Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Matt Labash, Justin Krebs and "living liberally"

Because he's Matt Labash, the new Weekly Standard cover story in which he attempts "living liberally" -- as defined by Justin Krebs' new book, "538 Ways to Live Work and Play Like a Liberal" -- is at least moderately entertaining until it stretches into tedium. In a bit of stunt journalism, Labash attempts to "live liberally" for 10 days, exploring the ways that Krebs' book contains contradictions and/or reaches into the furthest corners of your life.

Get it? It's comically tiresome to live every single aspect of your life through the prism of politics.

Which, no kidding. If you haven't given up somewhere by page 12 or so, though, it seems to me the real story comes when Labash puts down the book and goes to a "Drinking Liberally" meetup to hang out with some real liberals.
The group arrives one by one—about a dozen in all. I haven’t told them in advance I was coming, so when I break the news that I’m a reporter for a conservative magazine and pull my tape recorder out, I expect them to tell me to get bent. But they generously welcome me. One of the group leaders, Michelle Elliot, a software engineer, even tells me that her life-partner works for Firedoglake. But if she thinks I’m a douche-nozzle, she keeps it to herself, as we tuck in for a completely agreeable evening of interrogation and polite sparring.

I chide them a bit for convening at a corporatist chain restaurant, even if Ruby Tuesdays does have an impressive salad bar, with all manner of fresh ingredients and a stunning array of croutons. They give me the business for drinking too liberally after I order a third Maker’s (child’s play, I assure them, I’m a professional journalist after all), suggesting I might be the first member of their group that they have to drive home.

Because of my machine-gun questioning, we cover the waterfront, everything from their thoughts on BP to whether to avoid Wal-Mart to whether it’s okay to meet at chain restaurants to the evils of Ann Coulter and Meghan McCain’s political viability (one gay-activist type mentions her as being one of the only Republicans he likes, though hearing the words “Meghan’s platform” nearly makes me do a spit-take).

It’s a pleasant conversation. I lapse back into my conservative nature as a result of a liberal intake of my liberal whiskey, but there are no hostilities. Nobody changes anybody’s mind. It’s not life or death. It bears little resemblance to television screech-matches, which as one of my drinking mates, Aaron Oesterle, says, “is not about discussion, it’s about finding everybody who agrees with me, and shouting the loudest.” We encounter each other as individuals, leaving room for complexities and ambiguities, instead of assuming a mere set of prefab conclusions. Oesterle, who works at a space-related consultancy, says, “It’s easy to assume large-scale. But when you engage one-on-one, it’s more difficult to make assumptions on a smaller scale.”

Another of my drinking companions, Claiborn Booker, recasts F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notion that the rich are different than you and me. “So are the very political,” he says. “They have a different sort of calculus that goes on in their minds, and as a result, we see some of that manifesting itself in the polarization of political debate.”

The group tells me that they often don’t discuss politics very much at their political gatherings. “Most of us live in the middle muddle,” Booker says. “We have certain tendencies in some directions. But we’re by and large caring people, have a kindly disposition toward our fellow sufferers, so we want socially to have kindness or gentleness be a part of our character. But at the same time, we want to make sure that we get to keep what we earn and we want to have a strong defense. So finding that right balance is a perennial problem.”

After making a night of it, I like these people.
Once Labash puts away the books, in other words, he finds that the liberals he sets out to mock aren't too different from, well, everybody else: Trying to live a life informed by values and running up against the contradictions, ambiguities, nuance and even obstacles that real life imposes upon us all. That means, of course, that there are as many ways to "live liberally" as there are, well, actual liberals. Putting that at the front of an interminably long story -- instead of at the end -- wouldn't be quite as sexy or as stereotype-confirming to the Weekly Standard's readership.

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