Is the American Left Adrift?

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I've been agonizing about this lately. The protests, the hollywood outcry, the efforts on the part of the young McSweeney's and Believer literati crowd, Billionaires for Bush and some of the work of Move On (though they do some stuff I like), all those annoying stencils you see in the city -- somehow much of this has struck me as a) Preaching ONLY to the converted and avoiding contact with others
b) shallow and flaky, and c) disconnected from what should make up a large part of the left's base -- Americans earning relatively low incomes.

Maybe it's just because I live near NYC that I feel sick of hearing NPR interviews with "artists" who think they are making a difference by doing facile performance art about Dick Cheney that will be viewed only by a wholly approving audience. Maybe I underestimate the power of puppetry as a form of political protest.

Michael Moore, for all his foibles, is one of the few examples of someone who really tried to go out there and grapple with the rest of America in order to affect political change.

The Right here has claimed some pretty weighty sounding issues as their own: Fight Terrorism! End the baby holocaust! Promote good values!

What is the left claiming? How are we presenting it to the country?

Hurting (Hurting), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 21:45 (fifteen years ago) link

The left in the US has been adrift since 1972 since it pretty much lost a political party to represent it.

Alex in SF (Alex in SF), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 21:52 (fifteen years ago) link

Recent sloganeering etc. makes sense if you believe you have a large enough support base, but you need to energise them into action. So, I guess a preliminary question we have is 'do we have enough natural supporters to win?' and if not, how are we going to make converts?

x-post I read a book a few years ago, so name eludes me, about non-violence, tangentially. The author's claim was the the vietnam war protests killed the left, and anti-war groups generally for the foreseeable future. I don't know to what extent this is true. In any case, why the Left is adrift is of secondary importance to working out how to reclaim the left, and make a government which is of the left.

Kevin Gilchrist (Mr Fusion), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 21:56 (fifteen years ago) link

The Civil Rights movement was a good example of successful protest bringing political change (at very least The Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act), but they had a couple of major things going for them:

1) They were extraordinarily well organized and displayed a clear, unified message (as opposed to the muddled din we get today)

2) They very consciously used visual media to their advantage to turn public sympathy toward them. They did this by a) Looking very presentable, respectable, and therefore more in the eyes of the American public, innocent; b) By presenting a calm, determined, non-violent stance which made the police's unprovoked violence even more horrifying.

I think the Vietnam War protest argument may be an exaggeration, but there's some truth to it -- certainly someone who's clean cut boy is serving isn't going to listen to a long haired hippie freak about the war.

Today's left could take a cue from the clean, calm, respectable image of the civil rights movement, but moreover I think those with the urge to protest might stop and ask themselves what the specific point of the protest is, what it hopes to accomplish, and consider very carefully how it will be presented by the media (this is easy to figure out). They might then ask themselves whether protest, in that case, is even the best means for their particular end.

Hurting (Hurting), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:09 (fifteen years ago) link

But the left has some weighty sounding issues too: Healthcare, economy, jobs, environment. Are we to suppose that these values are not the ones which concern the voter? I don't know.

x-post - yeah, it'd be cool if we (they) got back to Dr King style protesting and away from Casey Jones hockey stick anarchism.

Kevin Gilchrist (Mr Fusion), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:11 (fifteen years ago) link

Not this shit again.

Dan I. (Dan I.), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:13 (fifteen years ago) link

And worse yet, is the America Left Adrift on Memory Bliss?

Pleasant Plains (Pleasant Plains), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:14 (fifteen years ago) link

"But the left has some weighty sounding issues too: Healthcare, economy, jobs, environment. Are we to suppose that these values are not the ones which concern the voter?"

Well, of course they are, especially healthcare and jobs, but we just have to do a better job of focusing on those and explaining how specifically we're going to handle them. Healthcare is a toughy because it's just one of those labrynthine policy issues. Jobs is tough because people say "Well what are you going to do about it? How are you going to create jobs?" To be honest, I'm not sure what the left answer to this one is.

The enviroment is a good one as long as we focus on how it directly effects us rather than making it sound like "the environment" is some nature preserve in wyoming.

