Saturday, March 12, 2005

Dissing Dissent

The other day, via a post on Rox Populi, I came across this article from Dissent, a journal characterized as "centrist liberal-left" by Paul Street in his essay looking at the way some liberal-left sorts have gone out of their way to lie about the positions of more left leaning sorts since 9/11. I've only ever occasionally thumbed through Dissent, and normally wouldn't have had occasion to respond to things published therein, but I was already in an irritated state of mind when I read the article linked above and the article annoyed me further -- enough, in fact, for me to take the time to respond to it in detail.

The title of the article is "Why Don't They Listen to Us? Speaking to the Working Class" and her concluding paragraphs are:

There's much to do in the coming years to build a set of institutions that can begin to compete with the highly organized, enormously well-funded network of newspapers, periodicals, think tanks, publishing houses, and television and radio stations the right already has in place. But no institutions will save us until we find the way to reframe the debate so that it's on our terms, not theirs. That means opening up discussion among ourselves to debate and develop positions and strategies that, while honoring our own beliefs and values, enable us to build bridges across which we can speak to those who now see us as an alien other.

It's not enough to speak in another voice, however. We must learn to listen as well, to develop a third ear so that we can hear beneath their rage to the anguish it's covering up. Only then will we find our way into the hearts and minds of those Americans who have been seduced and exploited by the radical right into "strangling their own life chances." Only then will we be able to stop asking, "Why don't they listen to us?"

On the surface, while the title sets off a few warning alarms in my mind, the conclusions seem reasonable enough. "We" need to build counter-institutions in the media realm, "we" need to be critical of "our" own ways of talking about issues, and "we" need to listen. All good.


The article begins as follows:

While the intensity of political polarization that grips the nation today is relatively new, America has been drifting to the right for decades. Since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, only three Democrats have occupied the White House, and of those, Bill Clinton alone survived for more than a single term. Although poll data show that most voters think the Democrats are better on such central issues as the economy, jobs, health care, and education, they continue to return Republicans to power. Republicans now occupy the governors' mansions in twenty-eight states and own both the House and Senate, where leadership has been increasingly drawn from the radical right.

With the untimely death of Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, we lost the most consistently progressive voice in either house of the United States Congress. If our ideas and our politics have been in the service of those less advantaged, as we believe so passionately, why have we had such a hard time making ourselves heard in ways that count? How did our voice-the voice of economic opportunity, the voice that speaks of justice in education, jobs, health care, and taxation-find so little resonance with the very Americans for whom we claim to speak?

In other words, it starts off defining the problem purely in terms of electoral politics and implicitly identifying the Democratic Party as "we." This does not treat social movements as independent entities, and it links both author and reader in an uncritical way to a party that may sometimes present candidates worth supporting on tactical and strategic grounds, but which has been complicit in empire abroad and in inequality at home in massive ways. Submerging onesself in such a "we" with out the slightest caveat, proviso, or objection -- well, it says something about where the article is coming from and where it is going.

The preamble continues:

Let me be clear: I don't take a backseat to anyone in my anger at the right, especially the radical religious right and its neocon partners. Their ideological inflexibility, the way they manipulate the facts to fit their preconceptions and sell their falsehoods to the American public, is both outrageous and frightening.

Excuse me? Inflexibility and deception are presented as the main reasons to be angry at the right. Sure, those are bad things. But how about lots of death and human suffering and destruction of the natural world? Or does dwelling on those things make the Dems only incrementally better record at home and equally bad recrod abroad make bringing that up too rhetorically dangerous?

She continues:

[M]y concern here is to examine the political behavior of the millions of other Americans-those working-class and lower-middle-class women and men who are not driven by ideological rigor, who are not convinced that they speak the word of God, yet who listen appreciatively to the Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannitys, and Bill O'Reillys as they rail against us as "liberal elites" who have lost touch with the people

Fair enough. That's a good question. She begins the answer by a nod towards the structural advantages of right-wing forces, but decides (and I agree this is a worthwhile thing to do) to focus on problems internal to "us".

