In the past months, as the world and I were concentrating on more serious matters, our thousand-eyed media couldn't help noticing, in a desultory way, a certain small sideshow. Compared to the events sweeping across the center stage of history, it seemed a bit like a lost sea-bird fluttering on the fringe of an armada, but perhaps you noticed it, too. I refer to the liberals' increasingly desperate effort to discover or create a Rush Limbaugh of the Left.
Hapless candidates for the job were trotted out, wealthy partisans forked up millions for the cause, and so on—the details fade mercifully with time. But one theme kept bobbing to the surface of the reportage and commentary. It came from friends as well as critics and neutral observers, if I remember, and it was not a deep insight, in itself. But it was suggestive. It caught the mind's eye and invited at least a little more desultory attention.
What kept bobbing up was the observation that it is not much fun listening to liberals. Compared with the real El Rushbo—ever buoyant, larger than life, overflowing with conservative joie de vivre—the lefty pretenders appeared, to friend and foe alike, anemic, wan, somehow depressing. In a word, grim; even the professional comedians. The Left is not a barrel of laughs.
My own listening experience confirms this general truth and suggests a corollary: the lefter you go, the grimmer it gets. If my political ear has not deceived me, this is bad news for the Democrats, who have to tune to the far left of the FM dial and crank up the volume in order to reach their party's activist core.
In Los Angeles, this means turning to KPFK, 90.7 FM. KPFK is one of five stations owned by the left-wing Pacifica Foundation, which is still licking wounds suffered in an earlier, messy, attempt by the Democratic machine to execute a hostile takeover of a ready-made radio network. The other four Pacifica stations are WBAI in New York; WPFW in Washington, D.C.; KPFT in Houston; and the mother of all leftist stations, KPFA in Berkeley. Pacifica stations' programs present themselves as "progressive" alternatives, but they are a more or less reliable index of the thinking and the sensibilities of the Democratic, cultural, Hollywood, and academic Left.
I mean the kind of thinking and sensibility that, on September 12, 2001, produced features like: "Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire." September 12! In these circles, where Michael Moore and Tim Robbins are typical Hollywood heroes of the moment, one speaks of "so-called" terrorists and the "so-called" terrorist threat. On the academic side, the likes of Noam Chomsky and Edward Said provide essential insight into America's "so-called" war against terror. Charmingly bringing the celebrities and the eggheads together with the literary Left, Alice Walker and Kurt Vonnegut join Danny Glover and Marisa Tomei on air to celebrate one-million copies sold of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. This is a book that puts John Kerry's demand for "regime change" in context by explaining America's "so-called" democracy. After all, as even Joe Lieberman likes to say, look at our "so-called" president.
Pacifica's most well-known program is "Democracy Now!", hosted by activist-journalist Amy Goodman in New York. The program could be more aptly called "Democracy Then!" To listen to it regularly is to return in strange ways to the '60s. One is astounded to learn that Daniel Ellsberg is still alive and protesting, joined by the Berrigan brothers and Dick Gregory. Especially poignant segments of war "reporting" are punctuated by rare recordings of (young) Bob Dylan or by the immortal refrain from (recently deceased) Edwin Starr's classic hit: "War—Huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nuthin'—Say it again!"
Here on any given day millions of listeners can hear the world as it sounds through a megaphone of old-fashioned or new-fangled Marxist theory, race theory, feminist theory, queer theory, animal rights theory, hard-core environmentalism, and various brands of multiculturalism. The leitmotif: If you are a person of less than plutocratic means, a person of race, a person of gender, a person of unusual tastes or inclinations, a non-Western culture, an animal, a forest, an ocean, or an innocent stream—America is out to exploit or destroy you. In the world of "Democracy Now!", there is no greater danger, to anything and everything decent democratic people everywhere love and cherish, than the U.S. of A.
Since at the same time America shows disturbing signs of being the most broadly prosperous, free, tolerant, and democratic nation in history, a loyal Lefty would naturally begin to grow a little bitter, somewhat testy, even shrill on a bad day. And the more free, just, prosperous, tolerant, and democratic America proves itself to be, the worse the day and the more desperate must be one's message. Because either one's life and reputation have been staked on ideas that have departed from reality, or the only people who understand the world are you and…the "so-called" terrorists?
Hence, perhaps, the bleak, ascetic zeal of "Democracy Now!" star Goodman (Ms. Goodman is thought of by some, however implausibly, as a budding radical Rushette, but her radio personality is closer to Medea with a migraine). When reality keeps stacking up against you, incorrigible faith is all you have left. And so, as you announce with a sneer America's "so-called" liberation of Iraq, you call the last Saddamite official you can get on the phone in Baghdad and ask him for a true perspective on the war. How upbeat and happy can a progressive be with that?
Here, then, is the root cause of the Left's chronic depression and the irresolvable problem at the core of the Democratic Party: America's success is their failure. And here is the corresponding cause of the good humor and vitality of conservatives: So long as America succeeds, they cannot fail.
Speaking of blind faith, one Pacifica program that showed potential for entertainment, however inadvertent, seems to have gone off the air, at least on my local station. I used to enjoy driving to work while listening to the "American Atheist Hour," which convincingly surveyed world news in order to demonstrate that war, injustice, racism, sexism, environmental catastrophe, animal abuse, cultural chauvinism, and every other evil known to man had one explanation–religion. This simplified things. One didn't have to get rid of private property, marriage, meat-eaters, SUVs, etc.: If we could just get God off the world's back, we'd be in paradise. To help their cause along, they offered an Atheist Hotline for anyone teetering on the brink of belief.
As Bob Dylan said—prophetically, 40 years ago—"the times they are a-changin'." Play that big intro music, Rush, and let the good times roll.