Back in the day when I still thought of myself as a dissident liberal instead of a swing-voting Independent with rightish tendencies at the top of my list, I was surprised at how many of my old comrades on the left thought that because I favored regime-change in Iraq (something I supported long before I even knew George W. Bush existed) I was somehow, all of a sudden, a Republican. What the hell? I was genuinely baffled. Why couldn’t I just be a liberal hawk? I understood perfectly well that anti-war liberals thought the liberal hawk position was a noxious one. But I couldn’t understand why others couldn’t grasp that liberal hawks even existed. A liberal hawk is no more a “conservative” than a pro-choice Republican is a “liberal.”
“Conservative Democrat” and “Liberal Republican” are, perhaps, fair designations for party members who wander off the reservation. But no one ever thought to lob “conservative Democrat” in my direction instead of something along the lines of “Republican shill,” “Republican hack,” “fascist neocon,” or what have you. I might have accepted “conservative Democrat,” even though actual conservative Democrats like Zell Miller and Joe Lieberman make me cringe with their sanctimonious moralizing and bombast. I’ll take the liberal blue-state Republicanism of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani any day over the so-called liberalism of those two.
I finally figured out that the war in Iraq had nothing to do with anything, really. It was a lightning rod for something else. I should have known all along what it was. I had experienced it in the past.
Back in 2000 I watched the election results in Portland’s fanciest hotel, The Benson, where the president of the United States (whoever he happens to be at the time) stays when he rolls into town. I was there with my friend Sean LaFreniere. We were Democrats and this was where the Democratic Party had its election night headquarters. So we felt right at home, even though both Sean and I voted for Ralph Nader as a protest vote against the mind-bogglingly irritating Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. (Since then Gore turns me off even more, if such a thing is possible, and I’ve come to have some margin of respect for Joe Lieberman, who still generally raises my hackles for many of the usual reasons.)
Anyway, as the election results came in Sean made an utterly innocuous comment about Ralph Nader: “It looks like he’s doing pretty good in Madison (Wisconsin).” This was overheard by a woman sitting next to us who exploded with instant and frightening volcanic rage. Spittle flew. Her face became red. She actually raised her fists. She screamed. God, she must have screamed herself hoarse.
It was quite a scene, let me tell you. I thought for sure that others in the room would come to Sean’s and my defense. But I was still pretty naïve about politics then. We faced a hostile mob. These were well-dressed professionals in the swankiest hotel in the entire state of Oregon, trembling with rage and shouting “Fuck You,” “Get Out,” and threatening physical violence if we didn’t comply. A photographer from The Oregonian was there (and he was on the clock, too) and he came to our defense. I thought it was a bit brave and rather interventionist for a man who was supposed to be a neutral journalistic observer. But that’s how bad it was.
Sean and I were successfully driven out. We were both shaken, and neither of us have had any affection for the Democrats since. Both of us at that time would have described ourselves as farther to the left than 90 percent of Americans. Yet we agreed that the Democratic Party, at least its active core, reeked with a palpable Stalinism. We were “traitors,” “objectively pro-Bush” since our votes for the leftist candidate were actually “votes for” the right-wing. I’m still shocked five years later at how much we were hated by total strangers in a place where people were expected to behave at their absolute best.
I am aware that it was Sean and I who were dabbling in the fringe politics of the left, rather than the so-called liberal mob at the hotel. And so perhaps it was slightly silly for us to think of those people as reeking of Stalinism. Their opinions were in all liklihood far more moderate than ours. But that’s how it felt at the time. They didn’t act remotely like moderates. We were infinitely more tolerant of our own differences with them than the other way round. Otherwise we would not have joined them with what started out as good cheer. If Sean and I had expressed some sort of nasty communistic International ANSWER-like opinions in public, maybe I could have understood their fierce denunciations. But we weren’t lunatic crackpots or freaks. We were just unhappy liberals who didn’t think much of either Al or George W.
It didn’t make any difference that Sean and I said we were registered Democrats, that we agreed with the core principles of the Democratic Party, that our vote for Nader was a protest against a pathetic gasbag of a candidate rather than an endorsement of his opponent or anything “right-wing.” What we believed and cared about was irrelevant. Only our actions mattered. This makes sense on some level, since action and results really do matter more than thoughts and intentions. Still, these people could not accept us as a part of their group in good standing because we had behaved incorrectly and gave “aid and comfort” to “the enemy.”
The same sort of thing happened in the runup to the war in Iraq. My support for the war may have been made on liberal grounds, but it gave “aid and comfort” to the Republican Party. Hysterical denunciations commenced. (I wasn’t kind to anti-war lefties then, and to this day I still don’t go easy on those who can’t show a little integrity, unlike Matthew Yglesias, Todd Gitlin, and Matt Welch who do have some integrity. I accept that I was asking for it at least to an extent. If I send out bad vibes to a group of people, I shouldn’t expect hugs in return – and I don’t.)