Hurting (Hurting), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:18 (fifteen years ago) link

Marionette strings are dangerous things.

adam. (nordicskilla), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:18 (fifteen years ago) link

No one in the right ever said they were adrift because of abortion clinic bombers, Klansmen and militias.

Focus your mommy issues on getting dumped again before you project them onto the rest of us.

Dan I. (Dan I.), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:18 (fifteen years ago) link

"Focus your mommy issues on getting dumped again before you project them onto the rest of us."

Grow up.

Hurting (Hurting), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:30 (fifteen years ago) link

I didn't even understand that so...

Maybe it is easier if we list the problems in the left, and then think of solutions.

Kevin Gilchrist (Mr Fusion), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:33 (fifteen years ago) link

and then implement them. oh wait...

oops (Oops), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:39 (fifteen years ago) link


Hurting (Hurting), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:40 (fifteen years ago) link

0 of 2 tasks have completed successfully.

Rockist_Scientist (rockist_scientist), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:42 (fifteen years ago) link

No, I refuse to grow up. Ah, I'm just resorting to horrible indefensible trolling because what you're doing makes me so angry. It's so damaging! The best way to dissolve the left is to continuously navel gaze like this, to convince every progressive-minded person out there that they have no hope and all their efforts are worse than worthless. It's not true. People that do what you are doing are the problem.
Do something helpful. Until you actually personally intend to start a movement modeled after the civil rights movement, keep your "the left sucks" manifestos to yourself! I wouldn't be so strongly against what you're doing if I hadn't seen the same thing here and elsewhere over and over again.

Dan I. (Dan I.), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:44 (fifteen years ago) link

Oh, I see, saying I have "mommy issues" is helpful. What do you do?

Hurting (Hurting), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:45 (fifteen years ago) link

Ha, well I don't know, why is it that you're so intent on discrediting a group you presumably identify with?

Dan I. (Dan I.), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:46 (fifteen years ago) link

The left can be improved, it can win the next million elections - do you think we shouldn't examine and find ways to improve the left's standing and just run the course with what we got?

"to convince every progressive-minded person out there that they have no hope and all their efforts are worse than worthless": noone was doing this. I believe the dems are going to win this election. But the left is wider than one election, and I don't think burying my head in the sand until it's over is the way to go.

Kevin Gilchrist (Mr Fusion), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:51 (fifteen years ago) link

I misunderstood the title of this thread and thought the content would be to the effect of 'Is the American left adrift in a sea of anti-patriots, media-manipulating Liberals and Saddam-appeasing Europeans?' or something. I'm very glad that's not the case. Carry on.

Wooden (Wooden), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:55 (fifteen years ago) link

I'm confused; how is pointing out examples of people who make him "feel sick" because they "think they are making a difference" not defeatist?

Look, the right got into a position where they're able to dominate the issues (which I don't deny) not by obsessing over their past failures but by developing new techniques and standpoints while at the same time behaving as if it was all part of a consistent lineage.

Dan I. (Dan I.), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 22:58 (fifteen years ago) link

"all those annoying stencils you
see in the city"


scott seward (scott seward), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:00 (fifteen years ago) link

It seems to me that what the American left needs most is some leadership, a couple of dynamic, galvanizing personalities capable of making healthcare, education, diplomacy and fair trade sound as exciting as abortion, crime, terrorism and all the rest of the right's hot buttons. I don't think that's impossible, and there are great American political and intellectual traditions to draw on that are largely languishing these days. It's the absence of leadership that makes half-measures like Dean, Nader, Sharpton, Moore or whoever look like leaders, because at least they're trying. (Kerry, needless to say, does not seem capable of fitting that bill, even if he manages to get elected. Clinton maybe could have, but he decided early on to triangulate instead.)

Is there anyone on the horizon? Obama, maybe; we'll see how he holds up to scrutiny, or if he just gets swallowed in the Senate. More like him would be a nice start.

gypsy mothra (gypsy mothra), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:00 (fifteen years ago) link

Jack and Bobby were just as conciliatory as Clinton and Kerry. Maybe more so.

Dan I. (Dan I.), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:03 (fifteen years ago) link

And so was Wellstone!

