The Limits Of Purity
Yesterday saw a special treat over at IOZ's joint. Salon's own Glenn Greenwald made a cameo appearance in this post's comment thread, strolling from his well-lit corporate digs to IOZ's public access studio, looking to set matters straight regarding the Dems and the big job of saving our glorious republic. Dispensing with formalities, GG got right to the point, asking IOZ:
"Is there some reason you need to convince yourself that you're the only one with access to a particular insight in order to make it worth expressing? . . . 'Democrats' aren't monolithic -- some believe in the Surveillance State; some don't care one way or the other and just want to stay in office; others oppose it. But the Party leadership itself is plainly devoted to its perpetuation and nothing I've ever said is to the contrary. Your readers will still read if even if you quit pretending that you're unveiling some deep, secret Truths that nobody else sees."
One wonders why GG, who has the libsphere at his feet, would bother engaging someone blowing raspberries from the cheap seats. If you're rubbing shoulders with professional liberals and those Dems who endlessly spin them, ignoring fringe elements is a breeze. Or should be. But clearly, IOZ got under GG's hide, causing some discomfort, which GG sought to spread around.
"The difference is between those who want to try to bring pressure and change to alter this behavior and those who can't get enough of impressing themselves with how sophisticated and jaded they are by smugly announcing every day that Nothing Can Be Done."
There's nothing quite like a hurt liberal. Since, by self-definition, they are on the humane wing of politics, seeking justice and goodness and other nice and wonderful things, they shouldn't be criticized by those ostensibly on their side, or at least in the general vicinity. Those who do are obviously smug, jaded losers who live in a purist fantasyland. Not GG. He's out there every day, bringing the pressure, pushing for change. 'Cause, like, if you sign enough petitions and make a lot of phone calls, those in power will take notice and second-guess their crooked ways. I mean, this is a representative democracy, right? A stern letter to the editor weighs more or less equally with money from corporate telecoms, no? Didn't Frank Capra make a movie about that? Or was it Rob Reiner?
I keed. I keed. Honestly, I have nothing against GG. I'm happy that he's upset with the FISA bill, opposes torture, is against the war. Direct exposure to the horrorshow of American politics has had a definite effect on him, and he's better than most libloggers on the major issues. And yet, and yet . . . there remains this need, this desire, to believe that the Democrats, some of them anyway, might care, if sufficiently pushed, what powerless people think. They might care what GG thinks, given his media perch and large audience, but that falls under image management and general PR. When the veins are opened and blood spills across the tile, GG's opinion is meaningless. If the executive imperial class decides to make the owners richer and even more powerful, nothing can really stop them. I'm sure GG understands this, which explains his defensive ranting at IOZ's.
The standard routine by wounded liberals is to insist that they are the gritty realists while those making systemic critiques are distant and aloof. "Enlighten us conventional and stunt thinkers," GG chided. "What is The Solution? IOZ says nothing -- just watch it all collapse. What's your outside-the-box plan?"
I've run into this query countless times. And there's no answer to it -- none that will satisfy the person asking it, which is why it's always trotted out. One can speak of various alternatives, from grassroots organizing to self-education to politicizing the despised and forgotten, and if your suggestions don't end with voting for Better Democrats, most liberals will dismiss you as unserious. It must always come back to the mule team, regardless of what the Dems actually do or inevitably stand for. As I've said before, the vast majority of libs, especially those who blog, cannot and do not want to see a future where the Dems cease to exist. Hence their bottomless masochism, and their insistence that you join in.
Still, GG claims to see some light, employing selected history to justify his position. "How do you explain changes of the past then?" he prodded IOZ. "Black people being de-slaved, women being able to vote, etc." That's simple. Those social changes came from mass movements that operated outside of the major parties. There are contemporary libs who seem to think that Democrats were always pro-civil rights, pro-feminist, pro-name your favorite cause. Not so. In fact, much of the early civil rights movement was supported by communists and other radicals, while the early feminist arguments were made by anarchists like Emma Goldman. In these cases, the Dems, who were very slow to embrace either concept, were pressured by highly energized and politicized segments of the population. These activists didn't sit at computers, blogging about their personal concerns, hoping that the powers-that-be would be swayed by their posts and links; they organized, educated, marched, got clubbed, gassed, and arrested. They had decades of agitation behind them. They had independent political groups supporting them. They had spokespeople who made the case forcefully and eloquently.
Think Martin Luther King was a Democrat? The Dems of the time didn't think so, which is why they feared and spied on him (with J. Edgar Hoover's help, of course). And when King turned against the Vietnam War and questioned the morality of capitalism, many major Dems denounced him. Fortunately for imperialist liberals, King's assassination cut short what might have been a very embarrassing period for their war party. It was one thing to let colored people sit at lunch counters; it was entirely something else when the geopolitical project was criticized by an influential and globally-recognized African-American activist. James Earl Ray, or whoever pulled the trigger, performed a valuable service to the Democrats, who continued to slaughter Vietnamese with bipartisan support. So if I were GG, I wouldn't get too misty eyed about the ghosts of Dems past.
I was impressed with this reference, though. "No less an establishment critic than Noam Chomsky frequently points out that even minor differences in large power systems like the American polity can translate into enormous differences in people's lives." GG reads Chomsky? There is hope after all. Yet, while Chomsky's observation about minor differences having large effects has been true in certain cases, it's becoming less and less so. How has electing Dems made life better for the Gazans? The Iraqis? The Colombian poor? Hell, the American poor? If and when an attack on Iran commences, how many Dems will clog the machine in order to stop it? What's the "realist" take on that?
For all of his talk about who's pragmatic and who's not, GG let slip a little fantasy of his own:
"Would Al Gore's election instead of George Bush have fundamentally altered the imperial character of America? Of course not. But would it have averted the attack on Iraq? It's certainly possible. Is a million dead people and a couple million more displaced worth thinking that even incremental changes might matter?"
First of all, Gore never ruled out attacking Iraq; he simply opposed Bush's strategy to do so, as did many in the American power elite. Gore's "dissent" was tactical, and there's no real evidence, other than liberal faith, that he wouldn't have invaded as president. Indeed, the evidence is stronger that Gore would've attacked Iraq, not only given his support for the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, but also the minor fact that the Clinton administration, of which Gore was a part, routinely bombed Iraq while strangling that country through a murderous embargo. Up to a million Iraqis died during Clinton/Gore, so where exactly did "incremental change" matter here?
None of this is to say that Glenn Greenwald is wrong in trying to pressure Beltway fixtures into acting against their political and financial interests. What does he have to lose, save his mind? But considering some of the arguments he makes on behalf of "pragmatism," he may want to rethink who he derides as out of touch.