Twilight of the Yenta Left?

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It was possible. The site was the P.S. 321 assembly hall, crammed standing room only with locals?and with what locals. It's impossible not to love Park Slope, and one of the reasons it's lovable is because nothing can kill it: not this economy, apparently; not changing demographics; not the Age of Irony. No. Whatever happens, the Slope manages still to throb with the fruity, charged earnestness that defines your typical Ad Hoc Students' Committee meeting at your typical liberal arts college. Grave turtlenecked intellectuals jostling inward, hanging into the windows?they've got to be a part of this?make a stand, you know?some glum and bunioned sympathetic faculty member slouches sallowly near the podium, waiting to speak...the screeching of a backfeeding speaker...serious, longhaired preppies with old tweed jackets and Chuck Taylors. Or else?dude, Ginsberg's reading...or Nader's goin'?... Everyone's going...caught up in history...the electricity of events?

Park Slope's still like that.

Ralph Nader wasn't speaking in Brooklyn last week, but the event was still good. It was a sort of debate between Ronnie Dugger, the Naderite who's associated with the Texas Observer and the Alliance for Democracy; and Catherine Abate, the former New York state senator and Gore partisan. Good? Actually, in its small way, it was a resonant event, both for what actually happened and for its implication that fine things are going on in politics these days. It made clear that Nader's presence isn't only good for the national political scene, but potentially cleansing for the left, in that it might reform it.

Dugger, arguing for why Park Slope's voters should vote for Nader, wiped the floor with Abate, who was charged with defending Gore. Abate: "He has championed women, children, families throughout his career"; "the most powerful issue to describe the difference between Gore and Bush is the Supreme Court"; "we will no longer have choice?a woman will no longer have the right to choose"; "Al Gore is fighting for working families, people who are working day in and day out"; "he believes in government." Etc.

To such cant, Dugger?a portly, soft-spoken, unaffected man?responded casually, quietly. "For good citizens," he said, "casting your vote shouldn't make you sick." He said: "We must have a nonviolent electoral rebellion, or we lose our country." He also read a list of Naderite political goals and positions that appear on neither Gore's nor Bush's platform, among them national health insurance; a $10 minimum wage; increased solar power and fuel efficiency standards; an end to logging in national forests and to capital punishment; same-day voter registration; increased corporate taxes; an end to the war on drugs.

There were, inevitably, objectionable items on the list. But more important, if you've followed the "left" in this country over the years, was what wasn't on the list. There was no mention of the racialist policies the promulgation of which has defined the "left" for decades, and damaged it, and made it a morally foul mandarin movement that could only be, in good conscience, contested and attacked. Nor was there the usual fetishization of the privilege to abort pregnancies. Nor was there reiterated the tedious left position on cultural issues. Nor did anyone engage in the smarmy upper-middle-class campus game of glorifying guys who go out and murder cops. The focus stayed on economic issues and issues of practical governance?issues that might even be of interest to Americans.

Which is another way of saying that the issues dear to the hearts of boutique liberals?the middle-aged, upper-middle-class urbanites (hello Zabar's!) who slithered out a generation and more ago from the campuses to hijack the American left and transmogrify it into a mechanism of mandarin-class aggression against the middle- and working-class Americans they despised (for many years one couldn't hear about someone's grandmother getting mugged in Long Island City without expecting the Village Voice to run a cover story about how much she deserved it)?were either downplayed or ignored.

One got the sense in Brooklyn that, with a little discipline, there might emerge a real, valid, moral left after all. That the crowd welcomed Dugger, and was openly skeptical of Abate (during the question period, one woman was hissed when, after expressing her admiration for Nader, she claimed still to be voting for Gore), testified to that. So did the fact that this past Friday night's Nader rally at Madison Square Garden filled the place with 13,000 to 15,000 people.

Danger sign: an elderly woman at the Park Slope event arose and, apropos of something, spoke unto the assembled phrases like, "I am somebody who came out of the New Left, I consider myself a radical," and, "...dreams come true, because those dreams have to be embodied in a new body politic." In other words, meaningless things that testified less to any ideas on her part as to how Americans should live than to her own poetic self-conception. She was the Ghost of Christmas Past, the representative of the old, self-indulgent, self-centered, narcissistic, upper-middle-class boutique Yenta Left come to test the faith of the assembled.

Note to Greens and Naderites: Save yourselves. Purge her. Send her packing. Lock the door the next time she shows up. Do the right thing. Keep yourselves honest.

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