SHELF LIFE- Disappearing act: Where are all the free radicals?

The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual
By Eric Lott
272 pages, $26
Basic Books

"Let me say right away that no new political group is safe from its own members. You aim to put something together, and the very act of doing it opens up so many possibilities and disagreements that if anything at all happens, it seem like a f***ing miracle."

Nothing makes for good headlines or good political drama like party infighting and backstabbing.

Although Republicans and Democrats have experienced disagreement within their ranks in recent years, it has been the liberals whose internal disputes have been interpreted by the public and the media as "wishy-washiness" or "vagueness" on the issues. (One recalls Ralph Nader and Howard Dean incurring the wrath of the Democratic establishment in the 2004 election.)

These "domestic disputes" suggest differences of degree rather than just differences of kind when it comes to identifying political loyalties. Whether willingness to accommodate these differences always results in vague opinions is itself a matter of opinion- and UVA English professor Eric Lott certainly has his own.

In his new book, The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual, Lott examines the differences between various factions calling themselves liberal in order to add weight to his own political argument: today's moderate liberal leaders and thinkers (Bill Clinton, Cornel West, former UVA luminary Richard Rorty, are a few well-known examples) have blunted the Left's capacity to promote progressive social change.

The book's stated purpose is twofold: to chronicle the development in the last 15 years of a new kind of "boomeritis" liberalism led, not by pioneering progressives, but by a "responsible" and "reasonable"-– but ultimately impotent-– baby boomer elite. His real purpose is to critique this new development, noting with some good humor his ambition "to raise invective to an analytical art."

Writing from what he calls a "radical egalitarian perspective," Lott singles out several prominent thinkers of the "new liberal front" who advocate "piecemeal, reformist self-satisfaction." He calls these individuals "boomer liberals," defenders of what journalist Michael Lind has dubbed the "radical center," a centrist political approach based on compromise with the Right rather than vigorous advancement of substantive, progressive initiatives.

Lott deplores this trend, directing his anger at their "responsible" and "realistic" approach. Lott reserves particular contempt for those liberals who disclaim radical demands for equality and social justice as "dangerous" while citing their experimentation in the countercultural 1960s as evidence of their own credibility.

The baby-boomer generation has learned all the wrong lessons from the 1960s, Lott claims, punishing itself now for the perceived indulgences of its youth. "Why," he asks, "should radicalism of the intellect- and of the will- be viewed as something you eventually grow out of?"

In making his case for reinvigorating political activism, Lott gives the impression that there is a certain antagonism between the competing democratic ideals of political conviction and pluralism, the former urging change and the latter encouraging compromise and peaceful cohabitation. Feeling that the current state of affairs leaves little choice to the embattled egalitarian, Lott is willing to sacrifice the peace in service of achieving something other than benign political compromise.

Lott's prose is dense, rich in language and allusion, as he draws on an array of cultural and political figures, from Bob Dylan to Bill Clinton, to illustrate his point. Despite its academic flavor, the book will interest anyone concerned with the state of progressive politics.

In the first pages, Lott acknowledges his support of living-wage campaigners at UVA, a group that has garnered media attention in the past month for their four-day sit-in at Madison Hall. Local readers might take particular interest in the epilogue, in which Lott recounts the UVA Labor Action Group's protest at the 1998 Fall Convocation.

Commenting on this and other successes of political activism, Lott acknowledges both the importance and the inevitability of discord among liberals, who are often contentious individualists. "You know an organization is a good one," he affirms nevertheless, "if the people in it become more alive to one another's humanity."

Lott's argument, as powerfully stated as it is artfully delivered, will leave the reader, as the author hopes, "amused as well as edified or outraged." #