Some Troubling Conversations
A union representative I know recently posted a “pray for our president” message on Facebook. I questioned this, disturbed that a young union rep with a liberal reputation would take this line. He held to the argument that this is our country, Trump was elected and is therefore our president, that Trump needs our prayers and that I shouldn’t disrespect the Presidency or the flag and country. Others jumped to support him, including a few other union staff.
Looking back, I think that I should have left it alone and learned from it. My engagement provoked a few people to make outrageous comments, and at one point I felt threatened by a guy who said that people like me and our protests are why people voted for Trump in the first place and that I should be removed from the country. Some of the people in my face were “hard right” folks, but a few were liberals. This wasn’t a productive debate.
What came out of it for me were insights into how some liberals and right-wingers sometimes coalesce when pushed on matters of privilege and identity and what a dismal state our labor movement is in when union staff and members ride the patriotic and evangelical bandwagons. This is not “my country,” in fact. Most of us don’t own our homes or land, and if we do we have to recognize that we live on stolen land and that this is in many respects a settler-colonialist system. Understanding the full import of this requires people to struggle with myths of privilege and entitlement and ignore American history and its lessons. And if we leave it at the point of myth and ideology, accepting the myth of one America and the peculiar ideology of what passes for democracy here, we’re stuck with mysticism: is there something so mystical about a president that s/he must have my automatic respect and prayers, and is there something so unique about this country and the people who live here that puts us above and beyond others? It’s fair to push liberals on this point, but a likely outcome is that people will go into some kind of funk or depression as they come to terms with acknowledging privilege and admitting that they have bought into a myth. Be prepared to work with that. The first step is angry denial and, often, a racist tantrum. I offered to buy subscriptions to In These Times or Sojourners to the first person on the thread who took me up on my offer but got no takers.
Another case is Timothy Perkins, the young man running for Salem’s Ward 6 Council position. Perkins claims to be a libertarian but struggles to define what that means. I asked him the fair question of which libertarian tradition he fits into: is he a follower of Ayn Rand, Evola, Rockefeller, the English liberals or just a Bundy wannabe? I threw in Evola because I believe that he has had an effect on libertarian thought in the U.S. by his having argued that superiority is won through chaos and confrontation. Much libertarian thought here derives from a bad read of the Cliff Notes summary of Darwin. I get it that Evola is not a libertarian. I threw in Rockefeller because he comes to mind first when I think of American laissez-faire capitalism and because the Ludlow Massacre is so instructive. Perkins couldn’t hold his own in the conversation, which took place on Facebook, but the exchange quickly went to the point of Perkins and his friends claiming that Hitler was a socialist and pointing out the alleged shortcomings of socialism.
It’s a bad idea to back down and be defensive when we’re redbaited. It doesn’t solve anything or protect us. But in this case I argued that the alleged deficiencies of socialism don’t make Perkins a better candidate for City Council. The issue is not me and my ideas; I’m not the candidate getting the press attention. It’s on him to show that he’s not a provocateur pouring the gasoline and lighting the match in order to see what happens next. Again, Perkins could not make his case. I offered to debate socialism and socialist history with him or his followers once they know something of what they’re talking about.
Liberals and libertarians may connect with one another locally over issues like the third bridge, pot, and abortion rights. This is a state which voted for pot and against driver’s licenses for immigrants in the same election, after all. They will connect more generally in viewing society in terms of contracts: liberals believe deeply in a social contract and feel betrayed by the capitalists and politicians who don’t honor their side of the deal, while libertarians elevate individual contracts to something of a fetish. There is just a bit of glue here which attaches liberals to libertarians.
But be wary here. The libertarian contract is between individuals in a mythical free-market setting, meaning that people can surrender their liberty through contract, have access to nuclear weapons through contract, abolish public education and pollute the environment through contract and (mis)use their property because ownership and contracts are ends in themselves and social responsibility is abstract under these conditions. Anyone reading Ayn Rand or her later followers can see this. Liberals still often emphasize responsibilities to society and prize education and social programs. They instinctively rebel against the libertarian idea that people are themselves brands, products or commodities. The liberal ideal at once clashes with libertarian individualism and the conformity required by today’s capitalist marketplace.
Another young local union staffer posted a complaint about alleged “anarchists” interfering with Milo Yiannopoulos’ supposed First Amendment rights. When I objected to this he held fast to First Amendment legalities and was quickly joined by a local musician who self-described as a libertarian. The intersection of their thinking may be a shared concern with human and democratic rights, but I doubt it. I suspect that the coincidence of opinions instead reflects something of the narcissism of the times in the U.S., relative white male privilege and unexamined assumptions. How do we struggle with these?
I’m not a fan of the Black Bloc and those like them who are taking militant action at such a politically tense moment without accountability. Still, I’m not going to shame them publicly. I know that I need to be aware that I have no place or right in criticizing, say, people of color or women or LGBTQIA+ folks who engage in militant anti-fascist action; these are our allies in many cases.
I do not believe that the First Amendment need protect hate speech and actions, either for the sake of Constitutional liberties or to protect me from repression. Fascism should not be up for debate, but it should be up for defeat. And, yes, I do include Yiannopoulos in the broad sweep of people who are fascists or sympathetic to or enablers of fascism. Yiannopoulos is at the very least a provocateur deeply invested in the business of pinkwashing the hard right.
