The liberal elite are tried of being called the liberal elite. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of more than a dozen liberal books, including Nickled and Dimed, and frequent contributor to such Left-ward magazines as Ms., The Nation, and The Progressive, declared last week in the New York Times that it is time to retire the phrase “liberal elite.” The term, in her view, is a canard invented by conservatives to suggest that Lefties are out-of-touch with ordinary people. But now, says Ehrenreich, proof is at hand that liberals are just plain folks: Michael Moore.
If a woodchuck like Mike can connect with the masses, then surely it is clear that liberals in general are humble people who live like other Americans and who don’t indulge in better-than-thou snobbery. Mike, after all, wears a utility cap.
Some people have faulted Ehrenreich’s logic, suggesting that a Lefty millionaire filmmaker with a prize from the Cannes Film festival indeed qualifies as a member of the “liberal elite,” hat or no hat. And some have noted that the term “liberal elite” sticks because it captures the attitude of liberals that ordinary people cannot be trusted to make good decisions with their lives or their money. Moore’s book Stupid White Men offers a certain whiff of that condescension.
But let’s not quibble. If the liberal elite is irked by the phrase, let’s purge it. Send it to the prison for offending terminology, the word “gulag,” where it can live on the same cellblock with other recent exiles, such as the words “husband” and “wife.” (To avoid the taint of heterosexism, in Massachusetts we now say “spouse A” and “spouse B.”)
While we are busy cleaning up the image of the Compassionate People of Deep Insight (CPODIs) formerly known as the liberal elite, I think we should also do something about that nasty term, “the Angry Left.” The Left surely has no monopoly on anger; not all CPODIs are angry; and even angry CPODIs sometimes smile in a non-derisory way. The term “Angry Left” is clearly another attempt by conservatives to stigmatize progressives by making them sound like a petulant teenagers who are angry for no good reason other than the cosmic injustice of having parents. But the Left’s anger is serious. The Left is angry because, you know, Florida, Ashcroft, Cheney, Enron…oh, go read Dude, Where’s My Country? or see Fahrenheit 9/11. Mike explains it.
CPODIs have a reason to be angry, and therefore it is wrong to tag CPODIs with a label like “the Angry Left” that suggests they are all angry the way Al Gore is angry, because aliens stole his Michael Moore Decoder Ring. CPODI anger is grown up Howard Dean (remember him?) rage at the loss of our civil liberties and the callous warmongering of the exceptionally stupid but diabolically clever President W.
Viewed in just the right light, CPODI anger is compassionate anger of deep insight. Just like Bowling for Fahrenheit. Or whatever.
So let’s modify that term. “The angry with good reason left,” AWGRL, is an acronym actually enunciated by candidate Dean in Iowa in his most memorable campaign speech.
Now it is possible that the liberal elite will spurn my good-faith effort to come up with a more respectful set of terms to describe its casual assumptions of intellectual superiority and its emotional tenor. All I can do is offer the olive branch to Barbara Ehrenreich, Alan Wolfe, and the editors of The Nation. I can’t make them eat it. If CPODIs disdain these improvements, however, it will not be a case of the AWGRL finding another good reason. No, to reject these terms will be proof of a certain unfriendly spirit among some folks, who have adopted a kind of preemptive sensitivity.
Umbrage and anger have their place in public as well as private life. Lately, however, they have taking more than their fair show of our time and emotional energy. I think this is true of conservatives as well as the Left, but conservatives seem less in thrall to the god, Wrath. Ann Coulter, perhaps the exemplar of the Angry Right, had a best seller; but conservative books generally run a gamut of emotions: mournful, celebratory, proud, alarmed, mordantly humorous, stoic, and joyful–not necessarily all at once. Anger is just part of the mix. The Angry Left seems to have adopted a narrower register. Moore wins readers and viewers because of his humorous, hip, ironic versions of all-anger-all-the-time. But anger surely remains the central emotion he aims to stir.
I doubt that Moore’s anger and the anger of the rest of the AWGRL is actually a good tactical response to the cultural corner in which the Left finds itself. Anger is a powerful force for rousing the spirits of committed supporters, but it is a very poor device for persuading people to change their views. Anger generally doesn’t appeal to the diffident and the undecided, who increasingly determine the outcomes of American elections. And anger actually scares off some weakly committed supporters who are drawn to positive themes but frightened by fanaticism.
Anger may clarify some things, but it tends to cloud judgment. That’s why liberals like Barbara Ehrenreich end up so often in displays of prissiness, angrily attacking the vocabulary of their opponents. And the Left’s attempt to combine on-the-brink rage with claims of moral fastidiousness is, ultimately, doomed to leave its purveyors with a bitter defeat at the polls.
–Peter Wood, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, is the author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept and the forthcoming A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now.