Failure of False Equivalence

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hosted a comedy outing on the Mall in Washington in October, one that could easily have been mistaken for a political rally.

There were plenty of laughs and too many speeches — and a plea for sanity and reasonableness that, on the surface, may seem, well, reasonable.

But, as Matt Rothschild pointed out in the days following the Rally to Restore Sanity, Stewart’s speech was an abject failure, a call for compromise and bi-partisanship that paid no heed to questions of direction or political focus. Stewart ignored philosophy and ideology and equated political belief and commitment with insanity, following the president in making compromise an end in itself.

Stewart essentially paraphrased Rodney King, calling for us to “just get along.” But our problem is not a lack of cooperation, though cooperation has been in short supply in Washington. It’s not that we can’t play nice with each other. Our problem is the weakness of liberals, personified by a president who clearly privileges bipartisanship over ideology, who has been willing to bend over backward and gut even modest liberal reforms to gain one or two Republican votes — and this was before Scott Brown won a Senate seat and ended the mythic Democratic veto-proof majority.

The problem is not a lack of cooperation but a lack of commitment on the left — a lack of commitment to principle.

Keith Olbermann on Nov. 1 bemoaned the false equivalence created by Stewart, et al — Olbermann/Maddow equals Beck/O’Reilly — but failed to address the real issues raised by the Stewart rally and the rise of the Tea Party movement and the growing hegemony of the corporate state.

Chris Hedges, in his new book The Death of the Liberal Class, describes a liberal class or mainstream that acts as a bulwark against real and radical change. As Hedges points out, mainstream liberals’ focus on incremental reform and the rivalry between the political parties consigns real structural economic change to the margins. The basic contours of corporate capitalism are never questioned.

Whether we are talking about so-called Obamacare, financial reform, the bailouts of the banks and auto industry, the seemingly endless wars we are waging and continued outsourcing of government services (including war making and intelligence) or the much-to-small Obama stimulus, it is corporate capitalism that was the big winner. This becomes clearer when you place these efforts, which has or will transfer wealth from the middle class upward, beside the rather meager aid offered to the unemployed, underemployed and foreclosed upon and the failure of the liberal majority in the federal legislature to re-empower American workers (anyone remember card check?).

The false equivalence pushed by Stewart — and endorsers of the rally like Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey — obscures the very real anger and fear driving the Tea Party movement, an anger and fear that need an outlet.

If we had a vibrant left in the United States, rather than an accommodationist one, the working class would not have to turn to the Tea Party (not have to, though many still might do so).

“The liberal class wants to inhabit a political center to remain morally and politically disengaged,” Hedges wrote on Truthdig on Nov. 1.

Were the left to realize its impotence under the current rules, Hedges says, it might “be forced, if it wants to act, to build movements outside the political system.”

Rather than mock the Tea Party, which I admit is eminently mockable, liberals and progressives should be emulating it, co-opting and imitating its energy and organizing skills to force weak, centrist Democrats (this would be most of them) out of Congress.

This would require the liberal class to demand acts of resistance, including civil disobedience, to attempt to salvage what is left of our anemic democratic state. But this type of political activity, as costly as it is difficult, is too unpalatable to a bankrupt liberal establishment that has sold its soul to corporate interests.

What this means, unfortunately, is that incremental reforms are the best we can hope for, that the corporate greed heads will continue to control our economy and politics and the liberty the Tea Partiers claim to be defending will continue to erode and decay.

Hank Kalet is a poet and a regional editor at E-mail

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2010

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