This essay is an attempt to articulate five demands directed at the American Liberal Left. The demands highlight the weakness and deficiencies in a Leftist group that is currently impotent, ignorant, and crippled beyond belief. Mired in pessimism and negativity, the Left can be found either bemoaning the current President while offering no solutions, or they’re curled up in the corner sulking because of a recent micro-aggression against their identity, or even worse, you’ll find them denigrating and castigating Republicans using mindless name-calling. What’s been lost in the sclerotic rhetoric is an attempt to look forward at what America could be within the confines of a cooperative and collaborative dialogue. What’s been lost is an attempt to articulate what America should look like, and then a concerted effort that follows which seeks to make it actually happen. In the end, America is a project; it’s our project.
I have a deep belief in the capacity for human minds to work things out for themselves if they don’t have to live in fear. – Yanis Varoufakis
Demand #1 : Stop with the pessimism
The pessimism that’s endemic with the Left will make us more spectatorial, disgusted, and politically inactive. From my perspective, it seems that the Left can only feel complete and fulfilled if they are able to complain about our current president – without offering any solutions of course. I am willing to bet that at the end of a rainbow, you’ll find two liberals sharing their frustrations about Trump. But l don’t want to oversimplify. Perhaps the pessimism is due in part to such concerns as the pervasive effect of economic inequality, racial tension, gender inequality and angst over the threat of terrorism. I’m sure there are more examples, but there is an overarching cloud of declinism, which resigns the Left to the perspective that the sky is literally falling down upon us. But what’s wrong with pessimism? Well, pessimism fosters a do-nothingness attitude, simply because, well, everything is going to Hell in a hand-basket anyways.
I am continually awestruck at the Left’s unwillingness or blindness to articulate, and provide a strategy for, future hopes. Rather, there is an incessant desire to talk about how progress is now going backwards, rapacious government who cares little about the common American, or how the world is headed toward either environmental or nuclear disaster. Catastrophizing the world seems to the default rather than persuasive arguments that offer solutions or effective strategies. A better solution is to see America as a project; a project that views America as a bastion for the continued cultivation of freedom, liberty and justice. It’s a forward-looking perspective that relies on hope, open dialogue, and democracy to achieve a better world. If you think I sound too utopian, then simply look across the ocean at Germany, and ask yourself: how did a country, so embroiled in a barbaric past socially, and fiscally strapped economically, rebound to a strong economic powerhouse that is more inclusive and optimistic than ever? I guarantee you that pessimism wasn’t their strategy.
Demand #2 : Stop focusing on sins
The Left has become overly moralizing in its self-loathing of America’s genocidal and racist history, and the result is paralysis. We can’t demand that everyone apologize for the sins committed hundreds of years ago. I can’t apologize simply because I have never enslaved people or participated in Christopher Columbus’s genocidal campaign against the native Americans. The perpetual tendency of the Left is to moralize the past to such an extent that it normalizes guilt, self-hate and self-disgust. So crippling are the effects of the Left’s consensual self-loathing that any specter of hope or future ideal is rarely articulated. Why? Because we cannot talk about the future when it’s been dictated and imposed that we are all complicit in, for example, two World Wars and Vietnam.
Perhaps a better solution is to frame the historical past into ‘What we can learn from this?’ and juxtapose the answer to that question with ‘What kind of future should we create in order to ensure that those injustices do not reoccur?’. Likewise, when it comes to confederate statues that stand in the middle of a southern city, why not leave them up, and put up educational signs which explain to onlookers what subjugation, oppression, and dehumanization looked like in the old South (*Richmond, Virginia is doing this, and is the idea of an African-American history professor). The Left suffers from what’s called ‘presentism’ which fosters the tendency to interpret past events (e.g. sins) in terms of modern [present] values and concepts. The past has its own unique context that we can never fully step into and critique in a pure and uncontaminated way. Any of us would have easily been slaughterers if that ‘world’ was all we new and was enculturated into our personal worldview. And for that reason, we should focus on what we can learn from history’s brutal past, rather than moralizing it for the purposes of advancing a present agenda.
Simply put: we are not sinful because of our past. This thinking leads to passivity. We must have some type of pride for our future, if we are to work towards that kind of future.
Demand #3 : Stop assuming that national pride is white chauvinism
National Pride is not white chauvinism. Instead, national pride is what self-respect is to an individual; a necessary condition for self-improvement. If you have too much of it, you get hostility and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. Too little self-respect makes it too difficult to show moral courage. Thus, a lack of national pride makes effective energetic talk about change, unlikely.
National pride is a shorthand for a conception of what it is to be human. National pride illuminates such noble attributes like values, decency, virtue, dignity. National pride is a compass that points us in the direction of what we love and hope for in a society.
So what’s the point of national pride? National pride engenders unity that brings us together, along with a vision of what that looks like. When unity and vision conjoin, then there is something to be ambitious for and achieve. Both John Dewey and Walt Whitman, two 19th century major social thinkers, viewed the United States as an opportunity to see ultimate significance in a finite human historical project rather than in something eternal and non-human. They both hoped that America would be the place where a religion of love would replace a religion of fear. They wanted to put hope for a classless and casteless society in the place most commonly occupied by knowledge of the will of God. They wanted the struggle for justice to be the animating principle, the nation’s soul. For Dewey and Whitman, national pride was a cooperative project that utilized freely achieved consensus (democracy) to elevate justice, hope, and freedom.
