Three myths of contemporary liberalism

Fred Siegel of the Manhattan Institute is a substantial right-leaning intellectual who has written on a wide range of issues (history, urban affairs, culture) and also worked for Rudy Giuliani. I stumbled on an invitation recently to a talk he was preparing to give at the righty think tank the American Enterprise Institute. The talk, titled “Liberalism and Mass Culture: Fear and Loathing of the Middle Class,” was delivered last week at AEI in Washington.

The invitation was striking because it summarized what Siegel has identified as the “three foundational myths of contemporary liberalism.” When I read the summary of the three myths, I thought: Whoa, interesting to see a righty’s view of the “foundational myths” of liberals.

He identified the three thus (see if you recognize yourself or the liberals you know):

 “One is that John Kennedy’s assassination was instigated by the rank intolerance and hatred of the American people. A second is that of ‘upsouth’: the assertion that Northern racism was and is every bit as pervasive, if more subtle, than that of the Old South. The third is that the American popular culture of the 1950s was stifling not only in its ‘Donald Duck’ banality but also in a subtle form of fascism that constituted a danger to the Republic. In this view, the excesses of the 1960s were a struggle to free America’s brain-damaged automatons from their captivity at the hands of the lords of mass culture.”

His talk, by the way, was all about the third myth, the Donald Duck banality/subtle fascism one.

Siegel’s talk is viewable online via this link. He pretty much spoke the three-foundational myths in the first few minutes, but the talk is almost an hour long, followed by a Q and A.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (27)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/19/2011 - 09:24 am.

    I have maintained that the soft racism of the left succeeded in destroying black American families beyond the wildest dreams the KKK ever entertained, and history gives warrant to that claim; it is no myth.

    It started with the best of intentions, as these things often do, but the left’s concern for civil rights has morphed into a caretakers role that has been corrosive to it and the people it aimed to assist.

  2. Submitted by Lora Jones on 12/19/2011 - 09:27 am.

    I think Swift and Tester may be surprised to know that I must not be a liberal after all. I don’t believe any of these foundational myths, never have, and off the top of my head, can’t think of anyone I consider left-of-center who does.

    I wonder where this guy found these people — or if he just made the whole thing up, ala GOP TV aka Fox News?

  3. Submitted by Tim Walker on 12/19/2011 - 10:12 am.

    I agree with Lora (#2), and will only add that apparently one straw man isn’t enough for Siegel, he needs three.

    What a putz.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/19/2011 - 10:26 am.

    Phil Oachs lives!

  5. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/19/2011 - 10:37 am.

    #2 and #3

    I have, however, come to the belief that one core tenet of modern “conservatism” is making crap up is essential to getting your way, and therefore acceptable as a means to an end.

  6. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 12/19/2011 - 10:37 am.

    Hmmm, regarding that first one, here is Frank Rich from a couple of weeks ago:
    “What defines the Kennedy legacy today is less the fallen president’s short, often admirable life than the particular strain of virulent hatred that helped bring him down.”

    And I guess Lora, Tim and Paul don’t remember how the shooting of Rep Giffords was quickly blamed on right wing hate. Even after the facts were known, some fairly prominent people of the left (like Paul Krugman) continued the slur.
    The second myth isn’t one that I’ve run into very often.
    The third one, well, it depends on what is meant by fascism. If it’s stretched to mean ‘anything bad’ (as it often is) then yes, the so called conformity of the 50’s constituted fascism.
    If I was listing myths of contemporary liberals, the second two from Siegel wouldn’t make my top ten.

  7. Submitted by Bill Kellett on 12/19/2011 - 10:47 am.

    OK, I know I am a liberal, so what do I believe?
    Kennedy assassination caused by intolerance and hatred of the American people? No. Check out all the theories, this one is totally new.

    Northern racism vs southern racism. I saw whites only drinking fountains in Georgia and I lived in Minneapolis. Racism was demonstrated differently in the north than the south, but it’s existence was undeniable. So what’s the point?

    The 1950’s were so bland that nonconformist was considered an expletive. They were also the golden era of unions, attended with wide spread prosperity. Fascism? Do we even know the meaning of the word? Republican, Eisenhower was president then. By todays standards he would rank to the left of President Obama. He was the president who denied us toll highways by constructing socialist freeways throughout the country. He also knew how to stop a senseless war.

