It’d be easy to write Harry Smith off as a novelty. He’s the 91 year-old fresh-faced author of Harry’s Last Stand and internet phenom, ‘This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time’. Ahhhh. Isn’t that cute. Great grandpa knows how to use a computer!
Certainly, Smith’s style, how he strings his story together, would hardly disabuse you of viewing him as a novice. His prose is no nonsense, straight forward if at times meandering. A reader reads often of how Smith sees himself and his life, all things considered, as a lucky man, in constant awe of how he’s lived so long, survived what he survived.
There’s almost something childlike about him and his take on the world he’s lived in. He possesses a seemingly bottomless faith in the goodness of people, a belief in their ability to turn even the most hopeless of situations around. Sure things look bleak but Harry’ll tell you they’ve been bleaker. The answers to our problems are as plain as the noses on our faces. All we need is a little resolve and a big dose of collective action.
It’s startling to read something so lacking in guile and free of cynical spin. Harry’s got an agenda, no question about it. But he wears it right out there on his sleeve. This is how it was. This is how it is. This is how to fix it.
His answers to the problems that plague us – essentially Harry’s angry at the unravelling of the welfare state – are not new or particularly ground breaking. How do you simply reverse a generation of anti-government sentiment and private sector veneration? The collective will has taken an awful beating since Margaret Thatcher (one of Smith’s bete noires) declared society as not a thing. Taxation isn’t a means to an end these days. It’s just mean.
The golden days of the post-war welfare state come across as a little too golden in Smith’s telling. He glosses over the period in the 70s when it hit a serious snag. The oil crisis, stagflation, perceived union militancy, everything that paved the way for the neoconservative coming of Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher.
In one telling scene, Harry recounts meeting up with some old mates during the long hot summer of 1977 to have a few drinks and watch a football match. He keeps quiet during a heated political conversation of the state of affairs. Afterward, a friend asks why.
I was just thinking that things are bad today, but not for me. Not like how it was in the past. I’m worried about how everything is changing and getting mucked up. But I feel lucky. I can pay my mortgage, I can pay for our groceries. I can even take holidays with my wife. Besides, my lads are healthy and my oldest is at uni – that’s more than we could have ever hoped for. And I know it is a bit of a worry for you, but your house is paid for and retirement is nearby. Your daughter’s done her schooling and now has a right good job. It weren’t like before, because we have better housing, the NHS and real universities that the working class can attend and make something of themselves in.
“It weren’t like before…”
Yes, things were bad in 1977 for a lot of people but nowhere near as bad for the likes of Harry Smith who’d lived through the worst of the Great Depression, gone off to fight in World War II, witnessed first-hand the destruction it wrought. He was a middle-aged man in 1977. He’d fought his fight. How much more was expected from him?
Besides, who could imagine such a full frontal assault on everything good that had been built from the ashes of the war? Housing. Health care. Affordable education. A genuine sense of equality of opportunity and meritocracy.
That’s the world nearly 40 years on that Harry Smith sees. A regression to the meanness of the age he was born into. The long, slow surrender of liberalism, to paraphrase the title of a March 2014 Harper’s I just happened to read after finishing Harry’s Last Stand. (Faithful readers will know of my own long, slow slog with a handful of magazine subscriptions that keeps me roughly a year behind current issues.)
The left has no particular place it wants to go. And, to rehash an old quip, if you have no destination, any direction can seem as good as any other…It lacks focus and stability; its metier is bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to “send messages” to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the oppressed.
This dilettantish politics is partly the heritage of a generation of defeat and marginalization, of decades without any possibility of challenging power or influencing policy. So the left operates with no learning curve and is therefore always vulnerable to new enthusiasm. It long ago lost the ability to move forward under its own steam…
As political scientist professor Adolph Reed Jr. sees it, Harry Smith isn’t wrong or off the mark in his ideas of what’s happened. The left got thumped in a couple of elections, and rather than stand up, dust itself off and wade back into the fray, it caved, adopting the harsh, 19th-century narrative of the right, attempting to merely soften the sharp edges of the ascendant ideology. Big government and welfare became dirty words. Greed was good. A rising economic tide did raise all boats.
Blah, blah, blah, and despite all evidence to the contrary.
Reed Jr. is more critical and damning of both the Clinton and Obama administrations than any of the Fox News inpired crazies on the right. They both continued the Republican led attacks on the public sector, expanded the war-mongering international forays and assault on civil and human rights, loosened the restraints on the out-of-control financial industrial complex. “It’s difficult to imagine that a Republican administration could have been much more successful in advancing Reaganism’s agenda [than Clinton did]”, Reed Jr. writes. “We’re Eisenhower Republicans here,” Clinton declared. “We stand for lower deficits, free trade and the bond market. Isn’t that great!”
Liberal acquiescence to the neoconservative war on liberalism was not just some American exceptionalism. Think Tony Blair’s Labour triangulation in the U.K. and his ultimate cuddling up to George W. in their post-9/11 Iraq fiasco. Here in Canada, the left’s reshaping of itself as just a softer, gentler manager of the triumphant neoliberal project, concerned with pocket book issues rather than grander collective ideals. Electability, we are told, depends on a public declaration that there are limits on what government can do for us.
For 35 years now, all the ‘vaporous progressive politics’ can claim is how awful it would be if conservatives were still in charge/came back to power. There’s nothing about how much better things could be. Just, how much worse they would be. You think you’ve got it tough now? Yeah well, this is as good as it gets in this system we’ve heartily endorsed in order to remain politically relevant.
Both Harry Smith and Adolph Reed Jr. agree on the damage done but disagree, not on the causes, but on the culprits. If we just pull together like we did back in the day, Smith essentially says, we can beat back this neoconservative scourge. Reed Jr., on the other hand, senses a more difficult path forward. “The crucial tasks for a committed left…now are to admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to create one.”
There’s no ‘we’ to currently pull together, Reed Jr. believes, at least not in any official, political capacity. That may be the most successful aspect of modern conservatism, this obliteration of any sense of ‘we’, replacing it with just the individualistic ‘you’ and ‘me’. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men…
Certainly, as a society, more adverse conditions have been overcome. Harry Smith can attest to that. The will to do it has to be there, though, and Adolph Reed Jr. doesn’t see much evidence of that in the traditional places we used to look for it. That absence will make for a tougher battle to win.
– bookishly submitted by Cityslikr