The left hasn’t done righteous outrage since the sixties – actually the late fifties through the early seventies, starting with the Civil Rights movement that gathered momentum after the 1954 Brown decision desegregating schools, leading to matters involving voting rights and new fair housing laws and then telling any business that could be even vaguely involved in interstate commerce that they did have to offer their goods or services to all citizens, no matter what their local or state government said. The outrages had to stop. Martin Lither King spoke in Washington, and the nation finally got it. And the days of righteous outrage sort of peaked in 1968 when the issue had then become our suddenly inexplicable war in Vietnam. More and more people kind of woke up. They hadn’t thought about it much, and now they did, and more and more of them found the whole thing outrageous. Then there were the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, but that wasn’t the half of it. There was the May uprising in Paris that had the old farts shaking in their boots, and that Prague Spring, where the Czechs shrugged off their Soviet overlords, until the tanks rolled in, in August. But that year the world was filled with righteous outrage.
And then it faded. The era of righteous outrage on the left ended at Kent State in the early seventies. The National Guard guys opened fire on student protesters and killed some of them, and there was nothing much to say about that. The kids were dead. They weren’t coming back. And no one was charged with anything at all. Righteous outrage hit a wall. Enough was enough. And the war was winding down anyway. Everyone knew it had to end. It really had been an amazingly bad idea, and when Daniel Ellsberg leaked those Pentagon Papers everyone found out that our own government had, for years, known just that. All that was left was figuring how to get the hell out of there, a delicate business at best. But we got out of there. And then righteous outrage was just so very tiresome – something from the distant past that only the granola crowd, stuck in the sixties and unable to move on, thought was cool. But it wasn’t cool anymore. Former hippies went to work on Wall Street.
There was a bit of righteous outrage in the run-up to the Iraq War – worldwide protests and all. But here the left was one part cowed by Fox News and all the rest calling anyone who questioned this war a traitor, or French, and three parts knowing that righteous outrage was pointless. Bush was going to have his war and there was no one, and no institution, that could stop him. Righteous outrage is fine, but what’s the point in being outraged at the inevitable? You might as well be outraged at the sun coming up this morning. You could seethe in anger, and when things in Iraq turned out to be a mess that was also inevitable, feel smug and vindicated, but you had probably been right to forgo taking to the streets in righteous outrage in the months before we launched Shock and Awe. That wasn’t going to change anything. We were going to have our war.
And thus righteous outrage on the left died. And now no one on the left even says they’re on the left anymore, or says they’re a liberal. That’s like calling yourself a granola fool, still stuck in the sixties. You call yourself a progressive. You’re not shrill, and you’re not outraged. You just want to get stuff done to make things better. And if you can’t get the big important stuff done, you get done what can get done, or some stripped-down version of some of it that can be improved a bit later, little bit by little bit.
And thus all of this gave us Obama. He’s how all this was resolved. He’s not shrill and he’s not outraged. He practices the art of the possible, as they say. That will have to do.
Of course all the righteous outrage shifted to the Tea Party right, outraged at everything – government spending, and the national debt, and high taxes (even if taxes are at a fifty-year low), and outraged at the government getting involved in healthcare, while outraged that someone might mess with their Medicare, and outraged at all the freeloaders on welfare or unemployment, just taking from the good folks. And add any government social program ruins people’s character, except for Social Security, as they do like their checks. Add righteous outrage at Hollywood movies (too many naked people, and some of them gay) and righteous outrage at Darwin to the mix, and throw in Mexicans and unions, or anyone who wants higher wages or benefits, as they are quite evil. And add outrage at big banks and corporations, and fat-cat millionaires and billionaires, getting bailed out all the time, and outrage at anyone who attacks those folks, as they are the good guys, and the job-creators, who need protected. Corporations are people too, you know.
The list of outages could go on and on, turning back on itself in odd ways, but it is what it is. Someone has to take up the righteous-outrage slack, now that the left has pretty much abandoned outrage.
But the left pays a price for abandoning righteous outrage. When you’re convinced that some things are inevitable and outrage is pointless, well, the other side finds they have free range to be outrageous, and make their favorite stuff, which previously would have seemed outrageous, seem both inevitable and normal. They know you won’t be outraged. You’ve moved on. This isn’t the sixties, after all.
