Living Like A Liberal
It’s hard work, politicizing your whole life.
Jul 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 41 • By MATT LABASH
This is a story about living the good life. Or not the good life, exactly, in the Italian, dolce vita understanding of the term. It’s more about living the better life, a comparative way of living. It’s about living better than I was before, living better than I once thought possible, living better, if you’ll forgive my candor, than do you.
Photo Credit: Elwood H. Smith
Here, I use “you” to loosely mean “conservative” or even “disengaged liberal.” For living better than you is all about honesty. Honesty with you. Honesty with myself. So I’ll just level with the two of us: I used to be a conservative. I mean, I wasn’t some nutcake conservative. I didn’t follow along with Glenn Beck at home, flowcharting the lineage of Lenin to Van Jones on my kids’ Fisher-Price chalkboard. I didn’t attend Rand Paul rallies in a tricorn and a frilly blouse like some kind of colonial crossdresser. I was just a vanilla, middle-of-the-road conservative. As long as I remained undertaxed, overdefended, and unaborted, I was pretty content. Live and let live, I thought. I might have even made a good Libertarian, except I hate science fiction, think Ayn Rand was a crank with an unfortunate haircut, and would fail the house drug test (when my results came back negative).
But my lesser living was a lifetime ago. Actually, just a few weeks ago, but it feels like the distant past. It was before my road to Damascus encounter, before the illuminative flame touched my torch of enlightenment. It was B.J.K.—Before Justin Krebs.
Who is Justin Krebs, you ask? Only my sensei. My guru. The man who made plain that I had politics all wrong. I used to think along the lines of the British writer and publisher Ernest Benn that politics was “the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.” Thus, I had put my politics in my political box, and my life in my living box. When I should’ve placed all the contents in the same box—a much bigger, biodegradable one. (You can get them at Treecycle.com.)
Krebs showed me that my politics shouldn’t be just my politics, but also my religion, my sun and moon, my inhalation and exhalation. Since politics, particularly liberal politics, bring people so much joy, wouldn’t I be better off politicizing everything—the way I live and work and play? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. The answer is a resounding “yes,” as evidenced right there in the title of Krebs’s new book: 538 Ways to Live Work and Play Like a Liberal.
The 32-year-old Krebs didn’t just write this book, which comes complete with a 538-item checklist. He’s lived it. He sharpened his liberal-living iron on the mean conservative streets of Highland Park, New Jersey; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and, finally, that repository of red state madness, the island of Manhattan. Girding him for battle were his parents—two good liberals, who sent him to a cooperative preschool, where he called all the other kids’ moms and dads by their first names. Krebs says his parents were his “playmates” as well, though all was not idyllic. There are some intimations of child abuse; they took him to a Walter Mondale rally when he was just 6 years old.
Upon graduating from Harvard, Krebs had his liberal ticket punched repeatedly. He served in the office of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. He blogs on the progressive blog OpenLeft. He is one of the founding directors of The Tank, “a non-profit arts presenter in the heart of Manhattan.” But his enduring legacy, his gift to all of us really, was hatched over a pitcher of beer.
Seven years ago, like many a good liberal, Krebs and his friends were driven to drink by the “arrogance and authoritarianism of the Bush administration.” What started as an informal vinegar session in a Hell’s Kitchen dive was formalized into a “Drinking Liberally” club, which met every Thursday, a place for activist types to talk progressive politics, network, plot strategy, and get hooched up (though its organizers remind us, “As you drink liberally, always drink responsibly”). As the club gained more members, it begat chapters nationwide and led to offshoot Eating Liberally clubs for foodies, Screening Liberally clubs for film buffs, Reading Liberally clubs for bookworms, and Laughing Liberally clubs that use “humor and laughter to spread understanding of liberal ideas and advance progressive values.” (Sounds like a scream!)
There are now 330 Living Liberally chapters in 50 states and around the globe. It’s no longer just a few longhairs knocking back pitchers of cheap suds, bitching about the Patriot Act. Living Liberally has become a way of life. There’s even a Liberal Card, a membership card which is “about showing your liberal pride, joining the liberal community and claiming your liberal discounts.” It’s printed on renewable green “CornCards,” rather than the petroleum that is blackening not only the brown pelicans of the Louisiana marshlands, but also our souls.
As Krebs writes, Drinking Liberally “has never been about drinking . . . it’s about progressive politics in a social setting.” It’s about all of us being “in this together.” It’s not just about “how you vote on Election Day.” It’s about “how you vote with your wallet every day.” It’s not just about “what you chant at a rally, but what you laugh at or rock out to on your iPod.” It’s about saying “it’s about” a lot, and then saying something real meaningful afterwards. Like this: “Living like a liberal is never just about making politics personal, but about making personal politics public.” It’s about alliteration.
I’m just going to be honest again: All this alliteration wet my whistle (see, it’s catching). I wanted to find out what it was all about. Krebs’s book was due for release on July 4, the day we gained our independence as a country. But I was ready to gain my own independence as an individual—independence from this disengaged, right-leaning, but mostly apolitical way of life I’d been enslaved by. So I secured an early copy.
