The Cultural Revolution, Mark Lilla, And A Path Forward

Liberals must develop a more effective means of engaging their staunchest critics.
08/31/2017 04:27 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2017
Stephanie Keith / Reuters

Now that the sun has emerged from a total eclipse and the light at the end of the tunnel is visible in America, it’s time to consider some of the more damning critiques currently on the Democratic side. I’m loath to return to the old paradigm of right vs. left, because it’s becoming clearer every day that the far right and left have more in common than not, and the rest of us, who believe in the Constitution, freedom, equality, the rule of law, and decency, need to stand against extremism. Crises have a way of clarifying moral issues, and I’d like to tackle one such issue on the liberal side through the lens of Professor Mark Lilla.

Some of my readers may remember from their youth, if they weren’t focused on civil rights, the anti-war movement, the second wave of feminism, the nascent gay rights movement, or were busy studying or just stoned out of their minds, that the mid-60s was the time of the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China. Those years exemplified the destructiveness of an intellectual descent away from the free speech and open minds, and they culminated in the killing fields of Cambodia in 1975 when intellectuals were sent to re-education camps if they weren’t killed outright.

We don’t risk devolving to that degree, but some of the debates on the left have become so extreme by American standards that they’ve generated a backlash within the liberal community. That backlash is then used by the Nazis and white supremacists to attack everyone who doesn’t support the rise of fascism.

Mark Lilla wrote a heavily critiqued (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here) analysis of the election after the November 8th coup, and has followed up with an even more heavily critiqued book. He reminds me of the political dictum ― “Conservatives hate humanity and love people; liberals love humanity and hate people.” He joined the assault on the Democrats under the guise of “political correctness,” and even singled out the trans community. Clearly this rankled me and many of my colleagues, and even with the excuse that the wounds were still laid bare just ten days after November 8th, his analysis was extremely simplistic and, as it has turned out as seen in multiple surveys, had little to do with the outcome. I felt then, and still do, that while he says he believes in equality and vociferously opposes discrimination, trans persons make him very uncomfortable on a personal level, which is why he made the trans community a specific target.

I’m annoyed because attacking the Democrats for focusing on identity politics, when that’s all the Republicans had been doing for 40 years, is a bit disingenuous. It’s just that when white people practice identity politics, that practice is invisible to them and many pundits, but when any other group, and particularly people of color, does the same, suddenly it’s “identity politics” and becomes offensive. In addition, the Right has been dividing and conquering for decades, first destroying organized labor on the economic front, and now trying to do the same to the cohesion of multiple communities on the social front.

As I said above, there was quite a response, which I believed impacted his beliefs, now made evident in an interview he did with David Remnick of The New Yorker. I’d like to take a stab at that session, as it highlights some important points as we move into a very important election year.

The crux comes at the beginning of the interview, where Lilla references President Bannon’s comment that identity politics works for the fascists, and doesn’t work for us.

Well, certainly on the American right, ever since the Ku Klux Klan, we’ve had explicitly framed identity politics. That is in the sharpest sense. Now, you can say that people think of themselves as Italians or Jews or Germans, and then they become a kind of interest group. We’ve had interest-group politics before. But there’s a kind of essentialism to identity politics, where it means going out into the democratic space, where you’re struggling for power and using identity as an appeal for other people to vote for your side. And I think Bannon’s completely right, and I’ll stand by what I said: that it works for their side and it doesn’t work for our side, for all kinds of reasons. Now, that is not to say that we don’t talk about identity. To understand any social problem in this country, you have to understand identity. And we’re more aware of that than ever, and that’s been a very good thing. But, to address those problems with politics, we have to abandon the rhetoric of difference, in order to appeal to what we share, so that people who don’t share this identity somehow can have a stake, and feel something that other people are experiencing.
And so, I want to frame the issue in terms of basic values and principles that we share in order to establish sympathy and empathy and identification with someone else.

