There is a lot of weird shit on the internet, no doubt, but once in a while I see something there that is weird in a different way than I’m used to and it gets me thinking. This Twitter thread from Noah Smith, who apparently is some kind of liberal for some value of liberal, is… well, you can look at the whole thing, but here’s how it starts:
I thought it was a parody at first, but as it goes on Smith’s seriousness is unavoidable. He bitches about those “In this house we believe…” signs on liberal lawns, and “Latinx,” and laments that liberals love lockdowns, etc. He also throws in “I didn’t see many Black folks at these people’s backyard get-togethers” without revealing the racial makeup of his own inner circle.
In a way this is just the same tedious “the left left me” shtick we’ve been getting since John Connally abandoned George McGovern for Nixon, and through the similarly tendentious but increasingly stupid iterations of Roger L. Simon and Zell Miller et alia. Yet Smith insists that he’s still a liberal, and says he still believes all the same liberal things he used to believe.
Smith may be lying, consciously or unconsciously. For one thing, he insists he’s not a socialist, either, which suggests not a lot of wiggle room on that end of the spectrum. Also he closes, “But I think lots of other people feel like me, and there’s an urge to walk away...somewhere.” The walk-away thing is extremely common language among conservatives seeking to recruit liberals or members of liberal affinity groups.
But not only will I accept that Smith is not lying, I’ll further stipulate that it doesn’t make any difference whether he’s lying or not. Because I recognize what he’s talking about are not political beliefs, or really beliefs of any kind, but anxieties that are common to male Americans, though many of those men mistake these anxieties for political beliefs.
When I was a young man, I was a liberal, sure. But I was also a young man. Which is to say I was kind of an asshole — prickly, petulant, disinclined to tolerate a lot of what I considered to be nonsense.
This was not an entirely bad thing; a lot of what I considered to be nonsense was in fact nonsense. But some of it wasn’t, and some of it was mixed. For instance, I used to laugh at the grant-hustling artists one would see in the Village Voice (!) or ARTnews with their difficult and to me baffling conceptual art. I didn’t get it so it seemed like a racket — they made shit no one liked enough to pay for on the open market, I figured, so they sucked up to deluded rich people and checked some nonsensical aesthetic boxes and got paid for that. (No one was playing me very much for the horrible noise I was producing, but that just showed how much integrity I had, that I was willing to subsist on a pittance and wouldn’t debase my art by trying to please a bunch of assholes.)
Now, there’s a grain of truth in there; cynicism is a cover bet that’s bound to hit something. But to the very large extent it is not true, it had nothing to do with my powers of analysis, and mostly to do with my ignorance and the effect of my native stores of piss and vinegar, accelerated by Budweiser, on my smooth young brain.
I had a similar predilection regarding the kind of cultural matters that seem to be bugging Smith now. Back then the specific targets were different. If someone went on too much (by my own measure) about feminism, if they were female I considered them a pain in the ass and if they were male I assumed they were just trying to get the pain in the ass chick to fuck them.
You know what else I always at least suspected was a racket? Increased welfare outlays. They were probably just a way for liberal Democrats (who I knew to be full of shit) to keep hold of the votes of minorities they didn’t actually care about. Sure, I was still a liberal — I knew Koch and the Republicans were outright racist tools of the plutocracy (a word I didn’t use because ha ha yeah right “plutocracy,” comrade), I would never vote for those pigs. But it just stood to reason that if a politician was handing out money to anyone it was just to get votes. Right? So it was corrupt right out of the gate — how could that lead to anything good?
It took years for me to discern the flaws in this reasoning. Part of the problem was, I now perceive, I had not been exposed to concepts that either hadn’t been named or were less widely circulated in those days than they are now, like intersectionality and systemic racism.
But running back through my emotional blooper reel, I can certainly imagine even someone who had heard all about intersectionality and systemic racism and a bunch of other similar concepts, but still thought: Well yeah maybe I guess, but aren’t pussy hats kind of cringe? And people who put Martin Luther King quotes in front of their house — Josh Barro and I were just laughing about that. We bet those people listen to stupid jam bands and don’t even know any black people, whereas I frequently retweet Jamelle Bouie.
I guess I’m still pretty ungenerous sometimes. But fuck it, at this stage in life, like Poopdeck Pappy in Popeye, I comes by my hatin’ fair. And look, I’m also empathizing, sort of: I can see the similarity between my young self and Smith (I don’t know how old he is and frankly I’m afraid to look), and even between young me and the Trumpkins, whose alpha loser displays are, experience tells me, perhaps not firmly rooted in careful political analysis, but rather manifestations of their own anxieties about not being hardass enough — just like Smith’s. I get it, buddy, really, I do. But eventually, if you’re gonna be a real man, you’re gonna have to grow up.
Mistaking anxieties for political beliefs is an accurate umbrella description of many if not most Republican voters.