The 538-item checklist was daunting. As Krebs admits, “Some of the ideas are hard, or even uncomfortable. You don’t have to do them all. Just think about them.” So I did. For roughly 10 days, I thought about them and undertook a good many of them. There was no way I could tackle them all. But it was clear that if I wanted to gain my independence by Independence Day by biting off a representative sample, I’d still be busier than a one-legged Obama in an ass-kicking contest. Time to get to work.
Before I get started, it’s honesty-time again. If I’m going to adopt a new conscience, I have to clear my old one. Back when I was a conservative, I did, to my credit, have a few liberal tendencies, all of which are on Krebs’s list. I’d listen to NPR in the car, at least for as long as I could stand Ira Glass’s nasal voice. I’d read the liberal mainstream media—for fun, not to file bias reports with the Media Research Center. I’d recycle everything: newspapers, plastics, material (Don’t believe me? Read my piece from last year on spending a week eliminating my carbon footprint—it’s strikingly similar to this one).
But the one very unliberal thing I did was shop at the philistine Safeway grocery store. I didn’t look to see if something was shade-grown or grass-fed. I’d just slap it in my cart like a careless drunk waving a loaded gun. So much of being a Krebsian liberal boils down to following your mother’s advice when, as a child, you’d chew on a plastic toy: “Don’t put that in your mouth, you don’t know where it’s been.” As Krebs writes in one of his frequent sidebars concerning conservatism, if you were spending conservatively, “you would never wonder where your purchases come from” and “would be more susceptible to being poisoned, damaged, or fatally injured by your food and children’s toys.”
If I am to be a good liberal, then, I can no longer be a conservative child, harboring trace amounts of arsenic and ignorance. I have to think harder about what I am putting in my mouth. So no more Safeway for me. Krebs urges joining a food co-op. I check out the Maryland Food Collective, a “not-for-profit, worker-owned and operated organization” providing “quality, organic, seasonal, fair-trade, and healthy food” at affordable prices. I scout them using the Internet, because it’s 40 miles away, and I’m trying to drive less and “shrink my hoodprint” (whenever multiple Krebsian commandments are in conflict, I usually err on the side of laziness).
Most of their recipes have offputting names. Food incongruity dominates the menu: “Famous Nut Burgers,” “Peanut Stew,” “Rainy Day Chili of Doom.” But with a full price list, I set about making my fantasy liberal sandwich with my fantasy liberal fixings: Three Seed Healthy Loaf Bread (90 cents), baba ghanoush (60 cents), four slices of tofurkey (80 cents), hummus (60 cents), bean spread (60 cents), tzatziki (35 cents), three slices of soy cheese (90 cents), and “goddess dressing,” which is like Thousand Island to non-Gaia worshippers (25 cents). It comes out to five dollars on the nose, without tax. What corporatist chain would’ve thought of making fantasy sandwiches with fresh ingredients for a mere five bucks?
But unlike the so-called “sandwich artists” at Subway, with their functional uniforms and plastic gloves, the Maryland Food Collective posts staff photos. Here, workers often use the co-op “as a platform for politics and creative expression.” They look it, too. They don’t appear overly clean. The creative expressionists aren’t wearing gloves. There’s lots of facial hair and flannel and piercings. Their staff guide says they have to “wear sleeves that cover their armpits”—not very reassuring. Most look like they’re on sandwich-making work release from a prison-hospital’s heroin treatment program. I think, sandwiches-wise, I’ll go locavore and stick with the nearby Subway.
But I still have to grocery shop. Krebs suggests going with a green-conscious option, like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, even though the latter is currently being boycotted by some of its liberal base since its CEO did not support Obamacare. That doesn’t matter to me, though. Both stores are like Willy Wonka’s wonderland of progressive goodness.
At first, I am intimidated, as any rookie would be standing in front of the vast selection of sea salts at Whole Foods. But as I fill my cart, I quickly get my sea-salt legs beneath me by realizing the principle upon which liberal grocery-shopping turns. Liberals don’t just need their food to come comestible or tasty or biodynamic or free-range or locally grown. They—rather, we—need it to come with a philosophy and a parable. We need our food to tell a story. Why else would I pay 17 bucks for 32 ounces of McLure’s Pure Dark Amber Maple Syrup? Easy. Because it makes me feel better about my purchase to hear the story of how five generations of Granite State McLures have been overcharging for syrup that doesn’t taste as good as Aunt Jemima’s. In other words, our food should have the same affectations as the people eating it.
So as much time as I spend filling up my cart with blueberry muesli and tomato-basil artisan foccacia and gluten-free organic red quinoa, I spend even more time taking notes on the histories, core values, and Samarian proverbs on the labels, which, like my Tazo Brambleberry Herbal Infusion juice, promise “an enticing source of wonder, inspiration and antioxidants.”
By the time I get home with my liberal bounty, I feel more like I’ve been shopping at Holy Foods. I tried to be mindful of Krebs’s admonition to “think of plant-based foods—beans, grains, fruits, veggies, nuts—as your own personal source of solar power.” Sounds more like a source of wind power, if you know what I’m saying, but I feel good nonetheless. I feel clean surrounded by my Rosemary & Olive Oil Asiago and my Pomegranate Green Tea. Seeking further validation of the nobleness of my purchases, I follow another of Krebs’s directives and check out everything I buy at the Responsible Shopper guide at Greenamericatoday.org. I punch in “Whole Foods,” and that’s when the horror begins.
