history is settled, and there’s no more point arguing about it than there is in arguing about the physical properties of trees. It’s a factual given. Except that it’s not. The standard, non-crazy history we’ve all been taught is being contested every day by Beck and others. Next time you’re on a long-ish drive, flip over to the AM dial and listen to any of the several Christian news-talk stations you’ll find. You will see what I mean. And I’m not talking about arguably controversial liberal assertions about history—Thomas Scopes was a great man, say, or James Beard was dead-on about the Constitution. I’m talking about stuff in the grade-school textbooks. The Civil War was caused largely by slavery? Lib propaganda, all of it.”
Let’s stipulate to the accuracy of Tomasky’s observation that, however intellectually inept they may be, conservatives spend a lot more time talking about history than liberals because liberals regard American history as a closed book. It’s all the more plausible a thesis for being self-referentially accurate. Tomasky, you'll notice, isn’t so much deploring liberals’ tendency to look at history with a closed mind as he’s complimenting conservatives for being “cleverer and more cunning” about wielding history as a political weapon. You could be excused for coming away with the idea that Tomasky’s urging liberals, not to be better historians, but to be more able propagandists.

Granted, Tomasky concludes his piece with an obligatory piety: “[w]hat we need is historical truth, not just in The New York Review, but in more popular venues as well.”  Fine, but look at what he’s treating as unimpeachable historical truth: the “standard, non-crazy history we’ve all been taught.” People who really care about understanding history don’t regard the propensity to question received wisdom as pathological. It may generate a lot of bad historical analysis, but it’s a necessary condition of there being any good historical analysis. Yet, from all appearances, it’s perfectly fine with Tomasky that history remain a closed book as long as it has a liberal subtitle.

I can only presume that Tomasky would recognize something like this as an example of the “standard, non-crazy history” that “we’ve all been taught”: the New Deal saved American capitalism from itself by creating the foundations of a welfare state that not only made our political economy more just and humane, but put it on a permanently sustainable footing. That’s a large part of the historiographical ballast that keeps modern liberalism on its present course. Without it, liberals wouldn’t be betting the political ranch on the proposition that we can keep the modern welfare state up and running indefinitely just by making a few changes around its edges. I hope that turns out to be true, but it’s hard to be optimistic about the sustainability of liberalism if this bit of “standard, non-crazy history” hardens into dogma.

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