HOW REACTING TO RIGHT WING BIGOTRY CAN LEAD TO A REJECTION OF VALUES
Kudos to the people who converged on Boston and other cities all over the country in confronting Right Wing extremism with reason and non-violence. The events in Charlottesville left a bad taste in our mouths for many reasons. One stand-out influence, however, was the disproportionality of the groups involved. If we were to judge American society based on group participation in Charlottesville, one would think that half the population was far right zealots while the other half was divided into a minority of peaceful protestors and a majority of militant leftists. Boston restored proportionality to the debate. The far right is a marginal presence in American society while those who oppose bigotry and intolerance are the vast majority. Furthermore, when the majority establishes a presence in the face of the bigotted right, there’s little need for the minuscule militants of Antifa and what has been termed the “Alt Left.”
Another great salve from the Boston counter-protests was in restoring our faith in a reasoned and peaceful response in the face of mindless irrationality and hatred. Look, it’s easy to have a visceral response to Nazis marching down one of our cities’ streets. It’s easy to become angry, start finger pointing and throwing around accusations. When the President of the United States equates your brothers and sisters standing up for equality and justice with those who would instigate race wars and genocide it’s easy to be reactionary. Certainly, I’m not immune to such an emotional response. Lately, it’s all I can do to avoid falling into the reactionary trap and to keep my wits and, more importantly, my values about me. But in the end, this debate is a contest between mindless bigotry and irrationality and Enlightened values of reason, liberty, and justice.
We cannot forget this fact. Our focus must always fall on the side of reason against reaction. Charlottesville was an anomaly of contemporary political debate. It was not the norm. Unfortunately, too many among the left forgot this fact. Indeed, seeing that car crush through innocent protestors temporarily blinded me, forcing me to ask, “what the hell is going on with the world.” But it wasn’t happening to the world, or even to the nation. What happened in Charlottesville was specific to that particular time and place under those particular circumstances. Boston proved that reason and humanity still reign in the United States, despite the banality of our discourse.
The juxtaposition of our response to Charlottesville and the sense of relief we all felt when counter-protestors in Boston restored perspective may be a good time to examine what it means to be a member of the Left and what a Left discourse really stands for. It’s a good time to examine what the nation really looks like and the real state of the conversation between left and right.
My last post I expressed my frustration with how difficult it was to find any conservative sources, whether they were the standard right publications or conservative friends, who were willing to flat-out condemn Nazis and White Supremacists. I came up disappointed. Conservative sources were, of course, serving the rhetorical requirements of their political agenda. Namely, damage control. Since there’s no way to really white-wash Nazis (pun intended) the only available discursive strategy was to find some way to bring the left down, to place at least some blame on the counter-protestors. This is conservatism 101. My conservative friends, on the other hand, were perfectly happy to accept this rhetoric because, for many of them, their right-wing conservative beliefs are integral to their identities. The vile actions of Nazis was an affront to that identity. Attacking the left as equally culpable was a bizarre form of ideational self-defense.
It’s important to note, however, that neither the publications I viewed nor my right-wing friends are Nazis. Their response to the events in Charlottesville were disappointing, but sometimes people disappoint. That’s just being people. Yet from many people on the left I talked to or read from their social media profiles, were using what I call “those people” discourse in expressing their positions. This is exactly the same kind of sweeping generalization that I deride on the part of the right when they refer to Muslims or people of color as inherently prone to terrorism or criminality or laziness. In this case, many on the left assumed that all conservatives were one in the same with Nazis. I may have inferred this myself when I said, “I’m among the number that refuses to use the term “Alt Right“. This is especially true with regard to the response to the events that happened in Charlottesville. Conservative response to the so-called Alt Right makes clear that there is no “Alt”. It’s just the Right.”
Well, maybe such a description was a bit hasty. Maybe there’s more nuance and more context to the discussion than I let on. I might have wanted to add a qualifier that, though I feel that the Alt Right shares its fundamental belief in group superiority with the rest of the conservative spectrum, that doesn’t make them all Nazis or even racists. Group superiority can be defined in a number of intersectional ways, after all.
The left must reject the “those people” discourse in all of its forms as a part of conscience. It’s not easy to do when the very nature of discourse is one of in-group and out-group dynamics, right vs. left, liberal vs. conservative. Condemning “those people” does nothing more than create closure that inhibits fruitful discussion. There’s no compromising with those people. There’s no way to understand what those people are thinking. Yet this flies in the face of a left discourse of reason as well as a value on human dignity. In the end, it’s the same kind of equivocation that we condemned from the right.
Most disturbingly, a “those people” discourse establishes the very mentality that justifies violence. We see this from Antifa and the BlackBloc and other militant left groups. The underlying assumption is that the only thing that “those people” understand is violence, a show of force, a punch in the face. Offensive violence against the out-group is then justified as a twisted form of self-defense. From there, it’s not much of a leap to condone bombing or shooting. Then, when we equate all conservatives with Nazism, we set ourselves up to expand the target base. At that point, anything the left might have to say is lost.
The counter-protestors in Boston reminded us that violence is not the only tool at our disposal. They demonstrated that, when faced with a response proportionate to the true values of the people, right-wing extremists pack their bags and go home. In Boston, a rally that was planned to last three hours, ended after a little more than one as participants left the stage in the face overwhelming volume. Working smart, communicating and networking and educating are much better weapons against mindless hatred than is violence. Violence only entrenches the hate.
I have even heard stories of some on the left turning against their own compatriots for not being militant enough in the face of the Charlottesville Nazis. Those who suggest that maybe punching a fascist in the face is not an appropriate response are denounced as closet Nazis. Suggesting that vandalizing the Confederate statues is not the right strategy is condemned even if it is agreed that the memorials must go. One of my friends told me that he was called a Nazi for suggesting that the statues be placed in a museum rather than destroyed.
I see this mostly from those who are new to the movement, many of whom were brought into left politics by Bernie Sanders and his campaign. Maybe it’s youth or lack of experience and understanding with left history. The political left is many things but it has never been singularly focused. A left coalition must, by necessity, be a big tent. Some of our newer members are looking for a level of purity that has no precedent. Furthermore, this is another attribute of the right, an unwillingness to brook any deviation from the orthodox, that the left rightfully condemns. If we can get a roomful of leftists to agree on an overall theme, that’s about the best we can ask for. If that’s not purist enough for you, you’ve probably chosen the wrong politics.
The Charlottesville and Boston protests and counter-protests are arguably more instructive about the conscience of left politics than it is the right. If we can stay true to the basic premise of reason and justice and a class critique of capitalism, while at the same time accepting the nuance of our fellow travelers, we might just make some progress. If we can confront our political opposition while still recognizing its humanity, we may even win some converts. It’s easy to stray from these ideals. I fall guilty of such transgression myself. But we should have the moral and intellectual veracity to accept when our passions are misplaced and to right our course.