Generation Trap

GENERATION TRAP….If you haven’t been following the ongoing brawl between Time columnist Joe Klein and the liberal blogosphere, it’s probably too late to bring you completely up to speed. Let’s just say that the blogosphere thinks Klein is a wanker and Klein returns the compliment in full.

Which is too bad, because I think there might be an interesting conversation to be had here if we could get past the Crossfire-style drive-by insults. Here’s Klein a couple of days ago on why he’s a centrist:

I’ve come to my views honestly, after years of watching extremists on both sides of the spectrum refuse to accept the complexities of reality with disastrous consequences — beginning with the liberal attempt to impose court-ordered school busing to achieve integration in Boston in the 1970’s (I couldn’t find any black people who actually favored it) to the ridiculous supply-side aversion to taxation to the current foreign policy of the neoconservatives.

In a followup post he listed some benchmarks for identifying a “left-wing extremist,” and after reading comments from liberal critics suggesting that real-life liberals didn’t take any of the extreme positions he imputed to them, he replied sarcastically, “There are no lefties left. There are no socialists left….Jeez, that’s a relief.”

So what’s gong on? The biggest clue is that the first example of lefty extremism that comes to Klein’s mind is an issue that’s been all but dead for over a decade, while his examples of righty extremism are alive and well right now today. And socialists? There have never been many socialists in America, but there were at least a few who pretended to be in the 60s and 70s, when Klein and his generation first became politically active. But today? Outside of Berkeley, you’d have to swing several hundred dead cats before you’d be likely to come across an actual socialist.

Still, since I became politically aware during the 70s and early 80s (a decade later than Klein), I have at least a little bit of appreciation for what’s driving him. For somebody with a moderate temperament, some of the excesses of that era are bound to leave scars. In my case, though, I was only aware during that period, not active. Like most lefty bloggers, I only started following politics in a serious way in the late 90s. So for me the ghosts of school busing are just that: ghosts.

My political frame of reference is different. It’s Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America; it’s the insane wingnut scandal-mongering of the Clinton administration, culminating in Kenneth Starr and the Republican loonies trying to impeach a president over a blow job; it’s the press beating up on Al Gore in 2000 and a conservative Supreme Court then awarding the disputed election to its favored candidate; it’s a series of brazen, multi-trillion dollar tax cuts aimed at the GOP’s rich donor class; it’s the K Street Project; it’s the 30-year stagnation of middle class wages, partly due to an unholy alliance between conservatives and neoliberals on trade and unions; it’s a disastrous war in Iraq led by a president who had no clue what he was getting into (and still doesn’t); and during this entire time a Democratic Party seemingly adrift and unwilling to really fight back.

Now, I sort of get the fact that, having grown up and reported on politics during the 60s and 70s, Klein still gets twitchy when he sees things that remind him of it. And his personal knowledge of the past has some pretty obvious utility, especially for a blogosphere that tends to be pretty historically myopic. But in the face of everything that’s happened since 1994, does he really think his memories of school busing are germane?

This is where a genuine, non-snarky conversation might actually be interesting. Basically, I (and most of the liberal blogosphere, I assume) think that Klein is living in the past. He just hasn’t completely internalized the vast changes of the past decade: namely that right-wing extremism is now light years more dangerous than any chimerical revival of the New Left. With apologies to Bernie Sanders, there aren’t any socialists left in national politics, and a spotty dedication to national healthcare is about the most radical position held among mainstream liberals today.

I imagine Klein would say I’m wrong. He’d say he gets it just fine, and I’m the one being naive. But it would be worth having an inter-generational conversation that tries to unpack the assumptions behind the name calling. You never know. We might all learn something.