Anyway, it finally clicked, what separated me from the left-wing herd for many years even before 911. So many of them are activists. I’m not — not in any way shape or form whatsoever. I’m a book-reader, an intellectual, and a writer. I’m interested in history and ideas. They are interested in activism and power. You can’t tell an activist that Al Gore is a blowhard and a phony, or that Saddam Hussein ran a filthy regime that had no right to exist. These ideas are important to intellectuals, yet they are obstacles to activists. These ideas, whether they’re true or not, help the Republican Party. Therefore, to an activist, anyone who points them out must want to help the Republican Party. Otherwise, why do it? They certainly wouldn’t. It flies in the face of their job description.
My friend and editor (at the LA Weekly) Marc Cooper is a leftist intellectual. He likewise isn’t an activist, at least in part because he has many years of bad experiences with them under his belt. He links to an essay in Lip Magazine by Doug Henwood, Lisa Featherstone, and Christian Parenti, also left intellectuals, who butt heads with the same (literally) mindless beast.
“WE CAN’T GET BOGGED DOWN IN ANALYSIS,” one activist told us at an antiwar rally in New York a while back, spitting out that last word like a hairball. He could have relaxed his vigilance. This event deftly avoided such bogs, loudly opposing the US bombing in Afghanistan without offering any credible ideas about it (we’re not counting the notion that the entire escapade was driven by Unocal and Lockheed Martin). But the moment called for doing something more than brandishing the exact same signs—Stop the Bombing and No War for Oil—that activists poked skyward during the first Gulf War. This latest war called for some thinking, and few were doing much of that.
So what is the ideology of the activist left (and by that we mean the global justice, peace, media democracy, community organizing, financial populist and green movements)? Is the activist left just an inchoate “post-ideological” mass of do-gooders, pragmatists and puppeteers? No. The young troublemakers of today do have an ideology and it is as deeply felt and intellectually totalizing as any of the great belief systems of yore. The cadres who populate those endless meetings, who bang the drum, who lead the “trainings” and paint the puppets, do indeed have a creed. They are activistists.
That’s right, activistists. This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hypermediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a 19th-century temperance crusade. In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists. And the one who acts is righteous. The activistists seem to borrow their philosophy from the factory boss in a Heinrich Böll short story who greets his employees each morning with the exhortation “Let’s have some action.” To which the workers obediently reply: “Action will be taken!”…
How does activist anti-intellectualism manifest on the ground? One instance is the reduction of strategy to mere tactics, to horrible effect. Take for example the largely failed San Francisco protest against the National Association of Broadcasters, an action that ended up costing tens of thousands of dollars, gained almost no attention, had no impact on the NAB and nearly ruined one of the sponsoring organizations. During a postmortem discussion of this debacle one of the organizers reminded her audience that: “We had 3,000 people marching through [the shopping district] Union Square protesting the media. That’s amazing. It had never happened before.” Never mind the utter non-impact of this aimless march. The point was clear: We marched for ourselves. We were our own targets. Activism made us good.
Such people may not wish to get “bogged down in analysis.” But that only means they’ll get bogged down in something else, something worse: a reactionary anti-intellectual quagmire. If dissidents are democracy’s anti-toxins, deliberately brainless reactionaries are its toxins. They’re also thugs, and about as much fun to hang out with as fundamentalist religious fanatics and book-burners.
Marc Cooper writes in his own comments section in defense of yet another disgruntled leftist who posts there named Josh:
I personally find Josh’s postings to be quite authentic and heartfelt. Do they reflect a certain amount of resentment and disillusionment? Yes. So what? He’s entitled to feel that. It’s extremely difficult to maintain normal personal relationships with hyper-activsists— the atmosphere leaves little room for doubt or nuance. Perhaps someone should ask Josh what it was in his personal experience that generated so much hostiltity toward the Lefties he once worked with. And then after you ask, you might actually listen. Personally, I can’t think of anything worse than spending a Friday night in a dreary meeting with preachy self-righteous activists. About 20 years ago I ceased that practice. And then about 8 years ago I found it was TOO painful to even attend those meetings as the invited speaker (I would always regret having pissed away a perfectly good evening). And for the last 5 years I try to avoid those functions even as a reporter… I can only watch people twinkle with their fingers so many times before full nausea sets in.
I dunno..my wife is a Chilean Socialist and feels pretty much the same way about those sort of meetings. And my daughther, the infamous union organizer, was probably turned off for life by the BS she experienced as a member of small campus-based “Progressive Student Alliance” during the run-up to the Iraq War. Indeed, that’s one reason she went into the unions– to escape into the real world and flee from the sectarian grupuscle wanking off that dominates activist politics.
A healthy democracy really does need its dissidents. And dissidents need to be active. It’s not always enough to write books, articles, and blog posts.
Perhaps my endorsement of the invasion of Iraq really was a stupid idea. Believe me, I wonder sometimes. I’ve been wrong about foreign policy before, and I’m bound to be wrong again. I like and need to have smart people who think I’m wrong tell me where I’ve gone off the rails. That’s why I read the likes of Marc Cooper and Matthew Yglesias. An echo chamber is an invisible mind prison. I’ll pass on that, thanks. I wish more people felt the same way.
UPDATE: See also Bravo Romeo Delta at Anticipatory Retaliation: “I wish, I do wish, that the Democratic Party would expel this particular kidney stone – I prefer living in a two party system. Not a system of one party and one rabble of the outraged.”