Angry, pissy emails regularly flow into my inbox whenever I slam Dems or libloggers for their latest blunder, hypocrisy, or state apologia. "Who then?!" is the usual response, followed with "You're full of shit!" or some related pleasantry. To be expected in our political culture, where the acceptable boundaries continually shrink, forcing sensible people into contorted, contradictory positions as they try to make sense of what is offered them. I understand, but I don't accept this as the only means to discuss and debate our sorry condition. Indeed, living in a wealthy, imperial country, it is incumbent upon us to break down these boundaries whenever possible. This is not easy, as reaction is always there to hammer us back down. The real question is, how much hammering will you take before you hammer back?
For many online libs, hammering back means voting for Dems and little more. Of course, this is to social change what katas are to combat, but again, this is what we've been reduced to. Dem victories in the midterms supposedly altered the American political terrain, but we old-timers know better, having seen this pantomime before. One can excuse the younger libs for jumping up and down with glee, eyes widened to the possibility of ideological rollback. They lack the longer view and have yet to receive serious political scars. But when an older lib, say someone over 40, tries to jump with the kids while squeezing his or her eyes tight in order to see the same illusion, the result is pathetic and very beside the point, like a balding hippie, or worse, a graying punk, wheezing and sweating in an effort to keep pace.
The disjunction of then from now was further illustrated yesterday when Max Sawicky, older lib and economist supreme, delivered his critique of the online lib world at TPM Cafe, Josh Marshall's centrist circle where today's Big Minds meet to chew the policy fat and devise new ways to elect more Dems. Given this static environment, Max's cutting, accurate line, "The 'Internet Left' is a mostly brainless vacuum cleaner of donations for the Democratic Party," pierced the thin skins of those operating the party's Orecks, and led to predictable retorts about how the Sixties accomplished very little and are thankfully dead, how online libs are saving people's lives in the here and now and helping to ensure a better future, etc. and so on. Online lib-fave Steve Gilliard weighed in as well, informing Max that the chief movements of the 1960s ended badly, and in the cases of SDS and SNCC, "slipped into terrorism." Gilliard also claimed that the New Left "was a minor participant in social change because it was disconnected from the masses. It was really college kids and some activists reading Marx and talking." Today's online libs are more effective because they don't sit around and talk about Marxist theory -- they're out there in the Real World, getting it done, unlike "fantasists like Max Sawicky."
Where to start?
First of all, Gilliard's concept of American radicalism and its effect on this country's politics is not only blinkered, it's simplistic bullshit. The social movements of the 60s, like any attempt to force political change, boasted both successes and failures. But it's the failures that we are most reminded of, and Gilliard sounds no different on this front than those rightwingers, primarily from the Wall Street Journal and the American Spectator, that I used to debate back in the day. "The Sixties were a bust!" the likes of John Fund or Terry Eastland would tell me, their forefingers jabbing at the air for emphasis. "The New Left did more harm to this country than good!" After reminding them that the antiwar movement of that period cut across ideological lines (the libertarian right was opposed to Vietnam as well), I said that the New Left, for all of its mistakes and self-destructive actions, helped to till the ground for future grassroots political movements -- just as the labor movements of the 1930s (which Gilliard tries to divorce from radical forces like the CIO, not to mention the Communist Party and other socialist formations) and the civil rights and anti-nuclear weapons movements of the 1950s set the stage for the New Left. Thanks to the activists of the 1960s, opposition to imperial war took root in the body politic, and movements for women's rights and queer rights began to gain traction and support. Environmentalism also became a mainstream topic and concern, something that wouldn't have occurred had it not been for the ferment of the 60s, which entailed much, much more than sitting cross-legged under banners of Huey Newton, quoting Marcuse and Fanon.
It's easy to see why reactionaries hate the Sixties, and have spent their political lives trying to turn back the clock. But for liberals like Gilliard to spit on the same movements makes you wonder what exactly he and his fellow Dems have in mind for tomorrow, apart from electing more Dems, that is.
Missing from all this liberal outrage are assessments of 1980s activism, which owed a great deal to the movements of the 60s. When the Reagan administration tested the waters for direct US military intervention in El Salvador in 1981 with its "White Paper," opposition to this proposed move was immediate, as activists ranging from college kids to churchgoers to suburban dwellers staged sit-ins, organized street actions, wrote letters to politicians and newspapers, signed public petitions, and essentially raised such a degree of hell that the Reagan gang backed off, preferring to go clandestine instead. As Noam Chomsky put it, the American people drove the government underground, and even then, education about and solidarity with the people of Central America spread throughout the country. I was in my early 20s when this exploded, and it served as my first serious political education (following up my years in the Army, which kick-started my political awareness). As I've said before, I knew people in the Sanctuary Movement, and met with Salvadoran teachers and union organizers who fled their country thanks to American support and training of the death squads that were hunting them down. And while I did run into some college brats playing Che or Fidel from time to time, the majority of activists I knew, met or worked with back then were common people -- people with mortgages and kids in school, who went to church on Sunday (or temple on Friday), who shopped at malls and ate fast food. The same went for those in the anti-apartheid movement of the same era. Dissidence was deeper in America than it had been in the 1960s. And you can thank the social and political movements of the Sixties for that.
If you want to read a serious piece about today's Dems and the limitations we face in trying to push the mules in a progressive direction (assuming this can be done), check out George Scialabba's review of various lib books in the current Nation. Scialabba is another old-timer, whose essays in Grand Street in the 1980s and early-90s were among the best political commentaries of that period. He tries hard to find silver linings in the Dems' recent ascension, but like many of us who've been around this block more times than we can count, all that appears are bits of tinsel tossed down by Barack Obama and John Edwards. Things might change, of course. Anything's possible. But sitting on your ass and tapping out ahistorical screeds on behalf of a corporate party while denigrating the influential struggles of those you've never met is hardly the best way forward.