As I've explored before on this site "we" is a problematic term in liberal/progresive/left/social movement politics, and to her credit she realizes this:

But, one might ask, who is the "we" of whom I speak? It's a legitimate question, one I've asked myself as well, since there is no easily identifiable left, no progressive group that can claim to speak for the variety of people and positions that lay title to the left side of the political spectrum, no "we" that speaks with the kind of authoritative and unified voice we hear from the conservative right. Not since the heyday of the American Communist Party, whose adherents spoke with the kind of on-message discipline we now see among right-wing conservatives, has any group or organization on the left been able to enforce that kind of control. Even the antiwar movement, the closest thing we have to a movement capable of mobilizing tens of thousands of people to action, is an amalgam of individuals and groups whose politics range from liberal Democrats to the various shades of the fractious left.

Okay. Good question.

Nevertheless, there is a more or less unified sensibility among these people and groups who form the "we" I refer to. They are dominantly well-educated urban folk who find common ground on political issues-most important, on the war in Iraq-but also on economic and social policy issues such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, poverty, gun control, civil liberties, and civil rights, as well as on the lifestyle and cultural issues that have roiled American politics so deeply: abortion, gay rights, the role of religion in public life, divorce, family values, stem cell research, the very meaning of life itself, to name a few. And while the academy may not be the hotbed of left politics the right portrays it to be, liberal and progressive social scientists from universities around the country have increasingly sought to become public intellectuals, part of the march of pundits across our television screens and the pages of our daily newspapers, in the service of defending against the right's onslaught in the culture wars.

Lousy answer.

She completely accepts, without critical engagement, that the heart of "we" is urban, middle-class liberals. In some ways, this makes sense as they disproportionately control the institutions which she is concerned with (which I assume to be the Democratic Party, the explicitly para-Democratic Party organizations, and the major issue-based organizations affiliated with or at least kind of associated with social movements in the U.S.). But there is no effort to question why this understanding of "we" is useful, and no effort in trying to figure out if maybe it is unfair and oppressive.

The failure to give a better answer to the question above is at the heart of the problems with this article. Maybe, just maybe, it is the fact that urban, middle-class liberals control all of these institutions that is the problem. Maybe, just maybe, urban, middle-class liberal complicity or active collaboration in the silencing of non-right-wing voices outside of this identity over decades has contributed to the way things are. Maybe, just maybe, the fact that the author finds it so easy to put urban, middle-class liberals at the heart of hope for a humane, sane, and progressive future in this country is a symptom of what is wrong.

African American communities are consistently the most progressive polities in the country, and other working-class communities of colour (excepting a few clusters of right-wing Latino/a exile groups) are still significantly more so than white folks. Even if you accept voting Democrat as an indicator of progressiveness, and even if you just look at income as a proxy for class, the poorest folk in America in the last election were still more likely to vote Democratic than Republican for president.

Why on earth is it acceptable to construct the core of "we" as urban, middle-class liberals? (A category that it would also be fair to say, by the way, would be white-dominated, with token people of colour.) Why is it considered to be so natural and or inevitable and or appropriate for this group to have the institutional and, by extension, discourse-controlling dominance that they have in liberal and progressive contexts at the moment?

The article goes on to ask:

Yet our voices rarely rise above a whisper in the public consciousness. Why have we had such a hard time making ourselves heard?

And the article goes through some examples.

First the standard immoral, elite liberal contextualization of Vietnam. It says that counter-cultural movements of the '60s and '70s were

leavened, if not sparked, by massive disillusionment with a government that, using tactics ranging from dissimulation to outright deception, escalated the war in Vietnam, which, even with the sacrifice of nearly sixty thousand American lives, we couldn't win.

The millions of dead in Southeast Asia don't merit a mention, apparently; the main governmental offenses are again "dissimulation" and "outright deception" rather than mass slaughter of civilians; and for some reason the fact that "we couldn't win" is somehow relevant to the characterization of Vietnam as a bad thing. The deaths of millions would've been better if the U.S. had won?

The article then attributes the fertile ground which the right has tilled to reaction to "disconcerting and somewhat alarming" changes to various cultural practices, and to the social place of women, queer people, and people of colour. I think there is some truth to this, and it is probably correct that we don't always do as good a job as we could at engaging with the angst thus generated, but the article leaves out other important factors, like the increased economic vulnerability because of changes in the economy since the 1970s, the erosion of the manufacturing base, and the rush towards neoliberal economics. That kind of insecurity has a tendency to make people lash out against feared "others" as well, but it isn't mentioned; perhaps that's because of the inability of liberals to offer sound alternatives, and the fact that they have often been complicit in such changes.

