What’s in a name? (bit of a rant)
I can find in my own memory of acquaintances fifty people who, if confronted with this diagram, would tell you what’s wrong with it. Among those fifty, I’d expect to find at least a dozen different and thoroughly incommensurate interpretations of why the diagram is wrong. In each of those interpretations, the interpretants would be able to substitute his or her own diagram explaining to us what their own terms mean and how they correspond to each other. This particular diagram is some “conservative’s” conception, though actual fascism, like Soviet communism, was — by Hannah Arendt’s definition — “totalitarian.” I was just reading an otherwise somewhat sensible conservative lately, just to ensure I don’t get lazy in my own ideological echo chamber as a subsistence-socialist (some might categorize me as Christian-anarchist, idk), and I found this self-described “conservative” fella referring to Joe Biden as a “radical progressive.”
I’m not overly fond — at least in a political sense — of the ideas of those who profess to be progressives, so I don’t have a dog in that fight, so to speak, but calling Biden — a Cold-War-conservative and corrupt water boy for Wall Street — a “progressive” is too absurd to be anything but a polemical device . . . which shut me down just as I was about to give provisional approval to this conservative writers’ views — with some of which I agree. The only people who can possibly call Biden a “radical progressive” are those who’ve never left their own echo chambers, even to just get a sandwich. This guy was Joe Manchin before there was a Joe Manchin.
It doesn’t help that the term progressive is equally flexible in the hands of those who claim it. The war-reluctant social democrat Bernie Sanders claimed it against the trigger-happy Wall Street imperialist Hillary Clinton . . . who also claimed to be a “progressive.”
This “flexibility” extends to other socio-political terms, for example “feminism,” about which I’ve studied and written a great deal. It’s a long stretch from Simone De Beauvoir, Maria Mies, Carolyn Merchant, and Alice Walker, who defined feminism roughly as attention to the ways in which social practices affect women, to Judith Butler — now called a feminist — who popularized a fad belief (swallowed whole by a credulous and out-of-touch academy) that “there is no such thing as a woman” — that is, the new improved feminism is feminism without the political subject . . . of feminism. There are as many flavors of “feminism” now as a Baskin-Robbins. I’m still deeply indebted to many feminist thinkers, but I can’t use the term any more. Among ten different people, it has twelve different meanings.
Fascism as an epithet is now the rage, which used to refer to a political movement in twentieth century Europe, described roughly as a militaristic, authoritarian, ethno-nationalist reaction against increasingly powerful leftist movements. Now it’s used in a kind of reverse McCarthyism against anyone who disagrees with you, left or right.
“You’re a fascist!”
“No, you’re the fascist.”
“I know you are, but what am I?”
Conservative once meant the preservation of family and traditional values, and now it’s claimed by politicians who are doing everything in their power to disable and destroy actual families, their only value being profit. In the UK, there are the Red Tories, but they’ve gained less ground than the Corbyinists did in the limping Labor Party of Tony fucking Blair.
There’s little distinction between what these things mean in the economic or cultural realms, which have rolled together in little demagogic bundles by the political parties (who appear to get substantial sums of money from exactly the same people). Some make the distinction between political and cultural whatever — as if these are somehow separate in the world — to preserve their own essentially incoherent definitions of these ductile terms.
Even the terms racism and white supremacy — realities which to my mind remain vitally important in politics — have been so bent and twisted to serve agendas from Wall Street liberals, to woketivist pop-poststructuralists, to barely-closeted neo-segregationists, that they can’t be legibly used without essay-length contexts. White supremacy has a real history. It was claimed by its advocates, proudly so. It’s the present-day organizing principle in much of the Republican Party. In the mouths of charlatans like Robin DiAngelo, it’s been transformed from a historical/political phenomenon into a kind of genetically transmitted disease.
I believe racism is real. We raised three black kids in the South, okay. It’s a shame the term has been impoverished by slick hustlers like DiAngelo who profit from liberal navel gazers obsessed with sublimating their class guilt into diversionary virtue signaling, which then get picked up by credulous kids with internet addictions and academics stalking grant money.
One reason the right is still getting mileage from the George Floyd murder — which it absolutely was — is that black-organized non-violent protests were hijacked by a combination of criminal-minded opportunists, adventurist white anarcho-brats, and not a few undercover cops, who amplified the protests into full blown riots. “Black Lives Matter,” once a decent and useful slogan, became a political football tossed around between jackleg “leaders,” NGO-mavens looking for paychecks, virtue-signaling liberals (them again), and racist cop-apologists for whom BLM now spells RIOT.
What did some “progressives” come up with? “Abolish the Police,” tar for the worst of the right to brush onto the left-entire, and a singularly unpopular idea among the overwhelming majority of black Americans. (I say that as someone whose experience with police has been uniformly unpleasant, so I’m no great advocate for cops. I still called them on a couple of occasions, because vigilantism is not its own reward.)
