Kudos to an old friend for recently directing me to Adolph Reed’s 2014 piece for Harper’s titled “Nothing Left.” In it, Reed details the practical collapse of American liberalism, lamenting its fall from genuinely dynamic activism to the empty post-modern posturing we see today. “Liberal” manifests mostly as increasingly divisive, incurably fragmented identity politics, generating the very bubbles en masse that liberals aim to burst. Liberals today are like the “monsters” in the later stages of the NES classic Bubble Bobble: they’re furiously spitting out bubbles, which they think have enduring substance, in order to climb higher and higher, eating everything in sight – and so nourishing only themselves – only to end in what they think is another level, but it’s just the same game over and over and over again. There is no winning. There is only competition and empty consumption.
Not a great analogy, I’ll give you that. Bubble Bobble came into my brain for some reason, and I wanted it to spread into your brain. You’re welcome. If you’ve played it, you’ll now be filled with the urge to download an NES emulator, only to delete it and the game within minutes (once the nostalgia wears off and you experience acute existential crisis…really, I’m a 31 year old man seriously interested in playing Bubble Bobble?). If you haven’t played it, that previous description will cause you to do the exact same thing (until a phantom nostalgia induces a not-at-all phantom crisis of similar proportions).
And now we’ve made no progress toward a response to Reed’s article, which might be right in line with his criticism of the left: we don’t do shit, we just talk shit. And talking shit is oh-so welcome in our political landscape. Talking shit, pointing and/or wagging fingers, blogging, think-piecing, think-tanking, tweeting, hashtagging…it’s all, on a scale that matters, practically impotent. We’re caught in the world wide web, unaware that we’re prey about to be consumed by some nebulous spider. Or we’re both the spider and its prey. Either way, we’re already dead, and we’re writhing against that inevitability. Basically, our actions in political reality are no different than our thoughts in philosophical hypotheticals. Everything we do is a silly evasion of death.
Or this is just a silly evasion of authentic engagement with Reed’s compelling, damn-near peremptory logic. His analysis of the left, informed by historical context I can only pretend to know, is worth reading in its entirety. This is a post fundamentally meant to point you in his direction, but because self-importance, I’m spilling my own words into the ether to feel apart of it; to enter Reed’s orbit and attach myself to his grounding gravity.
Let me self-implicate real quick before I feed you some of his nutriments: as skeptical as I aim to be, I’m also woefully credulous. Being “available” intellectually – i.e. living with childlike curiosity and wonder – leads me to be stupidly open-minded in the wake of what simply has to feel like expertise. (That’s where Trump and his ilk can’t penetrate my admittedly flimsy armor; their performance is so absurdly unconvincing that I like to imagine people support him out of the most twisted irony in history. That, or their support of him just makes so much sense that I now resent sense and don’t want to admit it; if you have any number of particular worldviews, it’s not surprising – but inevitable – that you support Trump. And the fact that our brains work that way, that my brain and that brain are effectively the same…it’s just unnerving. It’s also irrefutably beautiful. And comical. And tragic. And so on.)
Okay, so Reed:
Each election now becomes a moment of life-or-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection. For liberals, there is only one option in an election year, and that is to elect, at whatever cost, whichever Democrat is running. This modus operandi has tethered what remains of the left to a Democratic Party that has long since renounced its commitment to any sort of redistributive vision and imposes a willed amnesia on political debate. True, the last Democrat was really unsatisfying, but this one is better; true, the last Republican didn’t bring destruction on the universe, but this one certainly will.
Everything Reed levees against liberals as problematic isn’t limited to liberals. Why it’s necessary for Reed to rope liberals into these basic human biases is because liberals operate under the imposing self-delusion that they’re immune to such biases and their consequences through higher awareness of them. Your intellect can’t protect you from your intellect; you can’t solve problems with your brain…with your brain. That’s the liberal amnesia: that they can think their way out their own always already confined thinking.
