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Internet Anarchist Revision Brigade: how Burt Green tried to write about statist anti-imperialism and blocked his sink with tea leaves

Here’s something George Orwell wrote back in 1946 dealing with, among other things, the political writing of his day.

Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

. . . As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. . . . In [the example from a Communist pamphlet], the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink.

Here’s an example of exactly that kind of writing, which I’ve taken from an article in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed. Unfortunately, the writing in this article is a lot like the writing in a lot of articles that appear in AJODA (right alongside an Anarchist Media Review media review section that constantly complains about jargony or dreary writing in other, less widely distributed anarchist zines). I’ve chosen this passage in particular because the writer clearly seems to know what he wants to say, and what he’s got to say is basically true, but–well, let’s just try to read it.

As long as Anti-Imperialism is presented as the foremost or central contradiction of capitalism, it will have innate limitations which are constitutionally incapable of supercession.

In the first instance, Anti-Imperialism still has to account for the way it was used in the past, and will always for that reason bear the heavy burden of the crimes committed in its name. To those who fought against imperialism in the Philippines and Chile, in South Africa and Vietnam, one must take care to add those in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary, and those who fight today in Tibet.

The uncritical assumption of statist perspectives implicit in the positioning of the organization of the National Liberation Struggle as the revolutionary subject, conceals both the class divisions between the forces that make up this organization — especially those between the bureaucratic class-in-formation on the one hand and the working class, peasantry and those sections of the intelligentsia supporting independence on the other — and the common interest all proletarians have in the elimination of their elites, regardless of nationality. The establishment of sovereign government (that is, a state) as the revolutionary objective, carries with it similarly bourgeois assumptions. It partakes with enthusiasm of the artificial and arbitrary separation in the activities of capitalist national and international political economies created by international law. Anti-Imperialists declare the extra-national colonization of markets, polities, societies, and cultures to be somehow worse or different in essence from the exercise of the same principles of capitalist economy in the country of its origin (a contradiction is not overcome by references to internal colonies). They take the borders of capitalist states more seriously, especially in the present epoch, than capitalists do themselves.

On the other side of the equation, then, Anti-Imperialism has been a means of avoiding recognition of the independent interests and struggles of the working class and peasantry in the imperial dependencies, save from the point of view of distortions created by the advancement of exogenous imperial interests. This lack of proletarian perspective allows Anti-Imperialism to become a weapon to be used against (competing) foreign exploitation without a critique of local inequalities and forms of domination, much less of the political economy as a whole. This kind of Anti-Imperialism is easy for the likes of Vladimir Putin (the pacifier of Chechnya) and the misogynists of Hezbollah to employ without damage to themselves. It also provides useful ammunition to that most perfect of modern princes, Hugo Chavez, in whom are embodied both the Leftist, pseudomodern authoritarianism of his friend and political patron, Fidel Castro, the Maximum Leader of Cuba, and also the right-wing pseudotraditionalism of fascism, as imparted by his mentor, the Argentine anti-semite Norberto Ceresole, author of Caudillo, ejercito, pueblo. La Venezuela del presidente Chavez [Leader, Army, People, the Venezuela of President Chavez.]o

o It is high time that revolutionaries make proper acknowledgement of the complementary parts played by Marxism-Leninism and Fascism, as two wings of the same general movement of reaction against the rising proletarian, peasant, and intellectual insurgency of thel ate 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest conscious expressions of these twin tendencies, those of Lenin on the one hand and Mussolini on the other, grew from the same source: (Marxian) social-democracy. The use of conspiratorial, quasi-military organization, of fronts and the infiltration of strategic organizations as a means to establishing influence, and then otion of themselves as the general staff of some kind of alleged revolution embodied in their own seizure of state power, unite these post-social-democratic factions. So does their presumption that the working class itself, incapable of more than a trade-union consciousness in Lenin’s infamous words, or unwilling to embark on crusades of national greatness (eg campaigns of forced capital accumulation, war), needs the Party, composed of this or that constellation of petit-bourgeois elements, at its head to lead it. To think that such tendencies, then or now, can be the allies of antiauthoritarian, anti-capitalist revolutionaries, is to ignore not just the overwhelming weight of the historical experience of the world’s proletarian revolutions, but the very material nature of the political economies and quality of life in the regimes created by these hyper-authoritarian Symbionese twins.