What’s in a name?
Everything from identification (in the empirical sense) to vulgar personal and political opportunity. Essay-length contexts may be exactly what’s needed in lieu of deploying these terms, these schemae, these diagrams, and these little ideological packets. What’s missing in all this is (1) good faith and (2) a shared commitment to intellectual rigor instead of cultic fealty. That doesn’t mean employing four poles instead of two.
Stop with the fucking diagrams!
It’s time we called bullshit on all of these question-begging categories, and begin drawing humble and provisional conclusions built on dispassionate research and evidence, as well as experience beyond the internet, instead of “reasoning” from untested and-or outdated generalizations imposed on the stubbornly protean particularities of the world . . . a world light years more complicated than the echo chambers.
Returning back to “progressive” (ugh, that again), there are several ways to define it; and for the record — as I’ve said repeatedly in what I’ve written for at least the last fifteen years — I am neither a liberal nor a progressive . . . by whatever definition . . . nor am I a conservative (who are liberals with a fifties nostalgia, or acolytes of an actor named Ronald Reagan who was co-billed with a chimp named Bonzo before he did ads for detergent). I rejected liberalism long ago when I embraced Marxism (a rejection from within modernity’s episteme), and I lost faith in they myth of progress as I left the Chapel of Marx (there was chicken-egg thing there, yeah).
For all those conservatives who claim to oppose “progressives”— even those conservatives with whom I want to be in conversation — most of you are yourselves the captive of the self-same myth of progress. The “traditions” (like the nuclear family) to which most of you cling seldom reach back more than a century, and many of them far less than that (like I said, the fifties are a fave, back before we had much contact with those dark people). Progressive theory, which gained traction in the late nineteenth century, for the record, was steeped in social Darwinist “race theory,” which is now most commonly found among white people who call themselves conservative. Progressive Teddy Roosevelt was big on racially-“justified” imperial expansion. Eugenics was a progressive fave even among the Nation-reading crowd, until old Adolph queered the pitch with his camps and ovens.
Yes, there are some on “the right” who still cling (albeit covertly) to some of this self-aggrandizing racial pseudo-science (you’ve still got to get correct before we can have a reasonable conversation . . . ethno-nationalism, just no); but what a lot of those who claim to stand against “the right” stutter about is that many “people of color” (insider language that means . . . jack shit, except raw morphologies . . . just like the racialists on the right) are pretty damned “conservative” themselves, if conservative means sexually traditional, theistic, and devoted to stable families.
Details first, generalizations later.
I’ve seen bad faith coming from every ideological orientation, and sometimes just plain ignorance, in using the most odious examples of “enemy positions” as stand-ins (straw men, I just wrote about that) for a whole swath of people who are not representative of their caricatures.
The charitable view is that this is done from ignorance.
Which is entirely possible.
We live in highly compartmented times, for one thing, and for another, more of us than we’d like to think get more of our “information” than we’d like to admit . . . from the internet, which is a highly sophisticated electronic rat maze designed to sort us into ideological echo chambers. So just a reminder, the internet is not even a vague approximation of the real world, even if it impinges on it like a gallon of LSD poured into a town’s water supply.
There are plenty of people who — as I admit I have — claimed a position on one of these lines or boxes, who’ll say, I am “right-wing,” or I am “left-wing” (oooh, we have a bird!) which can simultaneously clarify or obfuscate. There are quite a few “true Scotsmen” out there who make these claims and can tell you why others who make the same claim aren’t authentically right or left, based on some arcane litmus test.
The people excluded (quite a few, I suspect) are those who not only fail the categories by having ideas and positions scattered across the continua, but who consciously reject being categorized as such. Philosophers, public intellectuals, social critics, and writers who fail to conform and are attacked by the true Scotsmen of both poles, and also embraced by people who find these simple-minded, tribal categories stultifying. My own attachments apply here (Stanley Hauerwas, Ivan Illich, Barbara Duden, Alasdair MacIntyre, e.g.).
As many people have pointed out, you can climb into the old time machine and travel back to Eisenhower, and he’d be called “radical left” now by people like that fella who called Biden a radical. Ike was situated further left than anyone allowed by rich funders to even get on the ballot now. Nixon was far to the left of the current Democratic Party on many counts.
On the other hand, none of those guys was leaning into the abolition of legal racial apartheid in the US South either — which is NOT a “cultural issue.” Segregation was first and foremost an economic regime, enforced by legal and extra-legal violence. I’ll make the caveat in advance, all Republicans are not racists (there are “people of color” [God, that sounds stupid!] who are Republicans); but when that apartheid lost its legal sanction under two consecutive Democratic Presidents, the Republican Party rapidly displaced the Democratic Party in the South as the dog-whistling “Party of white supremacy.” Not all Republicans are racists, but set aside those who are, and the party would no longer be viable.