I want to talk about us, about how we promulgated and enforced a politically correct line on a series of key social-cultural issues that played into right-wing charges that we were out of touch and helped to consolidate our virtual isolation from America's lower-middle and working class.

So the diagnosis of the internal-to-"us" portion of the problem is politically correct enforcement of liberalism within urban, middle-class environments. But the article is curiously one-sided in describing that phenomenon. Every single example that follows is about the failure of the gatekeepers in liberal and progressive institutions to lend an ear to or speak in defense of points of view she links with mainstream moderation rather than politically correct excess. There is not one word of recognition that truly listening to the experiences of people outside of the urban, middle-class liberal identity might lead to policy proposals and political agendas that are not more centrist but, rather, more radical. The article does not devote one word to problematizing why it is these gatekeepers that need to be doing the listening, i.e. why power is concentrated in their hands. Nor does it talk about what might be gained from admitting left voices engaged in struggles on the ground to these elite liberal circles.

For example:

Unfortunately, our silence creates emotional and intellectual conflicts that can be costly both personally and politically, as I found out a decade ago when I published Families on the Fault Line, a book about working-class families. Some readers of an early draft of that work criticized my use of the word black (the designation almost all the people I spoke with used to identify themselves) instead of African American, which was then the politically correct term. Others questioned the fact that I referred to illegals (the word used by every Latino I spoke with) instead of the newly minted undocumented workers. And still others told me I should "push the delete button" on my computer before going public with my doubts about the efficacy of bilingual programs, even though these were also the concerns voiced by many of the Latino and Asian families I interviewed.

I struggled with these criticisms, fought silently with my critics and myself, and finally decided to write about the intellectual and emotional dilemmas they posed. In the final version of the book, therefore, I recounted the criticism and mused aloud about the constraints of needing to be politically correct. What obligation, I asked, do I have to honor my respondents' definitions of self and their opinions on the red flag issues of the day? What responsibility do I have to the political subtleties of the time? To my own political convictions? How do I write what my research told me was a true picture of the lives I wanted to portray and not give aid and comfort to right-wing bigots?

This example is framed around the author's silencing, or attempted silencing, by other academics, without recognizing that this can happen because the realities of working-class communities of colour do not already shape in concrete, embodied ways the politics and practices of supposedly progressive academic spaces. And the only words funneled through the author into this progressive space that she worries about being silenced or dismissed are those that would tend to push liberalism towards the centre. But you would also, in such circumstances, encounter words and recommendations from interview participants that pushed in a much more radical and left direction than the liberal policy establishment would be interested in going. Can anyone doubt that a criticism of bilingual education by its participants, for example, could easily be used to construct a more radical agenda than the status quo around education, language, and whatever else was related?

Another example from later in the essay:

Move up a couple of decades to the 1980s when "crime in the streets" was the biggest issue in American politics. While the right argued for more police, for tougher sentences, for trying juveniles as adults, we insisted that racism and overheated media coverage were at the core of the furor, that the perception of crime didn't match the reality, and with as much fanfare as we could muster, presented statistics to prove the point. It struck me even then that we were mistaken to try to reorder perceptions with facts, partly because we failed to take account of the psychological reality that experience overwhelms statistics no matter how compelling the numbers may be, but also because the perception of crime wasn't totally illusory.

Not that there wasn't truth in our side of the argument; it just wasn't the whole truth. I believe unequivocally that racist assumptions are built into the American psyche but, in this case, they were fueled by the fact that a disproportionate number of street crimes were committed by young African Americans. The media were often irresponsible and always sensationalist in reporting crime, but they didn't make it up. Crime was on the rise; the streets in urban communities had become more dangerous; and, while most people were never themselves mugged, it was enough to know someone who had been-whether a personal acquaintance or a victim encountered on the eleven o'clock news-to create the kind of fear that was so prominent during those years.

Back then there was a saying that "A conservative is a liberal who got mugged on his way to the subway." When I first heard it, I was outraged by those flip words; now it seems to me that they weren't entirely wrong. So today I wonder if a conservative isn't a working-class guy who heard the "liberal elite" (as the right has effectively labeled us) tell him he had nothing to fear when experience told him otherwise-not just on crime but on a whole slew of issues that have turned the country into a cultural and political battlefield.

