My political entry into the left (and by this I mean the real left, beyond the Democratic Party) came a little more than twenty years ago in New Orleans, when, as a college student I became involved in the fight against U.S. intervention in Central America. In particular, the groups of which I was a part sought to end military aid to the death squad governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, and to block support for the contra thugs our nation was arming in Nicaragua, who by that time had already killed about 30,000 civilians in their war with the nominally socialist Sandinista government.
It was the first place where I came into contact with folks who defined themselves as radicals (I had grown up in Nashville, after all, where at that time, even finding "out" liberals was sometimes a challenge), and where I got to experience all the fascinating permutations of Marxism that the left had to offer. In addition to unaffiliated socialists (which I considered myself to be at the time), there were Trotskyites, old-line Leninists, Maoists, and even some bizarre Stalinists in the bunch. Excluding from consideration those among this number who turned out to be FBI spies, there were still plenty of real and interesting ideologues who had valuable insights to offer, even for those of us who didn’t swallow their particular party line.
But despite being interesting, these folks also managed, at least for me, to demonstrate one of the key problems with the left in the U.S. Namely, for the sake of ideological purity few within the professional left expressed any joy about life, or any emotion whatsoever that wasn’t rooted in negativity. They were like the political equivalent of quaaludes: guaranteed to bring you down from whatever partly optimistic place you might find yourself from time to time.
This was never so evident as the day I hopped into a car with one of the Stalinoids (a member of something called the Albanian Liberation League, which viewed the brutal regime of Enver Hoxha as a worker’s paradise), and headed downtown for a rally to protest Contra aid. Once in the car, I asked about the music playing from his stereo. What was it? I wanted to know. He quickly explained that it was Albanian folk music, and the only music he listened to. I made some joke about how strange it was to be living in one of the greatest musical towns on Earth and yet to restrict oneself to a single genre of music (especially that favored by Albanian sheepherders), to which my revolutionary friend responded with a grunt and a scowl. Of course, because Comrade Stalin never much liked jazz.
The humorlessness of the far left–to which I remain connected ideologically if not organizationally–has always struck me as one of its greatest weaknesses. People like to laugh, they like to smile, they like to be joyful, and an awful lot of hardened leftists seem almost utterly incapable of doing any of these things. It’s as if they have all taken a pledge that there should be no laughter until the revolution, or some such shit. No positivity, no hope, no happiness so long as people are still poor and exploited and being murdered by cops, and victimized by United States militarism, or performing as wage slaves for global capital, or eating meat, or driving cars. And they wonder why the left is so weak?
Now, in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory these barbiturate leftists are back in full effect, lecturing the rest of us about how naive we are for having any confidence whatsoever in him, or for voting at all, since "the Democrats and Republicans are all the same," and he supports FISA and the war with Afghanistan, and all kinds of other messed up policies just like many on the right. Those of us who find any significance in the election of a man of color in a nation founded on white supremacy are fools who "drank the kool-aid," unlike they, whose clear-headed radical consciousness leads them to recognize the superior morality of Ralph Nader, or the pure "scientific wisdom of chairman Bob Avakian," or the intellectual profundity of their favorite graffiti bomb: "If voting changed anything it would be illegal." Yeah, and if body piercings and anarchy tats changed anything, they would be too, and then what would some folks do to be "different?" (Note: there is nothing wrong with either type of adornment, but getting either or both doesn’t make you a revolutionary, any more than voting, that’s all I’m saying).
These are people who think being agitators is about pissing people off more than reaching out to them. So they pull out their "Buck Fush" signs at their repetitively irrelevant antiwar demonstrations, or their posters with W sporting a Hitler mustache, because that tends to work so well at convincing folks to oppose the slaughter in Iraq. But effectiveness isn’t what matters to them. What matters to them is raging against the machine for the sake of rage itself. Their message is simple: everything sucks, the earth is doomed, all cops are brutal, all soldiers are baby-killers, all people who work for corporations are evil, blah, blah, blah, right on down the line. It’s as if much of the left has become co-dependent with despondency, addicted to its own isolation, and enamored of its moral purity and unwillingness to work with mere liberals. In the name of ideological asceticism, they spurn the hard work of movement building and inspiring others to join the struggle, snicker at those foolish enough to not understand or appreciate their superior philosophical constructs, and then act shocked when their movements and groups accomplish exactly nothing. But honestly, who wants to join a movement filled with people who look down on you as a sucker?