    Donald Duck, banality? Once again, check out the definition. Banal, so lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring. Donald Duck is certainly original, funny and not boring.
    He may have stolen from the Three Stooges, but only a little.

  8. Submitted by Lora Jones on 12/19/2011 - 11:08 am.

    #6 Really? Reactions to a shooting 40 years later proves Myth 1 exists? Looks to me like more tortured Right Wing Illogic. The 60s didn’t “enjoy” the Fox News Limbaugh echo chamber’s violent imagery and hateful invective, so for starters there are two very different environments between then and now.

    I also find it another instance of the mind-boggling hypocracy of todays’ “conservatives” that they can yell “personal responsibility” and then run as fast as they can away from it screaming “it’s not my fault – even deranged people know that I’m only joking when I say hate, hate, hate, kill, kill, kill” when some poor fool follows through.

  9. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/19/2011 - 11:12 am.

    Do you know who Phil Oachs was?

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/19/2011 - 11:25 am.


    I’ve never thought of myself as particularly “liberal,” though I’ve been called that by plenty of right-wingers. My sisters have generally thought me to be middle-of-the-road, and politically boring.

    I confess that Siegel’s first myth strikes me as genuinely bizarre. I’d be interested in knowing why and from whence he arrived at that conclusion. His description doesn’t fit what I felt or observed in the culture at the time.

    The second myth strikes me as true to a degree, though that degree diminishes with each passing year. There’s plenty on the historical record, from the immediate post-Civil War period up into the mid and late 20th century, to show that a belief that slavery was wrong did not necessarily translate into an accompanying belief in racial equality. Racism may have been more virulent and more obvious in the South, but until recent decades, there aren’t many northern or western states that seem to me worthy of a pat on the back for being areas that practiced equal treatment. The KKK was active, and even elected a Governor, in Colorado in the 1920s. The midwestern school district where I taught was desegregated by court order in 1972. “Redlining” was still being practiced in the real estate industry in the late 20th century, at least in some areas. Hispanics have found plenty of discriminatory practices in contemporary America.

    So, it seems to me, the culture still has a ways to go on this issue. That said, it doesn’t strike me as a particularly “liberal” issue. Yeah, “soft racism” still exists, but I’ve not come across any evidence that it’s a foundation for “liberal” policy, though the more overt forms of racism do seem to come more from the right than the left. The implication that much “liberal policy” has come about because of a belief that “soft racism” is a serious issue seems to me only partly true, and the notion that it’s some sort of “founding myth” strikes me as substantially off-base. Policies are developed to deal with problems. In some cases, the policies remained after the problem had been dealt with, or had proven itself intractable, but that’s not something exclusively practiced by “liberals.” In any case, as more and more people intermarry between races and cultures, the lines between races and cultures blur to some extent, and I expect that to continue.

    Having grown up in the 1950s, I can see how the popular culture could be interpreted as “stifling.” I didn’t live in an “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Father Knows Best” family, nor did any of the kids I knew, but there’s no question that it’s not just racial minorities that were discriminated against at the time. My Mom, and a host of other women who were in the workforce during that time, could testify at length, I’m sure, about the dismal treatment of women in all sorts of employment and legal situations. Many a female could tell similar tales now, and combined with other issues, this strikes me as an area that might never go away. Conformity has both benefits and costs. Some eras of popular culture emphasize the former, some the latter.

    I confess I never thought those ‘50s attitudes were a danger to the republic that we had to be freed from. The 60s were certainly a time of experimentation (most of which actually took place in the 70s), and I may well have had contemporaries who viewed that era as Siegel has described it, but, to use Eric’s line, I don’t recognize myself there. Yeah, I let my hair grow long (would that my hairline would allow it again…), but otherwise, I wasn’t much of a lifestyle experimenter, nor did I know many people who were.