It says that Whole Foods has been less than transparent about the use of genetically modified organisms in store-brand products and has ignored shareholder requests for information on the use of toxic chemicals in products such as baby bottles. (Damn you, Whole Foods, if I’d wanted to poison my baby, I’d have stayed conservative.) Likewise, union organizing at Whole Foods met with opposition from management, “with reports of surveillance and termination of employees who solicit union participation.” That seems to be in direct violation of three of the seven core values that I saw posted in their store (delight, happiness, and partnership).
Next up: Trader Joe’s. Not good. The Responsible Shopper says a recent investigation by the AFL-CIO affiliated Solidarity Center found the store is “sourcing shrimp from plants in Thailand and Bangladesh where workers as young as 8 years old are subject to sweatshop conditions.” I blame myself for this. I had smelled a rat and ignored it.
While in Trader Joe’s, I walked past the organic banana stand and noticed a big pile of Chiquita bananas on prominent display. Krebs suggests questioning where your food comes from, labor practices, etc., so I started grilling the stock boy, who quickly referred me to a manager named Sunshine. She was sunshiny, too: all blonde locks and granola smiles. I knew there was something wrong with Chiquita, but flipping through my mental rolodex of corporate atrocities, I just couldn’t remember precisely what. So I improvised.
“Say, Sunshine,” I said. “You guys stock Chiquita bananas here. Don’t they lop off their workers’ hands to keep them in line?”
She laughed nervously. “I’ve heard something like that,” she said. “But I really couldn’t tell you specifics—though you should check our website if you’re curious about labor conditions.”
It turns out, as my sources at Wikipedia reveal, that one of the company’s subsidiaries actually “carelessly exposed laborers . . . in Costa Rica to highly toxic pesticides on multiple occasions” and has been accused by a human rights group “of using a private militia to intimidate workers.”
After reading the news, I am so disillusioned that, again following Krebs’s checklist, I put on Ani DiFranco’s “Tis of Thee,” for an occasion, as Krebs writes, “when the battle seems unwinnable and you need to keep on going regardless.” Sample lyric:
It’s a real downer.
Looking at Krebs’s “Glossary of Gustatory Goodness,” I think about becoming a “retrovore.” Before my conversion, I used to think a retrovore was just a locavore who wore vintage bowling shirts. But now I know it’s one “who forages for food that’s fresh, local, minimally processed.” Maybe I’ll go out and forage for fresh berries. Or maybe, like Trader Joe’s shrimpers, I’ll just let my 7 year old do it for me.
It’s not easy being liberal. Just try buying politically correct beer in a Republican-leaning rural county. As a whiskey man, I never bothered becoming a beer snob. Back when I was still conservative, I had a simple beer-buying process: hop in car, go to convenience store, get 12-pack of Budweiser, go home. Total distance: three miles. Elapsed time: seven minutes.
But following Krebs’s injunction to “drink green,” I not only have to swear off Budweiser, but I have to avoid a “moral hangover” by calling Bud’s maker, Anheuser-Busch, a company which sits on the board of the Chamber of Commerce, “an organization that outspokenly denies global warming.” I call an Anheuser “beer specialist” named Stephanie to log my complaint. Following Krebs’s script, I inform her that “I love the King of Beers, but I love Mother Earth more—please take a stand against the Chamber.”
An awkward silence follows. “Uhhhh . . . okay,” says Stephanie, forcing customer-relations cheer. “There’s not really much we can do, but I’ll forward your comments and make your voice heard!” That’s all I can ask of Stephanie. Sure, my little call doesn’t mean much. But imagine if 500 more people called or 5,000. What would Anheuser-Busch do then? Besides change their number, I mean.
This still doesn’t fulfill my beer needs, however. Following Krebs’s advice, I seek out Fat Tire beer, which the New Belgium Brewery in Colorado makes with wind-generated electricity. The only problem is, nobody has it. I hit six liquor stores, before finally driving to a faraway liquor superstore, which also doesn’t have it. I settle for Magic Hat, whose Vermont brewery Krebs visited, leaving him with the impression that it has a “cool, liberal feel” and is made by a “cool, liberal guy.” Total distance: 60 miles. Elapsed time: two hours. Not cool or liberal at all.
In fairness, some of that time was dedicated to a sidetrip to try to find a solar-powered backpack at Wal-Mart, since it was on my checklist, and I’d found one on Wal-Mart’s website. But my local Wal-Mart was out of them. And it’s probably just as well, since 70 percent of Wal-Mart’s merchandise is made in China. Another Krebs commandment: “Beware: made in China.”
Because when you think about it, who wants China practicing capitalism, providing us affordable goods while raising their standard of living? Who doesn’t yearn for the glory years when China’s three main exports were communism, General Tso’s Chicken, and Chairman Mao’s visage, the last of which provided tons of inspiring T-shirts, posters, and refrigerator magnets for American progressives.
Anyway, the purpose of a solar-powered backpack is to charge your electronic devices without global warming-causing electricity. I’m a low-tech guy. I don’t use an iPad or a Kindle or a BlackBerry. Until recently, I thought a smart phone was a really handsome mobile with a lot of British admirers.