Dan I. (Dan I.), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:03 (fifteen years ago) link

I'm not trying to cut down the over-fetishized guys from the past, it's just that I don't think that it really does "go without saying" that Kerry and Edwards are capable of that kind of leadership and unification.

Dan I. (Dan I.), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:04 (fifteen years ago) link

the american left is adrift on a sea of chardonnay. in a volvo!

More than half of the people who voted in 2000 voted for Gore, right? The death notices seem a bit premature.

scott seward (scott seward), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:04 (fifteen years ago) link

But that's just it -- given the actual positions of sizable chunks of the American public on a whole range of issues, there's no reason the left should be in this position of constant defensiveness. Part of it has to do with the aggression of the right, true, and the way the media has changed in the last 20 years or so, but there's more than that. Jack and Bobby might have been conciliatory -- being concilatory is not in itself a hindrance to being a strong leader. Kerry's problem isn't his concilatoriness (is that a word?), it's more complicated than that. Clinton likewise -- he elected to take care of himself before anything else, without mustering the illusion that he was doing anything but that.

I'm not big on the whole "clarity/resolve" thing the Bushies are always bragging about, because you can be clear and resolved and 100 percent full of shit. But I do think it helps to have a real and deep sense of what's important to you, and to be able to convey that passionately and with conviction.

gypsy mothra (gypsy mothra), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:12 (fifteen years ago) link

And that's the thing I'm harping on; stepping back and taking a long hard look at itself is not going to cure constant defensiveness. Even if we did, we would only end up coming to the same conclusion anyway: that we need to attack, that we need to point out what's fucked up about the right and keep doing it. You see how we can do this without spending a lot of time bitching and moaning about how much we suck? And it's not going to hurt us that much if a few New York and San Francisco weirdos choose to do this by making giant puppets.

Dan I. (Dan I.), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:21 (fifteen years ago) link

well, it's that catch-22 thing. when the right fights and screams for what they want they are portrayed as tough guys taking a stand. when the left fights and screams for the things they want they are portrayed as anti-american hippy lunatics.

scott seward (scott seward), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:23 (fifteen years ago) link

Not if they all do it at once. It's impossible to paint 51% of the country as lunatics.

Dan I. (Dan I.), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:24 (fifteen years ago) link

This is why, for example, sucks so much. Because they have two kinds of political articles: those by the right tearing down the left, and those by the left tearing down the left.

Dan I. (Dan I.), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:26 (fifteen years ago) link

It can be done if Fox News is involved. Painting half the country as lunatics. I think they actually do this on occasion.

scott seward (scott seward), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:27 (fifteen years ago) link

actually, cheney saying that a vote for kerry is a vote for terrorism is kinda like saying that half the country is crazy for even THINKING of voting for kerry.

scott seward (scott seward), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:29 (fifteen years ago) link

But trying to develop new strategies is agressive, not offensive, 'navel gazing' as you put it is part of developing ideas - we must know what the problem is first. The political people must go about changing things. None the less, discussions about the state of the US left are not defeatist, just a necessary step to victory.

Kevin Gilchrist (Mr Fusion), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:32 (fifteen years ago) link

*not defensive* that should say

Kevin Gilchrist (Mr Fusion), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:34 (fifteen years ago) link

Okay, let's discuss. I think one of the main problems with the left is that many of it's members are excessively critical of it, and prefer to wallow in this stage rather than taking another step. I believe that identifying our own weaknesses is worth only a few minutes, if not seconds, of our precious time, and that beyond that time we should direct our thoughts to actions we can take to change the country, not just ourselves. What do you think?

Dan I. (Dan I.), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:41 (fifteen years ago) link

I agree with you generally. We are critical of our movements and too long spent on this can slow us down. But it we spent our few seconds, and then went out and shouted slogans at evilbuildingB we then find out that this puts people off of voting for us, and they don;t want scenes they associate with riots and anarchy by the press. (that's only an example, which may or may not be valid - I just mean to show that you need to pay a lot of attention to the way the public stereotypes you movement, positively and negatively, how they do the same to your opponents. WHat people's issues are, how many support us - other guy - undecuded etc.)

