I have had a number of responses to my post about the UK elections and my own dispirited despondency facing the current American scene. The responses ranged from sympathetic to chidings (mostly gentle) for letting the side down. Despair, people reminded me, is not an option. We must keep fighting or the other side wins. I don’t have counter-arguments; it’s not as if I am happy to throw in the towel. I agree it does no one any good to be defeatist, to say that the other side has already won. So I am not going to try to defend myself. Except if saying these three things counts as some kind of defense.
1. The fight itself is soul- and life-destroying. Again, we must fight against that fact, but there it is. Being consumed by the fight–and the constant effort to keep fighting–is no way to live. The daily life of this country has been warped by the ugliness and cruelty of the right wing. To step aside from it all is open to well-off people like me, and resisting that temptation to just cultivate indifference, to pursue other interests, requires an effort that is part of the warping. All around, people are tuned into careerism, consumerism, family, with seemingly nary a care for the cruelty of our society. Why do I have to care? And why do I have to agonize over the my inability–and the inability of those like me–to get them to care? That’s one way of expressing the tiredness I am feeling.
2. Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect. It is hard to find the right balance between some kind of clear-eyed realism about the mess we are in and the maintenance of belief in a better future. The internal battles within the left (another, different fight) are about what is realistically possible in the current moment. I participate in those battles–and am outflanked to my left by many of my friends. I think they are deluded about what the American electorate will go for. I do not believe that Sanders would have beaten Trump in 2016. And I certainly don’t believe (as I will discuss in a future post) that some alternative to the market is on the horizon.
To be scolded for compromising with the market is a favorite rhetorical move of the “radical left”–and I find it depressing because so untethered to reality. Whether to have a market society or not is not where the true political battle of this moment in America is being waged. And the radical left is hors combat (i.e. useless) so long as it refuses to engage in any fights that don’t put the market as its stakes. To add insult to this injury, the radical left spends way too much of its time and energy scorning “liberals,” those potential allies it loves to hate. I understand that I am the pot calling the kettle black, that I am upbraiding the radical left for what seem to me to be its sins even as I tell them to stop calling out my sins. Mostly, I try to avoid that.
Thus, in my book on liberalism, I devote a scant five pages to outlining my differences from the left. The real enemy–the frighteningly potent enemy–are the conservatives. But let me confess that it drives me nuts to read various self-appointed leftists talk of Antonin Scalia as a liberal, or to claim that current-day American liberals and conservatives as all members of the same “neo-liberal” club. It’s a time-honored leftist tradition, and one that is as silly today as it was in 1932, to assert that there is no significant difference between the two political parties in the US. Since the radical left is such a negligible force in American politics, they can be mostly left to their dreams of utter transformation. But can I register that they are, as my daughter would say, “annoying”?
3. The problem, I guess, is that politics is difficult, and that progress is so very slow, and that even the battles one thinks are won (getting blacks the right to vote) are never fully won, but have to be fought for over and over again, constantly. The other side is so relentless, so resistant to ever giving an inch.
The self-righteousness with which privilege defends itself has always amazed me. In fact, self-righteousness is too weak a descriptor. Fury seems more apt. The right (the defenders of privilege, of inequality) are always outraged by assaults (perceived or real) on the prevailing hierarchies and rarely hesitant to use violence to maintain those hierarchies. The use of violence is almost completely taboo on the left these days, but remains part of the common sense of the right. They resort to violence without an iota of uneasiness or guilt. And, as readers of this blog know, I can never decide if the left’s refusal of violence is its shining glory or its fatal weakness. I do know that I cannot imagine being violent myself, that I must put my faith in the ballot box, in the normal political processes of democracy, to effect political and societal change. But that faith can seem a mug’s game when the other side cares a rat’s ass for democracy–and do everything in their power to short-circuit democratic processes. So, as usual, I have written myself into another corner, making it awfully difficult to keep my spirit bright.