Progressives versus liberals, the battle begins, and the fate of America might hang in the balance

Bill Maher is the latest liberal to start taking aim at the left instead of the right.  Normally, this might be nothing more than an interesting squabble between two factions of the left and the far left, but the principles underlying the battleground are far too essential and the stakes far too high to simply sit back and enjoy. 

Last week, Bill Maher fired an opening salvo in what is emerging as an important battle for the future of America, traditional liberals versus a new, far more radical breed of progressive.  “Let’s get this straight,” the comedian and talk show host said on his popular Real Time program. “It’s not me who’s changed, it’s the left. Who is now made up of a small contingent who’ve gone mental and a large contingent who refuse to call them out for it. But I will. That’s why I’m a hero at FOX these days. Which shows just how much liberals have their head up their ass because if they really thought about it they would have made me a hero on their media. But that can’t happen in this ridiculous new era of mind-numbing partisanship where if I keep it real about the nonsense in the Democratic Party it makes me an instant hero to Republicans.”  He continued, “People sometimes say to me, ‘You didn’t used to make fun of the left as much.’ Yeah, because they didn’t give me so much to work with.”

Mr. Maher appears to have been moved by a combination of the progressive response to the pandemic, complete with never before seen mandates and restrictions on basic freedoms, and the increasingly shrill, punitive nature of woke culture, both of which have been targets in his recent shows.  Earlier this year, he took direct aim at masking and related fetishes that have defined the (largely) progressive response to the pandemic, claiming “it’s ridiculous. I don’t want to live in your paranoid world anymore, your masked paranoid world.”  He continued, “You know, you go out, it’s silly now! You know, you have your mask, you have to have a card, you have to have to booster, they scan your head like you’re a cashier and I’m a bunch of bananas. I’m not bananas you are.”  Late last year, he took on Critical Race Theory, after Democrats performed poorly in the off-year elections.  “But I find that a disingenuous argument because I don’t think that is what people are objecting to,” he told civil rights activist Michael Eric Dyson after he claimed white parents were “spooked” even though “none of them can define” CRT and it’s only about centering black history in the school curriculum. Mr. Maher continued, “They are not objecting to Black history being taught. There are other things going on in the schools.”  “Like what?” Dyson asked.  “Like separating children by race and describing them either as oppressed or oppressor. I mean, there are children coming home who feel traumatized by this. That’s what parents are objecting to,” Mr. Maher replied.

The howls of outrage to Mr. Maher’s most recent comments were almost immediate, and I’m sure expected.  Whoopi Goldberg responded on The View, “That’s not really funny to people have lost their kids to this vaccine, or people who lost family members or dear friends to this,” she said. “You know, listen, nobody on the planet really wants to go through this. This is not something we’re doing because it’s, you know, sexually gratifying. This is what we’re doing to protect our families.”  She proceeded to get more emotional, telling him to stay away from everybody” and “stay out of the public” if he won’t follow the endless protocols. “Nobody wants this. I don’t want it,” she continued in what some described as angry. “And I think he’s forgetting the people are still at risk, who cannot get vaccinated. People who can’t get the [vaccine], little kids under the age of 5, or people with health conditions. How dare you be so flippant, man?”  This is both rich and ironic, especially coming from a woman who shortly after claimed the holocaust wasn’t racist because it was between white people and has since been suspended from the show, but she was not alone in attacking Mr. Maher for his views.  Bruce Y. Lee, writing for Forbes, mocked his commentary asking “why should your friends care about your health, right?”  He concluded, “If wearing a face mask, carrying around another card, and getting your temperature periodically checked are the worst, most inconvenient things that you have to do on a given day, then your life is pretty darn good. That’s assuming that the temperature checks are not by rectal thermometer. It’s certainly better than death, being hospitalized, or suffering from long Covid.”  Of course, he failed to mention that there is not a single shred of actual evidence long Covid is a real disease instead of some psychosomatic manifestation, but who’s paranoid about such details?

Mr. Maher himself is something of an outlier in progressive circles, but he is not alone in rebelling against what is rapidly becoming a new, illiberal orthodoxy.  Last year, Andrew Sullivan published a similar, though more thoughtful and less satirical commentary on how the left has changed in recent years.  He began by noting that people often ask him, “What happened to you?”  “When did you become so far right?”  Mr. Sullivan responded with:  “The real question is: what happened to you?”  He argued there has been a “sudden, rapid, stunning shift in the belief system of the American elites. It has sent the whole society into a profound cultural dislocation. It is, in essence, an ongoing moral panic against the specter of ‘white supremacy,’ which is now bizarrely regarded as an accurate description of the largest, freest, most successful multiracial democracy in human history.”  He maintained that he has “exactly the same principles and support most of the same policies I did under Barack Obama. In fact, I’ve moved left on economic and foreign policy since then. It’s Democrats who have taken a sudden, giant swerve away from their recent past.”