    As for “freeing the brain-damaged automatons from their captivity at the hands of the lords of mass culture,” I think that battle was lost, whether the ‘60s constitute a decade of excesses or not. Much of the moral decline so worrisome to those who like to call themselves “conservative” (as opposed to those whose personal behavior is itself “conservative”) is the direct result of the very same “free market” that they advocate so strenuously. As a culture, we’re trained from the time we’re toddlers to prefer the new, the trendy, the larger, the one with flashing lights and chrome. “Mad Men” is just a TV show, but it illustrates – if not entirely accurately – an enduring trait of the culture. If there’s nothing else America knows how to do, it knows how to get people to buy stuff they don’t need, whether they can afford it or not.

  11. Submitted by chuck holtman on 12/19/2011 - 12:41 pm.

    There are two foundational myths of contemporary liberalism.

    The first is that we, as a society, can maintain structures that inevitably concentrate wealth and political power but ameliorate this indefinitely thru ad hoc redistribution. This is what distinguishes liberalism from leftism, which concerns itself with correcting the structures themselves.

    The second is that democracy is citizens working together in good faith to form a concept of a society that produces the right sorts and amounts of collective goods, offers opportunity to all and cushions citizens from chance misfortune. Recent years have put the lie to this, revealing that a hard third of the population can always be manipulated to view civic life thru the lens of existential fear and radical selfishness.

    Without these, the optimism of the liberal is hard to sustain. But illusions they are.

  12. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 12/19/2011 - 01:31 pm.

    #8 Lora, here is the first myth from the article: “One is that John Kennedy’s assassination was instigated by the rank intolerance and hatred of the American people.” I don’t know how you can separate that from, well, the reasons behind JFK’s assassination. As for the ‘hate, hate, kill, kill, kill’, well, the right wing isn’t saying that. The left hears that because they think that the right wing is motivated by ‘rank intolerance and hatred’. If you want to take a swing at actually disproving the ‘myth’, be my guest.

    #9, I know who Phil Ochs, the folk singer was. Is that who you mean?

  13. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/19/2011 - 01:33 pm.

    I’d agree with your basic points, but ‘myth’ might be too strong a term.
    Let’s call them assumptions that are as yet neither proven nor discredited; just argued.

  14. Submitted by Lora Jones on 12/19/2011 - 02:21 pm.

    What planet can you live on that “Barack the magic negro” when used about the President of the United States isn’t hate speach? On what planet can you live on where Beck talking about choking the life out of Michale Moore, or Palin putting cross-hairs over peoples photos and saying Lock and Load isn’t violent?

    That has absolutely nothing to do with my warped perception, anyone who sees those things as something other than hateful and violent is the one who is warped.

    Although, judging from the foam-flecked invective we frequently get treated to by the cons even on this site, the fact that seome Cons are too twisted to recognize hateful and violent speach isn’t all that surprising.

  15. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/19/2011 - 03:17 pm.

    @#12 Peder: “As for the ‘hate, hate, kill, kill, kill’, well, the right wing isn’t saying that. The left hears that because they think that the right wing is motivated by ‘rank intolerance and hatred’.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by “disproving the myth”: do you mean proving that it’s true or that it’s not? I take you think there’s no evidence that the right wing is saying “hate, hate, kill, kill, kill”.
    I’d suggest you read the Frank Rich article you link to in your post @ #6. Rich describes the hate and intolerance of the right in 1963, a hate that was especially in evidence in Dallas in 1963.

    We see the same thing cubed today. The Republican debates we’ve seen over the past few months, which exhibited the audience cheering about the misfortunes of others, or booing sentiments of kindness or charity toward the less fortunate, seem to reveal what used to be called “narrowmindedness”. “Hate, hate, kill, kill,kill” is another way of putting it. The same people who deplore being blamed for the attack on Rep. Giffords and the murders of 7 innocent people are the same ones who vociferously oppose regulating handguns and automatic weapons and want to expand conceal and carry rights.

    I don’t agree with the “myth” which Mr. Siegal manufactures to rebut a straw man about liberals or liberalism. I wouldn’t agree that the American people or the American middle class bears any collective guilt. But if the German people can be held responsible for the Holocaust and the Final Solution, I think the American right can be held collectively responsible for the hatred and violence which pervades our culture. And in that way, I do believe that the right wing extremism which was very much present in 1963 and remains today poisoning our political system bears its share of blame for JFK’s death as well as the other mass murders which have become a common part of American life.

  16. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/19/2011 - 03:26 pm.