So the only reason I’d need a solar backpack is to charge my cell. But doing a few quick back-of-the-envelope calculations, I realized that my electric company co-op only charges 9.75 cents per kilowatt hour. My phone draws a tiny fraction of a kilowatt, so fully charging it amounts to hundredths of a cent per hour. But even rounding up to a penny, if I were to buy Wal-Mart’s solar backpack at $113.88, that would equal 11,388 cents. I only need to charge my phone every three days, meaning that even at that overestimate, I’d have to live for about 34,164 more days (I’d be 133 years old) before the backpack paid for itself in electricity savings.
Between the miracles of modern science and Obama-care, I have an outside chance of making it that far. But even if I do, that’s a long time to be hauling around a dorky backpack.
If you’re a committed progressive like me, you can’t just leave your politics at home. You have to bring them to work, too. If you’re a destructive enough carbon-fiend to drive to work, that is. I take the occasion of the experiment to exclusively telecommute (as Krebs suggests), which not only helps save the environment, but also the embarrassment of having to face the conservative curmudgeons in my office when I have to enlist them in abetting my new liberalism.
Many of Krebs’s dictates I skip outright, in the interest of pragmatism. (I think that personally installing motion-activated lights or hand driers in work restrooms would violate the building lease, for instance.) Of the requests I do make, many are met with complete nonresponsiveness. I have no takers on setting up a kitchen-duties chart so that we can collectively share cleanup responsibility. And I am a little wounded when positively nobody, not even our house hippie Fred Barnes, is interested in starting a lunch co-op or taking off early to “picnic together to make your business stronger.”
One thing liberals need to feel is a sense of community. I learn this from reading a very important liberal book, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, while sitting on my front porch, smiling and waving at my neighbors (thus pulling a Krebsian hat trick). Krebs says that “every office will benefit from its staff feeling a sense of ownership,” which means a free exchange of ideas, which means a “feedback box” by which “management hears from its team.”
I’m not a craftsy person, so I decide to forgo constructing a physical feedback box and set up a virtual suggestion box instead. I email colleagues that I will collect their important feedback and send it to our boss, Bill Kristol. After I open my virtual box for business, a flood of feedback comes in. Here are just some of the things my colleagues are convinced they need to make The Weekly Standard a more positive work experience:
I forward the results to Kristol, who seems fairly amenable. He agrees to the first three demands, and regarding group showers, vows to go “the extra mile by ending gender segregation and don’t ask, don’t tell.” Regarding many of the suggestions from our literary editor, Phil Terzian, Kristol promises to “check on whether Terzian has too much free time.”
So I bat about .500, but it’s painless enough. In fact, considering we’re a conservative magazine, my workplace bears strikingly little resemblance to what Krebs writes you’d be doing “if you were working conservatively”: “You’d be part of a business that makes massive profits, but treats workers poorly: low wages, no benefits, limited ability to improve their workplace.” We’re unprofitable, are treated well by management, are relatively well compensated, and have full benefits.
Many of Krebs’s other liberalizing-the-workplace suggestions I skip, because we already do them. We already recycle. We don’t have a plastic-tank water cooler. We already have environmentally friendly toilets. (One feedback complaint, on account of our low-flush urinals, was, “Any chance we can get the toilets to flush properly around here?” Kristol’s response: “I’m working with technicians from BP.”) Krebs says to relax the office dress code. But if our dress code was any more relaxed, we’d be wearing cutoffs and half-shirts to work, making us look like some sort of neocon Mountain Dew commercial. Nobody wants to see that. Trust me.
Ticking down Krebs’s laundry list, seeing how many requirements our office already fulfills, I’m left with one irrefutable conclusion: Bill Kristol is a liberal.
Before I converted, I used to enjoy the work of our friend and contributing editor P.J. O’Rourke. In his Parliament of Whores, P.J. wrote, “To call something public is to define it as dirty, insufficient and hazardous. The ultimate paradigm of social spending is the public restroom.” Thank God that I’m now a progressive and don’t have to tolerate this sort of intolerance anymore.
For P.J.’s glibness gives short shrift to the glorious public library system, the closest thing we have to a free bookstore. (In my case, it’s more than close, since I often neglect to return library books.) One of Krebs’s commandments is to “enjoy your local library,” which I already do. And I find it particularly useful in knocking off my requirements, as I have to check out tons of liberal books, films, and plays on Krebs’s liberal reading/viewing list. Plays like Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece strive to end the Peloponnesian War by refusing to have sex with their husbands until a peace treaty is signed. (O, would that that most famous of librarians, Laura Bush, had read her Aristophanes.)
But Krebs asks us to take the library experience further. He not only wants us to read progressive magazines such as Mother Jones and the Nation. In a tip he gleaned from a book called 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Fight the Right (pick progressive themes for 4th of July parades, park in church parking lots with your Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker), he wants us to read these publications at the public library and then leave one open on the table. Not only are you conditioning others to read liberally, but when your librarians clean up after you, they’ll see that the title is popular, thus increasing its chances of renewal.
