Enough whining about liberal smugness: go read Orwell if you need that fix

I’ve had about a gillion people gleefully forwarded me this piece from Vox from Emmett Rensin: The High Price Democrats Pay for Liberal Smugness.


The idea here is that John Steward is smug, John Oliver is smug, Stephen Colbert is smug…all you liberal proffies are smug, and all you people who don’t “get” Kim Davis….smug, smug, smug.

Have you watched FoxNews recently? Bill O’Reilly…now THERE is a humble guy right there. A man of the people. Yesssirree. Rush Limbaugh. THERE’S a quiet, unassuming guy for you. Never a condescending word has ever been uttered or written by Ann Coulter. Or that king of smugness himself, William F. Buckley, Jr.

From their flouncing around about campus protests to assertions that they know what “history tells us,” there is plenty of smugness on the right, too.

But what really irritates me about the Vox piece is that it is old wine in a new bottle, and Rensin gets to ride a million forwards and clicks based on poor argumentation and vague assertions about what “the liberals do.” Here’s one:

That is: Kim Davis was not only on the wrong side of the law. She was not even a subscriber to a religious ideology that had found itself at moral odds with American culture. Rather, she was a subscriber to nothing, a hateful bigot who did not even understand her own religion.

Says who? Resnin’s Facebook feed?

Plenty of us in the world (like me) said “Hey, that’s too bad for Ms. Davis, but she doesn’t get to use her public office to pick and choose who exercises rights that have been settled in law based on her personal beliefs.” That’s hardly “hateful bigot” language. (It reminds me of Monica Lewinsky’s claim that “the feminists were mean to her.” Um, I’m a feminist and I distinctly remember telling people to shut their damn pie-holes and get out of her life. Do I not count as a feminist or a liberal? Or do we all just get to collapse everybody together based on our perceptions of what some of them did wrong as the definition of what’s wrong with that whole damn group we wish condemn?)

These are straw men arguments, easily posited when you don’t have to have any proof besides listing some leftie media personas who have adopted the same loud, table slapping modalities as righty media personas.

There is nothing that anybody is ever going to say about smugness, liberal or otherwise, that will top George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. Liberals are damned if they do, damned if they don’t, and Orwell set up that damnation in 1937 England way before Rensin “discovered” how it was getting worse over 30 years in America. (No evidence it’s getting worse. Apparently somehow it is. I blame John Oliver. Oh wait, he’s English and you do realize we are talking about TV shows? And cable tv no less?)

Richard Bellamy wrote about this beautifully in “The Intellectual as Social Critic: Antonio Gramsci and Michael Walzer.” In Intellectuals in Politics: From the Dreyfus Affair to Salmon Rushdie, ed. Jeremy Jennings and Anthony Kemp-Welch.

If they remain outside politics, they end up being charged with aloofness and a selective bUndness to injustice. If they enter the political arena, they appear condemned either to prostrate themselves before the powerful or legitimately to impose their ideals on others. On the one hand, they stand accused of a false objectivity obtained via a refusal to dirty their hands by engaging with the often messy affairs of the world; on the other hand, they are warned against covering their hands in blood by seeking to make a necessarily imperfect world conform to their abstract ideals.

IOW, you don’t get to feel good about not being smug just because your position is that the status quo is awesome when others are trying to change the status quo and finding it a hard go. There is an inherent condescension, too, not to mention silly absolutism in the notion that because society is imperfectable, no change is meaningful: it assumes it knows the abilities and essential human nature of all who surround you.

Orwell, BTW, once wrote: “the real enemies of the working class are not those who talk to them in a too highbrow manner; they are those who try to trick them into identifying their interests with the interests of their exploiters.” (Letters, New English Weekly).

Oh, so he meant trickle-down economics, then?

I find the reification of “the working” class to be disingenuous in all its forms, and the “noble” working class v. the “effete” intellectual dichotomy is particularly specious now that most of the academic workforce has become as contingent and economically precarious as everybody else. Orwell hoped to secure the preservation of a socially conservative working class, and that’s fine as far as it goes, but as a refugee from that world, I can say without hesitation: it’s got its own damn problems, and it doesn’t deserve a pedestal (or blame) more than the rest of the world.

I find the dialogue around Donald Trump to be particularly odious in the way that people are so careful to note that “he’s clearly bright.” There is something especially perverse about somebody who is bright and who, nonetheless, persists in spouting base and childish arguments. It doesn’t matter if you are bright if you betray your own gifts by refusing to reflect on things.