A Winning Liberal Strategy For 2020: Scolding The ‘Hard Left’

With the 2018 elections only a few months away and with the 2020 election season about to commence, concerned citizens should begin devising strategies for wresting back control of the House, the Senate, the White House, and many blocks of affordable housing in Washington DC back from the feckless Republicans dunking the American republic in the Trump swamp. Fortunately for Democratic voters, liberals, progressives, members of the ‘hard left,’ and sundry other disaffected Americans, a winning strategy has already been devised by those who voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections. The simplicity of this strategy is bracing; it requires little to implement, and can be carried out all day from home, while traveling or commuting, or in-between breaks at work.

Here is how it goes: on social media and indeed, on all available media outlets, blame the loss of the 2016 election not on those who voted for Donald Trump but rather on those who did not vote for Hillary Clinton. (This strategy does require the person doing the blaming to overlook the fact that a large-scale political event like a once in four years presidential election is massively overdetermined with multiple factors playing significant causal roles–like the design of the American electoral system or campaign strategies of choice. Be that as it may, such considerations are mere distractions to decisive action in these times.)

This blaming can proceed along several axes: an easy one is to pick one out of the long list of political, social, economic, and legal disasters that have befallen the Republic since that fateful November 9th in 2016, and to say “This is on you <Bernie bros, doctrinaire leftists, Marxists, postmodernists, or whatever>!” A variant of this is “Well, I hope you are happy, Bernie-Jill Stein voter-bro, you got what you wanted!” or to mutter “But, but, her emails!” (The latter, however, suffers from a simple confusion; the ’emails’ were of great concern to Trump voters–well known for being sticklers for security in all matters pertaining to internet communications–so the liberal scold here runs the risk of not directly addressing the demographic he or she would like to castigate.)

The success of this strategy is all but foretold. After all, not only did this sort of premptive scolding work to great effect in the lead up to the 2016 election, but as a vast literature on political and community organizing shows, shaming, blaming, and scolding are proven strategies for building broad political coalitions. Such imprecations always make their target eager to build alliances with those doing the blaming; their moral and political faults so clearly identified and laid out for all to see, they can now return to the fold with their tails tucked between their legs, all the more enthusiastic about the education they are to receive in how to correctly exercise their adult electoral franchise.

Readers will be happy to know that the implementation of this tactic is well under way. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement appears to have been the flag drop, and we’re off. Time to sit back and dream about impeachment, veto-proof legislation, and a huge, massive, bomb of a blue wave.

Chelsea Manning’s Bad Luck With The American Polity

In The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind The Wikileaks Whistleblower(Verso Press, New York, 2013) Chase Madar writes:

If any lesson can be drawn from the Manning affair, it’s that leaks can make a great difference if there is organized political muscle to put them to good use. Information on its own is futile; as useless as those other false hopes of the global center-left, international law and its sidekick, the human rights industry, all of which have their uses, but are insufficient to stop wars and end torture. This is not to denigrate the achievements of the person who have us this magnificent gift of knowledge about world affairs. If the disclosures have not changed US statecraft–yet–the fault lies not in the cables, but in the pathetic lack of political organization among those individuals who don’t “have a position” in Halliburton stock–the 99% if you will.

There are two theses presented here by Madar: a) information is sterile unless coupled with political organization and action, and b) international law and the ‘human rights industry’ are ‘insufficient to stop wars and end torture’–they are ‘false hopes.’ (The former claim may be understood as a variant of Marcuse‘s praxis + theory axiom of politics.)

The seeming inefficacy of Chelsea Manning‘s leaks of a veritable treasure trove of revelations about the conduct of US foreign policy and warfare now becomes explicable; those seeds fell on infertile ground. Manning’s leaks were fed to a polity that is at heart conformist and accepting of authority, and whose most suffering faction–the staggering 99%–is disorganized, apathetic in large sectors, and all too easily resigned to a fate characterized by endless wars and a Nietzschean endless recurrence of the same cast of political characters and ideologies ruling the roost. ‘On its own’ information has no political valence; it is only when it serves as the premise of a political argument that it acquires traction.  At the risk of invoking the wrath of those who dislike military metaphors, perhaps we can think of information as ammunition; indispensable, yet insufficient without the right sorts of blunderbusses. (That pair of ‘false hopes of the global center-left, international law and its sidekick, the human rights industry’ are similarly indicted: both, on their own, decoupled from the capacity to enforce and from organized political muscle, are reduced to platitudes, mouthed in predictable time and fashion by the usual suspects. No enforcement authority backs them up; and the political realism of the postivisitic conception of both law and rights appears ever plausible.)