Kevin Gilchrist (Mr Fusion), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:47 (fifteen years ago) link

Okay, I agree that hideous masses of unwashed hippies aren't the right face to put on. I think anti-Bush demonstrations in general are wrong-headed. One issue at a time; the Million Mom March had the right idea.

Can we stop talking about demonstrations soon? They're only very rarely of any use no matter what the circumstance. They mostly exist only to give the heady illusion of "making a difference, man" to the people who participate in them.

Dan I. (Dan I.), Tuesday, 28 September 2004 23:59 (fifteen years ago) link

i'm fairly involved with lefty politics where i am. i'm a member of our viable left party, i worked the last election, i'm active at my university in the student society and the university admin.; i've lived this stuff for a good 1 and 1/2 years now.

i'm tempted to make a blanket statement that post-modernism and identity politics have terminally crippled the left. (gore's 49% doesn't count- he's not on the left that i'm on. he still would have had my vote, though). class politics, which are relatively easy to evangelize, is, i fear, being subsumed by identity politics, which due to ties to postmodernism is really difficult to evangelize.

it's something i need to flesh out, but i do believe it's a tension worth discussing.

derrick (derrick), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 00:01 (fifteen years ago) link

I kind of agree with that. The identity politics game isn't one to play, in the first place because it's not one we can win.

Dan I. (Dan I.), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 00:07 (fifteen years ago) link

I do think it's imperative to disturb the American mythos. Americans will never start to act in their own interest (and in a class-minded manner) if, for example, as is now the case, the vast majority of them believe they are or very soon will be in the the top few percent of earners. You know, but base greed is a tough opponent.

Dan I. (Dan I.), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 00:12 (fifteen years ago) link

Actually, I feel bad for dissing Move On, because I think overall they are great -- they are mobilizing the youth vote, which is generally underrepresented. More programs like that would be good -- really heavily target under-voting segments of the population.

Hurting (Hurting), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 01:14 (fifteen years ago) link

I just wrote a bit for a polisci class where I suggested that the US can't handle ideological conflict abroad (see communism et al) because it's never had to at home. Bush and kerry aren't arguing principles or ideas, just interpretations and applications of the same ideology. The best analogy for me: the US presidential election is equivalent to a Cdn political party's leadership race.

This is maybe why the Canadian and American left can't relate super well; ideological dispute is a natural feature of candaian elections and political discourse; we can agree to disagree. Is the US, the main parties already agree on the big stuff, and just have the details to work out.

derrick (derrick), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 01:20 (fifteen years ago) link

Identity politics has an incredibly valuable place, esp. as networks are established through modern telecom along every line but geographical location. a lot of people have really had their lives changed by the recognition that who they are, how they self identify, is inherently political, and that letting someone else define your identity is a form of oppression.

it's the postmodernism that jinxes, i feel, any attempt at broadening this discourse. everyone has their own identity, history is self-created, truth is subjective. how can you proselytize with those tenets as fundamentals?

derrick (derrick), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 01:33 (fifteen years ago) link

"identity politics" is such a vague term that it's hard to know what you mean, derrick. or what its connection is with postmodernism (another really vague word). if you mean that people are thinking of themselves in categories, like gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, class, guns n roses vs peaches, serbians vs croations, or different subsets or agglomerations of these and other things then i agree. identity politics is just a fact of life. sometimes it generates endless war, sometimes it gets grassroots television shows off the ground. the thrust of this question seems to lament the fact that there's not some strong tide pulling all these boats in a particular direction. some of the answers seems to equate this (hypothetical) force with the democratic party. but has the "imaginary left" ever chimed precisely with the democratic party? the civil rights movement wasn't led by the democratic national committee!!

one thing i will say is that if the left can be more or less agreed to be a bunch of people and organizations that work to improve the lives of the poor and dispossessed, and fight for social and economic justice, including a living wage and equality of opportunity regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, class, ethnicity, mods vs rockers, then it had better understand the way these peoples' experiences are shaped by the way they slot into the american system. and i'll tell you something: people are working out there. thousands and thousands of people are out there giving pro bono legal advice, running community environmental organizations, working with drug offenders, lobbying against regressive taxation. they just keep quietly doing what they're doing no matter if it's kerry or bush in the white house and they are not bothered by the existence of postmodern theory. i think if kerry can win the white house he can do something to make these people feel less alone, though.


