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A Progressive's Guide to Finding Your Voice (and Taking a Little Action)
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For those who like their politics blunt, raw, and uncompromising comes Get Opinionateda guide to the issues you care about: environmentalism, reproductive rights and access, taxes and public wealth, GLBTQ rights, health care, the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, and the Culture Wars.
Get Opinionated will help you find your political voice and galvanize you into actionor at least help you understand which issues you care about (or which ones most piss you off)and why.
Get Opinionated will help you find your political voice and galvanize you into actionor at least help you understand which issues you care about (or which ones most piss you off)and why.
DEDICATED TO JESSE TAYLOR, who never asked where the women bloggers were,
AND MARC FALETTI, who always said to ask for more.
Eight years of George W. Bush devastated the country, but American liberalism, which had been declared all but dead after decades of demonization by the right-wing noise machine, saw a renaissance during his presidency. Prior to the Bush years, liberals had been a scattershot, incoherent group who didn't necessarily feel we had much in common. To make it worse, "liberal" had become a dirty word that most people wouldn't cop to, and many instead tried on the weasel word "progressive." Union supporters often came to blows with environmentalists, feminism and anti-racism relied increasingly on academic institutions instead of on-the-ground politics to define them, and, let's face it, Bill Clinton, with his trade agreements and deregulation schemes (which helped destroy the economy a decade later—thanks, Bill!), made even the few people left who were willing to call themselves liberals turn on the Democrats. It was hard for many people to even care when Al Gore saw the election blatantly stolen from him, with the assistance of the Supreme Court.
Few things equal the unifying, clarifying power of hate, however. Bush didn't do us any favors, but he did become the perfect villain to bring these disparate people together under a common banner. Since we live in a cynical age, my description of the situation sounds, unfortunately, a bit like I'm mocking the concept of Bush the Supervillain, but rest assured, I'm not. Without a trace of irony, the man really did offer himself up as the sort of person you love to hate—right before you feel bad about taking even sick pleasure in hating him, because doing so clouds the purity of your righteous hate. You couldn't ask for a better person to bring unity to the left, because no matter what flavor of liberal you were, Bush would chew you up as eagerly as he did the other flavors.
Bush swung at peaceniks, atheists, freedom lovers, human-rights activists, feminists, labor, environmentalists, and even apolitical people who preferred to keep their Social Security, all with the same giant baseball bat. It wasn't just that he didn't play favorites when it came to liberal issues he pissed all over; it was about the gushing amounts of piss he poured over those issues. Believe me, as someone who spent much of my effort focusing on reproductive rights, I kept having to fill up the sink with cold water and dunk my head in it, just to make sure that I wasn't making it up when the Bush administration did something aggressively misogynist. It was never enough to merely appoint anti-choice judges, though the Christian right really didn't need more to win their votes. The Bush administration made a point of skipping way to the right of people's worst expectations, reaching a height of right-wing-nut insanity when Bush-appointed FDA officials refused to authorize over-the-counter emergency contraception because they feared that it would kick-start teenage sex cults.
I can't speak with the same depth of authority on other subjects as I can on that one, but my discussions with activists from other realms indicate that Bush shot past people's disrespect and began earning their open contempt in almost every issue area imaginable, though I don't think Americans really understood the levels of that contempt until Bush blew off thousands of them when New Orleans nearly washed away in a hurricane.
Bunker mentality turned many people into angry ranters, but when everyone's stuck in the same bunker, they realize they have cramped muscles and a desire to see light in common, and that can bring people together. Eight years of Bush turned "liberal" into an identity, and liberals became a community. It had political benefits, and frankly, it had social benefits, as you could wander into any random party in your social stratosphere and assume everyone else was on the same political page as you. For political nerds, the ability to talk about politics at parties provided a small comfort during those dark Bush years. Calling yourself a liberal without flinching went from being an act of bravery to being mundane. After all, the defining feature of a liberal was wanting Bush's ass out of office, right? That made liberalism the mainstream.
Barack Obama was assumed to be a unifying figure that brought liberals out of the closet and united the country, but a more accurate assessment would be that he ran a campaign that read the national mood and fed it back to us as his own message. Liberals had already come out, and the country had already decided to kick Republicans out. We'd created the space for the candidate, and he just stepped into the role with aplomb. That doesn't detract from the sheer joy and unity Obama supporters felt the night of the 2008 presidential election, but even as I joined in the jubilant celebration, I felt people were rejoicing more about what we had done by electing Obama than about what he had done by winning. We'd decided we were liberals. We'd come out as liberals. We'd joined up with others and elected a president. And we were going to party.
