Opinion » Bill Cope

It's Hard Being Soft

And it ain't that easy to be hard


I've just finished reading a George Will commentary on how liberal is "soft" and conservative is "hard," and I thought of Arthur. Don't ask me why, but every time I see George Will, I think of Arthur. Little Arthur Read, the cartoon aardvark.

You know Arthur. Sure you do! If you've had a kid under 10 anytime in the last decade, you've either seen Marc Brown's wonderful nerd-otic Arthur, or you are a benighted hillbilly dope who has spent so much time following the NASCAR news that you couldn't possibly have helped guide your children through the intricacies of civilized behavior.

Oh, my. That was harsh, wasn't it? Hard, you might say.

OK, I apologize. You're probably not a hillbilly dope. You've probably been too absorbed in the cold marketplace of making a living to keep up on what's healthy for youngsters. Allow me to catch you up: There are no mutant ninjas or killer robots or outsourcing CEOs ... nothing like that in Arthur's town. There are troubles, to be sure. Arthur, his family and his friends are always challenged to find honest and benign solutions to those little problems that arise every time one human tries to live around another. Arthur is an aardvark, yes, and his best friends are a monkey, a rabbit and I believe Binky Barnes to be a pit bull pup. But the life lessons are definitely tuned to Homo sapiens, we being the only species capable of taking advantage of a life lesson.

In spite of not always knowing how to behave in certain situations, Arthur is bright, a great student, an eager achiever and an earnest friend. He reads a lot and believes in the transcendent properties of literacy and learning. For Arthur, it's improper to pick on less fortunate individuals or belittle others for their idiosyncrasies. He knows the value of sharing. He would never shut out anyone simply because they aren't aardvarks and when he does do something wrong, he takes responsibility for it and apologizes. In short, Arthur is a liberal. And a fine one, at that. Purdy nerdy, true of heart, and sort of soft. Soft, I say.

In fact, were Arthur a human (and not a cartoon character), I would expect him to grow up to be much like Ralph Nader. Phil Donahue. Hillary, even.

On the other hand, were Arthur to fall in with a snotty conservative crowd ... maybe do a stint as a gopher for Dick Nixon or become a weasel for some well-financed right-wing ideology—and in the process turn sour and pompous and perpetually exasperated ... he might very well grow up to be George Will. Yugh!

Try it. Next time you see Will, close your eyes and imagine him as a young aardvark in a yellow sweater. Only, don't waste your time trying to picture him laughing or having fun with his friends. I mean, how absurd is that? ... to think George Will ever laughed or had fun. Pshaw!

In his commentary, Arth ... er, George ... was pumping a new book by Michael Barone—full title: Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future—and with a title like that, is there any need to read the book?

Frankly, I'm not acquainted with Mr. Barone's work, but his Web site makes it clear he's just another one of those stuffed sausages who float hither and yon around the conservative tidal basin, given buoyancy by a bottomless acquiescence to neo-con dogma and always trading up on his neo-con associations. Another George Will, if you will. In that mutual-masturbatory way that conservatives have of making each other sound like huge thinkers, Will calls Barone "America's foremost political analyst," but the fact that Barone is a regular on the Fox News Network should alert true political analysts to the fly specks on Will's window dressing.

If you haven't guessed, Barone (and by his abject fawning, we may assume Will, as well) believes liberalism to be "soft," while the proper, conservative approach is "hard." Will maintains that if America doesn't discard those "soft" liberal notions of individual dignity and fair play—"coddling," Barone calls it—then we will lose our domination of the world market, which was achieved by being "hard."

Mind you, this is not "hard" as opposed to "easy." No, this is the same "hard" you'd find in a description of a cutting-edge military or an ultra-competitive corporation. In education, career training and tech classes would be "hard," while humanities and parenting classes would be "soft." On the playground, survival of the fittest would be "hard," and promoting self-esteem would be "soft." In business, "hard" is doing what it takes to make the most money. "Soft" is doing what it takes to provide employees with a decent living.

But I'm willing to overlook, for now, the basic error that Barone and Will make by mistaking all liberals as being "soft" and all "soft" as being wrong. Furthermore, let's not argue here about whether being "soft" is all that easy, or if being "hard" isn't in truth the easy way out. I have a feeling this isn't about business or education or national security, anyway.

My hunch is, Georgie, Barone and so many other butter-basted neo-com "thinkers" (Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, Jonah Goldberg, et al.) will take to this "soft/hard" dichotomy for other, deeper reasons.

Like ... tell me I'm wrong ... does not "hard" imply a high degree of "manly"? And isn't "soft" another way of saying "sissy"?

Actually, for a time—until the little boys conservative club realized they would need a few women's votes to get anywhere—they were damning the liberal tradition as a "feminizing" of America. So now, it's the "softening" of America. Hmmm?

Could it be that, thanks to Barone's book, the ultimate conservative insecurity is now exposed? That underneath all that reactionary bitching about liberal education policies and government restrictions on business and concern for Mother Earth, what this really boils down to is who's the stud here, and who ain't? Might it be, when conservatives tuck themselves in at night and turn off the lights, they see emasculation and impotence lurking behind every reform and under every enlightenment? And by tagging themselves as the "hard" ones and liberals as the "soft," might they be self-administering a dose of philosophical Viagra directly into their own threatened libidos? Hmmmmmm?

Try this. Next time you see George Will, close our eyes and imagine him as "hard." (I tried it, and it didn't work. Oddly enough, it's easier for this softie to picture him as an aging aardvark, grown sour and hopeless from his own snuffing about.)