Politics & Policy

All the Left’s a Bumper Sticker?

Losing liberty on the back of your Prius

‘All Republicans May Not Be Racist, but if You Are a Racist, You Are Probably a Republican.” Sound like just another segment on MSNBC these days? Likely. Mark Goldblatt is the author of Bumper Sticker Liberalism: Peeling Back the Idiocies of the Political Left, and he addresses this kind of mantra in an interview with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How is liberalism just a “series of bumper stickers?”

MARK GOLDBLATT: Just to be clear, what I’m talking about is contemporary American liberalism, not classical liberalism in the tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson — which, ironically, has more in common with contemporary American conservatism. Liberalism, as the term is now understood, is an ideology that pays lip service to both liberty and equality but when push comes to shove — and liberty and equality have a very pushy-shovey relationship — will almost always side with equality. The sentiment is noble, but the policies don’t work.

Even John Adams, an early big-government guy, realized as much. “Inequalities of mind and body,” he wrote, “are so established by God Almighty in his constitution of human nature that no art or policy can ever plane them down to level.” But liberals keep planing away and planing away with big government programs . . . if everyone just went to college . . . if everyone just owned a house . . . if everyone just had the same health insurance. . . . Except it’s never enough to get things level. More often than not, it just warps the process and creates dependency, and things wind up less level than before. That’s because human nature doesn’t bend — which is Adam’s original insight.

So if you’re a liberal, what do you do when logic and evidence and historical experience aren’t on your side? You retreat to unreason. That’s what my book is about — the liberal retreat to unreason. I’m arguing that contemporary American liberals have become a bumper-sticker tribe. They can’t defend their politics at a depth beyond catchphrases, anecdotes, and strong feelings. There are exceptions, of course, but they’re few and far between.

LOPEZ: But don’t liberals say that they’re interested in equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes?

GOLDBLATT: The problem is that inequality of outcomes produces inequality of opportunity. Neither Steve Jobs nor Michael Jordan was born into spectacular privilege. Their fortunes are self-made, the product of innate talent and hard work. But they pass along the advantages they’ve accrued — social and educational contacts, business connections, and boatloads of money — to their kids. Inevitably, their kids grow up with greater opportunities than the vast majority of other kids. But if you don’t allow a Jobs or a Jordan to pass along their advantages, what’s their incentive to continue excelling? I’m sure Jobs could’ve retired to the Caribbean after the first iMac and lived very well off residuals. Ditto Jordan after the first championship. Certainly, they’re driven by ego. But the desire to provide greater and greater opportunities for their families is an even stronger incentive; it’s hard-wired into us. Would the rest of our lives be richer if redistributive taxes chased Jobs or Jordan into premature retirement? I don’t think so. Unequal outcomes lead to unequal opportunities . . . and the collective prospers because of it. Paris Hilton is a living embodiment of this great capitalist truth. She wouldn’t have her career if not for the hotel fortune accumulated by her great-grandfather, Conrad Hilton. Her pointless celebrity is the price we pay for his business acumen. It takes a measure of intellectual maturity to realize that that trade-off is worth it. But intellectual maturity is the very thing liberals so often lack.

LOPEZ: Is that fair when there’s the weight of academia — serious institutions — behind liberalism?

GOLDBLATT: Well, that’s an awkward question because it puts me in the position of speaking ill of the cocoon in which I’ve spent my entire adult life — I’m a tenured larva. But as long as you asked, what the heck? If there was ever a time when “academic” and “intellectual” were synonymous, that time is long gone . . . at least in the humanities. Some of the least serious, and most gullible, people I’ve ever known have been humanities professors. They’re able to maintain their gullibility precisely because they’re cocooned in academia. Only there can you build a career on the self-contradictory premise that objective truth cannot be had, or that “reality” must be set in scare-quotes because it doesn’t exist independently of what’s thought or said about it. There’s a direct if-then line from such thinking to Holocaust denial, but most humanities professors are too dense to realize it. On the other hand, these same humanities professors will insist that man-made global warming is a reality — without scare quotes — because, well, that’s different.

LOPEZ: Is it fair to say that to put a bumper sticker on your car is a sign of the unexamined life? Can it be born of one or lead to one? Anything’s possible, isn’t it?

GOLDBLATT: Not necessarily, though I’m guessing that if you’re riding around with a “We Are the 99%” sticker on your bumper, you’re not packing The Apology in your glove compartment. Or if you are, it’s only for show.

For the record, I’m not against bumper stickers. Some of them are genuinely funny; my all time favorite is, “Honk if you’re Amish.” What I’m against are bumper stickers that substitute for thought. I’m against bad arguments — arguments, again, rooted in catchphrases, anecdotes, and strong feelings. The thesis of my book is that if you peel away those three things, there’s not much left of the political Left. Well, except for a free-floating sense of moral outrage, and the snarky misplaced confidence that comes from taking Maureen Dowd seriously.

LOPEZ: Can conservative bumper stickers be just as bad?

GOLDBLATT: They can be, and, as I mention in my introduction, it wouldn’t be hard to write a book called Bumper Sticker Conservatism. But it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun because conservatives, as a rule, don’t have the same hyper-inflated view of their own intellects as liberals do.

LOPEZ: What do you have against SoHo?