You've Got to Pick Up Every Stitch (tracerhand), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 01:45 (fifteen years ago) link

i'm saying that identity politics is something that happens TO you as much as BY you

You've Got to Pick Up Every Stitch (tracerhand), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 01:46 (fifteen years ago) link

this is a hard discussion to have, not being american and only watching from a distance. i'm operating on the assumption that 'democratic party =/ american left'. is that fair?

yeah, i guess i define identity politics as opposed to class politics in the sense of basic political assosiation. instead of forming these alliances along economic lines, they're formed along gender lines,
also, that identity is political, not just cultural. your expression of 'who you are' and what you define yourself as is a political act. this is problematic for me when self-definition in opposition to the status quo is seen as political activism in and of itself. i know these terms may be vague, sorry.

heh, what identity politics means to you is diferent than what it means to me, and that's ok! multiple and equally valid interpretations, blah blah etc. university's ruined me, perhaps. i try not to let this stuff get in the way for myself: realpolitik has to trump theory everytime. it does affect the political work of a lot of people i know, however, which is why i pay it attention.

and oh, i know people are working hard; i've done it myself, and i know a lot of wonderful, dedicated people spending their time on this stuff. i'm not bemoaning the effort here, nor do i think things are as floundering as they could be; apologies if i've come across that way.

if i lived in the states right now, i expect i would be volunteering for kerry, and i'd def. be voting for him.

derrick (derrick), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 02:16 (fifteen years ago) link

I've been trying to find out about volunteering in my home state - NJ -- but so far it appears that they only want volunteers in swing states. I thought NJ had become a swing state, but apparently the campaign doesn't yet think so.

Hurting (Hurting), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 02:25 (fifteen years ago) link

b-b-but you're not a woman or a black man because you "self-define" that way, you simply are, and get treated differently from others because of it over and over, every day of your life. that's not activism that's life. if you were an activist you'd use the issues that come up from your differentness (bigotry, discrimination, sexual harrassment, domestic violence, pay imbalance) as issues to organize around. i don't see what's problematic about this at all.

You've Got to Pick Up Every Stitch (tracerhand), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 02:29 (fifteen years ago) link

you're not a female because you define that way; that's biology. you are a woman because society believes in a binary gender continuum. you are a 'womyn' because you self-define that way.

i'm not judging, i'm just saying, these are the arguments that i hear. i find it problematic because this is seen as valid political action in and of itself. i agree, activism would logically refer to organization against discrimination, etc., but not necessarily.

this may be retricted to my university and assoctated groups, in which case it's so few people that it really doesn't matter. i hope this is the case.

derrick (derrick), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 02:40 (fifteen years ago) link

Why would you want to be part of a group that won't criticise itself.

trashmaster (Queen Electric Butt Prober BZZ), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 03:00 (fifteen years ago) link

Also asking from a distance, is there an American left? Noam Chomsky??

sundar subramanian (sundar), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 03:08 (fifteen years ago) link

Because of the electoral system we have, it's very hard for the left to become visible in electoral politics. (That's not a response to the main theme of the thread, just to some recent posts, like sundar's. I mean, yes, of course there is an American left.)

Tracer, "identity politics" doesn't seem that vague to me, though maybe it is and I just haven't thought about it. (I'm getting sleepy. I should be in bed. I just got finished writing my senator a letter about gay marriage, but I was primarily using it to sort out my own thoughts on the matter.) Anyhow, I think one perceived problem with "identity politics" is that groups divide themselves into smaller and smaller slivers of identity, ever more specific; rather than building connections that can lead to a large-scale movement.

Rockist_Scientist (rockist_scientist), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 03:18 (fifteen years ago) link

There's a definitional problem here, for sure. If by the "American left" you mean just the 50 percent on the left side of whatever political spectrum you happen to draw (and I'm pretty tired of the standard left-right spectrum model anyway), then of course there's an American left. If you mean "American left" in the sense of a Marxist left or even a socialist left, then the answer is still yes, but it's a relatively small group and wondering about whether it's adrift or not is kind of beside the point.

