I met Joan Walsh on Salon via her column during the primaries in '08. Sides were being taken. She and I stuck with Hillary while she was under assault (Joan, not to mention Hillary) from all sides, but increasingly by the feverish "Obamatons" who took no prisoners.
In her book What's the Matter with White People? Joan reveals she's the descendant of "black Irish" on her father's side--the legendary offspring of the Spanish armada that sank off the coast of Ireland and mixed with the fair haired Celts. Her father taught a "fractured myth" as a result--the belief that the Irish share a bond with people "of color" and especially those of any background who know the sting of discrimination.
"In my father's version of history, black people were just the latest group of Americans who struggled for rights and freedom. Our people, the Irish, had also faced cruel prejudice and endured their own share of suffering."
When the rest of her extended working class family changed their political direction during the rise of Nixonland, including her mother, Joan and her father remained true to the Democratic lineage represented by Kennedy and Johnson--the path less taken. The politics of divisiveness, as extolled by her nemesis, the "lace curtain" Irishman Patrick Buchanan won, making the poor the enemy of American values. Joan's endeavor is to question whether it needs to continue to win, and what price as a nation we are being forced to pay.
The book is a relief at a juncture when petty polemics have become the language of the land. If "humanity" is what has been squeezed out in this age of ideology, Joan puts it back in, but hers is a lonely voice as she well knows. The bats have left the belfry, and the signal to bring them back is very faint. The America her father knew, or thought he knew could be long gone.
Joan works her way diligently through the battles since Nixon as a hands on participant working as a journalist and "do good-er." She recounts the great divide of the 60's that seemingly never ends, and the backlash that has ruled ever since. She doesn't fault the generation that reached a pinnacle and then withdrew "in their VW bus with the 'make love, not war' bumper sticker and were never seen again," as Tom Brokaw famously said. Her search for solidarity won't be so easily dissuaded.
What is the fear and quest for authority that led her mother to abandon the party that opened the future to her people? What is it that makes us "long for a golden age that never was?" (her subtitle) And makes Americans so vulnerable to the hacks and demagogues who control so much of the national conversation? Is it only the idealism of youth that provides an antidote to cynicism and inequity? Will Buchanan's latest call to circle the wagons and block the "new Irish" prevail?
She does a masterful job laying down the policies and issues that frame events. If any of her facts are open for dispute, I'm not aware of them, but am sure they will be horrifically maligned as much by the left as the right. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of her favorites among those who never forgot where they came from said: "In ideology, America is conservative, in practice liberal."
Moynihan knew the nation can't survive any other way and never has it been more obvious. Who are the enemies of the programs that support a safety net for the average working and middle class American? How much longer can they continue to support a party whose only claim on them is cultural and otherwise dismisses them? What myth do they believe in if it isn't based on their own history and the nation that adopted E pluribus unum as it's motto? How much longer can they avoid the facts of income distribution and continue to deny their own best interests?
Joan's optimism for the democratic process remains intact. She never bought that politics is a dirty business and all politicians corrupt despite the lies of the Reagan era ("The government declared a war on poverty and poverty won.") and Bush II's attack on the middle class, the treasury, and our conscience when it came to war. Hers is not the politics of an impending apocalypse, but of encouraging the center to hold its ground.
She caved in for Obama about the same time I did, when it became inevitable, not certain a new generation would appear on the scene and win the day. Her mea culpa is for the people from which she sprang,
"As I watched the carnage of the Bush years, I recovered a working class spirit I should have held all along. Nobody was speaking for the people who lost so much ground in the last 30ty years, even if they'd done some of the damage themselves by voting Republican."
The vision she puts forth so clearly is for an America that continues to be one of inclusion rather than exclusion. It's a view that attempts to reckon with fear rather than exploit it. She squarely points to the need to look at policy and issues before "culture" and ideology. Politics is what democracy is about and compromise essential yet the ultimate question remains: what works for the many, not the few?
She knows as few do who have reached so far within themselves and as an arbiter that if selfish class interests and communal "rights" are allowed to dominate the future nothing greater than we have seen will be achieved. She hasn't forgotten her father; rather, she has embraced and reapplied his lesson and asks us to do the same.
That her voice is the so lonely is the part hard to swallow and how increasingly that appears to be the case. Will the relentless enforcers on the fringe be allowed to keep pulling the nation apart? And will the lessons of the last four years be enough to cause an electoral majority to rise again and not be coerced by the money, power, and indeed, the prejudice of those who obfuscate the truth?
We'll see in November.
What's the Matter with White People published by John Wiley & Sons