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Are Liberals Pathetic?

Sterile posturing and cowardice have hollowed out the liberal cause.

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Anyone who says he or she cares about the working class in this country should have walked out on the Democratic Party in 1994 with the passage of NAFTA. And it has only been downhill since. If welfare reform, the 1999 Financial Services Modernization Act, which gutted the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act -- designed to prevent the kind of banking crisis we are now undergoing -- and the craven decision by the Democratic Congress to continue to fund and expand our imperial wars were not enough to make you revolt, how about the refusal to restore habeas corpus, end torture in our offshore penal colonies, abolish George W. Bush’s secrecy laws or halt the warrantless wiretapping and monitoring of American citizens? The imperial projects and the corporate state have not altered under Obama. The state kills as ruthlessly and indiscriminately in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as it did under Bush. It steals from the U.S. treasury as rapaciously to enrich the corporate elite. It, too, bows before the conservative Israel lobby, refuses to enact serious environmental or health care reform, regulate Wall Street, end our relationship with private mercenary contractors or stop handing obscene sums of money, some $1 trillion a year, to the military and arms industry. At what point do we stop being a doormat? At what point do we fight back? We may lose if we step outside the mainstream, but at least we will salvage our self-esteem and integrity.

I learned to dislike liberals when I lived in Roxbury, the inner-city in Boston, as a seminary student at Harvard Divinity School. I commuted into Cambridge to hear professors and students talk about empowering people they never met. It was the time of the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Spending two weeks picking coffee in that country and then coming back and talking about it for the rest of the semester was the best way to "credentialize" yourself as a revolutionary. But few of these "revolutionaries" found the time to spend 20 minutes on the Green Line to see where human beings in their own city were being warehoused little better than animals. They liked the poor, but they did not like the smell of the poor. It was a lesson I never forgot.

I was also at the time a member of the Greater Boston YMCA boxing team. We fought on Saturday nights for $25 in arenas in working-class neighborhoods like Charlestown. My closest friends were construction workers and pot washers. They worked hard. They believed in unions. They wanted a better life, which few of them ever got. We used to run five miles after our nightly training, passing through the Mission Main and Mission Extension Housing Projects, and they would joke, "I hope we get mugged." They knew precisely what to do with people who abused them. They may not have been liberal, they may not have finished high school, but they were far more grounded than most of those I studied with across the Charles River. They would have felt awkward, and would have been made to feel awkward, at the little gatherings of progressive and liberal intellectuals at Harvard, but you could trust and rely on them.

I went on to spend two decades as a war correspondent. The qualities inherent in good soldiers or Marines, like the qualities I found among those boxers, are qualities I admire -- self-sacrifice, courage, the ability to make decisions under stress, the capacity to endure physical discomfort, and a fierce loyalty to those around you, even if it puts you in greater danger. If liberals had even a bit of their fortitude we could have avoided this mess. But they don’t. So here we are again, begging Obama to be Obama. He is Obama. Obama is not the problem. We are.

 
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