If we on the left want those liberals to join the struggle for social justice and liberation, we’re going to have to meet people where they are, not where Bakunin would want them to be. For those who can’t get excited about Obama, so be it, but at least realize that there are millions of people who, for whatever reason, are; people who are mobilized and active, and that energy is looking for an outlet. Odds are, that outlet won’t be the Obama administration, since few of them will actually land jobs with it. So that leaves activist formations, community groups and grass-roots struggles. That leaves, in short, us. Just as young people inspired by the center-right JFK candidacy in 1960 ultimately moved well beyond him on their way to the left and made up many of the most committed and effective activists of the 60s and early 70s, so too can such growth occur now among the Obama faithful. But not if we write them off.
At some point, the left will have to relinquish its love affair with marginalization. We’ll have to stop behaving like those people who have a favorite band they love, and even damn near worship, until that day when the band actually begins to sell a lot of records and gain a measure of popularity, at which point they now suck and have obviously sold out: the idea being that if people like you, you must not be doing anything important, and that obscurity is the true measure of integrity. Deconstructing the psychological issues at the root of such a pose is well above my pay grade, but I’m sure would prove fascinating.
The simple fact is, people are inspired by Obama not because they view him as especially progressive per se (except in relation to some of the more retrograde policies of the current president, and in relation to where they feel, rightly, McCain/Palin would have led us), but because most folks respond to optimism, however ill-defined it may be. This is what the Reaganites understood, and for that matter it’s what Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement knew too. It wasn’t anger and pessimism that broke the back of formal apartheid in the south, but rather, hope, and a belief in the fundamental decency of people to make a change if confronted by the yawning chasm between their professed national ideals and the bleak national reality.
In other words, what the 60s freedom struggle took for granted, but which the cynical barbiturate left refuses to concede, is the basic goodness of the people of this nation, and the ability of the nation, for all of its faults (and they are legion) to change. Look at pictures of the freedom riders in 1961, or the volunteers during Freedom Summer of 1964 and notice the dramatic difference between them and some of the seething radicals of today–whose radicalism is almost entirely about style and image more than actual analysis and movement building. In the case of the former, even as they stared down mobs intent on injuring or killing them, and even as they knew they might be murdered, they smiled, they laughed, they sang, they found joy. In the case of the latter, one most often notices an almost permanent scowl, a dour and depressing affect devoid of happiness, unable to appreciate life until the state is smashed altogether and everyone is subsisting on a diet of wheatgrass, bean curd and tempeh.
Hell, maybe I’m just missing the strategic value of calling people "useful idiots," or likening them to members of a cult, the way some leftists have done recently with regard to Obama supporters. Or maybe it’s just that being a father, I have to temper my contempt for this system and its managers with hope. After all, as a dad (for me at least), it’s hard to look at my children every day and think, "Gee, it sucks that the world is so screwed up, and will probably end in a few years from resource exploitation…Oh well, I sure hope my daughters have a great day at school!"
Fatherhood hasn’t made me any less radical in my analysis or desire to see change. In fact, if anything, it has made me more so. I am as angry now as I’ve ever been about injustice, because I can see how it affects these children I helped to create, and for whom I am now responsible. But anger and cynicism do not make good dance partners. Anger without hope, without a certain faith in the capacity of we the people to change our world is a sickness unto death. It is consuming, like a flesh-eating disease, and whose first victim is human compassion. While I would never counsel too much confidence in far-right types to join the struggle for justice–and there, I think skepticism is well-warranted–if we can’t conjure at least a little optimism for the ability of liberals and Democrats to come along for the ride and to do the work, then what is the point? Under such a weighty and pessimistic load as this, life simply becomes unbearable. And if there is one thing we cannot afford to do now–especially now–it is to give up the will to live and to fight, another day.