February 26, 2017
If there’s anything the Left is good at, as sad and wan and defeated as it is these days, it’s cultivating a fiercely held sense that it holds the superior moral high ground. It’s not just that the “left,” such as it is, thinks its causes are better but that it firmly believes that it’s constituted of better people. Sanctimony reigns online and in real life.
This sense of saintliness has increased since the election of Trump, and it’s especially evident in the ways in which people on the left have begun to berate each other for not being nice enough to all the liberals and conservatives who voted for Trump or are now terrified at the reality of his presidency. Even worse, various factions of the left are now left pondering how “we” might best bring “them” into the fold. The answer, too often, is to “listen” to them and to start investing, literally and metaphorically, in the electoral process. Which is fine, but it doesn’t stop there: Much of the discussion is inevitably about how the “left” needs to stop being, you know, so, um, you know, left.
This desire of the left to retreat from its own ideological roots also manifests itself in an intense need to prove that it’s also just, well, nicer. And that has in turn meant a lot of moral and tone policing on the left. It has also resulted in some truly bizarre instances of leftists berating their comrades for things that literally did not happen.
Consider, for instance, two almost identical pieces, both from left/left-oriented women, about the Women’s Marches held on January 21. Both assert that meanie lefty feminists in particular were steeped in “cynicism,” and that they demonstrated a “political immaturity that continues to stunt the growth of the American left.”
These pieces were, in fact, based on little more than cursory glances at the writers’ social media feeds, and they are prime examples of the kind of sloppy thinking and writing that characterises so much of what passes for “left” writing these days. I’ll have more extensive commentary on each of them in a fortnight but, for now, I’ll just state that they demonstrate nothing more than the eagerness of left pundits to constantly police their comrades and excoriate them for too much finger-wagging — all while engaging in a lot of rigorous finger-wagging.
These are only two examples of the kind of moral and tone policing that’s going on in what is, for many, a deeply confusing time. I understand that many liberals in particular are shell-shocked at the rise of someone they never thought would be anything more than a reality television star, someone whose politics are so vile, in all respects, and in such public view. I understand that it’s important to make space for them to first process all this and then, perhaps, help nudge them towards a more left and radical agenda.
Except, first, that’s not what’s happening, with too many on the left willing to completely dispense with their left politics.
Secondly, the left is far too concerned with proving its moral character instead of doing what it needs to do: Prove that its political vision of the world is what will ultimately save us all. As we move forward in confusing times, admonishing each other to be perfect people is a shitty, stupid, time-wasting tactic.
All of this has a direct result on actual politics because the quest to be nice also means that left-progressive-liberal people are too concerned with only fighting for those they can like. This, in turn, means that we end up creating a vision for the world we believe in that is partial to a few, at best, and discriminatory and cruel at its worst.
In 2006, we saw massive and seemingly powerful marches in every major city, where tens of thousands of undocumented (I prefer the term “illegal” but, hey, whatever) people took to the streets and demanded change.
What came of that? Nothing of consequence for the vast numbers of the “undocumented.” Not one single piece of legislation that benefits them. What we do have, however, are the toothless Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), both mere executive orders issued by Obama. Both were widely celebrated by immigrant rights organisations and allies because they both reward good and promising young students and their law-abiding parents. In other words, they rendered immigration policy not in terms of an economic and political crisis that required economic and political solutions, but as a way to separate the good immigrants from the bad ones.
The number of undocumented people who actually need legal recourse in this country? 12 million, at a conservative estimate.
The number of people helped by the two initiatives? 3. 7 million.
Today, we face the possibility that Trump will simply rescind both DACA and DAPA — a possibility that was always writ into their existence, but Democrats arrogantly never thought Republicans would take the Presidency. In the meantime, the entire discourse on and about immigration is now focused on the question of likeability. Read any story about what immigrants are facing under Trump and the first thing you’ll notice is the historical amnesia — reports on “sudden” immigration raids and border control checks on Greyhound and Amtrak ignore the fact that these have actually been going on for a very long time. But what you’ll also notice is a constant emphasis on the sheer goodness of those who are being deported, with particular attention paid to mothers and fathers and the adorable children they leave behind.
This is not, obviously, a discourse of exceptionalism fostered by the Right, which is perfectly happy to see parents and children shut away for long periods or forever in the euphemistically termed “detention centres” (following Dean Spade, let’s just call them prisons, shall we?). It is in fact a discourse created by the left and liberals who can’t seem to care for anyone who isn’t worthy of care, who can’t imagine a better vision of the world if it isn’t made up entirely of people we can actually like.
Am I an asshole? Are you? Those are the questions that ultimately animate the left, not the more trenchant ones like, “Does everyone deserve healthcare, food, housing, no matter what?”
Which brings me to the other big problem with sainthood: It erases the fact that there are actually shitty ways, more shitty ways, and less shitty ways to respond to politics -- pointing out which is which should not be be seen as a performance of moral comeuppance. If I tell you that your politics on immigration are counterproductive, ill-informed, shorn of true historical context, and consequently doomed to failure, you might whine and cry and weep that I’m being mean to you. And if you have any sense, you’ll wipe your tears and realise that I’m actually right because, as I’ve pointed out above and many, many, many times before: I’m right. Because, look where we are now.
If we frame political questions in terms of whether or not we can like each other or the ones we claim to fight for, and whether or not we’re being really, really nice to each other, our struggles are doomed and, frankly, we deserve to lose. Because a world that only exists for people we can like is a world that simply can’t survive with any stability. If you don’t believe me, look, with clearer eyes, at immigration. At this point in time, nothing has been won in that battle, except when individuals have had lawyers or petitions help them out. Fighting for the good ones, for sad families has helped created a bloated, gassy, pustulent immigration nonprofit industrial complex which keeps fighting for its poster children and no one else. As a movement, immigration has failed, and even the good, exceptional ones are now watching their lives fall to pieces.
Do interpersonal relationships matter? Sure, but that’s not what this is about. If the left is to actually reanimate itself — and it is, really, mostly dead — it needs to worry less about whether people will like it or its way of going about enacting its agenda, and simply focus on being the left without being so terrified that no one will, horrors, like it. To borrow from Michael Kinnucan writing in Current Affairs, the point of the left ought to be to actually advocate for a left agenda, to give people something to believe in: “There are very few views so extreme and so indefensible that they can’t garner mass support if repeated frequently enough by a major US party—just think of ‘global warming is a hoax.’” I don’t care about electoral politics, but this seems like a lesson the broader left could and should learn.
Actual lives are at stake, and if that means that you and I and others emerge as assholes in some eyes, so be it. The future of the world hangs upon actual change, not in changing people.
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