WHAT IS LIBERALISM?
a May 22 editorial in the liberal The American Prospect (TAP), which he edits
along with Paul Starr, Robert Kuttner lauds radicals, for keeping moral demands
to the fore and for pioneering on major issues that were central to democratic
advance (as in the struggle against slavery). In his editorial, entitled
"Why Liberals Need Radicals," he notes that "nearly every great
social justice movement was initiated by radicals before it became safe for
liberals." It is radicals who "push out the boundaries of the
possible....In a ferociously capitalist society, liberals in government and
politics need pressure from radicals." Kuttner notes that radicals
"are more likely to appreciate the political dynamics of capitalism as an
obstacle to the reforms that liberals would like to carry out." And he
admits that "Neoliberals are often too quick to accommodate to power."
Kuttner nevertheless declares himself to be a liberal, and asks "Why, then,
publish a self-consciously liberal journal? Why not just join the
radicals?" His answer is as follows: "Too many radicals think that
most ills in the world can be traced to the United States of America. On
balance, I consider the United States -- its Constitution, its political
liberties, the economic opportunities it offers, and its openness to invention
and reform -- a force for good in the world. America needs redemption, not
contempt. Radicals, as zealots, are often demagogues and dictators when they
attain power. Too many have excused dictatorships that brutally ruled in the
name of workers."
does not explain why he couldn't be one of the radicals who DON'T blame the
United States for all the world's ills and apologize for dictators, but who
believe that "redemption" requires fundamental change. He seems to be
illustrating his own observation that liberals are not able "to appreciate
the dynamics of capitalism as an obstacle to the reforms" liberals claim to
want, and their ready accommodation to power. But it is also clear from the
statement, with its patriotic double standard, that he feels that the status quo
is pretty good and that U.S. foreign policy is more than acceptable, even if
some marginal changes might be desirable. Perhaps this is the defining quality
berates radicals for excusing dictatorships "ruled in the name of
workers," but the fact that the United States has supported numerous
dictatorships "ruled in the service of transnational corporations" he
glosses over with vague rhetoric about "on balance...a force for
good." He confuses the internal freedom of the United States with what it
does abroad, and even as regards U.S. internal affairs he is awfully complacent
about "political liberties," "economic opportunities" and
"openness" to reform. Radicals might be concerned that plutocracy had
eroded those political liberties and reform possibilities, and that the ongoing
racist reaction and the increased power of police and moves toward a law and
order state designed to control rather than serve the poor and minorities are
ugly and ominous. But Kuttner mentions only the positives without any
pats the WTO and IMF protestors on the back for making global issues debatable.
"Defenders of the prevailing global order now feel compelled to offer
decent space to dissenters. Even The New Republic, as the saying goes, published
World Bank dissenter Joe Stiglitz." This grossly exaggerates the openness
of the media to dissenters on global issues. Stiglitz is part of an
establishment that has its own tactical dissenters, and their access does not
extend to those with radical messages. Radical messages are still almost
inaudible. In their treatment of the Washington protests, the media's defense of
the police, hostility to the oppositional forces, and huge skewing of the debate
on substantive issues, was a throwback to their pro-NAFTA crusade of 1993-1994.
As Rachel Coen points out in her analysis of the media's coverage of the
Washington actions, "the small broadening of coverage was accompanied by a
formidable backlash on op-ed pages, and by a rash of reports more interested in
tittering at activists' fashion sense than in examining their politics"
("Police Militarize D.C., Media Provide Cover Story," EXTRA!, July
2000 [forthcoming]). A similar massive bias has characterized the media's
handling of the current debate over the granting of Permanent Normal Trade
Relations to China, where the media have once again manned the barricades in
service to corporate community demands.
this deep apologetic thrust, Kuttner's own journal TAP has had many good
articles opposing the ongoing conservative revolution and sometimes even
assailing the Clinton abuses and contributions to the erosion of the welfare
state. The journal generally eschews foreign policy issues, however, although
the Kosovo war impelled co-editor Paul Starr to put up a crude apologetic for
the U.S. and NATO actions ("The Choice in Kosovo," July-August 1999).
Interestingly, TAP refused to publish a letter of criticism I wrote on the Starr
position, as well as at least one other critical letter. (It also refused to
publish a letter criticizing Kuttner's "21-Gun Salute" to the retiring
William Buckley, who according to Kuttner has been a "role model" in
both openness and success in demonstrating "the power of ideas" [Jan.
3, 2000]; an editorial that demonstrated Kuttner's integration into the
mainstream power structure rather more tellingly than the "power of
TAP doesn't feel any compulsion on its own part to offer "decent space to
dissenters" on something like the Kosovo war or an accolade to William
Buckley. Its editor may claim to need radicals, but perhaps more in historical
retrospect, honoring their leadership in former battles, rather than in allowing
them to contest and debate the liberal apologetics of today! But it is good to
know that the struggles of our ancestors are respected.