The standard argument has been that there is no right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, but we can borrow from Abbie Hoffman and insist on the right to yell “Theatre!” in the crowded fire which is becoming this country’s dominant political space. By this I mean that Yiannopoulos and people like him come to campuses and other institutions seeking confrontation, and they should not be surprised or resentful when they get it.
Something important is at stake here. First, the people who are defending the right to engage in hate speech---that intersection of liberals, libertarians and right-wingers---are creating real problems for the rest of us. They target women, LGBTQIA+ folks, people of color, immigrants, Muslims and radicals, use dog-whistle politics and then step back and deny responsibility for the level of discourse and violence which follows. It seems to me that that obligates our liberal friends to at least do something to remedy the problem they have helped create. It’s fair to demand that they join in protecting us from our attackers, blocking deportations, stopping conversion therapy, guarding mosques and Planned Parenthood sites and living up to their infamous slogan that they will give their lives to protect free speech, ours as well as that of our adversaries. It’s up to us to ask for the solidarity.
Second, we have a right to demand of liberals and libertarians that they take some kind action to stop Yiannopoulos and people like him. When do they plan to join the fight against fascism? Again, if they refuse or don’t act then we have a right to question their values.
Third, a dogmatic liberal insistence on First Amendment rights for fascists forces us to find other tactics to oppose the far-right. If we can’t actually block these people from speaking or ban them from public space without incurring liberal and libertarian censure then we have to find other creative methods of fighting back. Silence does equal complicity. Should we use Second Amendment rights? Non-violent direct action? Challenging speakers from the floor? This last alternative carries some real dangers, but I hope that the willfully naïve people insisting on First Amendment rights try it. Yiannopoulos and the crowds he draws and Trump’s goons know very well how to deal with this. Several years ago a Muslim brother and I challenged Ann Coulter from the floor at OSU and learned this lesson. Liberal and libertarian dogmatism creates disorder and leads to the very opposite of what it opposes.
The frequently-heard libertarian argument that Yiannopoulos is just joking and that we should have a sense of humor comes along with a similar line from Trump supporters. The problem, they say, is us: we just don’t get the joke that everyone else is in on. It’s really a stupid point, isn’t it? Answering it is one the rare opportunities we get to use sarcasm effectively. Yeah, you’re right, we can say. That family feud you call World War One—hey, you know how the in-laws are when they get together for Thanksgiving! No harm done! That Beer Hall Putsch back in ’22 was just a bunch of frat boys who had a few too many. You know how guys are when they get drunk. That outrage over that PewDiePie guy with his “Death to all Jews” joke just goes to show you how political correctness has run amok. No one would really hurt Jews, after all.
The other arguments we hear frequently hold that liberals are just about human rights and libertarians are just about smaller government. Don’t let that “just” pass by without questioning. Assume that there are political agendas or ideas at work when you talk to engaged people. Get down to what those agendas are.
Liberals and libertarians will often put forward a number of false equivalencies in order to make their cases. The libertarians say that someone in Trump’s administration wearing nazi regalia is equivalent to Soros backing Clinton. Stalin and Hitler were both the same say both liberals and libertarians. Support for Sanders cost Clinton the election some liberals insist. Some of this can be worked through with logic and some of it can’t be. It seems important to me that we point out the poor logic of drawing equivalencies where they do not exist, and particularly so when they reflect white or male or heterosexual privilege.
In this regard, many of us too quickly jump on comparing Trump, Yiannopoulos and others like them to Hitler. The comparison doesn’t work and harms our arguments. It is fair to scratch the liberal and libertarian veneers, though, and see if you’re debating a Genocide denier or not. After all, if Genocide deniers are entitled to free speech in public places, there must be some logic or truth to their arguments and at least a debatable point to their presentations. It’s fair to ask which Genocides are debatable for them, but you must take a principled position and remember the Genocides in the United States, the Congo, Armenia and Kurdistan and all that came after as well.
Fascism is more than the bad manners of interrupting speech. Fascism is a violent system of class rule in a period of imperialism, a way out of confronting social revolution and capitalist crisis, as Dimitrov told us. It is bourgeois rule in crisis and fueled by reactionary nationalism, myths of racial and national superiority and male supremacy set loose in a moment when capitalist hegemony is threatened. It has a system, an ideology and a practice with authoritarian forms of social organization specific to different places and times. It has enablers who usually plead innocence. Measure Yiannopoulos, Trump and their friends against this definition. If they don’t fit in after investigation, then find another way to describe them. It’s fair to ask our liberal friends and the libertarians how they describe or understand Yiannopoulos, Trump and their friends and to probe their responses carefully without splitting hairs.
Socialism, on the other hand, is not state ownership. The liberals miss the mark when they describe the military, public schools and Social Security as socialistic institutions. We are the people who believe in direct and popular control of production and distribution, planned production for use, peaceful and just social relations, education and security for all, the abolition of class relations and all of the racist, sexist and homophobic, transphobic and ableist exploitation and oppression which has been built into class society. We are, or should be, the people who view the state as situated in society and responsible for carrying out those policies which ensure peace, justice and equality under the direct control of the working-class and abolishes itself as class relations are transformed. Our socialism takes as much from Africa, Asia and Latin America as it does from the U.S. and Europe. Our ideas challenge both liberals and libertarians in fundamental ways. We situate ourselves in specific traditions and we have a right to ask the same of others. We can’t dodge accountability for our errors and build credibility at the same time.