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Howard Dean and the gentrified left: Post-modern busybodies?

By Murray Soupcoff
web posted December 22, 2003

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mark Steyn contrasted Howard Dean's surprising blasť response to the capture of Saddam Hussein, as well as to the catastrophic 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., with Dean's fervid, emotional identification with the issue of more bike paths for America's yuppies. In Steyn's words, "On Osama bin Laden, [Dean is] Mister Insouciant. But he gets mad about bike paths. Destroy the World Trade Center and he's languid and laconic and blasť. Obstruct plans to convert the ravaged site into a memorial bike path and he'll hunt you down wherever you are."

Why such a small-minded vision from a spokesperson for the contemporary American left? One of the reasons, accoring to Steyn, is that in the past century "all the big [leftist] ideas failed, culminating in 1989 in Eastern Europe with the comprehensive failure of the biggest idea of all." In Steyn's words, "the left retreated to all the small ideas: in a phrase, bike paths...That's what Howard Dean represents -- the passion of the Bike-Path Left." Indeed, if you think about it, much of today's political left has become gentrified, whether personified by elitist Yankee blueblood Dr. Howard Dean or snotty Hollywood socialite Arianna Huffington, or the thousands of well-paid university professors, journalists and upward-mobile professionals who inhabit our big cities' most trendy, affluent, latte-drenched neighborhoods.

Except it's a post-modern gentrification with a twist -- a haughty social code of the privileged infused with the radical utopianism of the 60's counterculture. Howver, today, it's a different kind of radical utopianism, what might be appropriately labelled radical utopianism chic. As Steyn notes, it's strictly a minimalist utopianism, sobered by the dramatic defeats to 60's wild-eyed dreams by the global realities of the 70's, 80's and 90's. And these 20th-century cultural and political "defeats" included (1) the rapid social disintegration of the drug-addled, violence-ridden "hippie" movement, (2) the political and geo-political triumphs of Ronald Reagan, (3) the world-wide ascendacy of free-market capitalist economics (even in such rigid bastions of socialist utopianism as Communist China and the Soviet Union), and (4) the painful disintegration of the 'heaven-on-earth' Marxist nation states of Eastern Europe and the Third World -- once hopeful experiments in social and economic "egalitarianism" decaying into repressive totalitarian oligarchies and economic basket cases.

As a response to these sobering realities, we now have an emergent "progressive" American bourgeois class playing it safe -- merging the the ambitious upward-mobility of the middle-class bourgeois ethos with a moderated version of the counterculture utopianism of the 60's. If nothing else, as Mark Steyn insightfully points out, it's a retreat to "small ideas" for many of these new denizens of affluent leftism -- expressed in a politics of petty political correctness and goodness.

So in an ironic twist, many of today's leftist zealots have become the prissy petty-bourgeoisie of 21rst century America -- Starbucks Babbits. And members of this emerging bourgeois class look so nostalgically on the Clinton years because -- Monica Lewinsky aside -- it was the political era of what Steyn calls "micro-politics": an era of small-minded regulations and rules aimed at bossing around everyone in America -- telling them what they could and could not smoke, eat, drink or think, as well as whom they could hire and fire.

Indeed, members of the new fashionable trendynista political left, personified by Howard Dean, are a unique modern version of yesterday's small-minded, bourgeois Babbits. Like Howard Dean, they have no compunctions about taking advantage of American's prosperous capitalistic free-market economic system to earn a good living (and rake in the big bucks if possible). Nor do they have any aversion to the many perks of privilege -- just so long as those privileges primarily benefit them.

However, as a result of an ironic values transmutation, they embrace a 60's-style countercultural, oppositionist stance against the traditional symbols of capitalistic wealth and achievement. They champion an alternative culture of "openness," "authenticity," "tolerance," "caring" and "selflessness" and eschew the alleged greed, materialism, hypocrisy, selfishness and exploitiveness of traditional American life.

And because of this countercultural "caring," they are the good guys; and any groups who oppose them are the bad guys.

In fact, theirs is a cant and code of arbitrary politically-correct goodness, revolving around a rigid, small-minded catechism of accepted speech, thought and behavior prescribed by righteous opinion leaders in academia, the media and the arts.

In the world of the gentrified left, it's not the consequences of words and behavior that count, but appearances. Goodness entails slavishly mimicking politically-correct speech and thought, regardless of their actual impact.

Public morality has been routinized. And today's small-minded burghers of Babbit-style political-correctness revel in their superficial goodness, while enjoying the power that comes from selectively repressing the liberty and choice of those whom they deem their moral inferiors.

Hence, the dogmatic insistence on increased spending by government on local services targeted at economically-marginal social groups, even if the consequence of much of this progressive largesse is an increasing apathy, lack of initiative, family breakdown, and social anarchy in the lives of those targeted.

Hence, the condemnation of cigarette smoking as a selfish, loathsome, self-destructive act that requires ever-increasing government regulation -- while simultaneously championing the freedom of the spiritual-minded and adventurous to search for fulfillment and alternative wisdom through smoking marijuana or imbibing mind-altering drugs.

Similarly, over-consumption of trans-fatty foods by your average Joes (or Mabels) is a public-health threat warranting government intervention; but sexual promiscuity and experimentation by sophisticated 'metrosexuals' is a sign of cultural superiority and sophistication deserving public respect and support -- regardless of the escalating public-health threat posed by sexually-transmitted diseases.

And of course, spending $15,000 on a diamond-studded bracelet or watch is an act of repugnant, self-indulgent conspicuous consumption, when those same dollars could be better spent on "saving" the children of America (meaning that such conspicuous wealth should be taxed away to pay for government programs for the less fortunate). However, spending $15,000 dollars on a lightweight, titanium Italian racing bike is a sign of good taste, authenticity and environmental sensitivity, and cyclists should be socially commended and provided with special privileges on the nation's roads.

And so it goes. The narrow, hypocritical micro-politics of what Mark Steyn calls the "Bike-Path Left" -- America's new politically-correct, petty-bourgeoisie.

As far as their champion Howard Dean is concerned, forget the battle to provide liberty, justice and opportunity to the Iraqi people. It's time to focus on important issues, such as more bike paths, or stamping out cigarette smoking and Big Macs.

Just another reason to vote for George W. Bush and the Republican Party in 2004.

Murray Soupcoff is the author of 'Canada 1984', and publisher of the popular Iconoclast conservative Web site. © 2004 Murray Soupcoff .

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