Let me emphasize again how disappointed I was in the recent ENDA debacle. Think I am beating a dead horse here? Oh, please. By the time I am finished, I will have made glue, strung a violin, and hung one of its shoes above my door.
Maybe my disappointment emerges because, despite my gravitas, I still cling to the hope that the oppressed across the nation will recognize that they share common goals in overturning retrograde social and political institutions. It turns out, the oppressed think "not so much."
The recent mess got me to thinking about other things that really irritate about the current political discourse in this nation. More than anything, the way that apathy has become a viable political stance is enough to make my blood boil almost as much as outright hatred.
The apathetic (and those who are intellectually lazy) constantly trash people who put forward critiques and suggestions from a leftist perspective. After all, it’s better for them to discredit/denounce/lynch those who are actually engaged and thinking than to have to take stock in their own life and political position. At times, they even derail us or leave us feeling uncertain.
Here are seven arguments that the left doesn’t need to bother with any longer:
1. Gottcha! Politics
Nobody likes to hear bad news. We really, really don’t like to hear that the our way of life is creating massive pollution and depleting the nation/continent/earth’s natural resources. Likewise, who wants to know that their favorite product (be it diamonds, chocolate, or wine) comes to us at the expense of real human suffering?
Therefore, it is not surprising that when people on the left put forward suggestions for change (more public transport, ending the production of luxury SUV’s, boycotting companies/products that result in inhumane working conditions, suggesting that diamonds are really just rocks, etc.), people immediately search for some sort of flaw in the messenger’s own relationship to the environment or means of production.
“Yeah,” they say, “I might drive a Cadillac Escalade that uses more fuel to go to the postoffice than the entire Mexican state of Sonora uses in a year, but I bet that you get plastic bags when at the supermarket! Gottcha! You’re as guilty as I am.”
Nobody is perfect when it comes to left issues like the environment or economic injustice. Goddess knows that I can be lazy about some things. I use my car way more than I should (though I also often use public transport to go to work as well). I try my best to be an informed consumer. I often think I am the last person in the nation who still honors the UFW boycotts. In the end, though, nobody can do everything right 100 percent of the time. I eat chocolate. Sometimes I buy the cheapest item on the shelf without thinking about the chemicals that were required in its production. There are days when I sing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” (though I have no reason to buy them nor do I actually want any).
That doesn’t mean, however, that we therefore should stop trying for social, environmental, or economic justice. The Gottcha! People try to convince us that everybody is at fault, so nobody needs to take personal responsibility.
Taking a left position and putting forward the need for change means that we are (or should be) open to challenges about the way we (as individuals) live our lives and the choices we make (the personal is political). Are we going to make mistakes? Yep. Are we going to have to compromise sometimes? Yep. We should take criticism, however, as well as we dish it out.
Just because none of us on the left are perfect, however, doesn’t mean that what we are saying suddenly lacks merit.
2. “If the left isn’t united, then we will always lose.”
I admit in the aftermath of the 2000 election, I had some animosity towards the people who voted Green. When I really spent some time thinking about it, I realized my anger was misplaced. After all, Al Gore won the popular vote and he won the vote in Florida (the latter has been well-documented, but poorly publicized (what a surprise!)). Getting angry at the Greens was not the right response. Granted, I still don’t agree with the Green platform because it never addressed race (or racism) with any complexity, considered gays and lesbians an afterthought, and somehow imagined that the urban was not also part of the “environment.”
Turning anger towards others on the left, however, only misdirected attention away from the people who staged an actual coup. It also let the lazy, apathetic people who didn’t bother to vote off the hook entirely.
What the left should have done was committed to whatever was necessary to prevent Bush from ever setting foot in the White House. Bushie and crew subverted the will of the people and the Constitution of the U.S. That, however, is another issue entirely.
The left’s greatest asset is its commitment to maintaining diverse perspectives. Enforcing conformity won’t make us winners. It will make us Republicans.
3. “That’s just your opinion.”
Being on the left requires critical engagement and an openness to people with different perspectives. It does not mean, however, that everybody’s half-baked theory or “common-sense” approach is equally valuable. One of the most insidious things to transpire in this nation is the notion that one’s individual “gut” reaction to something must be equally valid to the individual who has extensively studied the issue(s).
If one sees a doctor and she diagnosis you with lung cancer, do you retort, “That’s just your opinion! My opinion is that the blotch on my x-ray shows that I am growing a fragrant field of lavender in my left lung.” I grant that you have right to that opinion. Don’t expect me to visit your grave, though, without muttering “dumbass.”
There are many instances when we need to be critical of “experts.” Sometimes, though, we need to also acknowledge that there are people who really do know more than us. In those instances, we need to be open to changing our own opinions.
4. “Well, you are clearly middle class.”
Often when somebody on the left makes an argument about poverty or economic injustice, their own class status is drawn into question. I have never really understood these types of accusations. So, are we all supposed to live with dirt floors until nobody has dirt floors? Fuck that shit.
Fighting for economic justice means that you believe that everybody should have access to the same (or better) standard of living that you enjoy. It does not mean that you need to “suffer with the people” in some misguided sense of solidarity.
5. “You’re a Stupid Poopie Head and I Hate You.”
The funny thing about political positions is that everybody is damn certain they are right. Some people deal very badly when faced with the realization that they are holding an untenable position or when the are asked to care about a group people radically different from themselves. Much like a five-year-old, they turn to name calling and being mean spirited. If they can make the person on the left feel like shit, they reason, they are really correct after all.
It’s a hard thing to get over being accosted by people who consider themselves “lefty,” but trash you as an individual. The thing to remember is that such attacks actually suggest that we really are correct in our assessment. It might be cliched, but I think it is true. If the name-callers are too intellectually lazy or simply unable to come up with a real reason why they hold their beliefs, then the left has probably touched a nerve.
6. “It’s hopeless – Utterly, utterly hopeless. So, why bother?”
This is another criticism of the left that I have never full understood. No victory for social justice has ever come about because of apathy. The U.S. has changed significantly over the past century in terms of perceptions about race, gender, and sexuality. While I would hardly argue that things are great now (racism, sexism, and homophobia are still major problems (don’t kid yourself)), we can agree that there have been some improvements thanks to those who kept up the dialog on all of these fronts.
While people on the left are often accused of being either “too angry” or “too naive,” I actually think the opposite is the case. Those people who opened themselves up to imagining a social revolution and really believed in the possibility of a profoundly better future brought about the changes that we all enjoy today. The political right, in contrast, thrives on a sense of pessimism and an expectation that social and political change is impossible.
7. “Wonder Woman Doesn’t Have All the Answers”
Slander! That is a dirty lie! You’re a stupid poopie head and I hate you.