When DailyKos diarist Stephanie Block’s conservative father invited her to join him at a White House Hanukah party, she used the occasion to register her disagreement with Bush Administration polices via contagion, purposely sneezing on her “biohazardous right hand” before offering it to the president in the greeting line.
“I was getting over the flu and watched the news for days to see of Bush got it,” Block giddily relates.
This information was not extracted from the transcript of a warrantless wiretapped conversation. Block tells the tale herself in Un::Conventional, a series of essays by DailyKos diarists collected during the 2006 inaugural YearlyKos convention in Las Vegas. Block’s segment also features a misty-eyed remembrance of her childhood “liberal indoctrination” — you know, good indoctrination — presided over by a mother who re-rendered children’s songs in Socialist Realism; i.e. “Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, get yourself up you male chauvinist cochon [French for ‘you pig‘].”
Each essay is accompanied by a portrait of the author holding a childhood picture. Appropriate, since the vast majority of these writers appear to be holding onto political views they adopted back when snot seemed a perfectly acceptable mid-afternoon snack and they were closer in years to filling up diapers than filling out union cards.
Andy Ternay, for example, brags of a vote he cast as a ten year-old in a 1989 elementary school classroom election: “Guess who was the one kid who didn’t vote for Reagan? Even the black kid voted for Reagan.” My money is on Andy. After all, even as elementary school became high school, Ternay held onto his convictions: “Our school district enacted a dress code I objected to — so I went to school wearing a skirt to protest,” he relates. “That hasn’t changed; you’ll still be more likely to find me in a kilt than pants.”
“If I could figure out the Pledge was an unabashed violation of the Bill of Rights at age 9, why couldn’t the grown-ups get the picture?” Jill Richardson muses in another bit, while Lena — Kos handle Cosmic Debris — describes earning her left-wings in elementary school thanks to a math teacher who taught Watergate hearings, a social studies teacher who taught industrial pollution and the teacher of an unspecified subject who had Lena’s class “reenact a trial after the incidents at Wounded Knee with the FBI.”
“I played an AIM leader with my blond hair in long braids,” Lena writes proudly, adding, “These wonderful teachers influenced both my awareness and my core values. By the time I got to junior high I was a genuine liberal.”
Brian Keeler divined a similar lesson when as a boy he and his friends “naturally fell into a sort of group consciousnessâ€¦awarenessâ€¦not unlike the ‘group think’ mentality found in many corporate endeavors today,” and chose to follow a charismatic boy, Ray. This lack of patriotic dissent ultimately had tragic consequences when Ray declared a unilateral, preemptive war against a helpless squirrel — sans UN mandate!
“All the rest of the boys save me and one other joined him in his chase as they ran after their pointlessly gained prey,” Keeler writes. “I learned a valuable lesson. One that I have never really articulated, but in that moment of silence, I came to an important realization: I was a progressive.”
The connection is a bit hazy. Perhaps Keeler lobbied the Social Security Administration for that squirrel’s disability acorns. Regardless, those Un::Conventional contributors who weren’t politically active in their pre-puberty years wave sob stories like doctor’s notes. Marribeth Burkley avoided the Democratic Party for many years because of her registered Democrat father (“a strict authoritarian and very religious”), until the glorious you go girl! moment when she realized her “progressive/secular/feminist/stand-up-for-the-underprivileged attitudes were diametrically opposed to my father’s cranky, xenophobic/why-should-my-taxes-go-to-people-who-don’t-work beliefs.” Mary Rickles had it even worse, going through her entire childhood “believing abortion was wrong, Rush Limbaugh was honest, and Reagan was the best president ever.”
EVEN IN HELL, THE WAILING and gnashing of teeth must pale alongside the consternation on display in Un::Conventional over the evolution of “liberal” into slur. It’s inexplicable, really, by Maryscott O’Connor’s lights. She defines the modern conservative as “a bizarre hybrid, a ‘free trader’ crossed with a would-be Puritan,” while an abridged version of her list of synonyms for the term “liberal” include: Advanced, broad-minded, enlightened, free, high-minded, humanistic, humanitarian, impartial, latitudinarian, magnanimous, rational, unbiased, unbigoted, unprejudiced, amiable, beneficent, benevolent, friendly, generous, gentle, good-hearted, gracious and merciful.
Despite having just attributed nearly every positive qualifier in the English language to the political philosophy O’Connor subscribes to — purely coincidental, coming as it does from a unbiased source — she nevertheless insists she understands that her “purpose on this planet is to help others,” not “fulfill my own goals of self-aggrandizement.”