America got lucky with Chelsea Manning; but the luck only went in one direction. Manning didn’t get lucky with her nation; she was feeding information to a polity that didn’t know what to do with it (and which instead, called her a ‘traitor’ and imprisoned and tortured her.) The reception to the Panama Papers, which despite the initial furore, and even the odd resignation or two, is best described as equal parts yawn and shrug, provides further confirmation for this claim. Artful dodging of local jurisdictions to enable ‘fraud, kleptocracy, tax evasion, and evading international sanctions’ is old hat; and there is nothing we can do about it anyway.

Back to rearranging chairs on deck.

The Trump Rally In Chicago Was Not ‘Shut Down’

The Donald Trump rally in Chicago on March 11th was not ‘shut down.’ It was called off by Trump himself, a decision for which the Chicago Police stated they had not extended any support (they did not consider the situation to be out of hand.) The protesters showed up in numbers thanks to advance organization, and were greeted in the same way all protesters are at Trump rallies–with abuse, and threats of violence. But this time, the protesters were different; they had come in numbers and were much, much louder. And there is strength in numbers, which means that the same bullying which saw single, isolated protesters get beaten, abused, mocked, and ultimately ejected from other Trump rallies, ran up against a wall of locked arms and even louder chants. Violence against such numbers quickly fades from viability: if anyone had dared throw a sucker punch at a protester, it would have been responded to with ten punches. Bullying works when you have superior numbers and/or perceived or actual strength. When you don’t, you get bullied right back. Bullies always, always, back off when they are first confronted with anything resembling a credible threat. Trump behaved like all bullies do when an ostensible victim fought back – he ran for the hills.

One reaction to these events is that the protest and the ‘shutting down’ plays into Trump’s electoral strategy: he can play the role of victim, claim his right to free speech is being infringed (an idiotic claim because–other than in exceptional cases–First Amendment rights cannot be infringed by private actors), and enable him to fire up his ‘base.’ Now, it can’t possibly be a consequence of this position that no one should protest at Trump’s rallies–that would have had the ironic effect of shutting down Trump opponents’ rights to protest. This suggests there are only two options for protesters. Either loners show up to to protest and get beaten and abused as before, or for safety’s sake, masses show up as in Chicago, provoke loud, angry responses, and Trump shuts down again. In that case, he will keep whining like a bully, perhaps his base will be ‘energized’ and they will become more ugly, which might in turn lead other Trump-opponents becoming even more turned off by him, and possibly becoming more ‘energized’ in turn. Or, perhaps protesters could protest outside Trump rallies, and not inside their venues. But in that case,  my guess is that those protesters would still be attacked and abused by Trump supporters–remember, this is a crowd that has been fed possibly illegal incitements to violence from Trump for a while now. Either there are ‘rumbles’ inside, or they will happen outside. That’s what Trump folks do. And if there is a rumble, I suspect the protesters will fight back–if they have the numbers–and take the chance that the Trump rally will be ‘shut down’ and for that fact to be blamed on them.

The claim that the Trump campaign got what it wanted, and that therefore, loud mass protests at Trump rallies should cease misses out on the fact that Trump opponents also got what they wanted: a demonstration of unity and capacity to mobilize, and strength in numbers, . They too will get ‘endless publicity;’ they too know how to manipulate social media.

This is democratic politics–messy, crude, with all its rough edges–in action. People speak, people protest. Democracy would be absent if the government intervened and threw people into jail just for speaking their minds. Those who have been inciting violence for months now bear all the responsibility for the curvature of the arc that has tended from speech to violence.

A Sympathy Inducing Reminder Of Basic Human Wants

A few years ago, a young union organizer stopped by my office to talk with me about an upcoming campaign of activism directed at CUNY administration. As we spoke, I felt increasingly impatient. I didn’t need to be ‘organized’; my participation in the activities planned by the union was a foregone conclusion; this young man was preaching to the converted. I tried to indicate as much so that his energies could be more usefully utilized elsewhere, but he was undeterred; it was quite clear he–a novice activist–was working with a script, and was going to stick to it to no matter what. Finally, struggling to keep my irritable disposition under control, I brought the meeting to a close, and ushered him out. Later, still put off, I commented to a friend of mine on how the young organizer needed to ‘get his act together.’