I'm personally more specifically interested in American liberalism, which is a much bigger tent and represents a long and notable (sometimes even noble) tradition that needs to be better understood, appreciated and trumpeted. I have friends who have completely given up on the word "liberal" because it's been used successfully as an epithet for so long, but I think that's a mistake. Liberalism has a history that warrants defending. So, for that matter, does America, which is another mistake I think the American left has made. There's a tendency to spend so much time debunking the American mythos that the actual ideas and opportunities undergirding the society get completely ignored or written off as propaganda. I mean, of course America has never been America, like Langston Hughes said, but on the other hand this country's history is marked by one triumph after another of the expansion of rights and freedoms and opportunities (countered by valleys of regression and oppression, like the one we're in now). And I think liberals need to relaim those triumphs, in a way that doesn't whitewash anything but also doesn't shortchange the accomplishments. It's important to know that Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, yes, but I think it's also important to understand what distinguished them and their ideas and how those ideas helped open up possibilities that later generations capitalized on.

Ah, hell. I've wandered far afield from the question, and I could go on in this vein for pages. I just think the American left, or American liberalism anyway (and if liberalism isn't far enough "left" for you, sorry, it's all I got) needs to reconnect the country's past, present and future, not just to dispel the moronic creation myths of modern conservativism (in which the United States was ruled by Jesus Christ and John D. Rockefeller until the smelly hippies started trying to turn everyone into queers in the 1960s), but to articulate aspirations for the future: Where are we, how did we get here, and where should we be headed? A little more vision, a little louder voices, and a hell of a lot less apologizing for being liberal. Conservatives wear "conservative" like a merit badge; in Republican primaries, they fall all over themselves to prove their dedication to conservative principles. It would be nice to see the same on the other side.

gypsy mothra (gypsy mothra), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 03:40 (fifteen years ago) link

"reclaim those triumphs", that is

gypsy mothra (gypsy mothra), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 03:42 (fifteen years ago) link

but modern conservatism is just another variant on traditional liberalism. both the mainstream of the democratic and republican parties are strongly liberal in ideology; they're stumbling over themselves to prove how true they are to the *real* ideals that this great nation was founded upon, lo those many years ago, etc etc. ad nauseum. it's just what those ideals mean today that they differ on. the ideals of liberty, freedom, whatever are very constant.

when did 'liberal' start meaning 'champagne socialist'? it's a pr coup for the right, but it's really disingenuous, because they're defending the world's greatest bastion of liberalism ever: the US constitution + declaration of independence.

derrick (derrick), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 04:00 (fifteen years ago) link

Mmmmmm...yes and no. I mean, to a certain extent, the modern political landscape still has the imprint of Tory-Whig fights. Plenty of people ended up as "Americans" after 1783 who never bought into the Declaration of Independence, and there have been social, political and economic forces fighting against the implementation of those ideals ever since.

gypsy mothra (gypsy mothra), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 04:31 (fifteen years ago) link

Okay now I see why my strong reaction earlier was so inappropriate; my head is so inextricably stuck inside the immediacy of the 2004 horse race ("don't show any weakness!") that I didn't realize you wanted to talk about the more historical broad-sense state of the left. Right. Sorry.

Dan I. (Dan I.), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 05:19 (fifteen years ago) link

rockist and derrick your dismissal of identity politics as some kind of decadent exercise in self-expression sounds incredibly condescending to me, like "oh, just get over whatever weirdly marginalized category you keep harping about being in and join the real revolution." i can appreciate the populist instinct behind this: hey, let's put our differences aside and work together towards something larger. but ignoring identity just perpetuates inequality. why should someone have to put aside their identity in order to join your program, whatever it is?

You've Got to Pick Up Every Stitch (tracerhand), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 11:18 (fifteen years ago) link

i mean, it's not that different from when krauthammer says "it is the opponents of race-conscious public policy who today speak in the name of values that Martin Luther King, Jr. championed"

You've Got to Pick Up Every Stitch (tracerhand), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 11:45 (fifteen years ago) link

Whoah, Tracer, I was not dismissing it, I don't think, just

My weasel words were: I think one perceived problem with "identity politics" is that groups divide themselves into smaller and smaller slivers of identity, ever more specific; rather than building connections that can lead to a large-scale movement. I phrased it that way precisely because, at the very least, I don't fully agree with those criticisms.

