The protest faced by Jordan Peterson at Queen’s University was one of the latest in a series of events that continue to stir the tempest in a teapot that embodies much of activist culture. The call to fire CSU Fresno’s Randa Jarrar, though it likely came from allies of the right, embodies the same sentiment. Two weeks earlier, the attempt by Nora Loreto to inject discussion of sex and race into the aftermath of the Humboldt tragedy probably reflected the divide between, as Bret Weinstein put it, two populations on the left: those who “earnestly [seek] equality” and those who want to “turn the tables of oppression,” with the latter group confident and strident enough to see any event through the lens of The Problematic.
The Milo riot at Berkeley, the Weinstein episode at Evergreen, and the intimidation of the Kristakises at Yale are also some of the most striking, reflecting wider schisms that are rarely criticized in a large-scale progressive forum. The purity police of the pro-regressive camp are now, it seems, not just in command of much the left’s alternative media, but also prevents the issues from even being openly acknowledged.
Among big, commercial media that has something of a progressive tinge, very broadly construed, perhaps only Real Time with Bill Maher examines these issues regularly and critically. Figures like, say, Dave Rubin bring welcome attention to the problem — regressive leftism, whatever you want to call it — but are not exactly brimming with progressive credentials or depth themselves. Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg of The View, pro-establishment Democrats, can’t be relied on to dissect the issues properly, while criticism by The Young Turks, though welcome, just isn’t sustained or loud enough to have an effect. And does anyone remember Democracy Now hosting a debate on the subject? Their silence, as well over half their audience might put it, is deafening.
Who or what are we left with then? Very few explicitly left-wing commentators or publications are speaking out against regressivism writ large and none in a collaborative way. The obvious reason is that droves of their audiences, to say nothing of reporters or editors, are probably kowtowed into silence (or are themselves the problem). Are the scattered exceptions even making a dent in isolation? Though the contours of the regressive left may still be a little imprecisely defined, there’s a good chunk of us all on the same opposing page — do we really think that Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro can solve the problem for us? We probably need a named, consciously organized group or publication, grounded strongly in the politics of the democratic left, if there’s to be any hope of reform.
Who could lead this movement? Who on the left can take back the cause of free speech from the right? There are socialists and progressive liberals everywhere who continually retch at all these related, converging trends. A sizeable minority are privately and intensely against the fever pitch of call out culture, the meaningless academic newspeak, the supremacy of post-material identity politics above all else and the demand for complete purity on a a whole host of issues, be it gender or immigration or nuclear energy. But what unites us most especially is the silencing of dissent re-branded as justice for marginalized groups. It’s surprising that no one has emerged to the lead a principled left reaction
I say lead because the problem is already so bad that a solution can’t help but be stifled. A solution isn’t going to come from below. We intuitively know the reasons why: it is not only those who fail to pass the purity test who are themselves attacked, but the charges now easily extend to those who defend their character. Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin, was dubbed “white-assimilated” after he defended Sam Gindin from apparent charges of racism (Gindin had briefly opined that open borders should not be a big priority for a mass socialist party). It’s little wonder, then, that Jacobin and similar publications can’t more openly discuss trends that are staples of the right-wing press or of programs like the Rubin Report.
Obviously, the only way to stand against such attacks is to band together. Specific people could create, sustain and name a newsletter, a Facebook page — anything, really — to give voice to what may be the left’s silent majority.
Bill Maher regularly gets booed by a majority of his live audience, but his chastising of them for hypersensitivity never really seems to stick. More important is that, even if he is “in the bubble” on a number of issues, he’s the highest-profile commentator who is progressive-aligned but takes on regressivism in an explicit way.
On the more intellectual side of things, I can’t help but shed a tear for Kenan Malik. As Jordan Peterson continues to reap increased spotlight from his defenses of the right to offend, it’s easy to forget that some of the best defenses were penned by Malik years ago.
Angela Nagle, whose evidence Malik has cited, still has one of the only comprehensive and real investigations of the alt-right around (scholarship has simply not acted quickly enough) and is fluent in the ways that it feeds off of our pro-regressive overlords.
Chris Hedges and Lee Fang have each taken mild hits for coming out against antifa (Hedges was viciously heckled, while Fang still regularly endures the childish snipes of George Ciccariello-Maher). Each have their flaws as debaters, but both won against their pro-antifa opponents (B. Traven of the anarchist collective CrimethInc. in Hedges’ case). We’re at a moment when only the biggest voices can make an impact on the use of the usual tactics.
Camille Paglia, as Ann Coulter once said, is sui generis and ridiculous at times. But she is a skilled debater who could hold her own against Ciccariello-Maher or whoever else becomes a de facto spokesperson for the regressive camp.
Bret Weinstein (a Sanders Democrats) and Christina Hoff Summers (a more mainstream Clinton one) should not have to rely on right-wing publications for air time, while Katie Halper, less well known and certainly no attack dog, has nonetheless often been a breath of fresh air for her ability to poke holes in the self-righteous posturing of activist circles.
Anyway, I’m sure you can think of others. Of course, yet another online political subculture will do little to fix (or exacerbate) the problem of media balkanization and a laundry list of commentators is no instant saviour. But combined they would have a large built in audience who is, I suspect, eager to support and champion free speech without the risk of being stigmatized as right-wing (or as racist or transphobic or what have you). More important is that some kind of deliberate, named group or movement would give that audience the courage to come out as anti-regressive, to coalesce and fight back.
Analogous strategies have tried and come up short before. Richard Dawkins’ attempt to re-brand atheists as “brights” comes to mind. And, of course, the substance of what is called the regressive left, and any future self-conscious left opposition, stem from quite long-standing and complicated divides. But in a rapidly compressing media space, one more bit of quickly communicated tribalism won’t hurt and could force some clarification of position. If an organized effort is not soon mounted, regressivism will only intensify and so will witch hunts for the impure.
But the more serious problem is this: as the antics of the so-called dirtbag left continue, it will make it harder and harder to associate oneself with socialism and progressive politics generally. We’ve seen this movie before and the white nationalist right is already musing about turning would-be socialists, who caution against the dehumanization of Trump voters, into “white advocates” or unwitting allies. Its most eloquent leaders are already trying to carve out a space in their movement for white socialists. Where will we be in five or ten years if they start to succeed? Somewhere very, very dangerous.
Apolitical independents — nice, regular people in the Anglo-American political sphere, normies in alt-right parlance — don’t make decisions based on deep, careful reading on the differences between leftists who prioritize class over identity. They make them on the basis of flashpoint media portrayal over time. Look, for example, at how the Berkley riot was received by The View and its audience a year ago. Look at how one or two irresponsible Black Lives Matter chants have been exploited by right-wing trolls. If we don’t fight back, socialism won’t just be associated with unsuccessful cranks. Instead, the seeds are ripe for a transmutation of socialism into something seen as fundamentally illiberal and even violent, rolling back the progress that Sanders and Corbyn have made in making it capable of mainstream appeal.
The dirtbag left and vulgarity may have its place, but they don’t deserve every place. Even if we lose, why not excise oneself from the Cult of Woke before we’re disfellowshipped anyway? Those who believe that a socialist society can also be a liberal one should come out at last and leave regressives behind.