Saturday, February 2, 2013

A belief in radical politics

I don't tend to engage very much at Daily Kos these days. But recently I got involved in a discussion thread to a diary there about Glenn Greenwald. The author used the diary to publish a piece by Glenn in which he defends himself against some of the personal critiques people make against him.

My initial comment was to say that while I had heard these criticisms, my main issues with him were more about the heavy-handedness of his writing style (doesn't reach anyone but the true believers) and that he almost never engages in talking about actual solutions.

That - as you can imagine - brought on a flurry of response from his fan club at Daily Kos. Some of them were really the person who equated solutions with "selling out." Others seemed to indicate that people are so caught up in yelling about the problem that they don't even understand the definition of "solution." But the one that really caught my attention was when someone tried to make the case that Greenwald is an open and ardent believer in radical politics. My response was that its hard for me to consider someone a believer in radical politics who spends his time sitting behind a computer writing missives where he shakes his figurative fist at the powerful.

The perfect counterweight to the Greenwald style of radical politics was written yesterday by Charles Blow when he talked about the real Rosa Parks - not the one we tend to venerate in our white-washed history books.
As Theoharis points out, “Rosa’s family sought to teach her a controlled anger, a survival strategy that balanced compliance with militancy.”...

She spent nearly two decades before the bus incident struggling, organizing and agitating for civil rights, mostly as the secretary of the Montgomery, Ala., branch of the N.A.A.C.P.
There are times when I'm reading online that I can tend to think that kind of "radical politics" no longer exists on the left. But then I have to remind myself of this quote from Sonia Sotomayor.
Quiet pragmatism, of course, lacks the romance of vocal militancy.
Ms. Parks day in the spotlight came BECAUSE of that teaching from her family about balancing compliance with militancy and her two decades of quiet pragmatism.

And so I think of all the people I know personally who are busy doing exactly what Ms. Parks did. Like the young activist I recently met with who has decided that his cause is the school to prison pipeline that is affecting so may black and brown young people these days. He's struggling, organizing and agitating about that one just as Ms. Parks did over 60 years ago.

Just as no one noticed all that work Ms. Parks did that led up to the day on the bus, no one in the media is paying attention to folks like this young man and he doesn't have a vocal fan club like the one Glenn Greenwald has developed. But in my mind, he - and thousands of people like him - are her true heirs, demonstrating every day their real commitment to radical politics.


  1. Well, I could tell you that you knew better than to dip your toe in those piranha infested waters, but you know that already.

    There is a left still that is very much about real solutions to [insert preferred name of the mess we're in]. The young man you spoke to is that left. Unfortunately, just like you said, many who purport to be on the left would dismiss him as either a compromiser (because he must constantly compromise to get anything done) or as just a boot on the ground, a non-thinker.

    As for Greenwald, I don't read him much, but I have never read anything he's written that deals with class, or really anything at all with a broader theoretical viewpoint. He strikes me as a bit of a gadfly who latches on to particular issues (and not particularly difficult ones from a moral perspective) and then goes to town. I imagine he considers himself a serious intellectual, but there are no radical ideas that I can find in his work. Pretty basic stuff--drones are bad because they kill people without due process, etc. I don't disagree the argument, but it's not a coherent, radical, systemic critique.

    Now, I get to be an armchair radical. Antonio Gramsci's work is very helpful here. Rather than pose a fairly simple bourgeois-proletarian dichotomy as one found in "vulgar Marxism," Gramsci put forward his notion of hegemony to understand how societies operate and, writing from a Fascist prison, why the Fascists took power in Italy rather than the Italian Communists, of whom he was one. Any society has a hegemonic structure which buttresses its economic system, among other things. Yes, Gramsci said, the basic structure, economically, is bourgeois-proletarian, but that misses the point. What about people here in Italy who are definitely not owners of capital but who are, perhaps, deeply religious in a Catholic Church that is not only anti-Marxist but anti-union? Functionally, those people support capital, even if they themselves aren't capitalists. Add in working people who have imperialist fantasies as a means of social mobility. They support--functionally--capital. It's not, Gramsci said, so much a matter of what people imagine they're doing but what side of the equation--capital or labor--they functionally support.

    In the US, we have people who truly believe, as they restrict their action to discussion and their discussion to those with whom they agree (except maybe to say to someone, "I'm right and you're wrong"), that they are "radicals." From a Gramscian perspective, though, you have to think that they're functionally supporting the very people and policies they purport to oppose. They don't form alliances to build a critical mass. They don't give and take in order to change minds. They add nothing in the plus column on the left side of the ledger. That means the right wins.

    1. Thanks for all that Bill. Much to think about!

      I've thought a lot about why I bother at all with places like DK. What I've realized is that there's something in me that dries up when I don't engage people I disagree with.

      I don't go into a discussion like that assuming I'll change anyone's mind (but you never know). The real reason I do it is to ignite my own thinking. In response to what they say, I have to think about what I think more deeply. And the result is articles like this.

      One thing you might find interesting is that at one point in the discussion I understood a commenter to be saying that there are no solutions. I responded with that quote from Claiborne about cynicism being a privilege. Boy...did that one illicit some push-back.

      Ultimately what I saw is that it produced some cognitive dissonance for the person I was responding to. He thought I was "smearing" him with that quote because Claiborne went on to praise OWS - something he'd been intimately involved with. So he reacted to hearing a critique from him when he'd expect confirmation - which goes to why, as you suggest, its so difficult to engage in give and take.

      But I was glad he felt that dissonance - in my life that has been one of the only things that helped open up my mind to new possibilities.

    2. Claiborne is right, with the exception of the cynicism that comes from being beaten once too many times. Spirits, unfortunately, do break. I don't think that's what we're looking at here.

      You're right, that dissonance is the key. That to me is a big argument against imagining the internet as the main locus of "activism." Ultimately, to get people to open up to that dissonance, you need except in rare cases to be someone who has established a trust relationship with you, which can include disagreement, so that they will try to understand why you say what you do. Hence, organizing is what makes things change, rather than activism.

  2. The problem with Greenwald, and most of the people who follow along with him, is that they believe that yelling a lot is more effective than ... doing something. I remember his tearing of robes and putting on ashes when Kucinich lost a primary. You'd have thought that the "Democratic Party establishment" had thrown the election to a Tea Party Republican to get rid of him, if you'd read GG and some of the others. It wasn't until you looked that you realized that he was bemoaning the loss of an ineffective Democrat to an effective Democrat. In a base election.

    1. Kucinich was (is) the Democratic equivalent of a Tea Party Congressman. Neither exists, as a legislator, to legislate, but rather to get on TV news programs. The biggest difference between the parties is the relative percentages of these types in them. Boehner, drinking aside (and for that I have nothing but sympathy, TRULY), has at least half a caucus of these types, maybe two-thirds. The Democratic base seems more interested in having legislators who legislate.

      Yeah, Kucinich no me gusta.

    2. By the way, I totally dig your new blog. Infrequent but good posts, about living. Totally worthy. I sometimes think I should be a diligent blogger but my desire to write is totally intermittent. I've thought maybe something like what you have might work for me. Anyway, great work.

  3. What a surprise. The Hide Rate Brigade.

  4. If you think they were bad about drones, imagine the days of the late '90's when it was Tomahawk missiles, a much more indiscriminate weapon.

    Oh that's right. They weren't saying much of anything. Wonder what's different now.


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