GOLDBLATT: I’ve got nothing against SoHo. There are a couple of places to get a really good slice of pizza on Prince Street. But if you want a sense of the adolescent worldview of the Occupy Wall Street movement, walk the streets of SoHo on a Saturday night. What you’ll find is conspicuous consumption masquerading as nihilism. The only flickers of self-awareness come from the sidewalk vendors and the bums.

LOPEZ: Should Lincoln have given peace a chance after the battle of Bull Run? Why would you ask such a thing?

GOLDBLATT: Because “Give Peace a Chance” might be the most popular liberal bumper sticker of all time. The irony, of course, is that the same people who ridiculed Reagan’s “Just Say No!” ad campaign as a hopelessly naïve response to drug abuse embrace “Give Peace a Chance” as the height of geopolitical sophistication. Granted, it’s hard to argue with a dead Beatle. But is there a more craven way to oppose a particular war than to announce that, in general, you favor peace? Way to go out on the limb, U Thant. That’s mighty big of you. Furthermore, is peace always preferable to war? Which returns us to the Lincoln question. Should he have given peace a chance after the First Battle of Bull Run? Should he have summoned Jefferson Davis to the White House and said, “All right, you guys keep your slaves. Come back into the Union, and from now on we’ll mind our own business. Live and let live. No hard feelings, eh?”

LOPEZ: Explain your tautology: “A woman should have the right to an abortion because a woman has the right to an abortion.”

GOLDBLATT: That’s what the bodily-sovereignty argument in the abortion debate reduces to. Let’s acknowledge that there are serious philosophical and legal arguments on both sides of the debate. “Keep Your Laws Off My Body,” as the bumper sticker goes, isn’t one of them. Insisting that a woman has the right to end a pregnancy because she controls her own body is either provably false or logically meaningless. Even if we grant the highly contentious point that the fetus is part of a woman’s body, it’s just not true that Americans exercise absolute sovereignty over their own bodies. There are many laws that regulate the uses of our bodies. You can’t sell your internal organs. Nor is prostitution legal in most places. For good reason, there’s no right to absolute bodily sovereignty. However, if we take the bodily-sovereignty argument in a weaker sense — specifically, that a woman’s right to control her body includes the right to end a pregnancy — we’re left with this: A woman should have the right to an abortion because a woman has the right to an abortion.

LOPEZ: What do you have against “coexist” bumper stickers? It’s not a terrible idea, is it?

GOLDBLATT: Another popular bumper sticker consists of the word “Coexist” formed out of traditional iconic symbols: a crescent, a cross, a tao, a star of David, etc. It’s a pleasant enough sentiment, and it allows liberals to think they’re somehow above the fray when it comes to the ongoing struggle between the post-Enlightenment West and totalitarian Islam. Except if you’re imagining a world of peaceful coexistence, you’re not taking a neutral position. You’re coming down on the side of the West. Liberals are in the thick of the war; they just don’t have the stomach to accept it. Their aspirations for peace — a peace in which individuals are free to act according to the dictates of their own consciences — place them squarely on the side of heterogeneity over unity of belief, of personal autonomy over selfless obedience, of reason over faith. Radical Islam is at war with everything liberals hold dear. Liberals just don’t want to get their fingernails dirty.

LOPEZ: Would you add Sandra Fluke to the hero-worship chapter?

GOLDBLATT: The Fluke Martyrdom — I mean, it’s amazing she even survived Rush Limbaugh saying bad things about her — came after my book went to press, but she clearly belongs in the chapter on the Left’s history of misguided hero worship. She’s not a murderous villain like Che or Mumia. The obvious precursor is Anita Hill — another telegenic professional victim who became a feminist icon. I think Mark Steyn has Sandy pegged right. She’s a cliché-spouting, early-middle-aged schoolgirl who wants the government to buy stuff for her. Unless she winds up as Rachel Maddow’s substitute host on MSNBC, I can’t imagine her 15 minutes will drag on much longer.

LOPEZ: Is your book meant to be a challenge? A call to a new rigor in our political conversations?

GOLDBLATT: First and foremost, it’s meant to be a funny book about a serious subject. It’s not a treatise, Heaven knows, and it’s not a clarion call. Naturally, I’d like to see more rigor in political debate. But not everyone is equipped to engage in rigorous political debate — in many cases, just because they’ve got too many other things on their mind — and I wouldn’t want to exclude them from the conversation.

When I was sending out e-mail announcements for my book, a writer friend replied, “I’ll pass on the political book, that stuff is just nonsense, a waste of time for me, a hobby for angry folks.” That’s exactly wrong. Yes, there’s often anger in politics. Yes, there’s often ignorance. Oh, and there’s lots and lots of bad logic. But politics is who we are, our commonality. I might think Michael Moore and Bill Maher are buffoons, but they’re part of the conversation. You want them in the mix.

I don’t mean to get too preachy about it, but the back and forth between conservatives and liberals — between those who defend the tradition and those who push for change — is the republic. It’s the res publica, the public thing that defines us collectively. You want conservatives to win most of those debates because you want a stable society. Plus, the majority of changes liberals want are either pointless or dangerous. But a nation in which conservatives overwhelmed liberals would be stagnant. It wouldn’t adjust well to the dynamics of an evolving world. Liberals may deserve an occasional tweaking, but they’re still good to have around.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.


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