Demand #4 : Stop with identity politics
The Left needs to stop focusing on identity politics and focus on solidarity. In America today, every group feels threatened to some extent. Whites and blacks, Latinos and Asians, men and women, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, straight people and gay people, liberals and conservatives – all feel their groups are being attacked, bullied, persecuted, discriminated against. What identity politics does is separate all groups into exclusive segments, which inevitably pits them against one another for a kind of “Oppression Olympics” to see who has suffered the most.
Fifty years ago, the rhetoric of pro–civil rights, Great Society liberals was, in its dominant voices, expressly group transcending, framed in the language of national unity and equal opportunity. The Left, however, has changed its tone. Now out-group members cannot share in the knowledge possessed by in-group members (“You can’t understand X because you are white”; “You can’t understand Y because you’re not a woman”; “You can’t speak about Z because you’re not queer”). The idea of “cultural appropriation” insists, among other things, these are our group’s symbols, traditions, patrimony, and out-group members have no right to them.
Rather than standing up for America, people are standing up for their particular sub-group. Rather than standing up for democracy, equality, and justice, the Left stands up against Beyoncé wearing an Indian bridal outfit, or white restaurateurs who build a business cooking authentic Mexican food, or if a white author writes a novel based on the experiences of a Chinese girl. When liberal icon Bernie Sanders told supporters, “It’s not good enough for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me,’ ” Quentin James, a leader of Hillary Clinton’s outreach efforts to people of color, retorted that Sanders’s “comments regarding identity politics suggest he may be a white supremacist, too”. Really?
Identity politics fosters division and exclusion, while weaponizing each sub-group with an arsenal ready for battle. Unfortunately, the Left has cried wolf too many times. If the Left is offended by somebody saying, “All lives matter” rather than, “Black lives matter,” then how can we face the real trauma of, say, 44 million Americans (of all identities) having no health insurance?
Demand #5 : Stop having street parties as a guise for protests
Change in society comes by appealing to conscience, not by today’s so-called “protests”, or by blocking highways with marchers, or condemning segments of society as impure or sinful. Today’s protests are absent of any strategy to make actual changes to law – unlike the 60s. What even counts as a protest? Civil rights protests of the 60s involved an appeal to conscious. You forced people to confront the horrible things going on, and there were specific demands being made and they were directly made to an appeal to conscious, e.g. we should not be made to sit in the back of the bus. Today, what we call “protests” are really inconvenient street parties. What specific Occupy Wall Street demand do you remember? And think about how the Left handled a call for women’s rights in 2017. The solution was a nationwide block party of women (and men) donning pink p*ssy hats with their BFF’s and a Starbucks latte in hand. Do you think Capitol Hill was seriously nervous over millions of Leftist’s protesting with their goofy pink hats? Or do you think that shutting down a highway and frustrating the motorists in your city will force the police to be more just? If so, you’re being naïve. In contrast, when you had a sit down in factories or rallies against the Vietnam War in the 60s, it was actually part of a negotiation tactic that fomented change.
Protests can’t be a giant “F You!”. It can’t be that certain segments of society are deplorable and we demand in some vague way that they change. We have to operate within the system, the discursive fabric, which means you have to have some type of power that’s not a type of pseudo authority from on high, you have to appeal to conscious, or you have to persuade, or as with the workers you have to have a relationship with the people you’re trying to get to reach demands.
A protest that realizes this vision, is not simply a protest that condemns, or says America is bad because of all these atrocities. It says we all can work together for this possible future, and we’re all worthy of it, and we’re all capable of it.
Given the present tactics are not working, philosopher Richard Rorty suggested an appeal to conscience and persuasive arguments which gain sympathizers for a worthy cause. We see such tactics when we look back to political shifts like the civil rights movement and gender equality. With civil rights and gender equality, there is a stark difference in rights, or lack thereof, when you compare, say, 1910 with 2010. The reasons for the shift were persuasive arguments that appealed to the conscience of American society. It wasn’t name calling and violence in the street that united both sides, rather, it was people like Martin Luther King and feminist icon Betty Frieden who used their passion and mind to not only change minds but also change legislation. You simply can’t win people over by shutting down the highway for a march or castigating people who think differently.
The iconoclasts of the past that garnered tectonic change in society had one thing in common: they had a hope for a better future. As opposed to pessimism, talk that expresses hope of a future is what can catalyze change and spread like a contagion.
Final Words …
If I had a #6 demand, it would be, stop insisting we let everyone into our country. This #6 highlights a deeper thought that is weaved into my initial 5 demands, and it’s this: there is always a middle between two extremes. When feeling threatened, it’s consoling to gravitate to the extremes and hunker down. However, most often, cooperation and the collaborative process remains in the middle between the extremes. Just as we shouldn’t let everyone into the country, we should not give everyone a gun. The answer to our current vexing dilemmas lie in the shared democracy that takes place in the middle.
Christopher Hitchens once said, “the first step towards being stupid is being partisan.” In other words, we all become stupid when we hunker down with our tribe, and only our tribe. I listed my 5 demands because the Left has become so partisan, that a collective anxiety has taken over. This pervasive angst is paralyzing the Left making political action a distant option. Unlike most of the Left, in no way do I think the sky is falling, and I refuse to. It’s in my refusal, that hope, dignity and opportunity can remain viable pursuits for the America I want.
Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups . . . it is the rule. – Friedrich Nietzsche