A Post to Gerard Alexander about Liberal Smugness

Jon Stewart (c) Comedy Central

Jon Stewart (c) Comedy Central

Professor Alexander, I am responding to your opinion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times: Jon Stewart, Patron Saint of Liberal Smugness (New York Times, Sunday Review, August 9).  For the most part my reaction is a big, careless shrug, as in I could care less.  But…

Come on, Gerard!  What are you writing about here?  I would imagine a conservative getting a chance at space in the New York Times Opinion pages would be a lot like writing to Santa Claus and getting a reply.  Couldn’t you make better use of the opportunity?

You say, for example, that liberals “turn out to be just as prone to their own forms of intolerance, ignorance, and bias” as conservatives.  I have been waiting for years for an answer to this one.  Exactly what are those forms of intolerance, ignorance and bias?  If it is intolerance for bigotry and backward policy you won’t get much of an argument from me.  Count me as guilty.  However if you are referring to the sort of social and economic intolerance that comes from the right, I don’t think there is a match on the left.  Is there?  Show us.

I suppose some on the right might point to movements like Black Lives Matter as examples of intolerance or bias, maybe even ignorance.  (Hey!  What about white lives, right?)  But, as I’m sure you know, to go down that route entirely misses the point.  Respecting blacks does not preclude respecting whites and vice versa.  There should be plenty of respect to go around.

However there are many from the right who do play this game.  It is a “Yeah, but what about…” trope that evades the issue and deflects discourse.  It represents a battle of identity politics that literally defines the right today.  In short, the only issues that matter are the issues that matter to conservatives.  Show us otherwise.

Gerard Alexander, University of Virginia

Gerard Alexander, University of Virginia

You mention Sarah Palin and Todd Akin, targets of liberal condescension and self-righteousness.  (Come on, Gerard!  Hard to resist, isn’t it?)  Show us their left-leaning counterparts.  And I don’t think Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton count.  I don’t hear these people — or any other major liberal politician for that matter — denying out of hand the science of climate change, for example, or the benefits of the Affordable Care Act.  Worse, if there is smugness in politics, it might be manifested most strongly in the right’s continued embrace of manifestly broken policy.  I see nothing wrong with pointing that out.

After all, when an adult speaks playfully to a child, or even scolds a child, is that condescending?  I hardly think so!  It isn’t necessarily Jon Stewart’s fault that he didn’t “puncture this particular pretension.”  I’m afraid what your feeling as indignation is more correctly polite annoyance.  And it seems to me that the left has every reason to be annoyed.  There is nothing condescending in that.

Yes, there are thoughtful conservatives out there.  The problem for conservatism, unfortunately, is the lack of clout they possess in public discourse.  That has everything to do with ignorance.  The political right is fed misleading — if not flat-out wrong — information as a matter of political strategy.  They are taught to suspect scandal, waste, and threats from anyone on the opposite end of the political spectrum.  Until thoughtful conservatives confront this, I am not sure what to expect.  Are you asking liberals like Jon Stewart to balance the conservative ideology?  It seems to me that would be the ultimate definition of condescending.

In the end, the right has more to worry about than smugness from the left.  Look at the Jon Stewarts of the world as canaries in the coal mine.  If they have you feeling you’re being made a fool, perhaps there is a reason for that.  And whatever that reason, don’t expect people like Jon Stewart to stop using the generous flow of absurdity the right provides every day.

 

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