Thursday, 21 April 2005

Mischaracterizations of "the Left"

Rob Salkowitz wrote a very thought provoking piece last Friday over on Emphasis Added which initially made me bristle when it appeared he was recommending a repudiation of those on the left who have more radical or idealistic leanings. While I very much share Rob's disdain for those of any political persuasion who are so invested in a rigid way of seeing things that they cannot reason with those who disagree with him, I am very fond of many whose commitment to principles trump practical considerations, in instances where they view a practical compromise as tantamount to conceding their core ideals. Rob wrote:
...there are two distinct “Lefts” in America. One, which for better or worse should be considered the “true Left,” is the left by intention. These are the leftover socialists, the unconditional pacifists, the hardcore identity-politics groups, the eco-extremists, and the New Age “visualizers”.... To the extent that these folks had a moment in American political history, it was more than 35 years ago, and even then, their relevance was defined mostly in opposition than in actual achievements in government. For a brief, tragic moment in the early 70s, the Democratic party took these people seriously, and they’ve been paying the price ever since.
Whoa! Sure there are some fruitcakes among them, but this seemed rather harsh. Nonetheless, I couldn't deny an important kernel of truth in the point.

Rob goes on to distinguish the "other" left in America as what he calls the "Left By Default" or LBD.
The LBD define themselves as pragmatists, and self-identify as the “reality-based coalition.” Advocacy for particular positions and policies is rooted in analysis of issues, attempts to build coalitions and compromises, efforts to see value in opposing positions with the goal of reducing conflict and harmonizing good ideas. Because different groups and people have different modes of analysis and different preferences for outcomes, there is some disagreement over strategic objectives. However, there is broad agreement on the tactics of reason, compromise, learning from observation, and distrust of dogma.
While I was annoyed at such a simplistic division of the left into two groups, always aware of the uniqueness of each of us and the complexity of the fabric of "thought-space", again I could not deny the utility of Rob's way of looking at this. Especially with respect to the way that the Right in America has capitalized on vilification by association to the point that:
The Right, whatever its internal disagreements, has been unified and extremely successful in binding the two together in public perception, which has served the purpose of neutralizing effective reality-based criticism of the Right’s radical agenda. People who are not themselves right-wing ideologues nevertheless “know” (as a result of exposure to right wing propaganda) that anyone who doesn’t support Bush must be some kind of flag-burning, pot-smoking pacifist faggot – or at least, not sufficiently opposed to such as to be trustworthy. The success that the Right had in branding John Kerry, of all people, as some kind of left wing hippie, demonstrates the effectiveness of this tactic.

By the end of his post, Rob fully redeems himself with this summation:
The really complicated part for the opposition is that there often isn’t much policy disagreement between the True Left and the LBD. LBD does not necessarily mean centrist or DLC-style conservative: it simply means fact- and results-oriented, rather than ideologically motivated. Groups like MoveOn and ACT are fairly far to the left in their critique, but not because they are Marxists or eco-terrorists. They make a fact-based case for their positions and argue in terms of tradeoffs and benefits, priorities and costs: the language of serious policy discussions. People may not agree with them all the time, but it’s not correct to dismiss them as crazies in the same way as you can dismiss people who try to apply chaos theory or quantum physics to political debates, or root arguments in quotations from Engels and Lenin on the assumption that this adds indisputable legitimacy to their positions.

People have been talking about purges of far Left or too-far center people from the opposition coalition, but to the extent that that discussion is based on ideology, it’s not productive. What the [Right] has right is its ability to agree on tactics and approach, despite significant differences in ideology. They have banished the reality-based members of their coalition and have fused everyone else together under a banner of uncompromising extremism, regardless of the specifics of their issues. An effective opposition needs to do the opposite: unite those committed to a sensible, realistic approach to issues, regardless of their ideological positions, and draw sharp distinctions between our thoughtful and serious approach to the real problems of today, versus the simplistic, harmful and staggeringly incompetent methods of those now in power.
Now this is fairly consonant with what I've been chirping about since the inception of this web log, even though I continue to insist that preserving my values in the process is critical. But importantly my values are not lock-step adherence to some abstraction, but commitment to principles of justice, peace, fairness, and knowledge. Our most important allies in the coming years are going to be practical conservatives who recognize that more sensible policy can be accomplished in dialogue with sensible people who are more liberal, than can be had by working with the theocratic right-wing ideologues who have been instrumental in bringing Republicans to power. I full well expected that to happen sufficiently last year to depose Bush, but it remains a real possibility worth hoping for even now.


-epm said...

To state the obvious, this is what happens when your let your opponents define you in the public mind. With the Republican party now co-opted by the fascist right wing (no this is not hyperbole, I looked up the word) who define any critical media analysis of their talking points as "liberal bias," and who see liberty and freedom as rights they alone posess and use to supress all dissent -- it will be an uphill battle. Americans may cheer for the underdog, but in the end they want to go home with the quarterback of the varsity team. That is to say, macho wins over manners.

I have great hopes that progressives can re-shape the framework of the American debate. I think Howard Dean, Harry Ried, and Barbara Boxer are the right people for the job.

-epm said...

Check out the fifth estate on the CBC site. You'll find a link to stream the segment titled "Sticks and Stones" about the far-right wing's media machine to bash not only "the left" but any reality with which they choose to deny.