I go to my local branch, where the librarians know me, and ask them for the Nation or Mother Jones. They have neither, though one thinks they carry Mother Jones at the main branch. “No,” disagrees a second librarian, “that’s Mother Earth News.” The first one shrugs, “I know it’s something with ‘mother’ in it.” The first librarian has worked here for six years, and I ask her if she’s ever heard anyone request the titles. “Can’t say that I have,” she says.
“Wrong,” I say, “You just did.”
“Yeah,” she says, rolling her eyes, “that counts.”
She does add that they carry some Mother Jones articles in an electronic database. So I pull one up. It’s a review of Belching Out the Devil: Global Adventures With Coca-Cola. The book recounts Coke’s “supply-chain sins,” from “death squads hired by a bottler in Colombia to assassinate unionists” to a “rumored monopoly in Mexican groceries.”
Keeping the spirit of Krebs’s commandment, I leave the article on the screen. But it will automatically signout when my allotted time elapses. I feel I need to do more. So I go to the magazine shelves searching for something that looks both educational and inspirational. Elle and People and Redbook aren’t exactly cutting it. So I settle for Fitness magazine’s “Shape Up For Summer” issue. I search for a table upon which to leave it open, but all are taken by patrons checking their email or by high-school students constructing masks for an upcoming anime convention (who goes to the library to read anymore?).
The only free table I find is in the children’s section. So I lay the Fitness open to a spread on how the actress Kristin Davis has been “hiding killer abs underneath those sweet designer dresses.” They are killer, too. If you want to look hot in a bikini this summer, you should pick it up. As I walk away, I worry that I might give some chunky 6-year-old girl body issues. But maybe that’s for the best. There’ll be less chance of her drinking evil Coca-Cola.
With that reading assignment crossed off, I tackle something I’ve been dreading: reading left-wing blogs. It’s not that I hate most blogs, though I do. It’s more that back in my conservative days, the only time liberal blogging really entered my consciousness was when they were calling me or other conservatives I know “douchebags.” Not that I have anything against feminine hygiene products. Even as a conservative, I wasn’t some kind of sexist, but it sort of hurt my feelings.
I plunge in anyway and quickly learn that lefty bloggers’ douche-centricness wasn’t in my imagination. On Daily Kos, there is talk of “douching your day away as a teabagger,” Fox’s Neil Cavuto should stop “moping around like a total douche,” and there are headlines such as “Hand to God, Not ALL Texans are Douche Nozzles.” One Feministing blogger uses the d-word so much, that she wrote a mini-essay on the etymology of d-bags, complete with a link to the Museum of Menstruation and a vintage, 1928 douche ad.
On Firedoglake, a sort of Platonic ideal of douchery, one “macpibbles” authors a post titled “America is full of blood-sucking douchebags (Rant).” The douchebag roll-call then lists everyone from Ben Bernanke to Bill Kristol to Tim Pawlenty to Blanche Lincoln to Nancy Pelosi to Anderson Cooper to Joe Lieberman, with the powerfully argued conclusion: “There’s so much douchin douchebaggery, it’s dbaggin crazy. It’s too bad America’s being run by douchebags because us regular folks are drowning in douchiness. We’re totally douched.”
But I realize upon further reflection that I am reading these liberal sites all wrong. For, as my guru Krebs writes, “We are the side of inclusion, engagement, and the belief that we’re all in this together—that means we have to live those values in our own conversations.”
If only the douche-nozzles of the right would follow suit.
In Krebs’s world, it is not enough just to live liberally yourself, you must raise little liberals, too. A full 30 of his suggestions have to do with parenting liberally, everything from explaining to your children the causes you support to participating in collective childcare to finding “games that inspire creative thinking” since “we need liberals to be able to creatively solve the problems we’re inheriting from the right wing.”
I try to incorporate his commandments into my parenting regimen, and it’s a disaster. I read a series of Krebs-recommended books to my sons Luke, 10, and Dean, 7. At this stage, they’re pretty apolitical. If pressed, they probably consider themselves conservatives, if they even know what that means. But during the 2008 election, they pulled for Barack Obama because they enjoyed the way his name sounded.
They weren’t having much of Krebsian storytime, however. First, I let them share stories, as Krebs suggests. Dean plows right in:
I stare at my son with blank bewilderment. The stories we tell are supposed to “cultivate compassion, empathy, and community spirit,” I tell Dean. “What’s the moral of your story, Dean?”
He gives a whaddya-want-from-me shrug: “You should never feed a crocodile a princess hat,” he says.
Reading time doesn’t go much better. At Krebs’s insistence, I read aloud the 1973 Marlo Thomas classic Free To Be . . . You and Me, but the kids are more interested in the companion CD, begging me to put it on, so they can do break-dancing moves, karate kicks, and fake-lasso each other across the living room floor while listening to cloying songs such as “Parents Are People” and “It’s Alright to Cry.” Finally, Luke has enough: “I hate this song, it’s torture. Please turn it off.”
Once they finally settle down, I read them a story called “Zachary’s Divorce,” about a kid named Zachary, whose parents have just gotten divorced, and whose mom reassures him that it’s not his fault. “If your mom and I ever get a divorce,” I say, “just know that you two are to blame.”
“Really?” asks Luke.
“Don’t be so dumb,” admonishes his wised-up brother.
