Thursday, March 19, 2015

Unfriendlies on the Left: A Rant for Liberal Wonks (8 Oct. 2014)

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"No enemies on the Left." — Slogan from late 1930's Popular Front
 "There's clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am [...] — "Stuck in the Middle"

            Back during the American Troubles of what I'll call the short 1960s (say, 1967-1972) I was a "non-corporate, anti-Establishment Liberal" doing some politics at the University of Illinois with a fair number of Leftists. Later, as a university professor, I worked in fields with a small number of aging New Leftists and the occasional old Marxist — I still edit for one — and, relevant here, increasing number of radical cultural feminists and politicized post-Structuralists. The details get complicated and contradictory, but the fine points needn't concern us; let's just say, I had some opponents to my socio-political Left.
            None of them ever threatened to put a bullet into me, as some jokers from the Central Illinois Minutemen did, so that was definitely "unfriendlies" or "opponents," not "enemies," and none were clowns, although I couldn't resist quoting the line from the Stealers Wheel's song. Still, during the American Troubles of the 1960s, "corporate Liberals" for sure were the main enemy perceived by the hard Left; Liberals ran the campuses, and it was Democratic presidents who organized the new economic order after World War II and took us into the National Security State — and the Vietnam War. And always, in the background, was the idea that "A Liberal is a Conservative with brains" — which is true insofar as Liberals know when and where to give in to moderate change, and Liberals know to support social justice: primarily by preserving The System by bringing more people into The System.
            Think Franklin Delano Roosevelt's trying to save Capitalism during the 1930s Depression and being despised by a whole lot of capitalists for his efforts — and tolerated by the really serious Left only insofar as was tactically prudent. Okay, now swoop on down, far down,  from the level of FDR to my territory, where I was to many of my colleagues "a useful idiot" or "the little Lib with glasses" (until I got contacts) or, as a high point, "an educable Lib."
            In towns like Champaign Illinois (to say nothing of Berkeley or Madison), the Establishment could be seen fairly clearly from the Left as Liberal, and the real opponent-wave of the future — the John Birch Society and Young Americans for Freedom and the well-scrubbed kids from Campus Crusade for Christ: those folk were either effectively invisible or dismissible.
            Anyway, as time went on, the attack was on not just Imperialism and Capitalism but "bourgeois democracy," leading by 1969 to a reduction to the absurd in the Weathermen and the Days of Rage and "Bring the War Home" and "Elections Don't Mean Shit" — and an appalling of the bourgeoisie that led to widespread and effective reaction.
            The US presidential election of 1968 was "a realigning election" that "permanently disrupted the New Deal Coalition that had dominated presidential politics for 36 years," as Wikipedia saith, and just how permanently was shown in 1972. In the 1968 US Presidential election, some 57% of the American electorate voted for either Richard M. Nixon or for George Wallace: basically for "Law and Order," which translated «Keep the uppity Blacks and youngsters down» or "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," which needs no translation, but also included putting down us commie-liberal-radical-hippie-pinko-fag-bums. (The Right wasn't much into fine distinctions.)
            The 1972 presidential election was a kind of referendum on "The Sixties," and "The Sixties" lost. Big: 520 electoral votes for Nixon vs. 17 for George McGovern, 60.7% of the popular vote for Nixon and Spiro Agnew, 37.5% for McGovern and Sargent Shriver; Nixon carrying 49 states, McGovern only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
            To repeat a line from the times (possibly mine): The Sixties died in 1970 at Kent State and Jackson State, twitched around for a couple years, and then got buried in 1972, in an electoral landslide.
            Most of the reaction was to riots in African-American neighborhoods, and against African-Americans, and there was a kind of inevitability to the race issues like a classic tragedy. What was not inevitable was otherwise intelligent people playing "Redder/More Radical than Thou" and convincing themselves that America was in a pre-revolutionary moment. What was not inevitable was appalling the middle and working classes so much that they would fairly frequently vote against their self-interest for the next two generations and more, and the best the "center-left" could do on the presidential level was elect a moderate Southern governor with a good heart (the Honorable Jimmy Carter) and two smart Eisenhower Republicans (Messrs. Clinton and Gore). Eventually, of course, in a further "realignment," we got Ronald Reagan and his importation of the Thatcherite Revolution — and then two Bushes.
            It didn't have to go that way.
            The American Troubles calmed down greatly after the exhaustion of the urban riots and the end of the Vietnam War.
            Not many Americans thought it through, not that I heard anyway, but it seemed the idea sunk in some time after the fall of Saigon that figurative dominoes weren't falling in South-East Asia, the world wasn't going Communist, the USA survived and, if anything, would've been better off if we had not fought in Vietnam. Therefore, by definition, no vital interests of the United States had been involved in Vietnam.
            We had fought a war of choice: hence an unjust war that left a lot of people dead (or wounded, maimed, poisoned, traumatized, displaced, immiserated) — all unnecessarily. Mostly of the victins were Vietnamese and Cambodians and other Asians, but 58,220 American dead, with the exact number depending on how you count. (They were mostly enlisted personnel, as you can see at the link: White-boy Army grunts, usually Roman Catholic or generic Protestant, mostly from the larger US states — but I digress).
            There was, after the fall of Richard M. Nixon and South Vietnam a brief opening when Liberals could make a comeback and maybe move the country toward significant reforms.
            What I experienced during that period, though, was not a re-established Popular Front, not even to the extent we'd had in the Civil Rights/Anti-War alliance. What we had was something initially hopeful with a rising political Feminism and struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment, and that Feminism in synergy with Black consciousness, Black pride, an incipient gay-rights movement, and the first Earth Day and the potential of the really radical, essential-for-survival radicalism of an environmental movement.
