Ellis Cose not only accuses
Tea Party movement conservatives of venomous rhetoric, but says the conservative establishment is complicit in their excesses. By contrast, he says, when the wild rhetoric 40 years ago came from groups like Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers, "respectable liberals denounced the radical fringe. Now the Republican
establishment quietly acquiesces. And the right-wing media egg it on."
I'm eager to learn more about those respectable liberals and their denunciations of the radical fringe. I graduated from high school in 1972, and was nerdy enough to read a lot of political journalism in those days, but young enough to have been capable of misunderstanding much of it. So maybe it's just me. But the thing is, I don't recall any clear examples of respectable liberals in politics, journalism or academia standing up to the various left-wing extremists of that era and saying, forcefully and unequivocally, "What you people are doing and saying is ugly, and stupid, and wrong. You should be ashamed of yourselves."
The fact that I don't know any clear examples of the brave stands taken by the liberal establishment in those days doesn't mean there aren't any. NLT readers with better memories or research skills than mine are invited to submit entries in the Stalwart Liberal Rhetoric Competition. I would be glad to read and know of them.
I would be especially glad because my memory and research skills are
up to the task of finding strong entrants in the Feckless and Craven Liberal Rhetoric Competition. The historian Arthur Schlesinger, to take a leading example, spent a long career as a public intellectual, one whose pronouncements on any controversy or politician were widely regarded as the best indicator of the liberal consensus. His
denunciations were not the type to keep the radical fringe up at night, wondering if they had gotten it all terribly wrong. Schlesinger's take on the student protests that shut down some of the nation's most famous universities in the 1960s was even-tempered: "Both Berkeley and Columbia will be wiser and better universities as a result of the student revolts."This
is the tone of the liberal establishment I remember - not rebuking the crazies for their excesses, but sympathizing with their aims, grievances and "idealism." Rather than play the part of the grown-ups, admonishing young activists for indefensible words and deeds, liberals in that era could be counted on to cozy up to the angriest factions of the New Left. The rebukes, in fact, were often delivered to young people who weren't radical enough
. In his biography of Robert Kennedy, Schlesinger recorded
approvingly that Robert Kennedy lashed out in 1967 at some college students who wanted the U.S. military to try harder to win the Vietnam war his brother had escalated: "Don't you understand that what we are doing to the Vietnamese is not very different than what Hitler did to the Jews?"
Similarly, a 1970 review of a book on the Black Panthers in The Nation
would have embarrassed your run-of-the-mill sycophant:
The Black Panther Party is, by any definition, a revolutionary group, one which is attempting to find - and to a surprising extent has succeeded in finding - revolutionary political theories which are applicable to the condition of black people in America today, particularly in urban America. Its synthesis of Mao and Malcolm, Fanon and Lenin (with the important addition of [Eldridge] Cleaver's and [Huey] Newton's own contributions) is no street hoodlum's hodgepodge but a careful winnowing of political thought. Their analysis of the role of the police in white repression is accurate and brilliant.
It was a privilege, apparently, to be terrorized by such erudite thugs.
Conservatives should indeed denounce fellow conservatives who say ugly, inexcusable things. Our guide for doing so will not be, as Ellis Cose imagines, the brave and admirable actions of liberals 40 years ago. Instead, it should be the brave and admirable actions liberals never took when it counted, but are proud to fantasize about having taken decades after the fact.