Editor’s Page

Editor’s Page

“The man who first flung a word of abuse at an enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilization.” Sigmund Freud once quoted this adage with approval, and its (apocryphal) point is plain enough. But its insufficiency as a maxim for democratic civilization is also evident. Healthy democracy demands more: partisanship in good faith—rather than partisanship as a surrogate for spears. That’s why we need to fret about the state of contemporary American public culture. Rhetorical venom is a vintage phenomenon in the country’s politics back to attacks on “Godless” Thomas Jefferson. There is also a sorry history of demonizing and misrepresenting foes within the left (as every “renegade social democrat” knows). Today, American conservatives deserve special, dishonorable mention. The Republican leadership, the Christian right, and neoconservative ideologues sound as if democracy were little more than a continuation of war by other means. Perhaps they are inspired by the declaration made in 1993 by Irving Kristol, neoconservative doyen: “There is no ‘after the cold war’ for me.” Liberalism had corrupted “sector after sector” of society, and so “now that the other ‘Cold War’” had ended, “the real cold war” could begin. “We are far less prepared for this cold war,” he added, “far more vulnerable to our enemy . . . [I]t is a conflict I shall be passing on to my children and grandchildren.” Well, he did, but our right-wingers were very prepared. Follow a thread from McCarthyism through Richard Nixon’s use of racial innuendo to pursue his “Southern Strategy” (conservatives don’t complain about this legacy of the 1960s), and on to demonizing liberals in the Reagan era. Later came the “real cold war” over Monica Lewinsky. Continue to date. Ex-Senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, was branded unpatriotic because he disagreed with the president. Senator John Kerry’s military record was smeared in the 2004 campaign. Now Representative Jack Murtha is declared a “coward” because he changed position on Iraq. Well, what else would you call a thirty-seven year veteran of the Marines who received a bronze star and two purple hearts? Lucky for him that his wife didn’t work for the CIA. No verbal vice seems too extreme when the American right assails critics. Its spears are showing. This issue of Dissent presents a different type of partisanship, one of democratic argument and reflections about priorities in disquieting times. Jeff Faux asks how the Democrats can alter the national agenda. Michael Kazin examines the role of religion in politics. Iris Young scrutinizes the Hurricane Katrina debate. Harold Meyerson considers the state of the Republicans.
–M.C.


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels