In my ceaseless efforts to discover how liberals think, I have a great advantage: I live in Manhattan, where everybody is liberal, so opportunities for fieldwork are boundless. Over the holidays, I discovered that a relatively new argument about terror is becoming popular: the next terrorist attack on America, if it comes, will likely be minor and tolerable. I was assured that a dirty bomb is the most likely weapon, and that it would probably do no more damage than an industrial accident. So not to worry. The real problems are fear, panic and violations of civil liberties--not terror. We had a fair amount of fear-is-the-real-enemy rhetoric during the presidential campaign, combined with almost airy dismissals of the terrorist threat here. If this notion becomes conventional on the left, the Democrats stand a good chance of losing the next four or five presidential elections. Here are some other themes in liberal conversation, Manhattan division:
*A near-total inability to admit substantial progress in racial relations. As racism keeps fading, the left seems determined not to notice the improvement. Instead, we see more and more reports on ?subtle,? ?veiled? and ?unconscious? racism. When good news becomes too obvious, reporters often ferret out a negative angle anyway, or simply conjure one up. On December 13th at Slate, Mickey Kaus caught the Washington Post offering a gloomy version of a very good set of economic indicators for blacks, including the fact that the portion of black households making $75,000 to $99,000 quadrupled between 1967 and 2003. Blacks are creating new businesses at a pace quicker than whites, going from 621,000 starts in l992 to 823,499 in l997, according to the latest census figures. ?Naturally, WAPO thinks the picture is bleak!? Kaus said. Naturally.
*Behavior doesn?t count. John Kerry said that a million African-Americans were ?denied the right to exercise their vote? in 2000 in Florida. Not so. Several media investigations, and even an assessment by the (then) leftward Civil Rights Commission, rejected this charge. What Kerry should have said is that a large number of Florida voters, many of them black, did it to themselves by mismarking or otherwise botching their ballots. This is sad, but it wasn?t ?disenfranchisement? or ?denial of the right to vote.? Similarly, if minorities are ?overrepresented? in prison and ?underrepresented? in college this is deemed to have nothing to do with the crime rate or lack of preparation in schools, because behavior doesn?t count. If the numbers are wrong, it?s society?s fault.
*Bush got re-elected because Americans are stupid. Many Democrats now refer to themselves as ?reality-based,? meaning that they are neither ?faith-based? or ?unreality-based? like those irrational Republicans. A couple of days before the election, I chatted in the green room of the Lou Dobbs show with a prominent liberal, who kept saying, over and over, that Bush is a liar and Americans are dumb. This is not the way to build a Democratic constituency that can win.
*The reaction to Janet Jackson?s Superbowl act indicates how backward Americans are. An older comedian said at a conference two weeks ago that the reaction to Jackson?s ?wardrobe malfunction? made no sense, since we all know what a nipple looks like. There?s a technical term for this. It?s called ?missing the point.? The public didn?t go berserk because Janet was bringing fresh anatomical news. It was a national roar of complaint over the raunchy, degraded entertainment that liberals refuse to ponder. Janet Jackson just happened to set off the explosion, just as Rathergate produced the long-building explosion over media bias.
*An inability to take ?victimless crimes? seriously. According to the ?broken window? theory, to cut a soaring crime rate, cities must crack down on the minor acts of disorder that lead to neighborhood breakdown and crime. This is precisely what happened in New York. When every inch of every subway car was covered in graffiti, riders concluded (correctly) that the system was out of control and it made sense to stay away. One day the transit chief announced that no subway car would ever leave a railyard with any graffiti on it. Control was restored. Riders surged back, and the subways grew safe again. Turnstile jumpers were arrested. So were the ?squeegee men,? who intimidated drivers at tunnels, seeking a dollar or two in extortion money for aggressively offering to wash car windows. This heavy emphasis on quality-of-life offenses turned the city around. But liberal are still in denial. One prominent liberal (unnamed--he?s a friend) wrote a recent book citing everything that helped cut crime except of course, the ?broken window? theory, which liberals cannot bring themselves to think about. However, it works.
*Myopia about censorship. This may come as a newsflash to liberals, but the vast majority of censorship today is conducted by the left. After 9/11, liberals complained endlessly that Bill Maher was penalized for saying that the terrorists had been brave. They still do. Despite the myth of mandatory patriotism in the weeks after the attacks, far more people were silenced on the right than on the left, particularly on campus. Liberals, many years behind the curve, think conservatives are the censors and the ACLU is the antidote. Wrong on both counts.
*Finally, I reluctantly report that liberal friends basically reject give-and-take political discussion. Their positions are typically posed in the language of feelings or the language of rights. Either way, there is nothing much to debate--feelings are personal and rights are beyond the reach of argument and majority decision making. My liberal friends are polite and tolerant, but their opinions reflect a body of remarkably settled thought that leaves little room for dissent or new ideas. To their token conservative friends (that?s me), they seem ever more isolated from the thoughts and concerns of their fellow Americans.