No one can take that from us. But now, as we finally finish up our last cup of coffee and emerge from our Bush hangover, the question we have to ask ourselves is, "Yes, I'm a liberal, but what does that even mean?"
In the memories of most politically minded people, liberal has gone through only two phases: dirty word and Bush hater. It's been defined only as a negative, so, now that we're looking at a Democratic majority, it would be helpful if we could define what "liberal" is, instead of what it's not. This sounds easier than it is; I've been a political blogger and writer for over five years now, and the Obama victory made me realize how many of my political opinions are about what I don't believe instead of what I do. Now that we've got power, we'd better start getting opinionated.
I don't think the opposition suffers from this problem, which just makes the situation more urgent. Conservatives often have a very good definition of what they believe and what they expect to come out of it. They do often have the benefit of the past to look to, and every flavor of conservatism out there harkens back to a time that conservatives think of as the "golden era," despite the objective fact that it sucked shit for the majority of people. Conservatives long for colonialism, the days before women's rights, and a time when black people had no other choice but to work low-wage jobs with no hope of improving their station. A time when Christianity was promoted in the schools, men could rule over their families with an iron fist, and you could pretend that you were invading another country and taking its resources for its own good and no one would question the audacity of that. It's an unpleasant vision, but it's a very clear, well-documented one. While many Republican voters are just bundles of badly articulated racism, sexism, and aimless rage, their actual writers, campaigners, and activists have a very clear vision of what they believe and what they wish to accomplish.
That clarity results in votes and power. Americans especially respect people who know what they want and what it will take to get it, and they'll respect it even if they don't agree with it at all. For decades, Democratic partisans would wring their hands and wonder how the Republicans did it, over and over—put up a politician like George Bush, with half the wits, intelligence, and even charm of someone like John Kerry or Al Gore, and win anyway. We assumed they had some political masterminds and some magic formula for distracting people from reality and turning them to fantasy. We built up a halfwit like Karl Rove to be some kind of criminal mastermind, even though his main talent seems to be excessive assholery, coupled with an outrageous and undeserved sense of self-esteem.
There was no mastermind, no magic formula, no brilliance at all. What conservatives have had for a long time that liberals haven't is a clarity of purpose. They have strong opinions about what they want the country to look like, and strong ideas about how to get there. Liberals have had a hodgepodge of political correctness, infighting, and an unwillingness to even label ourselves liberals. But as soon as we had the clarity of purpose that hating Bush brought us, we were able to pull out some victories.
But we can't lean on Bush hatred anymore. Nor can we scatter to the winds and let a bunch of stubborn right-wing nuts take the country over yet again. In an attempt to push the dialogue forward, I wrote this book to give some shape and definition to major issues that liberals should embrace as their own, no matter what angle they come from.
To be clear, in writing this I'm not trying to lay down dogma or say there's only one correct liberal opinion on this issue or that. One strength of being on the left instead of the right is that you don't have to put up with that law-laying, near religious approach to opinion forming. We should be proud that we don't echo the same meaningless platitudes to each other and consider that discourse. In that spirit, I offer more my own personal vision of liberalism than a prescription for others. I hope to provoke more than dictate, and ideally, readers will go on from this book to engage in other forms of media—not just other books and magazines, but blogs and other websites where they can practice their opinionating skills.
What I do want you to take away from this book is not liberal dogma, but a belief that these various issues are intertwined, and that someone who comes to liberalism for issue X will do well to care about issues Y and Z as well. Don't let people pigeonhole you! You may start off as a feminist, but there's no reason not to add "environmentalist" to your list of interests. Liberal economics, anti-racism, secularism, and support for science—these seemingly disparate issues have more in common than they would seem to have at first blush, and they work together in interesting ways.
Liberals have allowed our various issues to get siloed off from each other. The word "values" alone has much to do with this—the mainstream media considers conservatives those who have a unifying values system, and liberals just a bunch of single-issue types who have to hang together or we'll hang separately. But we do have values. Often, they're so basic that they don't even get labeled as values so much as, "Well, duh." We value equality, freedom, community, and health. These liberal values are so ingrained that conservatives have to pretend to value them to smuggle hostile arguments—for instance, they want to roll back anti-racism gains like affirmative action in the name of equality. Don't let this sort of disingenuous fuckwittery distract you—you have values that hold your various opinions together, and the static from conservatives trying to confuse the issue has to be tuned out.
