Are Words (and History) Really That Hard to Understand? A Final Response to the More-Radical-Than-Thou Critique of Obama Supporters
Maybe it’s my fault. I think I write pretty clearly, but perhaps I don’t. In the last few days, ever since I counseled both excitement at the post-election possibilities for progressive activism, and caution at the risk of over-exuberance, it seems as though some on the left with a heavy investment in their self-righteous sense of radicalism have allowed their personal hatred of all things Democrat and all-things-mainstream-politics to get in the way of deciphering words on a page.
So although I made it very clear that Obama’s election by itself would change very little, and that it was up to us to steer Obama’s supporters into progressive activism, to hear some tell it, I am a starry-eyed bourgeois liberal who refuses to see the inherent evil of Barack Obama. Whatever. I haven’t the time or inclination to play a game of who’s the bigger radical with some of these folks: people who have told me that rather than voting, voluntary dumpster-diving is a revolutionary act (or who miss how whites who do it are abusing their privilege, since folks of color who do that shit are prosecuted for trespassing), or who still use words like bourgeois, and yet can’t understand why regular folks can’t figure out what the hell they’re talking about.
Anyway, I never suggested that Obama was likely to usher in much in the way of progressive reforms or changes. I do believe he will be nominally liberal, and far preferable to McCain/Palin. But ultimately, I am of the opinion that he (as with any president) will only move left if forced to do so. That work is ours to do, but instead of reaching out and speaking to Obama supporters in a way that recognizes their exuberance, honors it, and tries to move them into more productive activity than mere electoral campaigning, these folks would prefer to mock them, suggest their stupidity, and call them names, such as “listless hipsters” (my favorite), “cultists,” “Obamaniacs,” “Limousine LIberals,” or “shills” for the system. Good move: insult millions of people who–like it or not–have been inspired by Obama, and expect them to join your movement for real social transformation. Good luck with that. Just because we on the left haven’t been able to inspire much lately is no reason to hate on those who have, just because they aren’t sufficiently down with our view of the world.
Sometimes those who have harshly condemned my position on this matter prove themselves to be rank hypocrites as well. So, for instance, consider writer and activist Paul Street, who has said my criticism of those who see no difference between McCain and Obama is evidence of my being “increasingly unglued.” This, coming from a guy who four years ago penned a piece in which he warned the left about making arguments of equivalence between Bush and Kerry. In other words, in 2004, Paul Street thought the left should recognize the real differences between the two parties, even though he (and I) both know those differences are not large enough, but apparently that recognition is no longer valuable. Street even suggested back then that the reason the left should be careful about equivalizing the two candidates in 2004 was because doing so would royally piss off black folks, who were quite clear that there was a difference. Oh, but acting like there is no difference between McCain and the black guy should play well with them Paul. Thanks for that clarification. Moving on.
In my previous pieces I made the point that just as JFK was center-right in orientation, and yet, young people inspired by him moved much further to the left over the next fifteen years and made a huge difference in this nation, so too could that happen now. No one who has criticized my previous pieces has seen fit to respond to that. Because they can’t. It is historically inarguable and so they must ignore it. Rather, they point out that when Bill Clinton was president the left didn’t sufficiently pressure him to do very much (and even caved on some things). While this is true, they ignore both the possibility that we may have learned something from that sorry capitulation, and that Obama is far more like JFK in his effect on the public than he is like Clinton. Clinton never inspired this much enthusiasm, which is likely why he seemed so bitter on the campaign trail, even on those few occasions when he managed to say nice things about Barack Obama. He knows the difference quite well, apparently, and that’s why he’s angry.
