[19 December 2003]
There’s no one more red, white and blue
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.
Alan Colmes is the liberal everyone loves to hate. As co-host of the Fox News Channel cable TV talk show Hannity and Colmes and host of the Fox News Live with Alan Colmes radio program, he’s the sacrificial lamb Roger Ailes offers to millions of conservatives each week. And because of his position in the belly of the beast, he’s generally scorned by most liberals. Thus it seems unlikely that many people will read his new book, Red, White and Liberal: How Left Is Right and Right Is Wrong. In either case, that’s too bad because by forgoing the smart-ass approach of books such as Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them and Dude, Where’s My Country?, Colmes gives a no-nonsense point-by-point rebuttal to the neoconservative spew clogging the airwaves and pages of the so-called popular media. In fact, it’s when he tries to lighten the book with humor that Colmes is least effective.
Colmes’s thesis is simple yet daring: Liberalism is as American as baseball, Mom and apple pie. He starts out by giving the American Heritage Dictionary definition of the word liberal: “(a) Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogma; free of bigotry. (b) Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas and behaviors of others; broad-minded.” This contrasts with conservative, which the same dictionary defines as: “Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change.” In other words, Colmes says, liberals are oriented to the future, embracing progress and advancement. They are typically the ones who have tried to make the world a better place for all concerned. Conservatives, on the other hand, want to maintain the status quo. They never seem to have any new ideas and won’t get out of the way of those who do.
Liberalism as a political theory is a product of the Enlightenment, the quest begun in the 18th century to banish superstition and ignorance and establish universal rights. Its model citizen is the cosmopolitan. So it’s not surprising that liberals tend to be highly educated people. And contrary to what Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and other right-wing pundits would have you believe, most of the Founding Fathers were liberals in this sense. Free markets, democracy and self-determination are also ideas that come out of liberalism. It’s just that the Right has done a brilliant PR job of convincing people that “liberal” means starry-eyed, irresolute and prone to give money, jobs and educational opportunities to supposedly undeserving downtrodden types.
Colmes spends a good part of the book debunking conservative positions and exposing the hypocrisy of the Bush Administration. It’s here that Colmes is at his best. Of the “War on Terror” (always rendered in quotes to stress its phony nature), Colmes writes that it’s “an amoral and crass exercise in retaining power.” Besides just weighing in with his opinion, though, he cites chapter and verse of the playbook the Chicken Hawks have used since the tragedy of Sept. 11 to implement long-ago conceived strategies and tactics of empire, from controlling oil flows and escalating US military presence in the Middle East to propping up client regimes and enriching those loyal to the cause, all the while driving the country to the brink of bankruptcy.
The section dealing with the myth of the liberal media is a welcome addition to that debate, but it could have been much better. Citing the work of MIT professor and political activist Noam Chomsky (whose views have been suppressed from the mainstream media for years) is admirable. However, not acknowledging Nation columnist Eric Alterman, whose book What Liberal Media? predates Red, White and Liberal and covers much of the same territory in greater detail, qualifies as a sin of omission. Also, one can appreciate Colmes’s need to do some CYA when it comes to his employer, yet his repeated defense of Fox News reinforces the opinion of those liberals who brand him a sell-out. At one point, he goes so far as to assert: “Either Fox doesn’t have a political agenda or I’m not a liberal.” PUH-LEAZE! Does your copy of American Heritage have the word “tokenism” in it, Alan?
What’s really missing from Red, White and Liberal is a more direct discussion of the liberal/conservative distinction as a tool of partisan politics. Briefly, the Republican propaganda machine has worked 24/7 (at straight pay with no overtime, one presumes) to gerrymander the political landscape away from the boundaries of party affiliation to those of ideological belief. The floodgate opened toward the end of the 1960s in the wake of the Great Society and the Civil Rights movement. That’s when Southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott defected to the Republican Party, along with hoards of disgruntled working class voters in the North, strange bedfellows covered by the blanket of good old-fashioned American racism. White workers apparently forgot they fled places like Dixie and “old Europe” to escape sharecropper peonage under landed aristocracies, and they flocked back to the Master when the bottom dropped out of the US labor market beginning in the 1970s. It’s a rift in the New Deal coalition from which the Democratic Party has yet to recover, eight years of Bill Clinton notwithstanding. And Republicans have pummeled that wound like a champion boxer going for a TKO.
Still, Red, White and Liberal has plenty of tidbits to bring to your next cocktail party conversation. So give Colmes a break and read his book. You may actually discover the guy has something to say.