Rockist Scientist, Wednesday, 29 September 2004 12:17 (fifteen years ago) link

Essentially I was saying: I have seen it criticized this way.

I have also see people write that most of the major successes of the progressive to left side of the political spectrum have been movements that can be labeled as "identity politics" (civil rights, women's rights, gay rights--not complete successes, but a lot has changed partly as a result), and I agree with that.

But I also think that identity politics sometimes drifts into increasing fragmentation. So I guess I am subject to your criticisms.

Rockist Scientist, Wednesday, 29 September 2004 12:31 (fifteen years ago) link

you and derrick are both doing this "are seen as" or "could be interpreted as" thing when, as you say at the end there, you actually mean YOU "see as" or YOU interpret as. it's curious. anyway i'm glad you're taking responsibility for this view - that identity politics are an obstacle to mass progressive political movements - rather than fobbing it off on some less-discerning strawmen. i'm just interested in why you think that could be the case.

one thing i might say here is that the world is drifitng into increasing fragmentation, and that's just the way it is. we don't live in the steam age anymore, we don't work the land, we've got globally mobile capital and TVs everywhere. it would be surmountingly strange if our politics were monolithic in such an atmosphere.

You've Got to Pick Up Every Stitch (tracerhand), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 12:38 (fifteen years ago) link

I still feel that you are rephrasing my view more sweepingly than I would say it. I am not saying that identity politics is necessarily a negative thing, or that on balance it does more harm than good in terms of large progressive political movements. I do think it has the potential to get overly fragmented. This is based on impressions, things I've read casually, conversations I've had, rather than any close study of the issue. (Considering the massive size of some demonstrations in recent years, it's clear that many smaller groups do link up for larger causes.)

I'll have think about it. It's not something I have sorted out.

The point about us living in an incresingly fragmented world is of course true.

(FWIW, I am not quite willing to call myself a leftist. I'm more of a left-leaning liberal than a true leftist. But a lot of what the left says makes more sense to me that what I see from any other area of the political spectrum. Not that I am asking to be let off the hook on this issue because of that, but I'm just saying, for the purposes of this thread, I don't think I speak as an American leftist.)

Rockist Scientist, Wednesday, 29 September 2004 12:57 (fifteen years ago) link

okay, i'm just saying that the overlapping identities of people in 2004 America ARE overly fragmented - not that they have the potential to be - and activism around identity politics is a positive reaction to this. sorry if i exaggerated what you were saying, i was just trying to figure out what you were saying in the first place. i still don't understand what derrick means when he says that people define themselves a certain way, and then imagine that that act of self-definition constitutes political activism. i suppose it would depend on what the self-definition consists of (shouting into an empty field? creating a reading group? joining a nonprofit organization that addresses these issues?). i agree that simply writing women spelled with a y is not really "activism" but beyond that i don't get why that's being singled out here, especailly as it pertains to an unmoored "American left" - (and sundar's question is important here - what is that? has it ever existed? i think it's always been slightly imaginary but probably began its modern imaginings alongside the labor movement of the turn of the last century) (don't forget that organized labor and the civil rights movement were not exactly best friends at all times)

You've Got to Pick Up Every Stitch (tracerhand), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 14:14 (fifteen years ago) link

don't forget that organized labor and the civil rights movement were not exactly best friends at all times

This is true, historically. But seen in retrospect, they both fit in with that broad American liberal tradition I was talking about up above. Which I think is also part of the answer to this identity politics vs. ideological politics problem -- even if the specific interests of, say, reproductive rights activists, queer activists, labor organizers, environmental activists, etc. don't overlap or are even sometimes seemingly at odds, they are all still part of the general movement of democratic liberalism over the past few centuries. But somehow democratic liberalism ends up as everyone's bogeyman -- it didn't do enough, it hasn't done enough, George Washington owned slaves. I think the democratic liberal tradition -- not just political but also intellectual and artistic -- needs some serious defending right now, and it's not getting it. In the United States, at least, a profound ignorance about our own history is allowing conservatives and Christian fundamentalists to more or less rewrite the Constitution after the fact, even without amendments (since who actually reads the Constitution anyway?).

