Tuesday, February 15, 2005
wsf finale(?): i just can't shut up about it
Bananarchist has accused me of focusing not on politics, but on style and image. I can't say I disagree. I think that style and image matter. A fashionable issue can edge a less fashionable but perhaps far more important issue entirely out of the discourse. Style sets the stage for politics, and can seriously circumscribe it.
What I saw at the Forum was not, for the most part, people debating politics. It was people engaging in elaborate shows of support for one or another cause. People displaying their credentials as enlightened radicals for one another, then going for drinks. I went to a lot of workshops, a lot more than most people, but I'm not exaggerating when I say I saw very little debate or dissention of any kind. This is of course not simply a problem of the left. I think that any group, when they all get together, has a tendency to appear to agree. Actual dissention happens in the halls, afterward, when people speak one-on-one: "I'm not sure what I thought of that..."
The real problem I've been trying to pin down is perhaps not the lack of debate. As I said, I don't think that conferences actually foster debate. My problem was the "conscensus" at the Forum. I use the quotes pointedly. As both Bananarchist and I agree, it was of course not a conscensus in the sense of a thing everyone believes. But it was, I think, still very important. It was the set of ideas one could hold without having to explain oneself. It was the square one of the Forum. Any divergence was a statement, a challenge.
To be a little more explicit, I am talking about beliefs such as the following: The US is an imperial power hellbent on world domination. Israel is a terrorist state and ought to be destroyed. Free trade is nothing more than a scheme for multinationals to tighten their stranglehold on the people of the world. And so on. I could have run around the Forum with a cape on screaming any one of these things and no one would have batted an eyelash. But if I had held up a placard saying something quite moderate, something like "The US Occasionally Does Positive Things", I know that I would have been pounced upon. Not violently, but people would have come up and said "the US never does positive things!" or "why do you have that placard?" and then we might have talked about it. Probably they'd even concede a positive thing the US had done (tsunami relief?) and that would be that, but the fact remains such a sign would be a statement. The conscensus made certain things hard to say.
Several people have accused me of being condescending in my description of my "shift", for lack of a better word. For instance, Seth writes:
What strikes me about your WSF posts and your unveiled conservatism is that it
is done with a flair that you sometimes have for pulling the legs out from under
false prophets... you sometime seem to allow the pleasure in being the one to
knock the legs out from under a poorly constructed leftist obscure the fact that
it was deserved. It seems a little mean.
Well, it was never my intent to be mean. Neo-neocon writes:
I have noticed that it is almost inevitable, when one is saying something like,
"I used to believe 'A,' but now I believe 'B,'" and you are addressing someone
who continues to believe "A," then there is a tendency for that person to hear
you as condescending, whether you are really conveying that attitude or not.
Inherent in the idea of someone changing his/her mind from one position to
another is that the person must think the second position is superior to the
first--else why the change? So, whether or not the changer intends to be
condescending, the reader/listener hears condescension because in fact it is
implicit. There doesn't seem to be any way to avoid this--it is inherent in the
And what is my "shift" after all? Bananarchist writes, "I'm not sure from what he describes that there is any movement in his beliefs or values." If my core values haven't changed then something else has. Maybe certain of my opinions about how best to achieve those core values. Maybe the strength of my self-identification with the left has wavered. Again, Seth:
You're assuming that you had the best argument for leftism out there, and once
that argument was overcome you switched camps. Most people... assume that just
because their argument has lost doesn't mean switch camps, it means search for a
better argument and try to stay in the same camp.
I have two thoughts on this. 1. Why, except perhaps the desire to not admit one may have been wrong in the past, do people feel the need to stay in the same camp? 2. Though I say I'm flirting with the right, I don't really mean it. I could no sooner "join" the right than I could wear penny loafers and alligator shirts and attend bible study every week. In this context, left/right it is less a political label than a cultural/fashion/style label. I've always felt like a leftist and will probably always continue to feel like one. It's just hard to cozy up to a right that is so, well, culturally different from me. I'm of the left, and whatever beliefs I end up holding I will do so as a member of the left.
