Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Left and the New Tribalism

I used to really enjoy being on the left. I waved my 'no blood for oil' flag in college, talked about the imperative of a socialist state that acknowledges the tradeoff of a social safety net as the exchange for compliance by workers with the inequalities of industrial labor structures, I'm pro-choice, I've done ally training three times (what can I say, a lifetime as a heterosexual male saddles you with a lot of heterosexism), I work hard to identify those assumptions of mine that are built on having grown up privileged (no capital letter on that word-- it means having a little bit of extra cash on hand, not the nexus we're going to be jumping into here) versus value systems that transcend having money, or versus decisions that poor people aren't taught to make but that actually are prudent fiscal decisions regardless of income (like buying in bulk, which is worth it even if you have to ask your buddy to lend you a little extra cash and pay them back next week).

But as I drifted off point in that run-on sentence about my sensitivities, I was getting at the point, which is that I was a lefty/progressive/liberal because I understood that we're all coming from different places, and if people have a rational basis for what they do, you should respect it, but at the same time, demand that people endeavor to seek the best behaviors for themselves within the confines of their particular burdens. I took, and take, my peers to task strenuously for their unexamined advantage and disregard for the nuances of the differences between us, as a human race.

I grew up during the Clinton years, those halcyon days when white people with money and guilt could try to make the world a better place and sort of, maybe, succeed. And while there have always been grass roots organizers who inveighed against any nexus of money and power, it seemed like people were pretty impressed with Clinton's Third Way of using business as a lever for improving peoples' lives. It was pragmatic instead of aggressive.

Now, I read left-wing blogs, and particularly feminist blogs, and try to connect with people who I thought of as intellectual fellow-travelers, but I can't. And frankly, I can't because the discussion around left wing causes and ideologies has become focused on a kind of thought-patrolling purity that demands self-immolating guilt and suspension of psychological independence by white heterosexual males. The focus on transforming all liberal causes into facets of a single lens that paints the world as Privileged versus Disempowered misses the point of ideology. Ideology transcends demography. The new progressivism... it's non-ideological-- it's a kind of new tribalism, where you have to find a disadvantaged tribe to join or be left as the Jews of the left (i.e. the group everyone beats up on in uncontrollable rage whenever they can't deal with their own failures). You have to be gay, or a person of color, or abjectly poor AND disabled (either one alone doesn't count), or come from a former colony (and be descended from the indigenous people of that colony).

And this attitude surrenders so many of the values I used to prize. In conversation with friends, I always hit on this again and again, but the patriarchy of a major core of the Muslim world (i.e. the Arab league plus Iran and Indonesia) could, like, really benefit from some colonialism, because they're mostly massive racists who hate women. When did we give up on the importance of spreading values? And not values like "democracy", which isn't really a value so much as a method, but values like "human rights".

So the left abandoned ideology in favor of a semi-coherent vision of prioritizing the destruction of the privileged people at the top instead of acknowledging the advantages of the western society in which the left has its roots planted, and trying to tend its own garden while responding to the far, far worse situations abroad. And when people in the "privileged" tribe bring up any of these issues, they're shouted down as needing to check their privilege at the door, which basically amounts to an ad-hominem attack. It doesn't confront the issues.

So I was once a feminist. And I still believe what I believed back then, but I specifically don't want to be associated with a modern feminist movement that says that increased policing with a specific emphasis on patrolling to prevent gender-based violence is wrong because it fails to acknowledge the burden on communities of color that is caused by racial profiling and police brutality and high incarceration rates of black males. Who cares? We're trying to stop sexual assault within minority communities-- this isn't a 'to kill a mockingbird' situation where we're using rape laws as a cudgel to protect "our" white women from black men; sexual assault is real and law enforcement exists to prevent it. Is sexual assault less serious than racial profiling?

And that underscores the problem-- any attempt by people of "Privilege" to contribute to solving the problems of minority communities by doing more than throwing all their money in the air and sitting on a street corner offering to be beaten is somehow a reinforcement of existing power structures and therefore "wrong" to the modern left; no matter how you slice it, trying to help is treated as condescending if you're in the "privileged" tribe-- this is tribal warfare, not discourse or broad, whole-community improvement.

And there's a partial answer to what I'm saying, which is that "checking your privilege at the door" is about listening and understanding what minority communities feel is best for them. The problem with that is it encourages some mixture of tokenism, where you have to treat the people you talk to as somehow representing their whole community, and it also destroys your ability to be a discriminating, intelligent adult with a value system that is important to you and is equally valid with those value systems of underprivileged communities, if not more valid because it adheres, hopefully, to a set of progressive ideologies that are worth believing in and that are genuinely important.

I really loved being a progressive, but I'm not ready to stick nails through my hands and stop evaluating whether people are being responsible and complying with a set of imperative values that I genuinely believe in and want to fight for. It doesn't matter how colonized you were, how poor you are, or what kind of family you come from. Rape is never okay, and it's worth stopping, even if there's collateral damage. I'm not going to place myself in a tribe called "Privileged" and assume that my only place at the table where people are designing a better world is the seat for the guy who writes the checks and keeps his mouth shut except for when he's apologizing.


  1. "I'm not going to place myself in a tribe called "Privileged" and assume that my only place at the table where people are designing a better world is the seat for the guy who writes the checks and keeps his mouth shut except for when he's apologizing."

    Yup. Nice work here.

  2. Yeah, it is nice work, and I feel the same way you do. I have no interest in participating in "tolerant" leftist discussions where the strands of my identity are used as easy pejoratives. I used to buy into that formulaic "privilege" rhetoric, until I realized all they wanted was for me to grant them Victim Privilege, and not point out hatred when I see it.