Election ‘04: a Guide for the Complexed

Lee Siegel is a contributing editor to Harper's, the television critic for the New Republic and the recipient of the 2002 National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.

There’s a new weapon to use against liberals. It’s called complexity. And happily for the conservatives, liberals are using it against themselves.

So terrified are liberals of being branded as extreme that some now preface any criticism of President Bush by saying that despite the fact his policies stink, they are sure he would make a lovely dinner companion. Other liberals offer the thought that though Bush may be dumb, which is an unwelcome trait in a world leader, his forthrightness bespeaks a self-awareness deeper than mere brains.

Such chastened liberals might say that Bush’s unjustified and unjustifiable adventure in Iraq is deplorable, and then immediately add that they don’t, you know, hate the president on a personal level. They are quick to follow that up, however, with the assurance that they do hate Michael Moore. They hate Moore because he hates the president. Moore also seems to hate capitalism, and because Moore hates Bush, and capitalism, and maybe even America, no one post-Moore can hate Bush without sharing the whole package of Moore-hatreds: Bush, capitalism, America.


Such conclusions derive from what many liberals now like to call “complexity” and “nuance,” which are the essential components of “civility.” (Civility was last year’s complexity.) They contrast these qualities with the “simplicity” and “extremism” of “the left,” though besides Moore, and Noam Chomsky, and some anarchists with nose rings and hangovers who are on the protest party circuit, no one can actually say what the left is or what role its members have played in a national politics that has swung steadily rightward for the last quarter-century.

No matter. The important thing is to be “complex” and not “extreme.” So at a time of war, when the country and the world are entering a new historical phase, when radical change in social policy benefits the rich and ignores the poor, when voters are facing the most important election in decades, the liberals’ role model is not FDR or Harry Truman or LBJ or Martin Luther King Jr. It’s Henry James.

How did a Republican Party that has left vast stretches of the population convinced Bush stole the presidency, that dragged the nation into a purposeless war under false pretenses, that gives no quarter to dissenters within its own ranks, that compares John Kerry to Hitler and sponsors a smear campaign against him -- how did this truly fanatical, extremist political party succeed in making its critics feel guilty about the intensity of their criticism?

The answer lies in the way conservatives have managed to manipulate the word “liberal.” A guilty liberal used to be someone who felt bad about having so much when other people had so little. The ‘60s radicals who forswore material goods were protesting just this discrepancy between preaching and practicing that haunted the liberals. But the radical movements of the ‘60s imploded into irrationality and extremism, and the liberals used that debacle to jettison their guilt. Ultimately, the radicals themselves evolved into people unashamed to flourish in society and play by the rules, while they harbored and even acted on a liberal vision of society. They had beat the hypocrisy rap.

Or so they thought. With the ascendance over the last 25 years of the radical right, the specter of liberal hypocrisy loomed again. This time, any liberal who passionately critiques the Bush administration, or any liberal who plays the ruthless game of politics that conservatives have mastered, gets charged with betraying the temperate, tolerant and “complex” spirit of liberalism -- in other words, like the “limousine liberals” of yore, today’s liberals are accused of not really being liberal. Nowadays, to be conservative is to be political, but to be liberal is to be held to a philosophical and moral ideal that transcends politics.

Thus liberals, in order to prove their tolerant, complex liberalism, are bending over backward to accommodate the conservatives’ position, which consists, in turn, of the belief that the concept of “liberal” has been betrayed by its present-day adherents and is now synonymous with the words “radical” and “intolerant.”


For conservatives, if you follow this crazy logic, a Bush victory in November would mean the triumph of the true liberal spirit, that is, a spirit that isn’t radical or intolerant. For some liberals, a Bush victory would give them four more years to demonstrate their powers of complexity and to have a shot at throwing off the slur of liberal hypocrisy. For a complicated, liberal Bush-hater such as myself, this is a terrible muddle.

And so in the interest of setting twisted matters straight, I herewith offer to my fellow liberals “A Guide for the Complexed.” Its premise is that real complexity is not a fig leaf for timidity, but a complement to conviction.

* I love America. I hate Bush.

* Michael Moore’s politically effective film was devious, dishonest, distorting propaganda. I hope dozens of films just like it appear before election day.

* I would like to see Bush removed from office. By legal means.

* It is possible to fight fire with fire without losing your head.

* It is possible to criticize bias without being driven by bias.

* I want the U.S. to contain and, if necessary, to destroy its enemies. I do not want the U.S. to go to war for no good reason.

* Left-wing passion in 1968 is entirely different from liberal passion in 2004. One epoch’s extremism is another epoch’s pragmatic response to extremism.

* In matters of intellect, when you meet a contradiction, make a distinction. In politics, when you meet a contradiction, blame it on the other side. There is no intellectual beauty and little intellectual clarity in the practice of politics.


* I hate George W. Bush. And I don’t want to have dinner with him either.