Mr. Sullivan proceeded to quote former President Obama on race, first about this reaction to the anniversary of the Civil Rights march on Selma, Alabama.  Someone said to him, “That was a great celebration of African-American history.”  The President, then a candidate, replied, “No, no, no, no, no. That was not a great celebration of African-American history. That was a celebration of American history.”  He also quotes then-candidate Obama’s speech confronting race directly.  “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country — a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”  Mr. Sullivan concludes with a rhetorical question, “This is what I still believe. Do you?”  For expressing opinions like these, Mr. Sullivan was forced to resign from The New Yorker, when a “critical mass” of his fellow journalists no longer wanted to associate with him.  Mr. Sullivan claimed they “seem to believe … that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.”

Mr. Maher and Mr. Sullivan are joined by others like journalist Glen Greenwald who has become something of a star on Fox News for promoting what once were bedrock liberal principles such as freedom of speech, the press, and privacy.  In response, The Daily Beast wondered if Mr. Greenwald was “the new master of right-wing media?”  They opined, “This past month has occasioned spectacular success, of a sort, for the pugnacious contrarian pundit, an erstwhile leftist journalist-turned-Donald Trump defender who once again is proving his mastery of the right-wing media ecosystem.”  Mr. Greenwald’s former editor at The Intercept, Roger Hodge, claimed “He’s tapped into the rage machine.  He understands that there is no engagement like rage engagement.”  Ironic again, because there is next to no engagement with why these wayward liberals are suddenly spouting contrarian ideas when they haven’t really changed positions on any issue.  Instead, the response to all three men, and others like Bari Weiss who have undergone a similar transformation, is usually to turn on the very outrage machine Mr. Hodge bemoaned, flaming them for their apostasy from the cause rather than asking what is actually driving it.  Anger like that expressed by Ms. Goldberg or mocking like Mr. Lee is substituted for rational thought and analysis.

The truth, however, is that neither Mr. Maher, Mr. Sullivan, Mr. Greenwald, Ms. Weis, nor many others have suddenly become small government conservatives or religious fundamentalists.  They didn’t have a radical epiphany and change parties.  What they do have, it seems to me at least, is principles underlying their policy positions and they value those principles above and beyond the partisan squabbles that have defined American politics since the country’s inception.  In their view and mine, progressives have increasingly taken aim at these principles in recent years, and the battle has moved from fights over the appropriate tax rate or social safety net to the bedrock values mentioned earlier, otherwise known as the things which used to be shared almost universally by fair minded people on both the left or the right.  Mr. Greenwald has written of this trend specifically while discussing the muted media reaction to the FBI’s pre-dawn raid conducted on conservative journalist James O’Keefe’s home.   “They are unwilling and/or incapable of thinking in terms of principles, ones that apply universally to everyone regardless of their ideology. Their thought process never even arrives at that destination.”  Instead, “they ask themselves one question and only one question, and that ends the inquiry. It is the exclusive and determinative factor: do I like James O’Keefe and his politics? Do I like Julian Assange and his politics?  This primitive, principle-free, personality-driven prism is the only way they are capable of understanding the world.”

Increasingly, those who point out this trend are then ridiculed and ostracized from progressive circles, the subject of the rage machine as much or more so than people who were always on the right.  Normally, this might be nothing more than an interesting internal squabble between two factions of the left and the far left, but the principles underlying the battleground are far too essential and the stakes far too high to simply sit back and enjoy.  In reality, the debate is over a wholesale reframing of the American social contract, though they rarely come out and say it directly.  In my opinion, people like Mr. Maher and others correctly recognize that we will no longer have anything resembling a Constitutional Republic without freedom of speech, the press, and privacy, and that these very principles are now under attack, almost daily.  The country, or at least the country close to its current form, simply cannot long survive sanctioned censorship by big tech companies, constant attacks on our freedoms in the name of fighting coronavirus, and an ever more intrusive surveillance state.  It’s time for those that consider themselves liberal to consider what they value most:  The tax rate or the Bill of Rights.  The real battle has moved onto the latter, much as it pains me to say it.

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