MAXWELL:  There has been a culpable silence on the left

4/30/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In his Feb. 20, 1954 address to the Chicago Decalogue Society, Albert Einstein, the physicist best known for his theories of relativity, shared his ideas on human rights:

“In a long life I have devoted all my faculties to reach a somewhat deepening insight into the structure of physical reality. Never have I made any systematic effort to ameliorate the lot of men, to fight injustice and suppression, and to improve the traditional forms of human relations. The only thing I did was this: In long intervals I have expressed an opinion on public issues whenever they appeared to me so bad and unfortunate that silence would have made me feel guilty of complicity.”

Today, 41 years after Einstein’s self-deprecating insights _ and almost two weeks after a terrorist bomb gutted the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City _ I pose these questions: How many of us, as Einstein did, speak out against assaults on human rights only when our silence makes us “feel guilty of complicity”? How many of us have “made any systematic effort to ameliorate the lot of men, to fight injustice and suppression, and to improve the traditional forms of human relations”?

Obviously, our answers vary. But I suspect that if you consider yourself a Democrat and a liberal, Einstein could be speaking for you. Since 1982, when conservatism officially replaced liberalism in politics, liberals have crept into the closet. Most are afraid to discuss their beliefs publicly.

When Republicans took over Congress and state and local governments last November, liberals everywhere lost most, if not all, faith in their beliefs. They have bowed to the self-righteous irrationality of so-called angry white males. They have retreated from the round-table, letting the likes of Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson articulate their visions of America virtually unchallenged.

Even President Clinton had fallen silent and had begun to routinely acquiesce to the mean-spirited, disingenuous proposals of the GOP before the Oklahoma City tragedy. Now, however, he is fighting back. He seems to be regaining the people-oriented, caring voice that got him elected.

All liberal-minded people must do the same. They must not apologize, compromise or equivocate. I consider myself a liberal, and I believe that we have stood by while right-wing demagogues cultivated a corrosive rhetoric that has become acceptable in the political lexicon and is influencing bad people with warped ideas to do bad things.

Conservatives who argue that their virulent talk has not contributed to the anti-government, anti-people poison coursing through the nation’s veins are either fools or liars _ or both. Liberals should not let these denials and rationalizations go unchallenged.

Any sane person knows that words and deeds are connected. Many conservatives who now reject any notion of a connection between their nasty talk and the atmosphere that produced the Oklahoma City bombing are the same ones who argue that gangsta rap turns black youngsters into thugs and that hard rock causes white teens to kill themselves or worship the devil. They are the same ones, mind you, who believe that fictional characters such as TV newswoman Murphy Brown entice girls in real life to have babies out of wedlock.

Well, which is it? Do words influence actions or not? Of course, they do. And when words produce violence, the speaker of the words is as guilty as the one who commits the deed. “To cite a fairly recent example, George Wallace, Ross Barnett and Lester Maddox were never known to have committed violent acts,” the New York Times states in an editorial. “But few Southern writers and thinkers ever doubted that their exhortations to defy federal law and their castigations of the national government and the civil rights movement created the climate that produced a flurry of murders by gun and bomb. The lesson of that era is clear. When leadership figures use violent language to warn of apocalyptic developments, borderline personalities interpret this as permission for violence.”

Good people must no longer stand by silently while hatemongers _ especially those in public office _ destroy the nation’s soul by turning citizens against one another.

While I regret that liberals have stopped speaking out, I am frightened that intellectuals also have all but abandoned the moral high road. Where are the intellectual voices? Where are their reflective, documented articles challenging the quick-fix, interest-group policies dominating the Beltway?

Like liberals, intellectuals are afraid of being labeled cultural elitists, moral relativists and enemies of the people. They, too, have been bullied into silence and paralysis _ and shame. As the Forrest Gumps have become the darlings of conservatives, intellectuals have become scapegoats, the victims of widespread suspicion and animosity.

Whatever America has and will become, liberals and intellectuals share a lot of the blame. Like the GOP’s invective, the silence of liberals and intellectuals is part of the debris in the bombed-out federal building silhouetted against the Oklahoma City skyline.

How “bad and unfortunate” must life become before good people reclaim their voice?

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.