Little history lesson, folks. African America, by and large, flocked into the Democratic fold not so much out of wholesale approval of the Party, but self-defense. White “conservatives” to this day, even many who are good people with no special racial animosity, remain largely clueless and astoundingly superficial in their understanding of race in America . . . oftentimes because, in this compartmented society, they’ve had little exposure to people who live outside their own subcultures.
The party realignments of the sixties led to the current impasse for African America (not a monolithic category!), which has been captured within the Democratic Party (wrote about that here). I make this little detour because I want to talk to refugees from “conservatism” as a refugee from the “left,” and it’s a blind spot. Also, it shows how this stuff rattles around the surface above the tectonic translocations of economy.
History doesn’t unroll in a line. It spreads and recedes and piles up, and worse yet, it’s unpredictably sensitive to little things, including dangerously creative humans, more chaos theory than linear equation, more accidental than intentional.
The period we are living through right now is increasingly subject to accident as the momentum of those trajectories which produced relative stability in our corner of the world in recent decades reach watersheds of instability. Everything from granular social forms to the world climate are destabilizing. These familiar political categories are old wine skins.
It’s easier to see when you’re elderly. A lot of things are.
Boomer here. I was a kind of participating tourist through a bunch of these changes. As a teenager, I watched the civil rights struggle unfold. As a later teenager, I went to war in Vietnam, the ignominious US sequel to World War II. I drugged my way from coast to coast through the early seventies with everything from bikers to hicks to hippies to ghetto hustlers (drug users cherish diversity). I went back into the Army during an economic “downturn,” alerted for Iran when the Shah fell, and stayed in the military as stagflation strained the economy at home. Ended up being one of Reagan’s thugs in Latin America during the eighties, as the nation took its neoliberal turn, and even helped invade Grenada to ensure the world’s nutmeg supply didn’t fall into the hands of Cuba. That invasion was also a distraction from Reagan’s monumental failure in Lebanon, where 241 US troops had been killed days earlier in a single bombing. A week after Sherry and I got married, I was shipped to civil war Colombia for three months. Went to Somalia in 1993 while America was giddy atop Clinton’s expanding speculative bubble, and to Haiti in 1994. Left the Army in 1996, whereupon — between doing jobs in the non-profit sector (where I learned woke-speak) — I was involved variously in Haitian politics (20 more forays into that nation), semi-successful union-organizing, unsuccessful environmental organizing against the pork industry, and campaigns against the various vestiges of legal apartheid in my then-home-state of North Carolina. In 2001, I became an accidental anti-war activist, and jetted around the country as a semi-professional anti-war veteran as well as a writer. Also lived and worked throughout most of this as a husband and father. I even spent a fair part of one year working in Mexico and LA on a (pretty bad) Arnold Schwarzenegger film as a tech advisor. I assisted the family of Pat Tillman in their investigation of his 2004 death in Afghanistan, which resulted in a Congressional hearing that was a dog-and-pony show, while Bush II prevaricated and fucked up by turns for eight years. I organized a six-day march from Mobile to New Orleans in 2006 with veterans, military families, and survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Then I burned out like a mid-flight tracer round . . . and did manual labor for most of the next ten years (landscaping, stone masonry, deconstruction [taking houses apart by hand to reuse the materials], and a permaculture project for Dominican nuns). Also wrote a few books as we accumulated eight grandkids. Developed cancer and cardiovascular disease, went through the pandemic, and am now watching the social and ecological fabric of modernity fray. I’ve been beaten, stung by jellyfish, shot, and snake-bit. Cut by doctors and swindled by lawyers. Ten bone fractures and three parachute malfunctions. Been to college and been to jail. Been on one airplane and one helicopter when they caught fire (the plane had a mechanical failure, the chopper was machine-gunned). Bandaged gunshot wounds and sat with people while they died. Hurt people who didn’t deserve it. Helped some I didn’t know. Caught nine babies in L&D, and pulled teeth for chicken dinners in Honduras. Been to Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Latin America, Polynesia, and Australia. Slept in five-star hotels, crack motels, mud huts, and sometimes just mud. I’ve known saints, psychopaths, ambassadors, peasants, death-squad killers, and voodoo priests. I know more dead people now than live ones. Kinda like a Johnny Cash song, but different. All of which is to say, this shit wasn’t abstract, and I’m not coming at this business — demystifying media-fueled and-or academically-obtuse narratives that are condensed into archaic little diagrams about “left” and “right” — as some kind of dilettante who sucked all his information from the internet’s nipple.
I’ve been a participating political tourist, too; a conservative (in my youth), an agnostic, a communist, and (now) a Christian (yes, that’s my political affiliation).
And I’ve never seen anything like we have right now. Nor has anyone else.
What’s in a name? Depends.
My name’s Stan. Let’s talk about it and see if we can get a handle on this thing.