–Burt Green, Anti-Imperialism or Anti-Capitalism, in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed 26.1 (Spring/Summer 2008). pp 41, 43.

How did you feel when you tried to read through this passage and the footnote? It actually makes several important points; I think at least one or two of the points it makes are both new and important. (For example, I think that the footnote at the end is really very sharp.) That’s the sort of thing that ought to be both fun and exciting to read. But in the entire passage I can think of only two places where the writing made me feel anything than a dull pounding on my forehead — They take the borders of capitalist states more seriously, especially in the present epoch, than capitalists do themselves, and that most perfect of modern princes, Hugo Chavez. The second phrase manages to be funny precisely because the pretense is watered by the sarcasm; the rest of the passge gives you the straight stuff and demands you drink it down. If we want to say the things we need to say, then we need to find better ways of saying it than this.

If you were going to try to rewrite a passage like this to try to make it more clear to those who haven’t spent years reading and writing in Marxist jargon, and more enjoyable to read even for those who have — to rewrite a passage like this so that the author’s point about anti-imperialist politics makes more of an impression than the dull, thudding drumbeat of his language — how would you go about it?

There are some obvious easy changes that you can make. Anytime someone writes a phrase like in the present epoch you can just about always cross it out and write in today; worker or working-class can be put anywhere that the author chose to put down proletarian, and you can strike exogenous and write in outside, or replace the whole phrase save from the point of view of distortions created by the advancement of exogenous imperial interests with something like except when the bosses are foreigners. But other stale fixed phrases (This lack of proletarian perspective …, … carries with it similarly bourgeois assumptions, … the working class, peasantry and . . . intelligentsia …) are harder to deal with. You could pretty them up a little by trimming unnecessary verbal filler and by taking out obviously pretentious words and replacing them with simpler ones. You can put lipstick on a pig, too. But the problem is that the dreariness of the writing has a lot to do with the dreariness of the thought itself. It’s not that the points being made are wrong, or even hackneyed, exactly. It’s that the approach to the point is hackneyed, that the writer can find no way of expressing what he wants to say except by leading you through this cut-and-paste collage of phrases from Marxist pamphlets and whitepapers. (As Orwell said, You see, he feels impelled to write — feels, presumably, that he has something new to say — and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern.) That kind of writing needs more than copyediting; it needs to be rearranged or rewritten from the start, with paragraphs either thrown out entirely or transformed into something that you wouldn’t know for a rewriting of the original.

For example, let’s look at paragraph 3 and think about what you might do about a paragraph like this.

The uncritical assumption of statist perspectives implicit in the positioning of the organization of the National Liberation Struggle as the revolutionary subject, conceals both the class divisions between the forces that make up this organization — especially those between the bureaucratic class-in-formation on the one hand and the working class, peasantry and those sections of the intelligentsia supporting independence on the other — and the common interest all proletarians have in the elimination of their elites, regardless of nationality. The establishment of sovereign government (that is, a state) as the revolutionary objective, carries with it similarly bourgeois assumptions. It partakes with enthusiasm of the artificial and arbitrary separation in the activities of capitalist national and international political economies created by international law. Anti-Imperialists declare the extra-national colonization of markets, polities, societies, and cultures to be somehow worse or different in essence from the exercise of the same principles of capitalist economy in the country of its origin (a contradiction is not overcome by references to internal colonies). They take the borders of capitalist states more seriously, especially in the present epoch, than capitalists do themselves.

Instead of that, you might write something like this:

The picture of the world that anti-imperialist rhetoric paints is a picture seen through the eyes of warring states. If you want to know who will make the revolution, it forces you to look for a national fighting force, organized by geographical or ethnic borders. If you want to know what kind of revolution they will make, it forces you to look for a new government — a government run by locals, after the foreign governments have been forced back over the border.

