New Right and Old Left

April 29, 1995|By DANIEL BERGER

For years it has been commonplace to observe that the right has replaced the left in American political discourse for producing creative ideas.

The swing to conservatism was fueled with ideas from conservative think tanks that proliferated in the years before the Reagan campaign. Of the policy material that comes to my newspaper desk unsolicited, far more is conservative or reactionary than liberal or radical. It used to be the other way round.

More columnists are conservative than liberal these days. And the so-called liberal think tanks are centrist or moderate, as are mainstream media that are routinely denounced for being liberal.

In the past several months I have become increasingly aware of another way in which the right is taking on the character formerly associated with the left.

That's in the stridency, abuse and contempt that some of its proponents heap on persons or institutions of authority, with the intent of undermining trust in society.

The things Rush Limbaugh and to a lesser extent such locals as Ron Smith say about President Clinton are what radical agitators of the left used to say a generation ago about Lyndon Johnson. Not only their slander but even their sarcasm is recycled from, if not the old left, then the old New Left. Mr. Limbaugh, no matter how conservative he calls himself, sounds just like people on the left-wing fringes of the 1960s.

And now the convergence is complete. From the right lunatic fringe come terrorists whose atrocity, despite its greater magnitude, resembles bombings and shootings that were linked Weathermen, Black Panthers and, above all, the Puerto Rican FALN a generation ago.

The apologists for terror go through the same exercises that apologists for terror anywhere habitually do: exaggeration of government's misdeeds, fantasy about conspiracies and attribution of their own violence to their victims.

President Clinton, who has spoken for the American people well throughout the Oklahoma City trauma, then spoke out against ''so many loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seems to be to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other.'' He was willfully unspecific.

Certainly, G. Gordon Liddy, whose program airs on a Baltimore station at mid-day, rivals the gangsta rap group N.W.A. They openly encouraged the murder of police. He has openly encouraged the murder of federal lawmen from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The blander conservative talk-show hosts might have wanted to distance themselves from some bad apples, after Mr. Clinton's broad-gauge criticism. But no.

Most claimed to be whom he was talking about. Me, me, me. And then they accused the president of chilling free speech, for exercising it.

Talk-show hosts who accuse the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms of murder in Waco (the murders that David Koresh and some of his followers committed) are saying what those who have committed terror against the country say.

Their relation to terror is the same as the relation of the people who were called ''parlor pinks'' in the 1940s (believing the Soviet Union stood for peace and justice) to the handful of real Communist spies.

It's also the relation of people who protested the Vietnam war and draft to the few who actually bombed or trashed buildings in that cause.

That is, they didn't do it. They're innocent of those crimes. The people who did it, did it. The people who didn't, didn't.

But in each case, those who speak in sympathy for the violent few come in for some justified opprobrium and the threat of unjustified curtailment of rights. And some try to defend the crimes as protected by the rights, which they are not.

And some Republican leaders who had wrapped themselves up in the citizen's right to bear assault rifles have only just come to realize that one of the stated purposes was to overthrow the federal government. A little caution is in order.

In the debates that are mushrooming on these matters, some people who call themselves liberals sound like right-wing Republicans of the 1940s and 1960s while some people who call themselves conservative sound like New Left radicals.

The imitation of the left by the right is just about complete. And, to a lesser extent, vice versa.

Meanwhile, a lot of decent people in Oklahoma had to die for the madness and delusion of a crowd.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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