Matt Taibbi characterized Obama’s political persona in early 2007 as “an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geographic allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind. You can’t run against him on issues because you can’t even find him on the ideological spectrum. Obama’s “Man for all seasons” act is so perfect in its particulars that just about anyone can find a bit of himself somewhere in the candidate’s background, whether in his genes or his upbringing. . . . [H]is strategy seems to be to appear as a sort of ideological Universalist, one who spends a great deal of rhetorical energy showing that he recognizes the validity of all points of view, and conversely emphasizes that when he does take hard positions on issues, he often does so reluctantly.”
It would be intellectually irresponsible and logically dubious to create a moral equivalency between Obama and Trump, and it would also be ignorant to praise Obama without qualification. Which brings up the real issue; namely, that it’s not about either figure, it’s about the system behind them and all of us. That’s where our energy needs to go. Investing all our positive energy and hope into Obama is just as misguided as investing all our negative energy and despair into Trump. All that energy ends up nowhere.
The left has no particular place it wants to go. And, to rehash an old quip, if you have no destination, any direction can seem as good as any other. The left careens from this oppressed group or crisis moment to that one, from one magical or morally pristine constituency or source of political agency (youth/students; undocumented immigrants; the Iraqi labor movement; the Zapatistas; the urban “precariat”; green whatever; the black/Latino/LGBT “community”; the grassroots, the netroots, and the blogosphere; this season’s worthless Democrat; Occupy; a “Trotskyist” software engineer elected to the Seattle City Council) to another. It lacks focus and stability; its métier is bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to “send messages” to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the oppressed.
This dilettantish politics is partly the heritage of a generation of defeat and marginalization, of decades without any possibility of challenging power or influencing policy. So the left operates with no learning curve and is therefore always vulnerable to the new enthusiasm. It long ago lost the ability to move forward under its own steam. Far from being avant-garde, the self-styled left in the United States seems content to draw its inspiration, hopefulness, and confidence from outside its own ranks, and lives only on the outer fringes of American politics, as congeries of individuals in the interstices of more mainstream institutions.
Is this the consequence or cause of our prevailing media? Not that it can’t be both, but what is it that creates such amnesiac enthusiasm? We do get behind causes, but to what end? Just to pat ourselves on the back every now and then, reassuring us that our Netflix binges and foodie obsessions and fashion expenses and car preferences and house remodels…that everything we do, whatever we can afford to do, is morally permissible in a world where there are things we have to pause and pretend to feel bad about just long enough to feel good about the things we find pleasurable?
As the “human cipher” Taibbi described, Obama is the pure product of this hollowed-out politics. He is a triumph of image and identity over content; indeed, he is the triumph of identity as content.
2017 edit: “he is the [initial] triumph of identity as content, [trumped by Trump.]”
From his successful wooing of University of Chicago and Hyde Park liberals at the beginning of his political career, his appeal has always been about the persona he projects — the extent to which he encourages people to feel good about their politics, the political future, and themselves through feeling good about him — than about any concrete vision or political program he has advanced. And that persona has always been bound up in and continues to play off complex and contradictory representations of race in American politics.
Again, seems pretty fair. Remember, this is before the reality of Trump, i.e. at a time when we could examine Obama’s presidency without Trump as a filter. Using Trump, it’s tempting to reflect on Obama as an American savior. Let’s not mythologize him, in the same way that we should be careful not to mythologize Trump, particularly in Trump’s case because that’s precisely what he’s goading us to do. Drop the narrative.
An equal longer-term danger, however, is the likelihood that we will find ourselves with no critical politics other than a desiccated leftism capable only of counting, parsing, hand-wringing, administering, and making up “Just So” stories about dispossession and exploitation recast in the evocative but politically sterile language of disparity and diversity. This is neoliberalism’s version of a left. Radicalism now means only a very strong commitment to antidiscrimination, a point from which Democratic liberalism has not retreated. Rather, it’s the path Democrats have taken in retreating from a commitment to economic justice.
Money still talks. But who’s listening?