What’s Left – Part One

Over the next few days, I’m going to point out some quotes from Nick Cohen’s book subtitled ‘How Liberals Lost Their Way‘, and then add some comments of my own. It’s a book that truly infuriated me as no book has in the last year. Why?

Because it’s one of the few books I’ve ever read that I genuinely wished I’d written. Edward Tufte’s books are there as well, but that may have to do with the fact that he can come to Los Angeles, give three canned five hour lectures, and walk away with a million dollars…

Seriously…it’s an excellent book about a subject that’s near and dear to me. Where the hell has my Left gone?? If you read this site, you ought to get the book. If you read this site and are nodding in agreement, get it and give it away as a gift. If you read this site and are pissed off at me all the time for not toeing the progressive line, buy the book, or send me your name and address and maybe I’ll even buy it for you.

Here’s a long quote that sums up the crux of the problem as he sees it…and so do I (from p 203).

..The previous thirty years had seen an estrangement between the classes. If the murderous fantasies of Shaw had vanished, the snobbery of Virginia Woolf was flourishing albeit in a more politically acceptable manner.

With the old factories gone, it became fashionable to talk as if the working class didn’t exist, even though millions lived in humble circumstances with nothing to sell but their labor. A priceless leader in the left-wing New Statesman, which had once seen the working class as history’s vanguard, announced in 2004:

Socially and culturally, most Britons feel more European than ever, being more likely to spend a weekend in Perpignon than in Harrowgate. Many could name the best restaurants in Barcelona and the best clubs in Rome [and] recommend truffle suppliers in rural France.

My colleagues on the New Statesman could indeed advise you on where to stay in rural France, and I may be able to answer your questions about the truffle market if you let me make a few calls, but I’m not sure those who continued to work in menial jobs after the collapse of heavy industry would be as helpful.

Other commentators accepted that the working class lived on, but were obsessed by identity politics and patronized the living daylights out of those who didn’t fit in. They failed to see that while it was commendable and essential to fight racism, sexism, and homophobia, taking account of diverse identities could strengthen the pecking order if they forgot about class.

Spotting trends and selling them was turning into a big business in post-industrial societies. But each new wave carried high culture further away from the working class. Rose quoted the opinions of young working-class men of theaters and art house cinemas. ‘Theater goers? Someone well off,’ said one. ‘It’s a class thing.’ Then he searched the Modern language Association of America’s international database of academic books published between 1991 and 2000. He got 13,820 hits for ‘women’, 4,539 for ‘gender’, 1,826 for ‘race’, 710 for ‘post-colonial’, and a piddling 136 for ‘working class.’ He tried the list of periodicals and couldn’t find one academic journal anywhere in the world devoted to proletarian literature, and concluded:

In Tony Blair’s Britain as in many other Western nations, professionals in the creative industries have successfully reconciled bourgeois and Bohemian values. Affluent and ambitious, profit-motivated and style-conscious, they are sincerely committed to women’s equality and genuinely interested in the literature, music, art and cuisines of non-Western peoples. But the boutique economy they have constructed involves a process of class formation where the accoutrements of the avant-garde are used to distance and distinguish cultural workers from more traditional manual workers.

From the theorists in the universities to the pundits in Canary Wharf, the intellectuals weren’t interested in the working class and the working class wasn’t interested in the intellectuals.

You could not have found a more lethal way to kill left-wing politics if you had tried.


I have talked about ‘Skybox Liberalism‘ and pointed to articles about Bourgeoisophobia. It’s all the same process in which the intellectual workers manage to convince themselves that they are somehow above and apart from their grimy-fingered parents.

In so doing they sell themselves and their parents down the river.

I’ve asked in the past – in the last decade, what, exactly, has the Democratic Party done for a single mother in Los Angeles making $35,000/year or a working couple with kids making $50,000??

In either case they can barely afford housing, send their kids to mediocre schools, and are two or three lost paychecks or a serious illness from homelessness.

The Democratic Party neither appeals to their interests nor in many cases to their values – since the values that matter to the modern Democrats are all too often those of the folks snacking on exotic appetizers in the skyboxes.

Next, I’ll discuss his dissection of the antiwar Left – anti-World War II that is.

Bad Planning? Bad Reporting…

It is immensely frustrating to me to read about serious, controversial policy issues (like, say Iraq) that take one policy, dissect the problems with it and the sometimes stupid, incompetent, and venal behind it – and neglect to look at the problems with the alternatives and the sometimes stupid, incompetent and venal people who support them.

In the LA Weekly last week, reporter David Zanheiser has three well-researched, intelligent, and deeply incomplete articles about growth in Los Angeles – “What’s Smart About Smart Growth“, “Peddling Smart Growth“, and “Do As We Say, Not As We Do“.

Go over and read them to get a sense of the murky world of land-use politics in Los Angeles. Which are actually far worse than he sets out…the ‘iron ricebowl’ that local land-use provides in many cities where developers, homeowner groups, lobbyists and politicians all rely on a system that does very little real planning.Then stop and think for a moment. I don’t have the time to do a post that really does justice to the gaping holes in Zanheiser’s article, but let me do a quick introduction.

We live in a city and region that is growing in population (as most coastal cities really are). Growth in cities is usually a good thing, because the option tends to be collapse a la Detroit rather than the kind of benign stability I think everyone hoped for. If the population grows, you’ve got four axes on which you can grow – you can increase the density within the housing you have (doubling up, multigenerational families), you can increase the density of housing (building up), you can increase the size of the community field (building out), or you can try and throttle back on growth by allowing none of the above.

Each of those alternatives has costs and problems.

Most of these policies have been tried in different places, so we have experience we can look to.

Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara County have done a lot to throttle growth, using water connections as a limiting factor. They’ve done this for close to 30 years, and as a result housing prices in Santa Barbara are among the highest in the nation – and they also have terrible traffic problems, as the people who work in Santa Barbara and increasingly can’t afford to live there commute further and further to get there.

I’m not suggesting that more density is in fact the best policy in Los Angeles (although I do think that it’s inevitable and that if managed well need not destroy the city). I am stating that Zanheiser did half a job by failing to put the policy into a framework of policy alternatives, their histories, and their impacts, and that it’s frustrating to see him fall into the easy narative of developers, greed, and craven politicians.

Cities face hard decisions; Los Angeles more than most, I believe. We’d be really well served with a local press that could understand, explain, and follow planning issues better than the one we have…I’m hoping this article is a step on that path. Let’s see what the next few look like. C’mon Jill…


The News Blog is very much a kind of Bizzaro Winds of Change; it’s a progressive, antiwar site with an eye toward serious military knowledge. While we disagreed deeply on many many issues, it was a place where I went to see what smart antiwar people who weren’t clueless about war had to say.

This weekend, Steve Gilliard, the founder of The News Blog died. He’d been profoundly ill for some time, and it was sad to go over and see what his co-bloggers were saying as his condition deteriorated.

We seldom agreed, never spoke or even emailed, but my world is smaller because he’s gone.