    I believe Mr. Swift is confusing the issue of black civil rights with efforts to combat poverty in the U.S., most likely because they were concurrent issues affecting two groups which overlapped greatly, the disenfranchised and the poor.

    I’m apparently not qualified to speak to Mr. Siegel’s foundational myths, as I don’t consider myself a liberal or recognize his first or third myths. I do, however, believe Siegel’s completely out to lunch on the idea that racism was not as prevalent in the north as in the south, once one adjusts for what I can only call “racist opportunities”. (You can only discriminate when you have a population to discriminate against.) Two examples that leap to mind for Minnesota are the Duluth lynchings ( and the treatment of black autoworkers at the St. Paul Ford plant, discussed only yesterday in the Strib’s lengthy piece on the closing of that facility. I recommend the latter.

  17. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/19/2011 - 03:28 pm.

    One of his refrains went
    “Love me,
    love me,
    love me,
    I’m a liberal.”

    Not all sixties folkies were lefties.

    And I read most of what Paul Krugman writes (I tune out of his wonkier economics). I think that you overstate how long it was before he acknowledged that Gifford’s shooting had nothing to do with politics or ideology.

  18. Submitted by dan buechler on 12/19/2011 - 06:18 pm.

    I dunno, I might just be some hick from a rural state and college. But in the 80’s when I was getting educated the definition was different at least amongst my “quality” peers and “quality” foes. Somebody like McGovern, Mondale were favorable to progress and reform and they more likely referred to Paul Samuelson’s textbook than to Milton Friedman’s or Laffer’s disputed untested ideas written on the back of a napkin.

  19. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 12/19/2011 - 06:31 pm.

    Lora, I’m not going to defend everything said by anyone on the right, but I should note that you have the Palin thing messed up. The cross hairs were on districts, not faces. And if you really think that war metaphors are too dangerous, well, I don’t know what I can say to convince you that adults can handle such things. I will note that the left has some red meat handlers and the good people of MN didn’t seem too bothered to elect one of the loudest to a Senate seat. Heck, the biggest profile liberal for some time was Keith Olbermann who regularly told us who the ‘worst person in the world’ was. So, no, hyperbole isn’t alone on the right.
    I should also mention that I didn’t see much condemnation of the OWS folks when they physically shut down ports earlier this fall. There was a lot of general ‘disapprove of the method’ stuff but that’s all. Should I infer from this that liberals who showered them with approval are ok with violent threats as long as they agree with pieces of the argument?
    No, I probably shouldn’t. You see, the thing is there are jerks and thugs in any large movement. Right now loud voices get lots of attention from both sides. Watch some MSNBC (they can use the viewers!) and you’ll see plenty of examples from the left. Or just reflect on the eight years of Bush when he was regularly compared to chimps and/or Hitler. That wasn’t exactly ‘love’ speech.

    If you can’t understand that a large segment of the population opposes your viewpoint, not out of hate, but because they honestly disagree with it, then you are sadly blind about some of your fellow citizens. Just as blind as no doubt some of them are about you.

  20. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 12/19/2011 - 06:52 pm.

    #15 Jon, here is the thing. Even if I concede a hateful atmosphere in Dallas towards JFK it had NOTHING to do with his death. He was killed by a man who had tried to defect to the USSR for goodness sake! Oswald was not urged on by right wing hatred. On the contrary he was a creature of the left. To tie the death of JFK to right wing hatred is absurd.

    #17 Paul, less than a day after Giffords was shot it was well known that the shooter had no ties to any political movement. That didn’t stop Krugman from acting as if we didn’t know that even several days later. Sorry, he doesn’t get a pass here.

    I like some of the modern folky sounding stuff but I’ve never had a taste for the 60’s variety. But I hope Phil got the love that he needed!

  21. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/19/2011 - 10:52 pm.

    Peder, I don’t disagree with you about who killed JFK. I don’t think anyone knows enough about Oswald to claim that he was “urged on by the left.” Perhaps Oswald thought he was acting for the Soviet or Cuban governments. No connection proved there either. It’s fair to compare the responses of responsible “liberal” leaders in the 1960’s and 1970’s to the responses of right wing leaders today. When radical left extremists bombed a University building in Madison and set bombs elsewhere around the country during that time, leaders on all parts of the spectrum were quick to sternly condemn such actions and tactics.