I'm not saying that whatever New Left or Neo-neo-liberalism emerges has to be some kind of back-to-Rousseau movement, but the Renaissance and Enlightenment -- for all their flaws, compromises and betrayed revolutions -- laid some important foundations that are going to start cracking if they're not tended to. I think the left made a mistake in throwing out the Dead White Males. They need to be reclaimed, alongside Ghandi and King and all the other dead men and women of all colors who collectively liberated more people over the past 300 years than any army ever. Or so it seems to me.

gypsy mothra (gypsy mothra), Wednesday, 29 September 2004 19:28 (fifteen years ago) link

we still haven't dealt with the decline of the nation-state as organizing political category

You've Got to Pick Up Every Stitch (tracerhand), Thursday, 30 September 2004 13:25 (fifteen years ago) link

Oh yeah, how could we have missed that.

Dan I. (Dan I.), Thursday, 30 September 2004 15:34 (fifteen years ago) link

are you kidding? it's the defining feature of 21st century politics!

You've Got to Pick Up Every Stitch (tracerhand), Thursday, 30 September 2004 15:40 (fifteen years ago) link

i've been thinking of these things a lot. i've always been political and used to be much more activist, but am growing hazier on actions and absolutes. of course i'm very biased and not as informed as some of you perhaps, but i always thought the ultimate problem with the left is there ultimate goals aren't necessarily of power. if you look at who's powerful or who's rich or who's famous it's often people who put those goals before all else - how they get there is secondary. that's makes them extremely effective and unified. if your primary goals are more humanitary or experiential or philosophical and secondarily to power in order to be effectual, you can never compete.

so the question is do you want to play that game? it gets very dirty very fast. strangely enough i know of a couple who's marriage is in trouble because of one them working for moveon and is getting scarier and scarier the more entrenched in politics she gets. i like to think of tracer's scenario of people just out there doing it on a personal/community level - no matter who's in power (though of course their work gets easier or harder depending on who is). maybe i'm just more focused on being a good person and doing what you can well instead of doing ugly things that might be for the 'greater good'.

you just can't call defeat because your man doesn't make office. there are a million other things that make up your day.

lolita corpus (lolitacorpus), Thursday, 30 September 2004 18:50 (fifteen years ago) link

To respond to the thread title: Yes I had been, but I'm back on course. thx.

Spencer Chow (spencermfi), Thursday, 30 September 2004 18:51 (fifteen years ago) link

if your primary goals are more humanitary or experiential or philosophical and secondarily to power in order to be effectual, you can never compete.

This is one of the central conundrums of effective left/liberal politics in America right now. If the underlying principles of left/liberalism include humanism and broad distribution of power, then betraying those principles in order to get into office to support those principles is a morally dubious proposition. I've got this recurring metaphor of a football game, where one team wants to win but within the framework of the game -- with rules, referees, etc. -- and the other team comes out with machine guns and shoots everyone on the field and pays off the refs. If part of the argument we're having is about whether we need the rules and referees, then you can only make the case for it by playing by those rules. But how do you do that when you're playing Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, who think rules are for pussies and chumps?

I don't know. I don't think the Democrats have figured it out yet either.

spittle (spittle), Thursday, 30 September 2004 19:25 (fifteen years ago) link

(oops, that was by me -- this workstation still has my old ID cached, I guess)

gypsy mothra (gypsy mothra), Thursday, 30 September 2004 19:30 (fifteen years ago) link

ten years pass...
four years pass...

On November 30, 1999, activists shut down the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. The protests were a thrilling moment during bleak times for the socialist left. Now, years of resistance are finally paying off. @DougHenwood

— Jacobin (@jacobinmag) November 30, 2019

a Mets fan who gave up on everything in the mid '80s (Dr Morbius), Sunday, 1 December 2019 02:07 (eight months ago) link

two months pass...

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