            And then political feminism and the movement for the ERA seemed to grind to a halt and get replaced by a radical cultural feminism that defined men as the central enemy, even as hard-core members of the Black Power movement had presented The White Man as the enemy.
            They had legitimate points, and it was not only inevitable but also right that women and minorities would go through periods of identity politics and group pride. The problem was those periods went on too damn long and prevented coalition.
            If the enemy was The Man, one should not only avoid sleeping with The Man — the enemy — but avoid cooperating with him.
            The great principle of seizing power is "Divide and conquer"; the great principle of maintaining power is "Divide and rule." The Left did the dividing to ourselves as games of "more radical than thou" moved into serious conflicts among identity groups competing for the time and effort (and sometimes money) of a limited number of Americans who were politically engaged and having trouble communicating with each other, let alone cooperating.
            And then this splintering got theorized and philosophized and "valorized" — and in the academy it metastasized.
            To summarize and oversimplify a combination of movements I really don't understand — this: as things stood on the ground, in terms of practical politics, so it was perceived in the ethereal regions of capital "T" Theory. The splinterings and divisions in practical political life were Good Things because the "metanarratives" of the past were "totalizing" Bad Things and "all critique is imminent."
            For a moment, trust me on what those formulations mean, and that they are fair: even as it's fair enough to note that the Left of the 1960s was sexist and needed a figurative kick in the ass from feminists (ditto for White privilege). From the "metanarratives" of Marxism to Freudianism to Behaviorism to Platonism to just-about-any-"ism," any Grand Unified Theory of anything more complex than physics is going to be incomplete and at least partly wrong. And all analyses of the world are "imminent" insofar as all of us are embedded in the world in complex ways and can't get a "transcendent," truly objective, God's-eye-view of anything.
            The problem — and a pattern is developing here — the problem was ideologues' pushing their theorizing too far, too recklessly.
            If the ideal of systematic thinking was masculinist; if the most "meta" of metanarratives was the idea of an objective world out there that can be understood through human reason; if scientific method asserted that people from different cultures could and should come to identical conclusions about the universe; if the whole idea of a universe was part of a Western Imperial super-metanarrative that ultimately justified an unjust world-system — then what?
            And if the suspicion remains that Liberals are the source of all evils, then the Big Mistake goes back to that source of modern Liberalism, the Enlightenment, and the whole scientific view of a universe out there with facts that can be established with experiment, logic, and reason.
            The alternative to Enlightenment "universalism" can be mental worlds of competing narratives — a real phenomenon — but with no way to choose which among those narratives might be most, in quotation marks, "true" — or correspond to "so-called 'facts.'" (People actually did write things like "so-called 'facts'" or say them with "air quotes.")
            Nowadays we believe that someone like Karl Rove would mock "the reality-based community" and, in different contexts, that we can talk about a Right-wing "faith-based community" vs. a "reality-based community." When Rove was just getting started, though, the attack on a materialist view of common-sense, fact-based "reality" was pushed by leftist academics of the late 20th century: Theorists who saw themselves as the real radicals of the multiverse.
            In terms of practical politics, my Theoretical colleauges fucked up.
            If ordinary, normal people are going to forsake the Enlightenment and Liberal Democracy, it's not going to be for Postmodernism — at least not for Postmodernism outside of a few movies like Fight Club. Many people are uncomfortable already with the Modern, and if confronted by philosophies and, more to the point, counter-cultures even more radical, they are going to go back to the old, comforting metanarratives of the various anti-Modern Fundamentalisms. They're going to return to the old stories of American greatness such as that Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, was so good at recycling.
            If ordinary, normal people are divided into groups, competing for decreasing shares of American wealth, they are going to stick with their groups and listen to the nearest TV demagogues and professionally-packaged politicians about how all their problems stem from something other than systems designed to exploit their labor.
            The members of our various elites have kept their eyes on the prize of wonky political stuff like marginal tax rates. They have sent the rest of us off on issues — especially Culture Wars — that divide us.
            Some of the divisions are inescapable: Americans have conflicting interests and world-views. And to give the devils their due, Karl Rove et al. have been downright brilliant in keeping us distracted and exploiting natural divisions.
            Still, to a great extent the Left in the United States undermined ourselves.
            It looks like within the next couple decades we will get full gay rights in the United States and equality for women and greater integration of Blacks and other minorities into the American economy. Good! Then can we get to matters like Who Gets What? Who Pays, Who Profits? Then, I think, most of us can accept as a practical matter, whatever High Theory or advanced physics says, that there is a world out there that can be understood enough to deal with, and in which some statements have greater "truth value" than others? We can deal with facts. Minimally we can we accept that "There's a car coming from the left" is different from and — if there's a car bearing down — definitely a more useful statement than "You're clear!" even for a postmodernist driver.

            In Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), on the imagined world of Gethen, a people has the saying I recall as, "You don't have to be kemmerings to haul a sledge": i.e., you don't have to be lovers to pull a sled together; and I'll ramp that up a bit to you don't have to be friends to work together, or even like one another. Some people on the Left haven't liked me, and, from time to time, I've returned the dislike. No big deal. "No enemies on the Left"; we don't have to like each other; all of us in various reality- and decency-based communities can work together, and we had better get back to it. Meanwhile, any remaining unfriendlies to my Left: cool it.

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