    I don’t see anything approaching that on the right today. The leaders of the right are as extreme as their followers and, like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann or Newt Gingrisc, fan the anger and hatred for their own purposes.

    Your comments here suggest you believe “both sides do it.” Not true. I think you are clearly missing the point about where the violence comes from. I don’t think a peaceful protest which engages in civil disobedience that succeeds in shutting down a port or even shutting down a country is “violence.” You cannot blame (although maybe you do) peaceful protesters for police violence.

    Can you really equate a protest movement which works to discipline its participants in peaceful means with the right wing which claims justification in the Second Amendment right to bear arms to commit acts of violence including violent revolution to overthrow an “illegitimate government”? Can you seriously contend that people who associate with such a movement are not at some point going to act on their fantasies or their convictions?

  22. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/20/2011 - 01:55 am.

    Just a correction here. Phil Ochs was no conservative. His “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” song was a critique from the left about people who pay lip service to left ideals but only as long as they don’t have to inconvenience themselves.

    In fact, Ochs was a prominent opponent of the Vietnam War, a fan of Chilean president Salvador Allende, and a volunteer for George McGovern’s presidential campaign.

    As far as Siegel is concerned, I’m well over the center line in politics, and I remember much of the 1950s, and my response to his assertions is a bewildered, “Huh?”

  23. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/20/2011 - 08:47 am.

    Whenever I get into a little debate in person with a anti-liberal, in very short order I frequently end up explaining to them that their problem is I’m a real liberal, not one of their imaginary ones.

    So called “conservative” intellectuals started a long decent into fantasy back in the 80s. These intellectuals routinely fabricate myths with which to do battle. You can see it here on Minnpost on a regular basis, people who are clearly arguing with “liberals” that exist nowhere but the Republican imagination. I think Ann Coulter summed it up best in her book about talking to liberals, no one in the world looks, thinks, or behaves the way Coulter describes liberals in that book. This leads me to another proposition, which is that the conservative mind is more fond of stereotypes than the liberal mind… but that’s another story.

    In some ways, anti-liberals have no choice but to do battle with imaginary liberals. Whenever they attempt to engage real liberals they typically get a severe drubbing.

  24. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/20/2011 - 12:34 pm.

    I’ve got Oachs’ first couple of records — I’m aware that he was a definite lefty.
    I do think think that he would have shared some of the sentiments here about the inconsistencies of both liberalism and its opponents.

    Do you have a citation on Krugman’s comments? My recollection differs (though I don’t much trust it these days ;-).

  25. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 12/20/2011 - 01:59 pm.

    #23 Paul, I go through the same type of thing at times. Many liberals here in the cities have next to no experience with non-liberals. At least that’s how they come off. It’s like they can’t get past the caricature image created by so many different media figures.

    I’m convinced that the first step towards really understanding people across the aisle is to try and really remember that they think that their polices will lead to a better future and more prosperity. Once you get that down, the rest comes more easily. Too bad most people won’t make the effort.

  26. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 12/20/2011 - 02:12 pm.

    #21 Jon, for a movement that “works to discipline its participants in peaceful means”, there sure has been lots of violence surrounding them. And yes, I think they bear at least some of the blame for violent sparks with the police. Not all, and I don’t mean to excuse police brutality in the least. But if you won’t peacefully disperse after weeks and weeks of squatting, a non-violent way becomes difficult. Or to put it a different way, if you’re intent on getting arrested and you won’t be arrested peacefully, then there aren’t many other options.
    And frankly, yes, I do find some violence in the idea of people randomly taking over a port. If people had charged into my office and ‘occupied’ it, the experience would have been terrifying. At least I find it much more dangerous than the loud questions that got Tea Partiers condemned a couple of years ago.
    Frankly both sides do have violent elements. It’s astonishing to me that anyone as well spoken as you come off doesn’t understand that.

  27. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/21/2011 - 09:48 am.

    Pedor #25,

    You should go to a peaceful demonstration now and then, there’s nothing terrifying about them. Sit-downs and occupations have been used for decades, I’ve never seen anyone frightened in these situations… especially dock workers, those guys aren’t easy to intimidate.

Leave a Reply