A couple of weeks later, walking through campus, I saw the same young man sitting by himself, eating a sandwich for lunch. My initial reaction on seeing him had been to hope that he would not catch sight of me and launch into his organizing spiel. But as I looked at him, quietly working his way through his solitary meal, an entirely different emotion ran through me, one that replaced the irritation I had come to associate with him.

I felt, most of all, a curious emotion that I can only describe as a hybrid of sympathy, pity, and affection; it might be the feeling that courses through us when we see a small child playing by itself. Strangely enough, as I looked at that young man, I felt protective of him. I felt too, regret at yet another failure of kindness, even if not overtly expressed; I had not been accommodating and understanding enough of his enthusiasm for his work, of his naiveté and sincerity. I felt ashamed I had ever thought so harshly of him, spoken so unkindly about him. I had been impatient and dismissive; he had merely been doing his job even if one could quibble with his tactical allocation of effort.

This change in my perception of this young man had been brought on, I think, by witnessing him at a moment of acute vulnerability. He was all alone, engaging in an act that all humans engage in,  eating a meal. Somehow the simple business of quietly eating a sandwich in solitude had reminded me of his humanity. When I had encountered him in my office, he had been a pesky irritant, diverting me from my work, subjecting me to an argument the contours of which I knew too well. Here, all that was gone; now, there was only a young man nourishing himself. All alone. Somehow, at that moment, he became just another person trying–imperfectly, at the best of times–to find his way in this world, all the while not free of his most basic human wants. Here, by himself, he was taking care of them.

At that moment, that little glimpse of that young man was all that was needed for me to see him in an entirely new light. My old feelings could resurface were I to encounter him in a similar context, but perhaps then, hopefully, they would be tempered by the knowledge of the sensations that I had just experienced.

Distraction, Political Activism Online, and the Neglected Physical Sphere

Frank Pasquale left a very interesting comment on my post yesterday, highlighting the political implications of the attention deficit disorder that the ‘Net facilitates and enhances. (Please read the full comment, and if you have the time, chase down the wonderful links that Pasquale provides. Ironic advice, perhaps, given the subject under discussion.)

I want to respond to the opening statement of  Pasquale’s comment:

Rather than empowering new forms of solidarity and political activism, the web may just distract us from them.

In particular, I want to do so by focusing on a kind of activism that suggests itself as a natural strategy to all too many today, that the way to be politically active, an ‘agent of change,’ is to be a ‘thought leader’: to blog, tweet, Facebook-discuss, Twitter-converse, to ‘influence the conversation’ by jumping into the online fracas, dishing out our own, assuredly-unique contribution to the mix. After all, we’re changing minds, one at time, by sending on all these links, writing all these posts, pushing and prodding information hither-n-thither, directing it in the appropriate ways to the appropriate folks. Aren’t we?

So that’s what we do, staying online as we do so, perpetuating and sustaining a set of persistent fantasies associated with the Internet. One of these is the illusion that one’s Internet audience is all there is, all that one needs to worry about. So, when we step out into physical space, away from our keyboards, our activist energies depleted, our work for the day is done. The keyboard is where I do my political work. We’re all cyber-journalists, cyber-polemicists, cyber-pamphleteers, cyber-radical presses now.

My worry about this is the converse of the fear expressed in Frank’s comment: that not just may the web distract us from ’empowering new forms of solidarity and political activism,’ it might tempt us into discharging our political batteries online. It might lead us to disdain the boring, tedious, often unrewarding forms of collective action that are still required in physical space to make political change happen: Do I really need to go for that rally when I’ve already done my bit by forwarding fifty links from the bloggers with the biggest Klout? Why bother attending activist meetings when I’m leading the conversation online?

The excessive attention paid to–and the hosannas showered on–social media tools during the Arab Spring, and indeed, protests elsewhere in the world, seem to have convinced all too many–who I suspect were already primed for such news–that physical space interactions can now be disdained in favor of social-media-capital-accumulation. All to be spent on political purchases, of course.

But this well-intended strategy goes all too wrong, all too quickly. For online is where we stay, distracted, and satisfied by retweets, forwards, link-backs, and Facebook-shares. Sure, we aren’t turned on by the ka-ching of cash registers–we are too elevated for that–but we love watching other numbers pile up. Paying too much attention to those is a diversion too, away from the grubbiness, messiness, and persistent intractability of political work in the physical sphere.