On the fourth of July, the New York Times gave its readers a first extended look at the political history of Bernie Sanders in Vermont. The article, by Sarah Lyall, is titled "Bernie Sanders's Revolutionary Roots Were Nurtured in '60s Vermont." This sketch of the young Sanders is free of obvious malice. It would serve its purpose less effectively if it were malicious.
The attitude that Lyall adopts toward Sen. Sanders is, instead, mildly and cheerfully disparaging -- affectionate, but at the proper distance of condescension; ironically agreeable, as you are allowed to be in dealing with a second cousin or an eccentric uncle who is a bit of a blowhard. Hers is not the first such article to appear on Sanders in the Times. Is it safe to predict that this will remain the paper's approach to his campaign for as long as he stays in the race?
Though malice is absent, the pejorative shading here begins with the title. Does Sanders today describe himself as a revolutionist? "Revolutionary roots" implies that he does. Sanders indeed calls himself a democratic socialist. But it was a pretty steady difference between socialists and communists, throughout the 20th century, that socialists would choose not to describe themselves as revolutionists. They were radical reformers and tended to reject the violence that revolutionists embrace. "Radical reformist roots" would have made a truer but a less eye-catching headline.
Symptomatic excerpts from the article follow in boldface, with my comments below:
"[The young Bernie Sanders] came to Vermont in the late 1960s to help plan the upending of the old social order."
Did he in fact come to Vermont to execute a plan? The word suggests that Sanders was a bit deluded. More likely, he came to Vermont with no plan except to organize and reform: something that people with political convictions have been known to do. The word "upending" is curious. It comes from football: A linebacker who tackles a charging halfback by grabbing his ankles and tossing him head-over-heels is said to upend him. You can't do that to something as heterogeneous and extended as American society. The word suggests as much without having to say so. But it is unlikely that he ever used the word "upend"; once again, the relevant missing word and idea is reform.
"[A youthful article by Sanders in the Vermont Freeman gave] an apocalyptically alarmist account of the unbearable horror of having an office job in New York City."
The pileup of "apocalyptically alarmist" and "unbearable horror" triggers the sarcasm. You can almost hear the unwritten sequel: "An office job in New York City? Give me a break." Various personalities of the era -- Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel -- seem to have shared the sentiments of the young Sanders, but the incredulous adverb and adjectives do their work.
"Chalk some of this up to being young and unemployed. Mr. Sanders, now 73, has had a steady, nonrevolutionary job for quite some time now."
It is the usual dig. Resistance and protest come from dissatisfaction and failure; get a decent job and watch how your politics change.
"... barely 30, full of restless energy, with wild curly hair, a brash Brooklyn manner and a mind fizzing with plans to remake the world. Short on money but long on ideas..."
Human-interest writing may come disguised as biography but it performs that duty imperfectly. The fizzing mind is there because it rhymes with the frizzy hair. "Short on money but long on ideas" is a cliché so lazy that the barb is robbed of its sting.
"[Sanders's description of himself as a freelance writer] is a bit of a stretch. A look through his journalistic output, such as it was, reveals that he had perhaps a dozen articles published."
How many articles do you have to publish to qualify as a freelance writer? Two dozen? The pedantry is polemical.
"[In a 1972 article by Sanders, the] opening passage, which deals with men's sexual fantasies, is meant to be satirically provocative but comes across as crassly sexist."
The article was reprinted in Mother Jones, and readers are free to check their impressions against Lyall's description. It opens with a suggestion that men too often fantasize themselves as rapists and women fantasize being raped: the pleasurable compulsiveness of the fantasies reveals the sickness of the sexual roles in American society. However shallow or wrong this speculation, Lyall's characterization of it as "crassly sexist" is false. The title, "Man -- And Woman," is enough to indicate the perspective.
Men think of women as an afterthought, the young Sanders was saying, and that is our mistake. The article declares that the typical male vice is "pigness" while the typical female vice is "slavishness." It advises men to stop being pigs and women to stop being slaves. Lyall says that this early article has drawn "unflattering attention," but her only link online yields a brief Times article that alludes to criticism "bouncing around social media." In fact, the unflattering attention has mostly come from right-wing corporate and pro-war sites -- Town Hall, National Review, the Weekly Standard, Breitbart -- whose reasons for undermining Sanders are remote from feminism.
"'Sexual adjustment seemed to be very poor in those with cancer of the cervix,' [Sanders] wrote, quoting a study in a journal called Psychosomatic Medicine."
"Wrote, quoting": but if he quoted it, he didn't write it. This is meant to emphasize again the supposed oddity of Sanders' sexual attitudes, but it should never have passed editing.
"He also made a half-hour film about his hero, Eugene V. Debs, the labor organizer who ran unsuccessfully for president five times."
What a peculiar fellow to have as a hero. The conjunction of "unsuccessfully" and "five times" makes Debs an average union organizer and a serial failure: he couldn't stop running for president. Not a word about Debs going to prison for his opposition to American involvement in the First World War. Would it be different -- and perhaps fairer -- to speak of Eugene V. Debs as "the union leader who founded the Social Democratic Party of America"? Of course, that would open up a weakness or two in the story of Sanders's hopeless eccentricity.
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None of this is likely to change as the contest of ideas in the presidential race grows warmer. "What contest?" you may ask. The Republican field has drawn amused contempt from the mainstream media for its array of qualified and unqualified candidates -- the former seeking ever more assiduously to resemble the latter -- and its consensus that climate change is a hoax, and that we should have more wars, less immigration, no unions, and work together to facilitate the extinction of public education. The exception is Rand Paul, with his stand against warrantless mass surveillance and his opposition to the executive policy on drone strikes and the Libya war.
The Democrats have been saved from embarrassment by their lack of interest in public discussion. With the exception of Bernie Sanders: his announcement of his candidacy and early speeches in Wisconsin and Iowa have shown no slackening in the force of his criticism of Wall Street and the multinationals. Almost alone, he gives a voice to the widespread disaffection today with American politics generally, and the well-earned suspicion of vested interests that for three decades have set limits on reform. From the viewpoint of the political and corporate establishment, such popular discontents must be controlled, domesticated, shepherded, and the dissatisfactions made somehow laughable. Every amusing and dismissive report on a figure like Sanders or Paul goes to serve that larger purpose.