The only way that anti-imperialist has to talk about revolution is to stand at made-up borders and yell Stop! — as if it made any difference whether it happens to be foreign bosses or local bosses who take control over workers’ jobs, culture, and living arrangements. Anti-imperialism takes the borders of capitalist states more seriously than the capitalists do themselves. This kind of revolution has nothing to say about what powerful people within the nation do to their victims — and particularly not what aspiring bureaucrats do to workers and intellectuals. It’s a distraction from workers’ real interest in getting out from under bosses, no matter where the bosses come from.

As far as I can tell, this would convey almost exactly the same meaning. There are some losses — for example, (a contradiction is not overcome by references to internal colonies). But I threw out the parenthetical because someone who was making the point clearly would not think that you could just stick that point where Green tried to stick it. It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but if it did, it’s only because the rest of the paragraph consists of so many stock phrases strung together that just stringing another one in may have seemed like logic. But the comment in between the parentheses has to do with a particular way that some anti-imperialist writers have tried to adapt their rhetoric in order to avoid glossing over the internal forms of oppression that Green says anti-imperialist rhetoric glosses over. For example, people who used this line often said that the white man’s government treats black people inside the borders of the U.S.A. the same way that it treats foreign people in the Phillippines or Vietnam; and you might say the same thing about groups of people who are oppressed within a post-colonial country when a more powerful group takes over power from the old colonial government. But the parenthetical mentions this position without explaining any of that, or making any of it clear to anybody who isn’t already familiar with a lot of anti-imperialist jargon. And it just states that this adaptation of anti-imperialist rhetoric doesn’t actually solve the problem, without saying why it fails. If talking about internal colonies doesn’t help, then you need to say something about why it doesn’t help, and it would probably take long enough that it belongs in a new paragraph or a footnote. If you can’t do that much, then you’d be better off not mentioning it at all.

And there are also some additions — a couple of attempts at shifting the emphasis or making use of some imagery. Because if I just stopped at cutting out the parts that had gone bad, then the leftovers would be wholesome enough, but not enough to be filling — a single paragraph that’s short and clear, but also a paragraph with nothing to really drive the point home. That would be fine if this passage was a brief stop along the way to some other conclusion. But it’s actually supposed to be about half of the essay’s conclusion.

And now that I mention it, that brings up another problem. If the simple statement of the point is as simple and boring as the simple statement of this point is (so–it’s a mistake for radicals to use an approach that doesn’t deal with oppression inside national boundaries, because it’s the bossing that really matters, not where the boss comes from) then maybe the essay needs to say more than what it does, insead of just leaving off on such an obvious point. (For example, why spend so long making a point like this, when you could use that space to make a genuinely novel point, like the point about the similarities between conspiratorial Leninism and conspiratorial Fascism, instead of hiding that point away in a footnote?) So even this kind of rewriting, paragraph by paragraph, can only do so much. What a passage like this needs, in the end, is rethinking. What do you think? How would you do it? Given what he wants to say, how would you say it well?

Que se vayan todos

If you have the time to set aside, I’d strongly encourage you to read Socialism to the Highest Bidder, written by Nachie of the Red & Anarchist Action Network (2006-07-11). I mention the If because the time involved could be considerable; it’s a long and detailed essay, but rewarding if you’re interested in the topic. Here are some of the things that I took away from reading it.

When organized oil workers went on strike in 2003, Chávez and his revolutionary bureaucracy took the opportunity to fire 18,000 workers, to hire scabs and political favorites to cross the picket lines and replace them, and to create a new yellow-dog union federation that would support the official line of the government and the government-owned oil company:

The most important effect of the lockout was that it allowed Chávez to fire 18,000 PDVSA employees for walking off the job, including most of its technical staff of geologists, geophysicists and reservoir engineers, and then refill those posts with political supporters (this is the point at which the new PDVSA became the people's). In this process all forms of budding worker's self-management were quickly rolled back under the assurance that PDVSA now belonged to the people. Workers also managed to reoccupy a handful of other small factories, which are now being absorbed by the state and tokenized as symbols of co-management and glorious revolution. … The much-vaunted officialist UNT, (National Union of Workers) which was set up in April of 2003 in response to the collaboration of the old CTV (Confederation of Workers of Venezuela) with the bosses' lockout, is certainly doing the bulk of the labor organizing in the country, but even their efforts are limited in scope and have stalled over infighting, negotiations dealing with how exactly to make the union as participative as possible, and a lack of follow-through on the militant tactics such as factory occupations that they were supposedly to be advancing.