More to the point, I find this line of argument–that the liberals and progressives will just fold up like a cheap tent in the face of Obama because he promises “change”–to be not only condescending but problematic in terms of where it leads us. If that position is followed to its logical conclusion, one would then have to support only the most right-wing, even fascist forces for president, just on the hope that the obvious clarity of their pernicious plans would “wake up” the masses, as opposed to how they will be lulled to sleep by a well-spoken liberal. In other words, this thinking leads to the classically stupid and venal position that things have to get worse before they get better, and that any reformism is bad because it only props up the system. Not only has this position not been vindicated even once in history–not even once–but it is flatly contradicted by it. When things get worse, they just get worse. People don’t become revolutionaries when things are really bad. They are too busy trying to stay alive at that point. Of course, the kinds of people who make up the more-radical-than-thou part of the left tend to be well-educated, and if poor, only so as a lifestyle choice, rather than as a result of systemic oppression. So they won’t be the ones impacted most by the kinds of leaders they seem to think will be best, if only because they will highlight for all to see the horrors of the system. It will be someone else who suffers for the fulfillment of their dialectic. How convenient.
And what’s especially funny about this “Oh now the libs will all go to sleep and movements will be weaker than ever” routine is that those performing it seem to be suggesting that activism is much bolder and more effective when the enemy is clear. But is that so? Have I missed the ass-kicking that the left has given to Bush these past eight years? Exactly what have we accomplished against this very obvious enemy of the Constitution, and economic justice, and a just foreign policy, which couldn’t have been accomplished against, say, Al Gore or John Kerry? Nothing, absolutely nothing. There is virtually nothing on which he has not gotten his way, and none of our epic and redundant (and predictable) antiwar protests have done a thing to change the course of these wars we’re in. That Obama may not be pressured any more effectively than W has been (though that remains to be seen) isn’t the point. The point is, we haven’t built a mass movement in the repressive and reactionary environment that has existed since 2000, so how could it get much worse?
If these barbiturate leftists would take even a momentary glance at history they would notice that the most effective organizing in this country’s past occurred in the ’30s when a relatively liberal administration was in power, and in the early-to-mid-’60s, when the same thing was true. And why? Because of an uptick in hope, which allowed people to believe that pressure might pay off for once. It’s called rising expectations theory: when expectations begin to rise, people become more active, not less so, and even if those expectations are somewhat dashed, this can often lead to positive outcomes, as frustration mounts, the gap between aspiration and ultimate achievement becomes obvious, and folks decide to ratchet up the protest even more than before. This is why the left was stronger in the moderately liberal ’60s than the relatively repressive ’50s, for instance.
What is most fascinating to me is that the leftists who rail on Obama seem to be making two oddly inconsistent arguments: on the one hand, that Obama is a shill because he doesn’t embrace a left agenda, but on the other, that real change comes not from presidents but from the people. The last of these is correct, but to the extent it is, there is no point in making a big deal of Obama’s inadequacies. If it’s not about him in the first place, then all that remains is for us to get busy, and meet liberal Democrats where they are. Or, we can preen as moral superiors because we’ve read Bakunin, and Zerzan, and Chomsky, or because we once called a cop a pig to his face in Seattle or some such thing.
Here’s something for the Obama-bashers on the left to ponder: old-line civil rights activists (who have put their life on the line for justice far more often than the critics have in most cases) believe Obama’s win is meaningful. Many black nationalists and Afrocentric scholars believe it to be meaningful. Radical scholars in the black community think it’s significant. Community organizers in oppressed communities, even though they know that the real work is yet to be done, are overwhelmingly saying it matters, all over the country. Perhaps they’re all suckers. Perhaps they, and the millions of folks of color in particular who are excited about this moment, are just stupid. Perhaps the Greens are just smarter, perhaps the white radical anarchist or other left collective down the road has figured it all out in ways the silly folks of color just can’t manage to accomplish, or perhaps the Revolutionary Communist Party is every bit as brilliant as they believe themselves to be. But I doubt it.
I just wish that I knew what the barbiturate left’s strategy was for building the movement. Hell, at this point, I’d be glad just to know what the hell they even think the movement is fighting for. It doesn’t appear to me that even this little detail has been figured out yet. And we wonder why the right has been getting the better of us for years?
Some things just aren’t that difficult to understand.