Our Hands Are Left and Right – Not Our Politics, Research Time, 24/03/2016

Because if anything – philosophically speaking – makes me seriously steamed about today’s popular understanding of left and right, well, it’s two things. 

Of all the reactionary political trends today, what I find
most disturbing is the defence of racism in the name of
free speech, of which the ideas surrounding Donald
Trumps presidential campaign are only the most
prominent expression.
One is how social and economic conservatives use racializing* resentment to whip up a marginalized populace in favour of a populism that makes them feel superior but keeps them marginalized. I ranted about this yesterday, and I’ll keep being annoyed, as it seems to be the major political trend of this generation.

* Here’s what I mean by this concept. There’s no such thing as race, except as a hierarchical category to split and antagonize communities who should be allies in setting each other free together. Like European indentured labourers and African slaves in the 1600s Americas; like men with stagnating careers and women; like union leaders and environmentalists. 

But what annoys me even more is the confusion over the evils of left and right. Reading this essay by Jonathan Chait yesterday on the bus put the problem fresh in my mind, and I wanted to hash it out here. 

At least I’ll try to get the concepts a bit more clear in some form. Because it certainly isn’t very clear in a lot of the minds of people who are paid way more than me to write about political ideas on the internet.

Let’s start with Chait. He describes everyone to the conventional left of someone like Barack Obama – his main targets are Bernie Sanders, his young supporters, and anti-racist campus activists – as conscious or unwitting supporters of totalitarian marxism. 

In the case of Sanders supporters, he writes them off as politically ignorant. Too young to remember the Cold War when Russia and China were totalitarian communist bureaucratic states, they think that socialism and social democracy are good ideas. In fact, so says Jon Chait, socialism and social democracy are the leading edge of oppressive states whose bureaucracies control every aspect of citizens’ lives.

Rob Ford was the Canadian prelude to the national
disaster of American Trumpism. He was an innovator in
masking political brutality and contempt with a façade of
approachable affability. He and other right-wing
populists believe the same silly things about the left
that liberals do, but at least their opposition is
To think that way about Sanders and the post-Occupy movement that forms his campaign’s youth backbone only reveals general ignorance about how today’s left thinks about politics. State control is not the only object of political thinking – it was a mistake for anyone to have thought so in the first place.

Politics is the transformation of culture through philosophical means – crafting messages that change each other’s minds. Some messages can be more complex or profound than others, depending on a person’s threshold to change how they think about something. 

It might be a phrase, a speech, a gesture, a joke, a protest, or a months-long campaign for president of the country. But any act of communication that tries to change how people think about how we live together is a political act. 

The Bernie Sanders campaign and the wider post-Occupy political movement is about changing our culture so that people think and act more justly. So why do Chait and so many others like him get this confused with conquering the state to impose a national command economy? What they call 20th century Marxism?

Patrick Iber’s commentary on that Chait essay hit it on the money. Too many older political thinkers of the liberal left were forged in the Cold War, when nearly everyone thought of politics as being about control of the state and how the state should be used to control its population and territory. 

This is why he lumps anti-racist campus protestors** with totalitarians. He sees their mission as lobbying for authorities to crack down on free speech. And several campus activist groups have already made exactly the same mistake, making the goal of their protests lobbying their universities’ administrators to ban some kinds of expression.

The massive popular success of Friedrich Hayek's work
in the United States contributed heavily to the popular
false equation of all politics with state control and
management, and all leftism with omnipresent state
control of every aspect of people's lives. Countering
this idea will be a key goal of my Utopias book.
** Chait calls them the new political correctness movement, but that’s a 20-years-outdated term for what this really is – an effort to call out everyday racism on university campuses.

It’s a typical human mistake – confusing the fastest route to your goal with the fastest possible route. Sure, you can use authorities to ban whatever speech you want, but that will only breed resistance to that authority and resentment of the very anti-racist movement that you wanted to succeed. 

Restricting free speech against casual, inadvertent, sub-conscious racism only encourages more open racism because people see the beliefs that got them into trouble as a cause for their own oppression. And humanity has a natural urge to rebel against oppression. When what’s being oppressed is a more insidious form of oppression, that other oppression becomes a badge of freedom.

And so we have the politics of Donald Trump and Rob Ford.

The inability to confront the problem of racism in the social context of free speech is the paradox that’s always stymied liberal politics. The necessity of free speech becomes a reason to let a racist rant without any opposition. 

Then, when someone who is all too aware of the hypocrisies and destructive paradoxes of liberal politics argues that racism is inappropriate and tries to expose racist people to alternative ideas, the liberal mistakenly believes that the anti-racist is advocating oppression, advocating silencing speech.

Authoritarian control of speech doesn’t change minds – politics changes minds. Liberals like Chait become frozen in their deserved fear of totalitarianism when they can no longer tell the difference between politics and oppression.

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