— Nachie, Red & Anarchist Action Network (2006-07-11): Venezuela, Socialism to the Highest Bidder

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

This massive campaign of strike-breaking, union scabbing, and union-busting, which would have done Frick or Carnegie proud, is passed off today by compliant State Socialists in the U.S. as if it were a triumph for the working class. Meanwhile, in Argentina and then increasingly throughout South America, workers began to reclaim abandoned factories, and to run them under participatory, rotating worker self-management (autogesti@@c3;b3;n); when Chávez and his revolutionary bureaucracy took notice of the trend, they started to heavily promote their own favored alternative: government expropriation of factories and the institution of co-management (cogesti@@c3;b3;n), in which workers’ associations pay for the government’s help by ceding a substantial share of ownership (often up to 51%) and management (often filled by political appointees) to the Venezuelan government. The excuse for this gutting of worker management in favor of state bossism is that by putting the factory partly under government command, co-management ensures that it will produce in the interests of the public or the nation — as those interests are defined by detached government bureaucrats, rather than by the actual members of the public or the nation who happen to be engaged in doing all the work of making, buying, or using the factory’s products.

When Chávez, former leader of a military coup d’etat, rose to power, he took it upon himself to send out the military in virtually every one of his government welfare projects, and rather than altering, containing, or abolishing the existing military and the state security forces, he and his bureaucracy have taken deliberate efforts to militarize the civilian police forces and integrate paramilitary training and discipline throughout the government schooling system that they have been so assiduously expanding and remaking in their own Bolivarian image:

There has been absolutely no real judicial reform in the Fifth Republic, and as long as Chávez himself refuses to address this issue the rest of the government, for whom politics is merely a balancing act in which you do your best to appear in complete agreement with anything the president says, will continue to do nothing. In fact the Bolivarian Revolution has given the state a softer, friendlier image, which has encouraged an unprecedented rise in urban crime by those who expect to be able to get away with more. This has in turn been used by the government as a justification for the strengthening of the pre-existing repressive apparatus, which in April culminated in the chief of Caracas' police being replaced with a FAN brigadier general.

For all the talk of tribunals against impunity to investigate state repression, these bodies have been completely stacked with members of the National Guard and political armed forces. On January 30th in Barquisimeto, a committee of the victims and families of police abuse released a communiqué condemning the tribunals; these people guarantee the social peace, generate justice, and therefore the state cannot dismantle its own gang, it will never judge, much less condemn, itself. The continuation of police abuse is one of the most underplayed aspects of the Bolivarian Government, especially considering the lack of responses to it. In March, 21 year old Iván Padilla Alliot was severely beaten by the DISP and told that he was going to be disappeared after he ran in front of a government convoy while crossing through Caracas' hectic traffic. Only when it was discovered that he was the son of the Vice Minister of Culture was he released. If such a mistake is possible, one can only guess as to what happens when the pigs grab someone who's father is not a politician.

While Chávez speaks almost endlessly about his plans to benignly integrate the armed forces into society, in practice it is Venezuelan society that is forced to take on the nature of the armed forces. Although Article 61 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, Articles 130 and 134 then declare it obligatory to defend the patria. Among the largest changes we now see the country undergoing is the implementation of obligatory pre-military programs in all schools, which seek to indoctrinate the youth with a bizarre blend of nationalism and socialism (sound familiar?). These programs will of course be complimented by a wide variety of centrally planned — and approved — education initiatives, especially through the new Bolivarian University. This institution, which Chávez claims now hosts more students than all the independent ones put together, is rigorously controlled by the state so that all activism, cultural activities, and studies undertaken by the students fit into the prefabricated mold of Bolivarian Socialism (Alan Woods, for example, being a typical guest speaker). As a result one can expect to see significant deterioration in the quality and autonomy of student struggle, which had previously characterized the universities as traditional points of resistance throughout all of the past regimes. Meanwhile, like so many other vertically-implemented projects of the state, the Bolivarian University has been failing to live up to it's promise: the professor's union has publicly said that student desertion is at over 40%, and attendance statistics have been manipulated by the government. The curriculum has also had to be completely redesigned three times in the past four years.

