The Magazine

Living Like A Liberal

It’s hard work, politicizing your whole life.

Jul 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 41 • By MATT LABASH
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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. 

Living Like A Liberal

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!)

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