There’s been a little spate of red-baiting going on, perhaps prefiguring the upcoming presidential election, which is probably going to be one of the ugliest in recent history. I think it started with Allen West’s bizarre claim that the U.S. Congress is full of communists, and now Bill O’Reilly has pipped in, among others, claiming that Robert Reich, of all people, “secretly admires” Karl Marx. There’s a rhetorical parallel here to the ‘Obama is a Muslim’ charge, in that the accusation isn’t really an accusation, but a sort of guilty–by-association smear, only no one seems willing to say that admiring Marx isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The cold war is over but the smear remains.
I don’t really have any problem saying I admire Marx anymore than I would have a problem with the idea the someone is a Muslim or a Christian or a Democratic Socialist or even a member of the Weather Underground. These are not prejudices, like sexism or white supremacy, that are inherently bad, although there have certainly been bad Muslims, Christians, Democratic Socialists and members of the Weather Underground. I think, though, that Reich’s thesis about the origins of this sort of red-baiting acrimony isn’t correct. I don’t think the problem is that we’ve stopped listening. I think the stakes are higher: we’re talking about curbing the concentration of wealth.
Doug Henwood, as a side note, is a Marxist who I think is remarkably civil in the face of a lot of nonsense… Reich, though, is more concerned with us, the so-called mainstream, which he says has become insular and self-destructive. I don’t mean to trivialize his ideas, but I find it hard to believe that anyone, liberal or conservative, has much to gain from, say, listening to Rush Limbaugh or anyone on Fox News. The problem isn’t simply ideological; or, rather, the difference is ideological in the specific sense of being rhetorical. Rachel Maddow is different from Rush Limbaugh not simply because she believes in global warming or a strong government.
She’s different because she uses language and constructs arguments differently. (Here’s Limbaugh recently on the National Organization of Women. Contrast that to Maddow on Representative Issa.) Conservative ideology sees rational debate as overly intellectual, effeminate, and ineffective; it favors a very muscular, pathos oriented rhetoric more like advertising than scientific discourse. It’s easy to find progressive arguments that have taken the path of pathos-based rhetoric too, but it’s less prominent. Conservatives, though, seem to have no other options. There are Limbaughs on the left but no Maddows on the right.