The people at the Forum were not, as Bananarchist wrote, "an arbitrary cluster of people whom you have taken as representative of what you call the 'far left.'" They were not "arbitrary" -- the Forum is explicitly a forum for the world's left. When I criticize, say, the conscensus the at the Forum I believe I am fingering a real problem of the left right now, something that it needs to deal with. But it is true that the Forum is not all there is to the left, not by a long shot. Neo-neocon again:
As for your quest for a left with more honesty and more sense--you write, "And I
know there are millions of people out there ready to join that left, ready to be
well-informed thoughtful participants, ready even to give Bush his due if he
actually does something right. I want to join that movement, but it doesn't
exist." Actually, I think that it does exist--or, at least, that there are a
number of like-minded people actively speaking out as representatives of that
group, and searching for others.
For starters, among bloggers, there are the following liberals (I don't think
they'd call themselves "leftists," but at least they do not consider themselves
conservatives, and many of them used to be leftists prior to 9/11) who might be
considered to be part of that movement you are seeking--although they are on the
more conservative wing of it. The first one that comes to mind would be Michael
Totten at http://www.michaeltotten.com ; also there is Jeff Jarvis at
http://www.buzzmachine.com/ and then there is Roger Simon at
http://www.rogerlsimon.com . Although Christopher Hitchens is not a blogger,
he's a man with much of interest to say (although I certainly disagree with some
of his positions). He clearly identifies himself with the left, and he supports
the war in Iraq. Further on the left (in fact I believe he's a Marxist and a
socialist) is Norman Geras at http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/ .
Particularly interesting is his call to fellow-leftists (what he calls the
"principled left"--that's a nice term, isn't it?) to stop being apologists for
tyranny and tyrants
http://www.normangeras.blogspot.com/2003_07_27_normangeras_archive.html#105948316257163866. Also, you have folks such as these (I'm not too familiar with them, but they
certainly seem to be leftists who support some of what's going on currently in
One last note on political engagement and this very long post will be done. Bananarchist criticizes me for complaining without doing anything about it:
When you don’t like the politics that you are being associated with, you get the
chance to reshape those politics. Airing your political gripes is a lot more
meaningful than silently filling up on Hate-o-rade at the forum and then coming
home to blog your misgivings about something that can’t return your fire. So if
the recycling and trash bags at the conference are overflowing, then make a
sign. Talk to the organizers. Take twenty seconds to put up a $.01 piece of
folded plastic to remedy the immediate situation. Don’t just blog about it.
If you think that your small acts of speaking out didn’t give you enough of a
voice at the conference, organize a caucus of like-minded people to air your
concerns at the next WSF. That might still make you feel like you are a tiny
island of reasonable dissent in a sea of illogic, but I urge you away from your
first response this time around, which was to flee toward any alternative (in
this case, your "flirtation" with the "right"). Get over your fear of being
categorized with people whose political beliefs aren’t exact mirrors of your
own, and then reshape this category so that voices of reason like yours can be
heard. All right? Don’t pretend "left" is something that it is not.
First, though I didn't organize a caucus I did talk to a lot of people. Some were receptive but most, though polite, were not. Second, blogging is not a place to gripe that "can't return your fire." Bananarchist has proven that well enough. I came here to blog as a way to work things out in a place where everyone could see, and comment, and criticize. The Forum did not end in Porto Alegre two weeks ago. It lives on in these discussions, in this caucus. (Now I'm getting melodramatic, sorry.) All I mean is that this is as good a forum as any I've found, and anyone who thinks blogs can't have effects in the real world has been in a coma since 2002.
Third, and lastly, though I am currently attached to the left, I don't see this as such a good thing. I would like to be as unattached as possible. Too much investment in labels, left or right, can seriously dement one's thinking, making one unwilling to criticize within ranks, and too ready to criticize outside them. I'll always be a leftist by culture, but I hope that when it comes to the issues I'll take them one by one.