But the story prompts the boys to hold a symposium on who they like better/who’d they go with in a divorce, me or my wife. “It’s a tie,” Luke says diplomatically. “But she’s cleaner. I’m sorry for saying that. I just had to spit that out.” Also, Dean adds, “You cuss all the time when you’re mad. Not trying to be mean. It’s just your hobby, I guess.”
“Yeah,” adds Luke, “you’re good at your hobby.”
I figure we might have better luck playing nonelimination games of inclusion I get from Terry Orlick’s book Cooperative Games and Sports. But something about the Nerf nature of playing games with titles like “Cooperative Musical Hugs” and “Collective Score Blanketball” brings out my sons’ inner hooligan, causing several shoving matches, a mini-fistfight, and declarations that “Victory is mine,” even though we’re all supposed to be winners.
At one point, playing “Grasshopper in the Blanket” on our deck, which involves us throwing up Dean’s stuffed monkey, Stevie, and catching him in a blanket, as many times as we can to see if we can achieve a high collective score, Luke finally drops his corner of the blanket as Stevie flies off into the grill. Luke’s worried the neighbors might see us: “Dad, this is gay.”
“Don’t say gay in that context,” I reprimand, ever the dutiful progressive father.
“It used to mean ‘happy,’ ” protests Luke.
“Well it doesn’t anymore,” I say.
Krebs stresses how important it is to parent liberally by being “playful” with your children and another of his strongest admonitions is to enjoy public and national parks. I decide to take the boys to the nearby Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, which sits on my beloved Patuxent River in Maryland, just miles upriver from where I regularly kayak and fish at my in-laws’ house.
I often take the boys on outdoor excursions, realizing that the years pass rapidly, and they will soon be surly teenagers, embarrassed to be seen in public with their old man, and thus much harder to milk for material.
While, like Krebs, I am grateful that the federal and local governments protect large tracts of land from rapacious developers, I’m less enthusiastic about how park-ranger types seem to protect glorious nature from actual nature-lovers. I try to cultivate an appreciation of natural wonders in my children, but as I often tell them, “God gave us the rivers, Parks & Recreation didn’t.”
I’ve had my share of problems at the Jug Bay sanctuary. It seems to be open for a few hours a couple days a week, and I never seem to correctly guess when those hours are. Over the years, I’ve been asked to leave for walking through the park offhours. I’ve been asked to leave for bringing my dog. I’ve been chased down by a truck while riding my bike to an old railroad bridge pier to fish. After the park employee caught up with me, I was, surprise, asked to leave (the irony being lost on the employee that he pursued me in a vehicle to tell me not to disrupt the delicate ecology of the park by riding my bike in truck tracks).
It’s 90 degrees, so there’s no way my kids will make it far on foot, and I decide we’ll go by bike. And so, while driving there, I quiz them on appropriate responses to park authorities. “If somebody tells us not to ride bikes, what do we do?” I ask.
“Be quiet and listen?” responds Luke.
He tries again: “Pretend to listen to them, then go anyway?” My son.
When we get there, I quickly unrack the bikes, and we tear off down the trail before anyone can stop us. There are signs everywhere warning park vehicles to slow for turtles. The river below is thick with spatterdock and pickerelweed. Our bikes slalom through trails lined with Green Ash, Red Maple, and Swamp Magnolia, while the skies overhead are patrolled by red-tail hawks, ospreys, and even the occasional bald eagle.
We have a fine time of it. But when we return, and I start re-racking the bikes, as sure as the sun rises, a park employee comes shuffling across the parking lot. “For future reference,” she says, “there’s no biking here. We are a sanctuary.”
“Really?” I say. “You allow vehicles to go through. There’s no sign saying ‘no biking.’ ”
“Well,” she says, “we have one on our website.”
I thank her for her attention, telling her we just finished biking, so we won’t be needing to anymore today. Back in the car, the kids are puzzled. “Man,” says Luke. “Isn’t it annoying when people try to ruin our walks and rides? They don’t let us do anything. They don’t allow dogs. They don’t allow bikes. They only allow turtles.”
“Yes,” I say, trying to share my values. “But we learned an important lesson.”
“Don’t bike there?” asks Dean.
No, I say, trying to bring it home. I explain to them that my assignment is to live liberally, and that classic liberalism was all about fighting for freedoms to do things (for voting rights, for civil rights, etc.). But that modern liberalism is mostly about people telling you what you can’t do—no smoking, no sodas in schools, no trans fats, no biking in parks.
“Some people tell you to question authority,” I explain, “But if you never ask authority for permission in the first place, they can’t tell you no.”
The boys nod their heads in unison, both of them wearing conspiratorial smiles. Sharing values can be rewarding. Let’s just hope they don’t tell their mother.
Living Liberally: The Lightning Round
For ten days, Krebs’s liberal checklist has been my church (though if I were actually selecting a church, based on his list, it would have to be one “that uses gender-neutral liturgy”). I try to knock off as many of his commandments as possible. I go to Starbucks to haggle with the barista over giving discounts to mug users. He gives me 10 cents off, though whatever I gain financially, I lose in masculinity points, by ordering a “Venti Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte.” (Even now, I hate myself for saying it.)