— Nachie, Red & Anarchist Action Network (2006-07-11): Venezuela, Socialism to the Highest Bidder

In summary:

The Bolivarian Revolution and Chávez as a personality are increasingly intolerant of criticism, and even more so of projects that fall outside of their control. The much-lauded and incredibly tiny urban garden projects in Caracas, which were deliberately dressed up with things like premium fertilizer to look more impressive in the run-up to the FSM, actually predate the government but have been turned into clients of the state with the promise of funding. This has happened to untold numbers of community projects and autonomous organizations, with those who refuse to collaborate inevitably being called golpistas. As Humberto Decarli explained to me, Chávez' interest in Cuba is not so much an ideological common ground as it is an admiration for the raw efficiency of the repressive mechanisms that have allowed Castro to remain in power for so long, and a key part of this is the absorption or dismantling of all institutions and movements outside of the state.

— Nachie, Red & Anarchist Action Network (2006-07-11): Venezuela, Socialism to the Highest Bidder

Or, in other words, under the name and banner of a socialist and revolutionary movement, the emerging Boli-bureaucracy has used subsidy, co-optation, conversion, and violent repression to devour any and every independent project or association, whenever, wherever, and however it could get them into its ravenous maw. All too many Potemkin-tour Progressives and authoritarian Leftists have deluded themselves into believing that this process of the endlessly self-aggrandizing State bureaucracy engorging itself on the living remains of industrial and civil society, is something that Leftist, grassroots, and populist tendencies ought for some reason to support; the Libertarian Left — i.e., the real, anarchistic Left, unencumbered by the reactionary apparatus of Authority — knows better than that.

Government! Ah! we shall still have enough of it, and to spare. Know well that there is nothing more counter-revolutionary than the Government. Whatever liberalism it pretends, whatever name it assumes, the Revolution repudiates it: its fate is to be absorbed in the industrial organization.

— Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1851), Reaction Causes Revolution, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century

Our boys in uniform

Perhaps it makes me an anti-American scumbag to point this out, but I don’t especially support these efforts by lying creeps and transphobic adolescent Internet trolls in uniform to protect my freedom:

US military personnel at Guantanamo Bay called Fidel Castro a transsexual and defended the prison for terrorism suspects in anonymous web postings, an internet group that publishes government documents said today.

The group, Wikileaks, tracked web activity by service members with Guantanamo email addresses and also found they deleted prisoner identification numbers from three detainee profiles on Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia that allows anyone to change articles.

Julian Assange, who led the research effort, said the postings amount to propaganda and deception.

This is the American government speaking to the American people and to the world through Wikipedia, not identifying itself and often speaking about itself in the third person, Assange said in a telephone interview from Paris.

Army Lt Col Ed Bush, a Guantanamo spokesman, said there is no official attempt to alter information posted elsewhere but said the military seeks to correct what it believes is incorrect or outdated information about the prison.

Bush declined to answer questions about the Castro posting.

Assange said that in January 2006, someone at Guantanamo wrote in a Wikipedia profile of the Cuban president: Fidel Castro is an admitted transexual, the unknown writer said, misspelling the word transsexual.

The US has no formal relations with Cuba and has maintained its base in the south-east of the island over the objections of the Castro government.

Comments on news stories were posted by people using apparently fictitious names to news sites–and were prepared by the Guantanamo public affairs office, according to Wikileaks.

A comment on a Wired magazine story about a leaked Guantanamo operations manual that was recently posted on the Wikileaks website urged readers to learn about Guantanamo by going to the public affairs website, adding that the base is a very professional place full of true American patriots.

— The Age (2007-12-16): Gitmo troops vandalise Wikipedia

(Via Dan Clore (2007-12-13) on LeftLibertarian2.)