My main hope with this book is that you'll read it, get opinionated, and start speaking up. And don't worry about the cacophony that results when we add so many more voices to the mix. Cacophony can confuse, but mostly it creates volume. Only by getting out there and expressing our opinions can we even get noticed by or influence our leaders.
Again, the right figured this out a long time ago. That's why there's a right-wing noise machine, even though the vast majority of stuff it puts out is nonsensical, paranoid, and downright hateful. It doesn't matter. By making noise, the machine demonstrates that the right has numbers (and hell, it makes those numbers look even higher than they are, it's so noisy), and that alone makes the right formidable.
We can be noisy without being crippled by stupidity, paranoia, racism, and an inexplicable loathing of rumpled academics. We can easily best these bastards, who set the bar incredibly low. Loud liberals' victory in the war of words against loud conservatives should, if it's done with the proper vim and vigor, be a matter of someone wearing a neat Armani suit beating someone in neon-colored MC Hammer pants in a fashion contest. It's just a matter of putting yourself out there. So get to it! Wait, no—read my book first, and then get to it!
A TOUR THROUGH
Your Various Political Types
Sadly, having good liberal political opinions isn't enough, even if you back them up with sound facts and logic. Ours is a highly diverse social species, and politics is as much a game of finessing and understanding personalities and roles as it is one of understanding facts and arguments. With that in mind, here's a tour of some of the major types of people you'll meet in the hairy world of arguing politics.
SOCIALLY CONSERVATIVE PATRIARCHS
After the reign of George W. Bush, with all his fundamentalist support and fundamentalist-scripted policy, the socially conservative patriarch became the face of conservatism in America. More James Dobson than Rush Limbaugh (though members of the Limbaugh wing wisely pretend to endorse conservative religious values before they go do some drugs and foist themselves on underage prostitutes), the socially conservative patriarchs heard the anguished cries of men around the country whose wives were clueing in to feminism and wanting help doing the dishes and the right to quit faking orgasms. The patriarchs' answer to these men's woes? Jesus. Jesus would make it all better. Jesus would tell your wife to submit. Jesus would tell those gays to get back in the closet. Jesus would make you feel like you were all man, even if you liked wearing chinos and Seinfeld's humor went over your head.
"Family" is the word that gets this type excited, and hopefully in a totally nonsexual way, though the amount of time and attention socially conservative patriarchs expend on monitoring the status of their teenage daughters' hymens often causes outsiders to think that may not always be the case. Worse, if a Republican politician is caught up in a sex scandal, he's almost surely going to be the sort who acts in public like he sleeps with a bible under his pillow. What David Vitter (paid women to have sex with him while he wore diapers), Larry Craig (arrested for attempting to have anonymous gay sex in an airport bathroom), and Mark Foley (caught chasing underage congressional pages in hopes the boys would have sex with him) have in common, besides getting turned out by coloring outside the sexual lines, is that they are all bible-thumping, family-values conservatives.
Though you may sense that socially conservative patriarchs are the type you should never be alone in a room with, you can also identify their kind by their forced congeniality, their aggressive unwillingness to look palatable, and their strong streak of prissiness, which probably explains why they're so worried someone will think they're anything less than all man. They talk a lot about muscular Christianity but enjoy breaking into tears when discussing how much the anti-abortion, anti-gay Jesus means to them. And while some may think they can still get away with preaching about how that rock 'n' roll is making all the young girls loose, most have updated their shtick so they're panicking about how rappers are taking perfectly fine girls with intact hymens and turning them into hussies.
Their version of Utopia: Splitting their time between having their sons look at them worshipfully, having their daughters tell them graphically what they won't be doing sexually until Daddy signs off on the wedding and makes it okay, and going to religious and professional occasions where they can huff and puff about how important they are. All such occasions should be accompanied by wife-supplied food that is carefully monitored to make sure it never gets too healthy or includes too many spices that remind anyone of "ethnic" cuisine.
