Opinion: Tough times for liberals means it’s time for them to toughen up

Liberals are at a loss.

The U.S. president, who turned out to be more vile and duplicitous than they even had imagined, may or may not be indicted within a year’s time. Meanwhile, Congress is run by conservatives who, spurred by the greed of their donors and the fears of their base, are growing ever more comfortable telling blatant lies, preparing cover-ups and counter-narratives and overhauling the nation’s tax code in the manner of a Vegas caper — hidden from view with the cash to be divvied among the plunderers.

So the federal government is hostile territory. Meanwhile, liberal safe havens, the places where a certain class of liberals goes for succor and strength, or even for a thoughtful diversion from a world teeming with Orcs, are in tumult. Everywhere, institutions that liberals rely on are drowning beneath a progressive wave of #metoo.

Voices long deemed soothing sound suddenly screechy, even menacing. So long, Garrison Keillor, folksy host of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Goodbye, Charlie Rose, earnest public television interviewer. Good riddance, Harvey Weinstein, Democratic donor and purveyor of the kind of movies that well-educated people liked to talk about. Sorry to see you go, Al Franken, senator who gets health-care policy but also gets the joke. Au revoir, Hamilton Fish, publisher of the New Republic. Adios, Don Hazen, longtime lefty news executive.

Can we stop now? Well, not yet.

Moving up the culture ladder in New York City, the still-proud capital of liberalism, something appears deeply rotten at the top of the Metropolitan Opera. Meanwhile, Peter Martins, the longtime head of the New York City Ballet, no longer seems quite so elegant and refined. (True, New York’s Lincoln Center is Koch Country, but it’s a country where Trump has always been alien and undocumented.) Oh, and the editor of the Paris Review — he’s in la poubelle, too.

WNYC, the public radio station in New York, added to liberal woes last week. The station announced the firing of erudite interviewer Leonard Lopate and one-of-a-kind musical programmer Jonathan Schwartz, both of whom had been on the airwaves in New York for decades.

The firings followed the earlier dispatch of “The Takeaway” host John Hockenberry and a separate harassment scandal involving a top executive at National Public Radio, that reliably comfortable Volvo wagon of news.

For the most part, these beheadings are taking place after revelations by other liberal institutions — the New York Times, The Washington Post — or belated actions from the boards of the institutions themselves, pursuing internal investigations. The system is slowly working, and evolving to higher standards — at least in one part of the American cultureplex.

The timing, however, is brutal. With Trumpism on the march — even if it’s occasionally a Chaplinesque march — liberal redoubts of news and culture have been tarnished by their own guardians.

No liberal (or anyone else, apparently) laments Weinstein’s departure from the red carpet, and Rose’s interviews won’t be hard to surpass. But the collective house-cleaning is bracing, and disorienting, nonetheless.

Many of the comments on the WNYC web site responding to the firing of Lopate and Schwartz were angry not at the hosts but at the station that dismissed them:

“Anonymous accusations. Draconian punishments. Who wants to live in that kind of Stalinist, Game-of-Thrones world? Much less fund it?”

Lopate is an intellectual and writer who allowed listeners to eavesdrop on intimate, bookish conversation. Schwartz is a human encyclopedia of the American songbook — retro, often singing a song of self, but also a personal witness to greatness with an irrepressible passion for music. Neither man is easily replaced. The WNYC report on the firing quoted a distraught fan:

” ‘I question the judgment of the executives, frankly,’ said Ken Coughlin, a longtime fan who brought along his Lopate Show potholder to the recent board meeting. ‘I think there was an overreaction because of what happened with The Takeaway and the pendulum swung all the way to the other side.’ “

On the whole, liberal institutions will be better for this season of purges. Some will likely go too far seeking to meet evolving, uncertain standards of a new era. And, yes, a backlash is hardly unlikely.

But American culture and U.S. politics are under growing duress. Conservatives are becoming less democratic, more fearful and more aggressive. Instead of purging their predators and liars, they are nominating them for high office. The White House is run by people who exhibit contempt for suckers who tell the truth and follow the law.A bitter, nation-defining fight — likely over special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and its consequences — is coming.

To preserve the institutions they revere, and on which civil society depends, liberals have to shed some ungainly weight, muscle up and step into the ring. If the fight goes well, they can pick up their pledge-drive potholder after the republic is secure.

Francis Wilkinson writes on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. Jay Bookman’s column returns soon.

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