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Become a Liberal in 538 Easy Steps

Justin Krebs is the cofounder of Drinking Liberally and its spin-offs Eating Liberally, Screening Liberally, Laughing Liberally, Reading Liberally, and Living Liberally. Over 50,000 people take part in weekly gatherings in 300 communities around the country (and some outside it), including in my town, where liberal political talk is on the agenda. Given the inclination of many, if not most, Americans to avoid politics, and the lack of any support groups for liberals in the most right-wing communities, this has to be a good thing.

Krebs would point out, I’m sure, that getting together to drink and socialize is a good thing in itself for most people, but I mean that it must also be more than that, and Krebs notes that Drinking Liberally “has been a gateway” into political activism for a lot of people. Krebs’ new book is not, for the most part, an account of what’s come out of these gatherings (we can ask him about that today), but it is an account of the thinking that inspired them. The book, “538 Ways to Live Work and Play Like a Liberal,” is largely a flowing and readable list of things you can do, large and small. OK, mostly small.

The book just inspired me to ask someone at a nearby table here on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville to watch my books and computer while I went to get the taco I’m now spilling on the computer, and inspired me to get the beer I’m having with it. Perhaps I’ll make friends with the person who watched my stuff. I certainly saved time and now have some glorious Guinness inside me. And yet, the wars-and-wall-street economy rolls on unperturbed by my small steps for liberalism. So, one question is this: if I were not already a fulltime activist to the left of Krebs would I be moving in the direction of liberal political engagement? Or this: am I beginning to build a community through which to mobilize for the liberal agenda I already favor?

The book seems addressed to both such audiences. It seeks to move people toward useful engagement with their societies at all levels, including national politics. And it seeks to provide generally liberal people with ways to spread the word and organize. And the book is packed with great ideas for each. Krebs defines liberal as follows:

“Liberals believe that we are better off when we live for each other than when we live only for ourselves.”

Krebs elaborates and gets more specific, very specific. Personally, I’m going to try to find one of those solar-powered backpacks, learn more about seed banks, and join the Freelancers’ Union, among other of the 538 liberal moves. There are also good lists of films, tv shows, theater productions, books, magazines, and websites in the book. They’re center-left, not progressive or radical. But that seems to be the point: nudging the inactive into comfortable engagement. These are great lists for that.

Krebs makes clear that his 538 items are his own, idiosyncratic, and New York City-centric, and that the liberal thing to do is to add your own, and even to disagree. So, here begins my quibbling: A lot of the things on this list can only be done if you’re an extrovert – I know people who really can’t do some of them and are still politically left. A lot of them can only be done if you work in an office, and many only if you own the office, others only if you have money to invest in the stock market (an at least questionable liberal practice). I want to complain that you also can’t be a busy workaholic, but Krebs’ point is that you shouldn’t be just that — and he’s right. Other items appear only possible if the president happens to be a Republican. Billionaires for Bush and Run Against Bush have been shut down for partisan reasons. Krebs tries to keep State of the Union drinking games alive, but tells us we don’t have as much to oppose in them anymore. (I’d like to make a toast: to a liberal debate on that point!)

The steps into full-fledged political involvement are very slow. My garden just can’t counter pro-oil government policies. Items #30 and 67 start to include advocacy for better public policy, but item #50 moves away from that. Items #74-78 lay out a broad political agenda, and it’s a good one. But I have to wonder why peace didn’t make the cut, especially since all the things we need money for in items #79-93 could be paid for if we ended the wars and cut the military.

The U.S. entry to World War II is praised as one of the great feats of liberalism to be celebrated, but it was the result of endless deadly blunders, had nothing to do with the holocaust which had been buried in the back pages by Krebs’ beloved New York Times, involved the indiscriminate mass-slaughter of German (and French by us) and Japanese civilians, expanded our already well-developed imperialism, added abuse of Japanese Americans to our abuse of African Americans, and ended with the criminal dropping of nuclear bombs on cities.

But Krebs also cites Nixon’s resignation as one of the great feats of liberalism, and that is one I think we all need to learn from. Krebs develops ideas for purchasing-power consumer activism that will interest a lot of people. His final chapter on political engagement touches mostly on elections, not legislation, but it includes a wonderful example of how the Idaho Falls chapter of Drinking Liberally got involved in anti-war activism — which I hope Justin will talk to us about.

I’m already on board with Krebs’ agenda of political engagement, and so I’m picking out the bits that are new to me and the bits I disagree with. What I’d especially like to hear from Justin and from the rest of you is experiences of moving from “I’m not political” or “I like Rush Limbaugh” to something more useful for the world.