Why aren’t liberals fun anymore?
That was the question asked in a 2018 op-ed in The Hill by Stephen Moore. Moore observed that liberals, who were once the fun ones in American culture, have become punitive, tight-assed, dour.
“What a difference a generation makes,” Moore wrote. “It used to be conservatives who were the stuffy ones. Liberals were the fun ones to be around. Now the ones who are so uptight are the liberals like actor Jeff Bridges, who once was funny but now is so embarrassed by modern day America that he seems to want to be anywhere on this planet, except here.”
Moore doesn’t really pinpoint when the Left lost its sense of humor, but the anger can be found in James Piereson’s groundbreaking book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism. If you want to know why liberals are wailing, weeping, getting the vapors, and rioting in the streets, Piereson explains it.
As Piereson notes, modern liberalism, unlike classical liberalism, feeds on the desire to punish others. This phenomenon, which Piereson calls “punitive liberalism,” goes back to the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Piereson argues that prior to Kennedy’s death, liberalism was pro-American, anti-communist, pro-labor, and for incremental change to address social ills such as racism. The Catholic, anti-communist, tax-cutting Kennedy exemplified these beliefs. This is why Kennedy was disliked by the far Left (and would be a conservative if he were alive today).
When Kennedy was shot and killed by the communist Lee Harvey Oswald, liberals went into shock. They then found themselves at a loss to explain the horror. It simply couldn’t be possible that the conservatives were right, that Kennedy had been a martyr not to the civil rights movement, but to the Cold War, and that blood was on the hands of the communists. That was just too much reality to handle.
To avoid this reality, liberalism explained Kennedy’s death by blaming it on America. It wasn’t Oswald, a Castro-loving zealot, who pulled the trigger; it was “right-wing America,” the “climate of hate in Dallas,” and our collective historical sins. America was to blame.
Pieresson summarized his theory even before his book was published, in a 2004 essay in The Weekly Standard:
From the time of John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 to Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, the Democratic party was gradually taken over by a bizarre doctrine that might be called Punitive Liberalism. According to this doctrine, America had been responsible for numerous crimes and misdeeds through its history for which it deserved punishment and chastisement. White Americans had enslaved blacks and committed genocide against Native Americans. They had oppressed women and tyrannized minority groups, such as the Japanese who had been interned in camps during World War II. They had been harsh and unfeeling toward the poor. By our greed, we had despoiled the environment and were consuming a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth and resources. We had coddled dictators abroad and violated human rights out of our irrational fear of communism.
“Given this bill of indictment,” Piereson concludes, “the Punitive Liberals held that Americans had no right at all to feel pride in their country’s history or optimism about its future.”
These days, it’s hard to make it through an hour of cable TV, or a bookstore, or social media without coming across someone whose main job in life seems to be punishing America.
Kennedy has been sanctified by many liberals, but even his critics have to admit he did have a fun way about him. Like William F. Buckley, the sailor who rode a moped, or Donald Trump, a genuinely funny man, Kennedy understood that while politics is important, we have a greater destiny than simply what’s on this planet—and that in light of that we should be modest, and even joyful, about the limits of our own importance.
In his book JFK and the Masculine Mystique: Sex and Power on the New Frontier, Steven Watts argues that in the 1950s and ’60s, Kennedy offered glamor, action, and fun when American men were suffering from bureaucratic suffocation, bland suburban consumption, toothless pop culture, and physical flabbiness.
According to Watts, in the 1950s American men were feeling trapped between the bureaucracies that had sprung up after World War II and the domestic drudgery of the crabgrass frontier—not to mention physical torpor brought on by the convenience of modern cars and technology. Kennedy, a handsome, charismatic man who loved playing football with his brothers, had movie-star looks, an extensive education, wit, charm, and what appeared to be physical grace—although later years revealed this was a bit of a sham, as Kennedy suffered from a bad back and was often medicated. A war hero, Kennedy was well spoken and had appreciation of the arts. An aura of fun was around him, even at hit press conferences. Women went crazy when he drove by—the media called Kennedy’s groupies “jumpers” because they jumped up and down.
When Kennedy died, American women felt widowed. The fun was over.
Kennedy was that rarest of things, a politician who knew his own limitations. Another was Ronald Reagan, who also exuded a genuine sense of fun and a healthy prioritizing of what mattered in life, as well as a realization of his own limits and the limits of politics. Then there was President Trump, who absolutely enraged the Left by frequently insisting, often in the middle of press conferences, on having some fun. Trump was, hands down, the funniest president since Reagan, if not Kennedy. All three men were deadly serious when they needed to be, but also knew when to have a laugh.
In his book On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, James V. Schall, who was a legendary Jesuit and teacher at Georgetown University, argues that dancing, gardening, bike riding, and other fun activities are ways of acknowledging our mortality and the limits of what we can do in our time on earth. “The governance of God over his creation, His ability to bring it to its end, does not depend on the affairs of men, though it does include them,” Schall writes. “He is present in our tragedies and our elations. The Cross is, as à Kempis said, a ‘royal road.’”
The new, resentful, and punitive Left, like the German Stasi, is intent on eliminating all human suffering and will not rest until they build the perfect New Communist Man. They are the deadly enemy of fun. You can’t attain utopia if people are racing mini-bikes and having keg parties; it’s much more important to police mask mandates and censor jokes.
In his book Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Tim Mohr explores how the postwar German Stasi harassed, monitored, and beat punk rockers. In Burning Down the Haus, it’s notable how many times the word “fun” is used by the punks to explain what they were doing. Between 1981 and 1985 one of the most popular bands behind the Iron Curtain was Wutanfall (“Tantrum”), a Leipzig six-piece who, Mohr writes, “represented a loose but dedicated opposition to the state.”
Wutanfall’s frontman called himself Chaos. Chaos was interrogated every week by the Stasi, whose harassment and beatings became so severe that Chaos ultimately gave up. “I’m not doing anything!” he once told his parents, who advised him to abandon music. “I just play music and spike my hair up with shaving cream, OK? I just want to have my own brand of fun, that’s all. That’s no reason for them to beat me half to death!”
In the end, it was too much and Wutanfall collapsed. “It had always been so fun,” Mohr eulogizes, “the little gang of punks against the idiot overlords. All the difficulties had just brought them closer together. But now he felt overwhelmed. Beaten down. The Stasi’s strategy of degradation had worked.”