SOCIALLY CONSERVATIVE SISTER PUNISHERS
Sarah Palin's ascent to the vice-presidential slot of the Republican ticket in 2008 marked a new peak in sister punishers' journey from being the ladies' auxiliary of conservatism to being a major force driving the Republican party. Anti-feminists want us little ladies to know that we're not important, yet shooting down feminism has become such a widespread right-wing activity that the cute little ladies' group of official anti-feminist voices has become a major player. If it inspires that much resistance, feminism must be important indeed.
Sister punishers play many roles—they get to speak out against taxes, immigration, and the evils of the liberal elite—but they exist mostly to prove to the world that the misogynist, anti-feminist engine that runs so much modern conservatism can't be all that bad when it's got so many hot bitches onboard. In that spirit, what sister punishers say often matters less than how they look and how good a job they do at convincing the audience that they've barely touched cock (but they'd totally touch yours).
Conservatives promote a lot of stereotypes about feminists that don't hold up: that feminists are ugly, hate men, are slutty or sexually frigid, don't shave, are lesbians, and will fuck every man they meet so they can have more abortions. Some feminists fit some of these stereotypes and others fit none, but no one can, for reasons of logic, fit all of them. Sister punishers set out to prove these stereotypes by not fitting them. The logic is that if anti-feminists are not sweaty, hairy, frigid sluts, then feminists must be. Therefore, sister punishers must be sexually warm but also inexperienced, gorgeous and fuckable but modest. Sarah Palin grabbed the national imagination because she could maintain the illusion, for entire minutes at a time, that this balance was possible.
Being a sister punisher means practicing the most outlandish hypocrisy: Sister punishers hit the road to tell women to get back to the kitchen. They preach abstinence until marriage but give birth to full-term babies seven months after their wedding (like Sarah Palin did). They throw bombs about slutty, single women while being Ann Coulter. They claim, as Gayle Haggard did, that wifely submission brings endless joy and then wear their martyrdom on their sleeves, as she did when her minister husband, Ted Haggard, was revealed to be visiting male prostitutes. They sniff about the impropriety of how women dress these days but then shrug it off when men commit the greater offense of rape. They pride themselves on their intelligence while writing off women as the stupider sex.
Their version of Utopia: Since I can't write about this breed without referring to Margaret Atwood's classic sci-fi novel The Handmaid's Tale, I have to point out that Atwood made the clever observation that sister punishers would be thrust into hell if they achieved their goals. In a world where women's place really was in the home, they would all retreat to their houses and leave the road, the TV, and the op-ed pages. So the world we have, where women are permitted some amount of freedom but blatant misogyny still has a place in the public discourse, is in fact sister punishers' utopia. Lucky them.
MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRL LIBERAL CHICKS
Nathan Rabin, of the Onion AV Club, defined the manic pixie dream girl as a movie-character type that springs more from male fantasies than from real life. To quote Rabin: "The manic pixie dream girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." She doesn't stick around long—she moves on (or, preferably, dies) before you really get to know her.
She has a counterpart in real life: the compassionate liberal woman who haunts the dreams of young men who hit peace rallies in hopes of scoring. She eschews shoes, slacks, and feminism as energy-sucks that interfere with her being a ray of pure sex and understanding. She's against war, meat eating, and bad vibes. She's free of sexual hang-ups and hopes to homeschool a brood of barefoot children one day. She won't resist you, even if you're talking down to her—she's too busy dancing in a field of poppies. She even manages to make the combination of white-girl dreads and a Brazilian bikini wax make sense.
Manic pixie dream girl liberal chicks have one major drawback that interferes with their ability to be perfectly unthreatening fantasy girls, though: You have to compete with PETA for their affection. If PETA gets its hooks into your dream girl, you can expect that she'll not only convert to a vegan diet and get preachy on you but also start stripping down in public at animal-rights protests. If you try to stop this behavior, you'll come across as someone who wants to murder kittens.
Their version of Utopia: A communal living arrangement in which none of their roommates screws up by using animal-unfriendly products. Soft carpets all over the world, and no one stepping on their feet. Also, a world where nonscratchy and effective hemp condoms exist.