I can’t argue with that, and I can live with it if I separate the social justice issue from the electoral politics approach. He wants to win, and believes that once we win we can then have all the internal arguments we want, because what comes out at the end will be much better regardless of the internal contradictions that had to be overcome to get there. I don’t completely agree with that, because we’ve seen the chaos and ineffectiveness of single party rule on the right these past seven months. Still, winning is very important.

Lilla gets into trouble because he’s a self-described domestic neocon. He dislikes Black Lives Matter not because he doesn’t believe as they do about race, but because he believes that BLM transmutes their specific grievances into a general critique of American society and does so with the use of what he calls “Mau Mau tactics.” That’s quite an exaggeration, because there’s very little violence involved on the part of BLM, unless you expand the definition of violence to include shaming and calling-out culture, which impact free speech and a general airing of grievances. After all, there are some, diametrically opposed on the left, who say the very same thing, critiquing the First Amendment by saying that marginalized people cannot, in practice, have true free speech. The marginalized don’t have access to the organs of that speech, nor do they have the time and strength to express themselves because they are struggling to just stay alive.

I don’t disagree with that either, but I’ve learned that however difficult it may be for the oppressed to get justice, the American way is through struggle and free speech. It has worked for black Americans, women and the LGBT community, and it is working even today in the face of a rising fascism. “Whitewashing” America as a whole, as fundamentally flawed and, therefore, beyond redemption, leaves no room for hope, and can lead to fatalism, fascism or revolution.

Where Lilla is correct is when there is an actual, and not imagined, expansion of grievances to take advantage of the current chaos. Groups opposing capitalism lead to further communal disintegration. That disintegration has gotten to the point, for example, where the street-savvy radicals in Get Equal, who once protested Don’t Ask Don’t Tell by chaining themselves to the White House gates, today will not support trans military service because they now oppose the U.S. military. To me, that makes as much sense as Chelsea Manning sharing intelligence with the Russians and thinking she was acting patriotically. Unfortunately, there are segments of the progressive community that have been increasingly radicalized, and they now threaten the community as a whole.

I believe most Americans want neither despair nor revolution, and when they hear these generalizations from the progressive community, be they “all whites are racist,” or “our institutions are structurally racist so they must be destroyed” (Bannon loves that), or specifically that since racism is manifested in police behavior and mass incarceration then we must disband police forces and close all the prisons, we lose the vast center and, as a result, we will not win.

Progressive change comes slowly, in waves. In between the waves the groundwork is quietly laid. That work has been in response to the ideals of the people and also taking up the challenges of presidents like FDR, LBJ, and Obama, all of whom said ― “Make me do it.” Today, because of social media, those decades of groundwork are visible for all to see, and some of it is quite ugly. It may not be fair, but we need to act with dignity so we can inspire those who oppose us and are willing to listen. Yes, we can call out the incorrigible racist and bigots, as they will rarely change. Bayard Rustin knew this well, and Dr. King acted on it by targeting the movable middle, speaking to the conscience of white America in a language it could understand. He shamed them without passing judgment. The leaders of the progressive community should learn from him, because shaming your best allies is a recipe for disaster.

Those who go out into the world and speak to people, creating “beachheads,” as Lilla puts it (reminiscent of Governor Dean’s 50 state strategy of a decade ago), are doing the work that is necessary to stop the losses on the state and local level. It is the paradox of our time that a good majority of Americans support liberal policies but hate liberals. We are very lucky that Trump didn’t let President Bannon institute his populist policies; had they started off with massive infrastructure investments, as Hitler did, and then added a single payer system, we’d be in very deep trouble. They didn’t, and we’re not, but we have to find a way to not drown in the specificity of identity while we construct a means to promote the liberal policies most Americans want. We have to stop acting as if only black people can speak on black issues, or Jewish people on anti-Semitism, for example. Most of us subscribe to a theory of mind which allows us to understand and empathize with others who may be different from us. Let’s take advantage of those commonalities. We have the majority – racists and Randians make up maybe 30 percent of the population. We have to find the means to engage. It can be done.

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