08/26/2006 09:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

More on Why Bush and his Manly Men Refer to the "Bad Guys" as "Folks"

I got some of the most thoughtful comments ever in response to my last post on this topic--for example this one. I want to express my appreciation by deepening the analysis a bit.

First of all, we owe the absence of racist imagery of the kind we had in WWI and WWII to good old political correctness. Whatever Bushites are saying privately, or whatever slips out publicly--in the way of George Allen type "macaca" slurs or Conrad Burns and his "little Guatemalan"--they cannot launch a full-scale chauvinist attack on Muslims. If and when there is another major terror attack on US soil, all bets are probably off, but for now PC is holding the fort.

Though this gets complicated for what's left of the Left.

I have myself criticized the effect of identity politics (the source of PC) on progressive thought and practice. The full analysis is complex, but the gist is this: as progressives organized around race and gender and sexual orientation, they dropped the ball on economic justice--they began to look for a piece of the action within the system, rather than a change of the system. But my criticism has been from within, a criticism that embraces the advances made by marginalized groups in this country under the banner of diversity while admitting that there was a price to pay in terms of common purpose. This first became crystal clear when almost half of the gay community in NYC voted for Rudy Giuliani over Ruth Messinger--I'm not sure why, but I really hope it wasn't because he sometimes wears a dress.

Anyway, the reason this matters in the current situation (we will get to the "folks" trope, I promise) is because after 9/11 there was a tectonic collision at the foundations of the progressive world view. To oversimplify again: Multiculturalism + Feminism + Burkhas = Problem. And that's just one ingredient.

Now, Tom Friedman and Peter Beinhart and Hillary Clinton get off easy. They can articulate an alternative to neocon imperialism--global neo-liberalism, liberal imperialism, Enlightenment meets diversity--call it what you will. Hence their focus on the management of the Iraq war. But more radical elements of the Left have nowhere to go philosophically--and a lot of them are, tragically in my view, claiming not to care. Hence their focus on the mechanics of winning elections.

Now, the key point in this context: notice that liberal imperialists don't use the "folks" trope. They intuitively understand the latent intent of that apparently innocuous locution. What distinguishes their brand of Western universalism from neocon Western universalism is this: they don't conform to PC constraints because they have to, but because they want to. They have enough historical understanding and moral imagination to empathize with what blacks and women and gays suffered at the hands of modernity, and they have been willing to put up with a few (sometimes silly) restrictions on speech and behavior by way of (utterly inadequate) compensation. They know there's NO comparison between the two. So they don't feel the need for stealth expressions of contempt.

Now Bill Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb and Paul Wolfowitz don't say "folks" and "bad guys" either. But it isn't because they empathize with anybody other than their own. It's just that they are too Ivy League for such expressons. But watch the way Kristol shrugs and grins when he tosses off dismissive references to anti-Western Muslims of any kind. I remember in particular the expression on his face when he was advocating cutting off aid to Palestinians after Hamas was elected. Smug, condescending--such words don't begin to do justice to the way he explained that the Palestinians would have to learn that democratic choices have consequences.

Neocon imperialists have a very different intellectual style from their liberal counterparts--and it reflects a profoundly different ethical orientation. They operate out of abstract principles, not human realities. They are like (a lot of them were) whiz kid debaters in High School. In spite of their alleged veneration for Edmund Burke and their opposition to social engineering, they have no respect for historical and cultural realities other than their own. As long as social engineering was a Left project, they were against it. But Iraq? Talk about a social engineering.

So the polished manner of the neocon intellectuals sends exactly the same message of self-satisfied indifference to the lives of others as the use of "folks" and "bad guys" by their allies, Manly Know-Nothings like Rumsfeld and Cheney and Bush himself.

"Folks" doesn't assimilate other peoples and cultures to the abstractions of Western principles, but to the vernacular idiom of a particular masculinist red-state US subculture. This locution masquerades as universalist, but its function is to smother historical and cultural difference. The attitude (watch the postures of presiding over and the gestures of containment) that goes with the term says: we will dominate these people on the ground as completely as the imposition of this all-American term upon them obliterates categories of self-understanding they inherited from their own cultures and histories.