Whited sepulchres

(thanks to feministe: The Gazillion Things Crowding Up My Desktop for the link)

The Boondocks: A Right to be Hostile
photo: Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman, the whitest Leftist on the planet

The Nation is a well-written, insightful magazine that’s well worth reading. Eric Alterman is one of the best popular media critics today. These are people well worth supporting with your time, money, and attention. Nevertheless, I can’t find an ounce of sympathy for them in my heart–or an ounce of pique at Aaron McGruder–on reading The New Yorker‘s profile of McGruder and its account of a shouting match between McGruder and white liberals at a recent $500-a-plate dinner for The Nation:

On the day of Saddam Hussein’s capture, last December, the left-leaning political weekly The Nation celebrated its hundred-and-thirty-eighth birthday. It was a Sunday night, and the weather was dreadful–forbiddingly cold and wet, heavy snow giving way to sleet–but three hundred people could not be deterred from dropping five hundred dollars a plate for roast chicken amid the marble-and-velvet splendor of the Metropolitan Club, on Fifth Avenue.

. . .

Toward the dessert (chocolate torte) portion of the evening, Uma Thurman rose to introduce a special guest: Aaron McGruder, the creator of the popular and subversive comic strip The Boondocks, who, as it happens, had travelled farther than anyone else to be there, all the way from Los Angeles. McGruder, one of only a few prominent African-American cartoonists, had been making waves in all the right ways, poking conspicuous fun at Trent Lott, the N.R.A., the war effort. … It seemed to be, as a Nation contributor said later, his coronation as our kind of guy.

But what McGruder saw when he looked around at his approving audience was this: a lot of old, white faces. What followed was not quite a coronation. McGruder, who rarely prepares notes or speeches for events like this, began by thanking Thurman, the most ass-kicking woman in America. Then he lowered the boom. He was a twenty-nine-year-old black man, he said, who got invited to such functions all the time, so you could imagine how bored he was. He proceeded to ramble, at considerable length, and in a tone, as one listener put it, of militant cynicism, with a recurring theme: that the folks in the room (courageous? Please) were a sorry lot.

He told the guests that he’d called Condoleezza Rice, the national-security adviser, a mass murderer to her face; what had they ever done? (The Rice exchange occurred in 2002, at the N.A.A.C.P. Image Awards, where McGruder was given the Chairman’s Award; Rice requested that he write her into his strip.) He recounted a lunch meeting with Fidel Castro. (He had been invited to Cuba by the California congresswoman Barbara Lee, who is one of the few politicians McGruder has praised in The Boondocks.) He said that noble failure was not acceptable. But the last straw came when he dropped the N-word, as one amused observer recalled. He said–bragged, even–that he’d voted for Nader in 2000. At that point, according to Hamilton Fish, the host of the party, it got interactive.

Eric Alterman, a columnist for The Nation, was sitting in the back of the room, next to Joe Wilson, the Ambassador. He shouted out, Thanks for Bush! Exactly what happened next is unclear. Alterman recalls that McGruder responded by grabbing his crotch and saying, Try these nuts. Jack Newfield, the longtime Village Voice writer, says that McGruder simply dared Alterman to remove him from the podium. When asked about this incident later, McGruder said, I ain’t no punk. I ain’t gonna let someone shout and not go back at him.

Alterman walked out. I turned to Joe and said, I can’t listen to this crap anymore, he remembers. I went out into the Metropolitan Club lobby–it’s a nice lobby–and I worked on my manuscript.

Newfield joined in the heckling, as did Stephen Cohen, a historian and the husband of Katrina vanden Heuvel. It was like watching LeRoi Jones try to Mau-Mau a guilty white liberal in the sixties, Newfield says. It was out of a time warp. Who is he to insult people who have been putting their careers and lives on the line for equal rights since before he was born?

Can you see his face as he says this? The teeth gritted, the lip curled up, the words Ungrateful negro– just barely stifled between his tongue and his teeth.

Nevertheless, Newfield is right in one respect: the whole fracas reads like a bad flashback from the 1960s. Not, however, for the reasons that Newfield thinks it does: what feels like it came out of a time warp is a bunch of pretentious, comfortable white radicals (oh, I’m sorry, progressives — a terminological shift that looks like a bad flashback from the 1910s) lecturing everyone else on how to do enlightened politics, patting themselves on the back, angrily shouting down speakers they disagree with, and snivelling about anyone who says things that make them feel guilty.

