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Will the Return of the Liberal Mean the Return of the New Left?

By Frank Gruber

Sept. 28, 2009 --  Last week I took a refresher course in the history of my life when I read a new book, A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America, by Peter Richardson.  The author is a friend of mine -- he's the chair of the California Studies Association and I'm on the association's steering committee -- but the reason I wanted to read the book is that I knew that Robert Scheer, the well known journalist and the "Left" in KCRW's "Left, Right and Center," played a big part in Ramparts and I had reasons to want to learn more his journalistic origins.

I owe "What I Say" to Robert Scheer.  A decade or so ago he had a local column in the old "Our Times" section of the Los Angeles Times in which he often mocked and trivialized the concerns of local politics.  Annoyance towards the column provoked my desire to write a column that took local politics more seriously.

During Ramparts' glory years in the late '60s Mr. Scheer was one of the magazine's two most important staffers (the other being editor Warren Hinkle) -- until he was fired as part of a coup organized by then-fellow-leftie-but-now-Right-winger David Horowitz.  For Ramparts in those days local politics involved questions like whether the revolution would begin in Berkeley among the anti-War crowd or in Oakland among the Black Panthers.  Now that I've read the story of the magazine, I can better understand why Mr. Scheer considered trivial, for instance, the City's efforts to regulate commercial signage.  (He was a passionate defender of a sign on Pico for a car mechanic's shop.)

More than that, A Bomb in Every Issue recalled to me the old battle between liberals -- also known as the "Old Left" -- and radicals called the "New Left."  Ramparts not only chronicled the New Left, but also helped create it.  Most basically, liberals had been Cold Warriors, while the radicals were done with that.  The schism between them was only one factor that led to the collapse of the New Deal coalition and the rise of conservative rule, but it was an important one.

I graduated from high school in 1970 and to some extent the arguments between the two camps were distant -- except for when, of course, my older sister and my father argued about Vietnam at dinner while we watched Walter Cronkite.  Sure I walked out of school to protest Vietnam and Kent State, but it's not like I had hard feelings towards the likes of Hubert Humphrey.

Reading Peter Richardson's book brought the era back, but even more it made me think about today's political situation -- could a similar split between the Democrats in power in Washington and more radical leftists happen again?  Over Afghanistan, for instance?

Somewhat relevant digression about language.  Are we witnessing the return of the word liberal?  One bit of collateral damage from the Old Left/New Left war was that the word became the object of derision, first by the Left, and later by the Right.  For a long time no one -- especially anyone in the left wing of the Democratic Party -- wanted to be called a liberal.  Progressive became the label of choice.

For that reason I was interested in an article that appeared in last week entitled, "Deal with it, Liberals." []  The article, about the status of healthcare legislation in Congress, didn't contain much new information, but I was surprised at how the writer, Mike Madden, casually used liberal -- interchangeably with progressive -- to describe the left wing of the Democratic Party.

I'm not saying that language is destiny, but if liberals are back, will the Left revolt if President Obama continues to prosecute the war in Afghanistan (at one level or another)?

Another digression more directly relevant.  My son's best friend from pre-school (whose family is among our closest friends) joined the Marine Reserves after graduating from Samohi in 2008.  Although he had intended, after boot camp, to start college, his reserve unit was called up and deployed to Iraq last spring.  The deployment was scheduled to be for seven months, until November.

The young man and his unit all came back, safe, in August, three months early.  He said that the last couple of months in Iraq were spent packing up equipment and removing any trace of the forward operating base where he had been posted.

As you can imagine, everyone in his circle of family and friends is happy about his safe return, but the bigger story is that the American War in Iraq is ending, just as candidate Barack Obama promised it would end.  (His campaign was so effective it caused the Bush administration to agree to end the war even before the election.)

Candidate Obama also said that he would continue the war in Afghanistan, because the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 were still at large.  Everyone who voted for him knew that.  There's every reason to believe, however, that he has enough awareness of history to know that becoming bogged down in another "land war in Asia" is not an option, and at the moment he is considering the options.

The Left -- can I call us liberals again? -- should remember that President Obama is -- politically -- our president.  (He's also the president of the conservatives, but that's another story.)  The war against Al Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan is not a war he bungled.  There may be a time in the future when things go so badly in Afghanistan that protests against the war are warranted, but for now everyone should give the president room to maneuver to pursue that strategy he chooses, whether it's more troops or fewer.  No second-guessing, please.

Look -- he's shutting down Star Wars.  Give the guy some trust.

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No news to report about the litigation concerning Seaview Terrace that I wrote about last week.  The case was on the closed-session agenda of the City Council meeting last Tuesday, but according to a council member I spoke to, nothing happened.  According to a resident of the street I heard from, the judge in the case has told everyone involved in the case not to discuss the case with outsiders, and perhaps that's why none of the attorneys returned my phone calls.  There's a settlement conference scheduled for tomorrow.

A reader alerted me to an issue I hadn't thought of, which is that since Seaview Terrace is in the coastal zone, the City should not be able to close it off without receiving approval from the Coastal Commission.  I don't know if the City agrees with this -- as I said, the attorneys have not returned my calls -- but it's an issue that bears watching.

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, and from City Image Press.

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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