There are several things I could say about this, including what seems to be a dismissal of the racism embedded in the media construction and policy response to the urban crime issue in the '80s by the sly device of acknowledging it and moving on rather than suggesting how white fears of crime and people of colour experiences of police harassment could both be accommodated in a progressive policy approach.

But more importantly: the article posits two possible poles for responding to this issue. There is the liberal pole, which she says didn't take white working-class fears seriously enough, and the conservative pole, which took advantage of the hype and hysteria and racism to go beyond what might be a sensible, measured response. But it precisely that sensible, measured response somewhere between the two poles that she seems to be calling for. No mention is made of a response with a powerful leftist component: heavy state intervention in the economy to create jobs for working-class people of all racial groups, sharp redistribution of wealth downward, and generously funded training programs and support programs for people with addictions. (There might be some need for changes in policing along with that, because those solutions are more medium to long term.)

If you rule leftist answers out a priori, as right-wing demonizing has taught liberals in the U.S. to do for decades (even where they weren't so inclined already), then you have a hard time presenting alternatives to working-class people that don't come across as liberal preaching or conservative fatalism.

I have several more examples marked out in pen, but I'm getting tired and this post is excessively long so I'll restrict myself to one.

Whether on welfare, race, or identity politics, we kept silent when we might have built bridges. We resisted talking about the role of Aid to Families with Dependent Children in the rising rate of illegitimacy in the African American community and called those who did racist. I don't say this as an advocate for the Clinton welfare reform program, which has its own serious deficiencies: not enough effective job-training; no adequate child care to allow a mother to work in peace even if she finds a job; and perhaps worst of all, no guarantee that she will keep the health care her family was entitled to under the Medicaid program once she has a job. My argument is simply that our opposition to the reform of AFDC, even after it became clear that its unintended consequences had created a whole new set of social problems, left us with little influence either with policy makers or the general public in the debate about how to change it.

"Illegitimacy"? Are you calling my neice "illegitimate"? Is there something "illegitimate" about her because the psychologically broken man who donated his sperm to create her took off two weeks after she was born? I'm sure it can't be intended that she is less "illegitimate" because she is white rather than a member of the African American communities whose sexual and relationship choices so concern white America. Is it "illegitimate" that my sister was been able to exist, and has been able to raise her daughter, because of welfare? Should we make it harder for her to do that?

Give me a break. Yet again, she's arguing for liberals to pay more attention to those centrists and right-wing folks who wanted to reform welfare, and not a word about listening to anti-poverty groups led by people on welfare. While a few of the things she suggests would be on the wish lists of such groups, my experience of working with such groups in Canada leads me to believe that the "unintended consequences" harped on by the right and seemingly pushed as worthy of attention by this author would not have been high on their priority list. Truly listening to such groups and advocating their agenda in strong terms would certainly not decrease political polarization in the United States.

This is a very long and meandering post, and I apologize for that. It is all designed to wander around the point that this article, and others like it, espouse "listening" but frame it in a way that only allows such listening to have an impact in one particular direction -- it's hard to tell if the article just assumes that only moderating content will be heard, or if it assumes that content that would point in more radical directions can't lead to anything practical so should be listened to, recorded, and ignored. It completely misses the point that there are lots of people with a progressive vision who are not urban, middle-class liberals. A good place to start listening would be to them. And then a good thing to do would be to turn over the resources that organizations currently dominated by urban, middle-class liberals possess to activists who are based in working-class communities, both white and of colour, who are active in feminist and anti-racist and worker and queer struggles.

As the Dissent article notes, the biggest barrier to progressive social change is the power of the right in this country. I'm not forgetting that. But I'm following its lead and looking at issues that are internal to "us." If urban, middle-class liberals wish to create changes that will result in justice and liberation, middle-class preaching won't work. Contrary to what this article advises, middle-class listening isn't even enough. There needs to be real sharing of power and resources.

In some ways, the willingness of middle-class progressives such as the one who wrote this article to recognize that they are not and should not pretend to be working-class, and pose questions about how "we" should relate to "them", is a positive thing because it recognizes on some level the importance of privilege and oppression in shaping standpoint. Except it doesn't, really; even the idea that middle-class liberals should "listen" ends up being tacit support for them retaining the control required to translate "listening" into action, rather than encouraging the acceptance of leadership from already active progressive and leftist working-class women and men, of colour and white.

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