LESS FUN FEMINIST LIBERAL CHICKS
It's not that less fun feminists all resist dressing in a way that might be attractive to the male eye; it's just that feminists balance that desire with wishing to be taken seriously, being comfortable, and maintaining an acute sense of dignity that manic pixie dream girls don't have. Of course, plenty of feminists have no reason to dress according to male desires, because they aren't into men or because they can't reconcile it with their politics. Those who do feel the tug of male approval spend an inordinate amount of time wavering between political correctness and beauty standards, but even a feminist who caves in to the Brazilian wax will never, ever dance in a field of poppies. Or gaze at you adoringly when you say, "Now that I think about it, U2 is overrated."
Feminists really don't like sexism, so if you're a man who benefits from being sexist, this can make you routinely uncomfortable. Watching Bangbus porn, constricting your opinions on women you meet to whether or not you'd fuck them, and monopolizing the conversation are all behaviors that less fun feminist chicks will question a dude about. These women won't have a standard sexual MO that makes them easy to figure out—some are monogamous, some are less so, some are lesbians, some are straight, and some won't tell you what they are, because it's none of your business unless you yourself are sexually involved with them.
Feminists are less fun for easily threatened men, but don't let the stereotypes about their lack of a sense of humor chase you off. In fact, feminists have infiltrated the comedy business, sneaking up on you and making you laugh before you know it: They smuggle themselves in under your radar in shapes labeled Margaret Cho, Tina Fey, Wanda Sykes, and Amy Poehler. Only fellow feminists, recognizing that these sorts of high achievers are inevitable in any industry, could have seen this coming.
Less fun feminists look you in the eye and don't giggle helplessly. They're easily irritated when their intelligence is underestimated. They give to NARAL and roll their eyes when they hear someone equivocate on abortion rights. When they reach middle age, they think it's funny to tell people that middle-aged women are invisible, and that that's freeing. They've heard about homeschooling but find affordable daycare (or avoiding children altogether) closer to their tastes. They love to dance with their shoes on, talk politics with their girlfriends, and drink gin and tonics. They think The View is stupid but will praise it for taking on politics anyway.
Their version of Utopia: Having a female president, free birth control, and no one talking down to them at work, and coming home to find that their male partner has done exactly 50 percent of the housework without being nagged about it. Frequent sex that's not over until they've had half a dozen orgasms.
The kind, but not necessarily mild-mannered, liberal dude is a common enough type, but not the kind that feminists are thinking of when they complain about "liberal men." These are well-meaning liberal guys who, being good liberals, take women's word for it when women make feminist statements. They may even label themselves "feminist"—though only when asked, because all men everywhere find the idea of a male feminist strange and off-putting.
Anti-war but also obstinately against the people who carry FREE MUMIA signs to protests, pro-labor but uneducated about union politics—these guys were proud to have OBAMA signs in their front yards during the primary and reluctant to take them down in the days after the election, wanting the moment to last a little bit longer. They respond to right-wing men by declaring that they don't need guns to prove that they're men, and they try to do half the housework (and often succeed in doing up to a third of it). They fully intend, if they ever get a woman pregnant, to state, "It's your choice," and to never waver from that position. They don't want their wives to take their names, and they get whipped up when someone dismisses the importance of gays' right to marry. They constitute a solid percentage of liberal bloggers overall but dominate the ranks of the highest traffic liberal bloggers.
They're big on public transportation and universal health care. They declared that Hillary Clinton was a perfectly acceptable second choice during the primaries, though they started to get angry at the women who clung to Clinton, believing until the bitter end that she could win. They consider themselves anti-capitalist but love Apple products and play the stock market, and 85 percent of them have jobs in the private sector (law, computers, and marketing are favorites), because they're men and they're smart and they can make a lot of money.
Al Gore is indebted mostly to these guys for his post-2000 ascendancy as a national environmentalist hero. Once he was safely tucked away from the nefarious influence of Joe Lieberman and the neoliberals who polluted the Clinton administration, Gore was free to seem like a rare good man in the dirty world of politics, and astute liberal men (and commonsensical feminist liberal women) ate it up, actually spending an evening watching Gore's documentary about global warming, which most people would consider a weird way to entertain yourself.
These guys marry the less fun feminist chicks, whereupon they turn into urban liberal couples (see below).
Their version of Utopia: A world much like ours, but with cleaner technology, more TV shows like The Wire, time to perfect their skills as gourmet chefs, and a Democratic party that sucks a little less at both policy and politics. Also national health care.
LIBERAL DUDES WHO SCOLD FEMINISTS ABOUT "IMPORTANT" ISSUES
- On Sale
- Mar 16, 2010
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Seal Press