Here, meanwhile, is what McGruder has to say about the whole thing:

At a certain point, I just got the uncomfortable feeling that this was a bunch of people who were feeling a little too good about themselves, McGruder said afterward. These are the big, rich white leftists who are going to carry the fight to George Bush, and the best they can do is blame Nader?

There’s not much to say on the latter point that I haven’t already said elsewhere in considerably more depth; the main thing to stress here is that, while I have quite a few problems with Green Party strategy since the 2000 election, and a lot of problems with Nader’s campaign for 2004, it’s dreadfully foolish for lefty Democrats to waste their time and effort alienating people who are sympathetic to the independent party movement with slash-and-burn Nader-blaming tactics. The target is Bush: energize your base by taking the fight to him and you will win. Demoralize your base with hectoring and finger-pointing and you will lose, and you will deserve to lose.

It’s the former point that I want to dwell on for a moment: the stifling sense of complacency and self-congratulatory politics that we on the Left are all too often prone to. If there is a characteristic vice of the white, male Left, it is pride: specifically, the phony simulacrum of self-worth that comes from indulgence in a certain sort of Pharisaic purity. The basis of our politics, after all, is the repudiation of some of the very roots of the society we live in — the ugly, daily realities of white supremacy, gay-bashing, war, colonialist occupation, men’s rape and battery against women, and so on. The constant temptation is to act as though we’ve somehow managed to extricate ourselves from the sins of the society that surrounds us, and to purify ourselves through our own virtue.

What happens when that self-image is endangered is all too familiar–all too often we answer criticism with a sort self-righteous, defensive backlash. (This is a lesson that we owe especially to the writings by feminists on the male Left; see, for example, Cocktales, anthologized in Dear Sisters; everything I say here about the white Left just as much to the male Left, the straight Left, the collegiate Left, or whatever form of privileged background you care to look at.) And when this happens, the tactics are all too familiar. We change the subject from what we’re doing to how we’re feeling and what we’ve done–changing the subject from institutional structures and the interpersonal character of our acts, to our own personal good intentions. It shifts from being a question of whether or not I’m doing something fucked up (and if so, what I can do to be accountable for that), to being a question of whether I’m one of Us or one of Them (the bigots, the running-dogs, the misogynists, the Bush Administration–everyone that I, the pure one, have defined myself against). From there it’s not far to taking up criticism as a personal attack rather than as a serious critique; and it becomes very easy just to attack back, to scapegoat the critic and–natch–to reiterate all the virtuous things I’ve done for you (or think I’ve done, anyway), that set me apart from the demoniacal Them–and how dare you not realize it, &c.

But if we want to help build an open and just society, some day or another we are going to have to answer for all the big and little ways that we’ve participated in injustice–and the sooner the better for all concerned. Courage, and pride in accomplishments, is a great thing to have — but without humility and accountability there is no real courage or pride; there is only boldness and egotism. Salvation needs works, but it also needs grace; good intentions alone won’t feed a person who’s hungry or stop an assault or defuse a bomb. I, for one, haven’t always made my good intentions do some good for other people more than once; and I know also that I’m not the only one, either. If pompous white radicals progressives won’t cop to that on our own, then we could use a good Mau-Mauing every now and again–hell, anything to get us to sit down and shut up and think about what other people are saying for two seconds. It’s not about guilt, and it’s not about radical chic. It’s about having the guts to acknowledge that you’ve fucked up from time to time (and if the elite Left hasn’t been fucking up pretty frequently for the past two decades, what the hell has it been doing?!) and having the humility to listen to people (even if you disagree with half of what they are saying) when they take you to task on it.

Aaron McGruder was right; folks like Eric Alterman and Jack Newfield write some good stuff, but they are feeling way too good about themselves. If McGruder’s shock therapy did not work, then I’m not sure what to suggest, except perhaps a long-term prescrption of Daily Abnegations. Every morning, before they sit down to work, maybe they should repeat to themselves: Black people know more about racism than I do. Women know more about sexism than I do. Poor people know more about poverty than I do. Now let’s work together to do some good by the end of the day.

This may seem like a tall order for someone like Eric Alterman, who describes himself as A contributor to virtually every significant national publication in the US and many in Europe, but surely the most honest and incisive media critic writing today can suck it up and manage it.

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