This happens a lot now. In fact, consider this from June:
House Republicans are pushing back against a series of public health measures, including school lunch standards and tobacco regulation, teeing up a confrontation with Senate Democrats and the White House over the reach of government in daily life.
The Republicans have used an agriculture appropriations bill to send several messages: They don’t want the government to require school meals that are more nutritional but also more expensive, they don’t want the government to prod food companies to restrain marketing to children, and they don’t want the Food and Drug Administration to regulate any substance based on anything but “hard science.”
They took aim at measures that are part of the Obama administration’s efforts to combat obesity among children and adults as well as some initiatives enacted by the previous Congress.
On Tuesday, the GOP majority on the House Appropriations Committee approved a 2012 spending plan that directs the Agriculture Department to ditch the first new nutritional standards in 15 years proposed for school breakfasts and lunches. The lawmakers say meals containing more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy will cost an additional $7 billion over five years – money they say the country can ill afford in difficult economic times.
And John Cole comments:
The Republican Party is now apparently defiantly pro-obesity and pro-cancer. If these guys were comic book villains, no one would buy it because it’s just too over the top.
But no one said anything. You know how these guys are. We’ll work something out – or not. And they won that one.
And a month earlier it was a group of the worst tornados to hit the mid-west in a generation, pretty much wiping out Joplin, Missouri – hundreds dead, a frantic search for survivors, and Obama was in the area over that weekend, and obviously the whole area qualifies for federal disaster relief. But the House Republicans weren’t so sure about that, as they were not exactly prepared to spend that money to assist the victims and the community there:
The No. 2 House Republican said that if Congress doles out additional money to assist in the aftermath of natural disasters across the country, the spending may need to be offset.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said “if there is support for a supplemental, it would be accompanied by support for having pay-fors to that supplemental.”
Finding ways to offset disaster relief funds could be a significant challenge for House Republicans and would put their promise to cut spending to a true test.
And at the time, Steve Benen commented:
I don’t expect much from House Republicans, but this has managed to actually surprise me. When disaster strikes and there are deadly consequences, federal officials are expected to put aside politics and ideology, and commit whatever’s necessary to help.
Well, Cantor was demanding that all federal funding of research on advanced batteries and alternative fuels be ended. That would free up some funds. Otherwise those people in Joplin could just rot.
And Benen notes that the Washington Times – pretty far right and Reverend Moon’s baby – offered this item reminding everyone that Tom DeLay, when he was the House Majority Leader, believed emergency disaster relief should be immediate, without regard for offsetting cuts. Delay did say this – “It is right to borrow to pay for it.” And DeLay said at the time that offsetting spending cuts could undermine the economy. The Washington Times is glad DeLay is gone of course. They love what Cantor said.
And Benen adds this:
Congratulations, Eric Cantor. You’ve made Tom DeLay look like a moderate, and created an environment in which Democrats wish he were back as Majority Leader.
And Benen cites Travis Waldron reporting here that Republicans are also trying to gut tornado forecasting services. What? If these guys were comic book villains, no one would buy it because it’s just too over the top. But maybe Lex Luthor is the new normal. Well, Cantor didn’t win that one, but he set down a marker.
And then there was the recent and odd but powerful east coast earthquake, and now, Cantor was at it again:
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Wednesday that he intends to look for offsets if federal aid is needed to help areas of his Virginia district that were damaged in an earthquake Tuesday.
“There is an appropriate federal role in incidents like this,” the Republican said after touring the damage in his district. “Obviously, the problem is that people in Virginia don’t have earthquake insurance.”
The next step will be for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) to decide whether to make an appeal for federal aid, Cantor said. The House Majority Leader would support such an effort but would look to offset the cost elsewhere in the federal budget.
“All of us know that the federal government is busy spending money it doesn’t have,” Cantor said in Culpeper, where the quake damaged some buildings along a busy shopping thoroughfare.
There are two parts to this. These fools didn’t have earthquake insurance. This is their problem, really. They should have known better, but fools will be fools. And add the other part – maybe the government can help, but only if we cut something else, but this time he doesn’t specify what.
And this time Benen adds this:
For all of our differences over party, ideology, and creed, we know that when disaster strikes and our neighbors face a genuine emergency, America responds. We don’t ask what’s in it for us; we don’t weigh the political considerations; we don’t pause to ponder the larger ideological implications. That’s just not how the United States is supposed to operate.
