Book Review: The Good Fight

Peter Beinart’s new book The Good Fight surprised me.

I got all the way to page 3 before I threw something.

I lasted until page 40 before I reached for the scotch bottle.

And it wasn’t until page 168 that I had to put the damn thing down out of fear that my head would well and truly explode.

Like I said, surprising. I wasn’t expecting to get past the jacket of a book by a guy who thinks the real problem with liberals is our tendency to attract dirty hippies to the cookout.

It’s too bad the majority of the book is the apotheosis of victim-blaming, because there’s good stuff in here about how liberals turned early Cold War politics to their advantage and how they co-opted would-be splinter factions instead of turning on one another.

Click “Read More” for the rest …

And credit where credit is due: Beinart has the good grace to admit his mistakes in supporting the war in Iraq:

Partly, I was wrong on the facts. I could not imagine that Saddam Hussein, given his record, had abandoned his nuclear program, even as the evidence trickled out in the months before the war. And I oculd not imagine that the Bush administration would so utterly fail to plan for the war’s aftermath, given that they had so much riding on its success. But even more important than the facts, I was wrong on the theory. I was too quick to give up on containment, too quick to think time was on Saddam’s side. And I did not grasp the critical link between the invasion’s credibility in the world and its crediblity in Iraq.

Keep in mind that he’s admitting to a naivet that would make Peter Pan look like a hardened cynic, but at least he’s admitting it, which is more than most of our Republican friends have done.

But all of that good work is subsumed by passage after passage in which Beinart, editor at The New Republic and columnist for the Washington Post, talks about how liberals “lost America.”

How did they lose America? Let’s pick up the points in order of my rage. On page 3, they lost America by, well, running for office against dishonest fuckers who called them communists:

The district, California’s twelfth, was represented by a five-term liberal Democrat named Jerry Voorhis. Voorhis was hardly a Soviet apologist. In fact, he had angered Los Angeles-area Communists by critizing Russian repression in Eastern Europe. But he did have ties to the National Citizens Political Action Committee and the CIO, and for Nixon, that was enough. Fusing the two organizations under the sinister rubric “the PAC,” he made their supposed support of Voorhis the centerpeice of his campaign … In the campaign’s final days, voters across the district received the same ominous call: “This is a friend of yours … But I can’t tell you who I am. Did you know that Jerry Voorhis is a Communist?”

Sigh. So the guy wasn’t a communist, but his Republican opponent painted him as one. Elsewhere in the world, two liberals and a communist met for lunch once, therefore it’s Voorhis’s fault that Richard Nixon lied about him.

On page 40, liberals lost America because white racists didn’t like uppity black people who got sick of police beating the shit out of them:

Sparked by the arrest of a black man for drunk driving, riots raged in African-American neighborhoods of Los Angeles for six days, leaving more than 4,000 arrested, almost 1,000 injured and 34 dead. The following year, riots broke out in Cleveland and Chicago as well. And between 1964 and 1967, armed assaults rose 77 percent.

… From April 1965 to September 1966, the percentage of Northern whites who said the government was pushing civil rights “too fast” almost doubled, to over 50 percent. On September 20, 1966, Republican congressional leader Gerald Ford demanded to know “how long are we going to abdicate law and order — the backbone of any civilization — in favor of a soft social history that the man who heaves a brick through your window or tosses a firebomb into your car is simply the misunderstood and underprivileged product of a broken home?” That November, Republicans picked up forty-seven seats in the House …

There we are. The problem was events themselves, not that Republicans were simply quicker to capitalize and characterize them and whip up racist hatred. While he does lay out clearly the marginalization of non-violent voices in the civil rights movement, Beinart doesn’t begin to explain why more strident tones might have been attractive to those listening. Nor does he grant, in the midst of excoriating “students” for anti-war protests, that the protesters were right to oppose the Vietnam War.

The very title of this section of Beinart’s book, “Losing America” suggests liberals are at fault for the backlash to the civil rights movement, rather than craven and angry white people unable to handle the changing world around them and unwilling to grant equality and equal opportunity to others. Liberals “lost” America. They weren’t paying enough attention, set it down, forgot where they put it. It’s startling, it’s so idiotic.

And on page 168, liberals lost America because Clinton got a blow job:

[Clinton’s] … disastrous personal misconduct dominated his final years in office, exacerbating a new cultural gulf between liberals and many blue-collar whites, centered not on race, but on morality and religion. This new divide helped cost Al Gore the White House.

I’m sorry, but that’s the point where I simply had to put the book down and walk around outside for a bit. Look. Once and for all, the 1990s were fun. I was in college then. I had a great time. There were margaritas and boys and “Hotel California” on a guy named Carlos’s stereo. I loved that time in my life.

But it’s over for me, and it’s over for politics, too. MoveOn, indeed.

Al Gore didn’t lose the White House because Clinton got a blow job. Al Gore lost the White House because (pick your pet theory, really) of a tepid campaign dominated by schizo advisors who kept holding him back, a bitchy media that skewered him while lionizing his opponent, and Sandra Day O’Connor thinking George W. “Nuke Laloosh” Bush would be a better president. Al Gore spent his entire campaign running away from Clinton’s penis, with Holy Joe at his side with the garlic. That Beinart doesn’t realize this proves to me he’s so determined to wrench American liberalism into the mold of his own prejudices that he’ll ignore any fact that prevents that square peg from fitting into the round hole.

(And by the way, way to blame Clinton for the entire trumped-up “impeachment” circus. In Beinart’s world Henry Hyde and Orrin Hatch apparently don’t exist.)

It’s too bad, because early in the book Beinart actually recounts a story that, while I don’t think it proves the point he’s trying to prove in his book, supports the idea that the Fighting Dems he so despises, the liberal activists for whom he has such staggering contempt, have a style that works and draws on the strongest parts of liberal history:

As Wallace weakened, Truman gained strength. He unilaterally desegregated the military and created the Fair Employment Board to spur integration of the federal civil service. The special Turnip Day congressional session refused to pass his domestic agenda, but that just game him more ammunition. In September, he setout across the country by train … he attacked the “do-nothing, good-for-nothing 80th Congress” for opposing Social Security, aid to farmers, labor rights and progressive taxation.

Instead of responding to attacks or shying away from progress on civil rights out of fear of giving “ammunition” to his critics, Truman gave ’em hell his own self. Which is exactly the kind of strategy passionate bloggers (another constituency Beinart thinks helped “lose America”) have been encouraging Dems to ape for some time.

And Beinart is right that liberals do not do enough to remind America that when we’re in charge, life is actually pretty good for more people than it is when we’re not. He’s right that we deny too much of our history, even as he encourages us to deny some of it ourselves.

Maybe Peter Beinart should read his own book. There’s some worthy lessons here, buried as they are beneath his torturous efforts to turn them into cautionary tales.