These traits can be found throughout Un::Conventional. Seeking magnanimity? Look no further than Nolan Treadway: “I don’t believe the American people are as evil as the man they (‘we’) elected.” High-minded? I give you ex-Marine Mike Stark upon discovering Mother Jones and Harper’s: “It was right about then that I figured out that Republicans are evil dickheads.” Unprejudiced, you scoff? “My best friend Malcolm in college was a big, black gay guy,” Mona Brooks retorts. When cartoonist Tom Tomorrow writes, “We are progressives and liberals because we lack the talent for self-delusion necessary to be anything else,” he is fairly dares readers to find a better example of impartiality. WhiteTrash Poet offers the line, “We were there in NYC as the thugs gathered to again present their idiot king,” and he is benevolent grace personified.
“I want to be an American whom honest people respect and fascists and bullies fear,” Larry Johnson confides. “If that makes me a progressive, then count me in.” Against Fascism may be about as bold a stand as Against Inequality, but we can all agree it is a healthier attitude than Against Squirrels. Even if Johnson assumes his political foes argue for fascism, though, the gauntlet he throws down for conservatives has still got nothing on the one David Boyle is hauling into our path. “St. Augustine’s heavenly ‘City of God’ is not wholly different from the ‘City of Kos’ or the ‘City of Blog’ that the orange (not clockwork) cooperative ‘we’ blog Daily Kos is.” Boyle writes. “The blog is just too progressive not to be redolent of something higher.”
DIVING INSPIRATION OR NO, there is some confusion as to how good vibes translate to policy, per usual. Sharon Tomanic, in a stream of consciousness blur, may at first state simply, “My life, so long as it does not harm you directly, is none of your business,” yet such a beautiful sentiment is woefully inadequate to such progressive tasks as confiscating income, or regulating what people eat, or whether they smoke, or what, if any, insurance policy they purchase. Accordingly she revises: “That said and instead, we do all need to look out for each other.” Go ahead, sister, hammer the point home: “To be sure that each other is just freaking OK.” Of course, this last should not be left open to interpretation. Thus, more: “Freaking OK and has the resources he or she needs to take care of themselves.” Then, perhaps a bit defensively, “It’s really not a hard concept to grasp.” Tomanic, apparently nonetheless unsure of even a friendly progressive audience’s ability to grasp the concept, offers her detailed summation of Freaking OK plus resources. “And when I say OK, I mean happy and able to live one’s life freely. With healthcare, with good schools, with loving partners, with the ability to save, with not funding insane wars with one’s taxpayer dollars, with taxpayer dollars going to fruitful and rewarding programs” — do you think Tomanic will ever see any of her policy preferences as anything less than “fruitful and rewarding”? — “with recognition and acceptance for all, with freedom of religion and spirituality, with keeping government out of one’s personal life, with being able to call someone on the phone and not have it kept on record, with my and your goings-on not being monitored and scrutinized and held to blame for some petty misread thing.”
Doth the lady, as Queen Gertrude suggested in Hamlet, protest too much? Are you kidding? Tomanic makes Lady Macbeth look like June Cleaver. She is obviously not alone in her hubristic flights of fancy. If there’s a unifying sentiment to Un::Conventional it is that every essayist believes posting online diaries is gritty heroism, epic in scope. “It makes me crazy sad when my brilliant analyses don’t change anything,” Martha Ture writes, for example, “just like our marches, voting, organizing don’t.” So what’s a crazy sad girl to do? “I walk in the woods and think about our history and search for answers. What would Tecumseh have done? What would Charles Hamilton Houston have done?” The answer? “I have thrown in my lot with Indians and cowboys and small towns and against bullies and transnational corporations.”
In KosWorld the phrase “thrown in my lot” has apparently become as diffuse and diluted as the all-good-things encompassing “liberal.” The book’s editor, Hunter, describes a speech by Wesley Clark in a Vegas hotel bar during YearlyKos as “Not a rally, but a scene from an underground resistance, or a hastily arranged troop meeting in an urban battle zone.” (Having spent time both at the Clark event and on the streets of Samarra and Baghdad, all I can say isâ€¦um, not quite.) “Everywhere I turn, the conference seems specifically about me,” Hunter later adds. “Or rather, about ‘me’ in group form — there are a thousand people here, and I cannot find anyone I do not immediately identify with.”
Hence, the problem of the echo chamber encapsulated. DailyKos diarists have every reason to be proud of a website that has grown large enough to hold a real world conference every major national Democratic politician feels obliged to attend. Yet if they were one-tenth as revolutionary or paradigm-challenging as they puff themselves up to be, this would not be so. As I wrote from the convention last year, DailyKossers revel in their status as the marginalized mainstream.
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