I can’t help but wonder why Republicans don’t hesitate to finance wars without paying for them, bail out Wall Street without paying for it, and offer subsidies to oil companies without paying for them, but when an American community is struck by a natural disaster, all of a sudden, the GOP is inclined to hold the funds until the party gets offsetting cuts.
He didn’t even mention the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires that will cost seven hundred billion dollars when all is said and done. But Benen does say this:
Presumably, Cantor will say the same thing after Hurricane Irene hits the coast.
Well, yes. Just now the Majority Leader’s spokesperson confirmed this with Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo. If the hurricane does major damage, Republicans will only allow federal assistance if Democrats accept comparable cuts elsewhere in the budget:
“We aren’t going to speculate on damage before it happens, period,” his spokesperson Laena Fallon emails. “But, as you know, Eric has consistently said that additional funds for federal disaster relief ought to be offset with spending cuts.”
This isn’t just to lay a honeytrap for Cantor. Human toll aside, hurricane damage can be very expensive, and if against all hope Irene hits hard, this sort of parameter could put a severe dent in federal programs that are already stretched quite thin.
But there are politics at play. Mitt Romney back in June agreed with this line approach – “We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids.” And as Benen comments, in context, “those things” referred to aiding American communities ravaged by a natural disaster:
So, in the mind of Mitt Romney, it’s morally justifiable for the federal government to ignore American communities ravaged by a natural disaster, because the debt is more important.
And Benen goes on to cite a Jay Bookman item that points out that states can’t afford to take on such a burden on their own – “A state suffering destruction on such a scale cannot be told to suck it up and pull itself up by its own bootstraps.” Bookman argues that this is just not who we are:
After all, it is moments such as these that put the “United” in the United States. We are not self-contained human units each out to maximize individual wealth and consumption; we are Americans, and we help each other out. The notion that disaster relief is among “those things we’ve got to stop doing” is nonsense, and to base that suggestion on grounds of morality, as Romney does, boggles the mind.
We are the richest nation the world has ever known. The concept that “we cannot afford to do those things” – “those things” being assisting our fellow Americans in a time when they have lost everything as a result of natural disaster – is unacceptable.
I’m not sure what Romney was thinking in those remarks. I suspect, however, that this is what happens when a party becomes so trapped in its rhetoric that it no longer recognizes rational bounds or even basic compassion.
Benen agrees but wants to stress one other related point:
Romney, when asked about disaster responses, immediately stressed, “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”
I mention this because it gets to the heart of why we even have a government in the first place. A community devastated by a tornado or a hurricane can’t afford to hire a business to come bring locals rescue equipment, cots, and bottled water. For that matter, it’s the sort of thing the private sector shies away from because there’s no profit in it.
On the list of things Americans can and should expect from the federal government, “disaster relief” should be one of the few responsibilities that the left and right can endorse enthusiastically. It’s something people can’t do for themselves and can’t wait for the invisible hand of the free market to address, not to mention the fact that private enterprise doesn’t even want to enter this “market.”
It is morally bankrupt nonsense, and you might want to respond with righteous outrage – but those days have passed of course. It’s best to learn to deal with these people.
Benen says this:
We can obviously hope for the best when it comes to Hurricane Irene, but at this point, Republicans are apparently intent on literally adding insult to injury.
And how do you deal with that – righteous outrage, or seeking common ground and some means to compromise and all the rest? Yes, righteous outrage is self-limiting. Employ it and it engenders the same in the other party, and things can escalate to a point when key parties on both sides are feeling all smug and self-righteous and self-satisfied, and they will not budge an inch, as everyone on their side is cheering them. What do you do with that? Obama knows that danger. It’s real enough.
But how did righteous outrage work so well for Martin Luther King? Ah, that’s obvious – King avoided shrill outrage himself, relying on quiet dignity. He often stood silent. The other side was outraged, and shrill, and angry – and after a painful time everyone saw that they were fools. They self-destructed. And yes, Obama has some of that in him. He did that sort of thing to Hillary Clinton, and then to John McCain. He stepped back as they thrashed around, getting all het up, as they say in the South. And people saw who they were. And that was that.
Can that work now, one more time? Well, even Rupert Murdoch finally told Glenn Beck to just go away. Such things do happen. The only question is whether we can afford to wait, as times have changed. The other side is quickly making the absurd seem normal. And that’s the real problem. So, now what?