I seek to volunteer my job skills. Though when I plug in “journalist” to an online volunteer-match site, it says that I am qualified to be a cattery assistant for the United Way, a Girl Scout troop leader, or a barber at the Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute. I look into “socially-conscious hunting.” Krebs says one way to do this is to not drive to your hunting spot. Whereas a hunter friend of mine says a socially-conscious hunter “removes other people’s litter from the land he is hunting, beginning with the ‘Posted’ signs on a great new place he has just found.”
Much of being a liberal seems to be about being a joiner. So I look into joining most of the organizations on Krebs’s list: Working America, Social Venture Network, Free-lancers Union, Green Drinks, Karma Krew. I try to join a flash mob, even though it’s so 2003, but the only one I can find wants to re-create a dance number from the television show Glee. (Too gay, if I may break my own parenting rule.) Neither do I join Net Impact, “a global network of leaders who are changing the world through business”—their membership fee is too steep. But I do nominate myself for their “Force for Change Award”—on account of all the agents of change I am joining.
One night, I go to a “Laughing Liberally” comedy show at an America’s Future Now! conference of progressives in Washington, D.C. They seem to be trying to alter the very space-time continuum by addressing America’s future, in the present. Even the sexagenarians tote messenger bags, the better to haul around the literature that comes from organizations all of which seem to have either “progress” or “change” or “community” in their titles. Attendees wear complicated sandals and New Balance tennis shoes. If you wore New Balance sandals, you’d immediately be made vice president of the Institute for Changing Communities in Progress.
Krebs himself is there—he looks a little like the actor Adrian Grenier with a ponytail—greeting people at the door. He kicks off the comedy by informing everyone that the left is funnier than the right: “We all know that conservatives cannot keep up with us in comedy. So what you’re about to see for the next hour is our greatest structural advantage as a movement.” If that’s so, the movement is in trouble.
While there’s one funny comedian—Lee Camp—it’s a dreary parade of weak comics telling too-easy groaners about Teabaggers and Fox News and Pat Buchanan and fat Americans. All of these are ripe for satirizing, they’re just not being satirized particularly well. Krebs and my new friends on the left like to think they’re comedically superior to the right because they have Jon Stewart on their side. And even if you think Stewart is a douche-nozzle—to borrow the lefty blogger term of endearment—he is pretty funny. Though just because Jon Stewart is funny, and you share his politics, doesn’t make you funny by osmosis. If my new side takes credit for Jon Stewart, we also have to take credit for Dick Gregory and Janeane Garofalo (Krebs actually does for the former: watching Gregory clips is on his checklist). Plus, it’s hard to take any person seriously as being funny who refers to their “structural advantage as a movement.”
Sometimes, Krebs’s commandments are in conflict. He wants us to cover our televisions, but also wants us to watch more Keith Olbermann. So I combine the two by turning on Keith Olbermann while covering my television. I can’t see him, which is definitely an improvement. Though I can still hear his “You, sir!” Eyebrows of Outrage, which rustle like a man in the bushes in a public park, having unprotected sex with the sound of his own voice.
Krebs also wants us to watch political television with our neighbors. He’s big on being neighborly, even suggesting we celebrate “Won’t You Be My Neighbor Day,” in which you wear a cardigan and act like Mr. Rogers, committing random acts of neighborliness. I decide to skip that one on account of being straight. But I do set up an MSNBC-watching appointment with the elderly couple who lives next door, Pat and Clarence Croy.
I bring over a blueberry pie (for them) and a bottle of Maker’s Mark (for me), which I figure might help me get through Chris Matthews’s documentary on “The Rise of the New Right.” We are already pretty neighborly neighbors. Pat gives me phenomenal tomatoes from her garden and waters our plants when we’re on vacation. And I sometimes go over and sit with Clarence, who is paralyzed on one side of his body from a cerebral hemorrhage he suffered in 1996.
I bring him audio books, mostly about fishing since he loves the water, and tell him stories about my reporting travels, while he relates stories from his younger days, when he worked on a steamboat on the Mississippi River. We both love to fish—except he hasn’t been able to do it since ’96. So Pat and I recently put him in a wheelchair and took him to a nearby pond, so he could catch some bluegill on my fly rod (since he only has the use of one hand, he held the rod, while I retrieved line). He wrote a beautiful thank-you note afterwards. It seemed like we were getting along famously as neighbors, though that was back when I was a conservative, so I was probably doing it wrong, since as Krebs writes, being neighborly, conservative-style, “is a far cry from the diverse, inclusive world a liberal envisions.”
Clarence’s hospital-style bed stays in their living room, so we watch Matthews’s documentary sitting beside it. It’s a lot funnier than the Laughing Liberally show, though unintentionally. With all the ominous music and montages of camouflaged conservatives, you’d think the right consisted solely of Sarah Palin leading throngs of weapons-toting militia members out of the woods, ready to burn Obama on a pyre of phony birth certificates. It shouldn’t have run on MSNBC. It should’ve run on the Cartoon Network.
But Pat and Clarence don’t seem much interested in it. The Croys regularly vote Republican, and Clarence loves to tell me Obama jokes, saying that “health care is the biggest farce that ever happened. The way it’s going now, it’d be cheaper for me to have a funeral than pay for prescriptions.” “He’s in the donut hole,” his wife adds.
