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Help! Mom! There are Liberals Under My Bed!

by Katharine DeBrecht; illustrations by Jim Hummel

(World Ahead Publishing / 54pp. / $9)

Review by Sarah Churchwell

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But then evil liberals start appearing. The first, bearing a striking resemblance to Ted Kennedy, demands taxes, which mean “you give the government half of your money so we can spend it better.” The boys protest that they already take care of the shoeless children, but the liberal suggests that the boys stop working and let the government provide for them, before announcing that he will take care of the shoeless children by giving them dustpans.        

Being thankful that God gave them a lemon tree, the boys hang a picture of Jesus over their stand. But the liberals, “who are NOT against free speech”, appear and force them to exchange their picture of Jesus for a picture of a big toe, because it is “one of only two things that do not offend anyone”. (Notes at the end of the book promise that a future installment will reveal the other). A third liberal, strongly resembling Hillary Clinton, appears, insisting that the boys serve broccoli with their lemonade, because “it takes a village to get kids to eat their vegetables!”. Between big toes and broccoli, the boys’ stand starts failing, but they just work harder – like the good little boys they are. Then the liberals descend en masse and steal the stand, where they sell over-priced lemonade, give redundant lectures and dustpans to shoeless children, and force broccoli on everyone, “like the liberals that they were”. The boys wake up, and although they fear that the liberals “might tell us what to do and take everything away”, they decide to persevere, “like the good little conservatives they were”.        

Here it is, a primer for children – or the uninitiated – in conservative American values, offering a lexicon for its moral system. Small is good, big is bad; and what makes the good little boys good, besides their overdetermined smallness, is hard work, responsibility, charity, thankfulness, religiosity, saving and individualism. Finally this definition of goodness is equated with conservatism in the last line of the book – which has avoided the word “conservative” until then. Liberals, by contrast, are “strange”, lazy, shiftless, irresponsible, selfish, ungrateful, impious, spendthrift, thieving, socialist and, of course, thus bad. In part what this strategy does is reinforce the totemic and tautological force of the categories themselves.

We knew this before we opened the book, because of the implied association of liberals with monsters in the title; what pointy-headed intellectuals would call demonising. But it wasn’t just the demonising of the Other that ultimately backfired; what Help! Mom! shows perhaps most clearly is the degree to which the culture wars were a cartoon fantasy attacking a liberal boogeyman hiding in the ideological closet. Ironically, one of the demographic shifts that clearly swung the election for Obama will also have mitigated against this powerful fear of alterity: the large segments of college-educated voters who migrated to exurban and rural areas.        

Sarah Palin could have titled her candidacy, Help! Hockey Mom!, as is clear from the text of a speech she gave at one rally, which more or less verbatim recapitulates the conservative ideology of Help! Mom!, camouflaged as an actual explanation:

See, under a big government, more tax agenda, what you thought was yours would really start belonging to somebody else, to everybody else. If you thought your income, your property, your inventory, your investments were, were yours, they would really collectively belong to everybody. Obama, Barack Obama has an ideological commitment to higher taxes, and I say this based on his record... Higher taxes, more government, misusing the power to tax leads to government moving into the role of some believing that government then has to take care of us. And government kind of moving into the role as the other half of our family, making decisions for us. Now, they do this in other countries where the people are not free. Let us fight for what is right.        

One of the interesting lexical aspects of Help! Mom! is that it primarily defines liberalism by negative implication, assigning positive moral value to conservatism, and then leaving liberalism to be the implied negative, a kind of double evacuation of meaning. One of the few explicit labels attached to liberalism by the book is “strange”. And it was Obama’s ‘strangeness’ – coded as Muslim, as terrorist, as militant, and, of course, as black – that rang throughout the notorious Republican rallies at which McCain supporters explained that they feared Obama’s very alien-ness, one telling McCain, “I don't trust Obama... He’s an Arab”. To which, as an increasing number of commentators noted, McCain’s reply was rich with implication: “No, ma’am. He's a decent, family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with”.

The GOP has long sought not only to dispute semantics but to redefine entire words and phrases. The most egregious example of this is the re-branding of ‘liberal’ itself as a term of opprobrium in the aftermath of the 1960s. A word meaning ‘free’ became redefined as ‘free-spending’ on the one hand and ‘free-thinking’ on the other, with implications of licentiousness and reckless abandon. At the same time, conservative ideologues managed to narrow the word’s meaning such that its older definitions, including not just democratic freedom but also laissez-faire, became lost. Finally, they also elided freedom with ‘free markets’ such that capitalism became freedom, and free spending became democratic. But not liberal spending: that’s socialist.

A similar perversion happened to the word ‘choice’, which became redefined by the religious right as ‘abortion’, such that being ‘pro-choice’ means being ‘pro-abortion’. What began as an implication became explicit in recent years: the OED records the first use of the locution pro-abortion in this context to be a 2004 US News and World Report, describing someone’s opponent as a “pro-abortion Republican”. In point of fact, no one is pro-abortion, and for people who are pro-choice, the word choice continues to indicate the presence of options. The redefinition of choice to mean its opposite produced moments of sheer cognitive dissonance in the election campaign, as when The Daily Show’s Samantha Bee went to the Republican National Convention in search of the meaning of choice, and was told by a female supporter of Palin’s, “freedom of choice … that’s different from being pro-choice”. Or when Sarah Palin insisted that we respect her 17 year-old daughter Bristol for making the “right choice” to keep her baby – which is to say, the only choice. Who knew that the Republicans were poststructuralists at heart, and that the real victor of the culture wars would be Derrida?

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