Wednesday, February 09, 2005

“So I'm flirting with the right. Sue me.”

About a week ago, I posted a comment on my friend Alex's blog. Alex was blogging about how his political beliefs have shifted "right"-ward (I use the quotations because I'm not sure from what he describes that there is any movement in his beliefs or values) and how he didn't like some of what he saw at the World Social Forum in Porto Allegre, Brazil.

Alex is an excellent human being, a talented and considerate man with weird pheromones who is in the midst of a psychosocial moratorium taking place in what seems to be a lovely, sun-flooded spot in the southern hemisphere. I don't doubt that he comes to political decisions after lengthy and weighty thought, but I smelled something fishy in his last few blogposts. So, I decided to respond.

His initial post and my initial response

And then he responded:

His response to my response

And now, after a week delay, here is my response to his response to my response to his post:

Blogzil, I would sue you if your comments made any juridical sense. But I read and read and read this, and I don’t see a reasoned critique of politics. I see a critique of style and image, and I see your unwillingness to engage your political environment constructively.

So I’m not picking on you for being a raving right-wing nutjob. You haven’t said anything to indicate that you are a raving right-wing nutjob, because you have not yet professed political beliefs. (“Pro-globalization” and “pro-capitalism” and “pro-Israel” are closer to baseball teams than to beliefs, though I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you can articulate more fully what “pro-Israel” means if you’re called upon to do so.) In your WSF posts, you have only derided an arbitrary cluster of people whom you have taken as representative of what you call the “far left,” but you haven’t articulated any beliefs that this “far left” may have.

To be fair, the one political belief of the “far left” that you did mention was the poster celebrating the Iraqi resistance. I agree that that’s so offensively stupid. That’s an example of ideology turning into zealotry and blindness. I’m no stranger to this phenomenon, and I too think it’s dangerously naïve. As in, those folks who stand outside Harvard Square and distribute MIMNotes that carry articles lauding Castro as a hero and lambasting “Amerikkka,” and set up their weirdly off-message kiosks near carefully planned and more thoughtful political actions, cannibalizing the latter’s audience, who the hell are those people talking to?

I’m thinking in particular of all the Socialist Workers of the World folks who spontaneously materialized at Harvard Living Wage rallies in 2001 and screamed off-key messages about capitalist pig fascism. At first I was really embarrassed, and since I was handling some media stuff for the Living Wage sit-in, I was concerned about the image that raving lefty loonies would project onto the campaign as a whole. I confronted the Workers of the World and illiberally asked them to move their “CAPITALISM IS $LAVERY” posters out of sight, and then I interrogated their politics and got into useless fights about how the Living Wage campaign would only suffer from their participation. I was very assiduous in my image watch, too.

But after a while, I had a revelation: so what? So what if there are a handful of weird believers in a crowd of thousands of thoughtful and well-informed supporters? The only people who conflated the beliefs professed by the Workers of the World folks and the beliefs professed by the sit-in folks were people who were too cautious and haughty to climb down from their lofty positions of judgmental observation to ask a Living Wage supporter why he or she thought Harvard service workers deserved enough money to live. Someone who was genuinely concerned about the political values of the sitters-in (and their supporters) would have just spoken to them and seen that their motivations and political understandings were nuanced, generous, and desirable.

The point of the proceeding three paragraphs is that appearances seldom reflect reality. And this brings me to my first criticism of your criticism of WSF politics: you are criticizing image, but you aren’t criticizing substance. What did the guy in the keffiyah have to say about Israel? Or did you not speak to him, because you were so turned off by his fashion? One phrase from your response was particularly illustrative:

In short, the conscensus [sic] on display at the forum (which I'm sure was not a real conscensus actually believed by everyone) was, to my eyes, ludicrous and wrong.

So here you admit that what you perceived was “conscensus” was actually nobody’s consensus. You projected what you thought was consensus onto a very, very large and heterogeneous confluence of people based on what you saw in the fashion of a few. Yes, you’re on a “vision quest,” but that doesn’t mean you can get away with using only your eyes.

Which brings me to my second criticism of your criticism of the WSF. You “challenged the conscensus in small ways...[and] found a lot of receptive ears,” so not only did you have room to challenge the political conservation, but also in the act of challenging, you were becoming the political conversation. Isn’t consensus great in this way? When you don’t like the politics that you are being associated with, you get the chance to reshape those politics. Airing your political gripes is a lot more meaningful than silently filling up on Hate-o-rade at the forum and then coming home to blog your misgivings about something that can’t return your fire. So if the recycling and trash bags at the conference are overflowing, then make a sign. Talk to the organizers. Take twenty seconds to put up a $.01 piece of folded plastic to remedy the immediate situation. Don’t just blog about it.

If you think that your small acts of speaking out didn’t give you enough of a voice at the conference, organize a caucus of like-minded people to air your concerns at the next WSF. That might still make you feel like you are a tiny island of reasonable dissent in a sea of illogic, but I urge you away from your first response this time around, which was to flee toward any alternative (in this case, your “flirtation” with the “right”). Get over your fear of being categorized with people whose political beliefs aren’t exact mirrors of your own, and then reshape this category so that voices of reason like yours can be heard. All right? Don’t pretend “left” is something that it is not.

That’s all I gotta say.

1 comment:

$eth said...


I wanted to respond briefly to your response to Alex's response to your response to his post.

Alex does not, in his posts, engage in constructive political discussion. He does, however, describe his experiences at a conference. I agree with you that it was a poor choice to do so without providing more of an explanation of why he has drifted right, what ideas he found at the conference that he once believed and now has abandoned, and where his right-drifting has brought him.

At the same time, I can sympathize with some of the feelings that he has. You ask "So what if there are a handful of weird believers in a crowd of thousands of thoughtful and well-informed supporters?" and I agree. So what? But many of my own experiences at protests and among other far-left circles in which I admit to traveling often show the opposite- A handful of thoughtful and well-informed people amidst thousands of weird believers. If this is really what he found, I think that it is alright to criticize it.

This doesn't say anything about larger political ideas: The wacky left has nothing on the wacky right, and reasonable political debate takes place somewhere between them.
Alex's initial posts, however, were not about political ideas. They were about the World Social Forum, which he was frustrated to find was dominated by the views of what he considered to be the Wacky Left. Although I wish that he had given more details about his reasons for concluding this, I think that it is not in the interest of promoting reasonable debate to assume that he didn't have them.

This brings me to what I consider to be the heart of the difference between your response to Alex's post and mine. Although we both thought that he was unnecessarily harsh in his treatment of the left without providing the adequate explanation, you seem to want him to work exclusively with the left despite whatever misgivings he may have while I'm perfectly willing to see him flirt with the right as well.

Sure, what he saw doesn't represent the entire left, and it's wrong to assume that it does. It's also misleading to blog about flirting with the right without providing your largely left audience with more of an explanation than he does. But I still find something a little disturbing about my initial hesitancy to even let him flirt. As you said about the Socialist Workers of the World, so what? If he thinks that he'll find more reasonable people there, why not try? I trust Alex to be as critical of the right as he is of the left, and I imagine that I might learn something from his explorations. Yeah, there's a lot of wacky stuff on the right that scares the shit out of me, and I'm not about to declare myself a neo-con. But political debate loses a lot of it's meaning if you are only willing engage in it within your own narrow wedge of the political spectrum. If Alex is willing to venture into the other camp and see what they have to offer, I applaud him. And if he comes back from his flirting as a raving right-wing nut job, I'll be more than happy to join you in giving him the spanking of a lifetime.