But they prefer to vote “for the man instead of the party.” Clarence names Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Clinton as excellent presidents. “And they were all Democrats,” he says. “Clinton was a good president, he just wasn’t a good person.” As alarmist images and rhetoric beam in over MSNBC, they’re largely dismissive. “I’m not a Sarah Palin fan,” says Pat. “Though I think she’s kind of cute. But she’s never going to be president, so nobody has to worry.”
Neither of them cares much for talking-head TV. They watch Meet the Press occasionally. Neither watches Fox News. “That kind of TV,” Pat says, “is for people who need to be validated. I don’t need to be validated.” Clarence has been chained to his bed for 14 years, but says if he watched political shows all the time, “I’d go insane.” Instead, he prefers “my books—they help a lot”—everything from Clive Cussler to Old English poetry.
The documentary ends, and I’m tempted to force Clarence and Pat through Countdown with Keith Olbermann. But in Clarence’s condition, he’s not allowed to drink, and it doesn’t seem fair.
One place drinking is encouraged is at a local Drinking Liberally chapter meeting, held each Thursday at a Ruby Tuesday’s in a Virginia suburb. I arrive first, and order a Maker’s Mark, which—points for Krebs—he identifies as his favorite whiskey. It’s mine too. He likes it because they recycle the byproducts of their distillation, and so you can “drink it with a clean and green conscience.” I’d probably still drink it if its mash bill called for baby-seal blood.
But as ESPN blares from the bar television, I dutifully quiz my bartender, asking him what he knows about Maker’s, everything from their labor practices to whether they confront the ills associated with alcohol. He doesn’t know much, God love him. Though he does think the bourbon maker addresses the latter by issuing coasters urging people to “be courteous to other drinkers.”
The group arrives one by one—about a dozen in all. I haven’t told them in advance I was coming, so when I break the news that I’m a reporter for a conservative magazine and pull my tape recorder out, I expect them to tell me to get bent. But they generously welcome me. One of the group leaders, Michelle Elliot, a software engineer, even tells me that her life-partner works for Firedoglake. But if she thinks I’m a douche-nozzle, she keeps it to herself, as we tuck in for a completely agreeable evening of interrogation and polite sparring.
I chide them a bit for convening at a corporatist chain restaurant, even if Ruby Tuesdays does have an impressive salad bar, with all manner of fresh ingredients and a stunning array of croutons. They give me the business for drinking too liberally after I order a third Maker’s (child’s play, I assure them, I’m a professional journalist after all), suggesting I might be the first member of their group that they have to drive home.
Because of my machine-gun questioning, we cover the waterfront, everything from their thoughts on BP to whether to avoid Wal-Mart to whether it’s okay to meet at chain restaurants to the evils of Ann Coulter and Meghan McCain’s political viability (one gay-activist type mentions her as being one of the only Republicans he likes, though hearing the words “Meghan’s platform” nearly makes me do a spit-take).
It’s a pleasant conversation. I lapse back into my conservative nature as a result of a liberal intake of my liberal whiskey, but there are no hostilities. Nobody changes anybody’s mind. It’s not life or death. It bears little resemblance to television screech-matches, which as one of my drinking mates, Aaron Oesterle, says, “is not about discussion, it’s about finding everybody who agrees with me, and shouting the loudest.” We encounter each other as individuals, leaving room for complexities and ambiguities, instead of assuming a mere set of prefab conclusions. Oesterle, who works at a space-related consultancy, says, “It’s easy to assume large-scale. But when you engage one-on-one, it’s more difficult to make assumptions on a smaller scale.”
Another of my drinking companions, Claiborn Booker, recasts F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notion that the rich are different than you and me. “So are the very political,” he says. “They have a different sort of calculus that goes on in their minds, and as a result, we see some of that manifesting itself in the polarization of political debate.”
The group tells me that they often don’t discuss politics very much at their political gatherings. “Most of us live in the middle muddle,” Booker says. “We have certain tendencies in some directions. But we’re by and large caring people, have a kindly disposition toward our fellow sufferers, so we want socially to have kindness or gentleness be a part of our character. But at the same time, we want to make sure that we get to keep what we earn and we want to have a strong defense. So finding that right balance is a perennial problem.”
After making a night of it, I like these people. Enough that I’d like to drink with them. Besides a mojito, a Sea Breeze, and a pint of Newcastle, most of them seem to stick with iced tea or water. It makes me worry for them. It makes me question their “drinking liberally” commitment. So as we wind down, I ask, “Who wants to go drinking, now that we’ve been drinking?” There are no takers. “It’s a school night,” one says.
It’s just as well. It’s hard work, politicizing your whole life. And looking at Krebs’s checklist, I still have a lot in front of me: I have to remind my elected officials about the importance of open space, to speak up for progressive taxation, to ask friends to identify every news channel’s bias, to look at how movie posters treat women, to watch Battlestar Galactica, which “got people debating torture and occupation,” and to “reconsider the liberal message of the moon landing.” That’s just for starters. As one of my favorite liberals H.L. Mencken said: “Liberals have many tails, and chase them all.”
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. His book, Fly Fishing with Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys, was published this spring by Simon & Schuster.
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