Tuesday, February 13, 2018

It's Not Even Past #10 - A Little More

So before we go any further forward with the Eric Hoffer quote we started last week, I think I have to quote him slightly out of order to talk about his exceptions to mass movements - those moments, not many of them but hugely consequential when done correctly, when mass movements can be harnessed for good, just so we can understand right away that these mass movements of ours may, not will, but may, eventually have a beneficial outcome. I'm sure you understand at this point that I'm pessimistic about it, but I'm willing to concede that it's certainly possible. But in each of these cases, there is a leader who directs them. It's in the nature of bottom up movements that their benefits can be snapped up all the easier by people with power. A mass movement is too chaotic to not eventually cohere behind a single leader because once the scale is tipped to a single flank of the movement, no other flank is yet powerful enough to stop them - or usually him. The more leaderless and democratic a mass movement seems, the more it usually seems to cohere behind a single leader, and once it does, it's at the leader's mercy, whether that leader aims to for the good of the people for whom he or she speaks, or for the good of his or her own glory, is something that cannot be controlled by its followers once the leader takes its reins. 
There are, of course, rare leaders such as Lincoln, Gandhi, even F.D.R., Churchill and Nehru. They did not hesitate to harness man's hungers and fears to weld a following and make it zealous unto death in the service of a holy cause; but unlike a Hitler, a Stalin, or even a Luther and a Calvin, they are not tempted to use the slime of frustrated souls as mortar in the building of a new world. The self-confidence of these rare leaders is derived from and blended with their faith in humanity, for they know that no one can be honorable unless he honors mankind. 
Let's start unpacking this with a sidenote: to include Churchill in 2018 among this band of great leaders in 2018 is an extraordinarily controversial opinion - Churchill's reputation took a huge dive in our era given both his extreme imperialism and his lionization by Bush-era neoconservatives. Nobody should deny that to call Churchill one of the world's great leaders is, at best, an extremely problematic claim. But ask yourself: if the urge toward Conservatism is always going to be with us no matter how badly we want to curb its most reactionary excesses, and I certainly believe that the evidence shows it will, what kind of conservatism do you want to help foster among people who will always believe in it? Do you want right wingers who excuse the authoritarianism of the Right because at least it's Right Wing, or that looks at the authoritarianism of the Right and says 'absolutely not'? Racism will always be with us, so would you rather have racists who believe it's acceptable to treat supposedly inferior races in any and all manner of inhumane ways, or racists who believes that civilization demands that you treat the people ruled with at least some level of decency. The latter is the kind of conservative that you want as an opponent, a voice that demands respect for tradition and cautions against change that's too fast. It's the kind of conservatism that has fundamentally died in America, 

It's all well and good to say 'I don't want either kind of conservative.' But that's not an option, and every time you write conservatives off as the enemy, you leave them to their own devices and let their worst urges fester into something even more noxious. Whatever one thinks of George W. Bush, and I think he's an authoritarian reactionary rather than a conservative, there is a reason that the Obamas have made an enormous show of embracing the Bushes. The Bush Administration was far beyond the pale of any kind of conservatism that is good for America, but in showing a united front against Trump, the Obamas (and yes, the Clintons too), have shown how American liberals can embrace conservatives and even try to influence them to come around to less reactionary views. 

The True Believer was written in 1951, and since then, you would have to at very least add Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to this list, and possibly Caesar Chavez, Alice Paul who headed the National Women's Party which fundamentally the organization that secured women the right to vote and the inclusion of women as a protected group under the Civil Rights act of 1964, the Czech leader Vaclav Havel, and even Lech Walesa, another name that would make liberals distinctly uncomfortable if they remembered who he was anymore... look him up.... 

There is a second uncomfortable truth to which this leads us. It's one thing for leaders like Lincoln or FDR, staring into the abyss of a world that was headed for war anyway, and turning that war machine into something that can better humanity, but when you have leaders like Gandhi, MLK, who have no backing of a state, or Mandela, who did not have the backing of a state during his most consequential period... I'm sure you see where I'm going with this. 

We could go down a rabbit hole and talk for an entire episode about Gandhi, and I'm sure he'll come up in future episodes, perhaps many times. The case of Mandela is rather unique, and we'll talk about why that is in a moment. But in the case of Martin Luther King, who now seems to be all things to all people, there has, in recent years, been a serious push on the left to reclaim him as an agitating, discomforting force. In an age when Martin Luther King gets lip service paid by the same old racists who in their youths wished for his death should be enough to drive anybody crazy. 

Yes, Martin Luther King was an agitating force in American life who aggressively pushed Americans to realize all manner of inequalities: racial, legal, and financial, that, properly applied, would still be an incredibly uncomfortable message for the vast majority of Americans. He is now taken up, though, by people who refuse to renounce the validity of violence as a specifically political tactic. And to claim that MLK would ever do the same is a revisionist history of a revisionist history. It's true, MLK said that rioting is the language of the unheard, and even if that's not necessarily true - riots can always be directed by richer and more powerful people toward the objects of rage they sanction, it's not completely untrue either. Even so, understanding the reasons why people riot should never be confused with the support and encouragement of specific and targeted acts of violence for political means, which MLK never gave any indication of doing. There is an ocean's gulf between spontaneous rioting of the poor and specific acts of violence, one is the language of despair, one is the language of terror. And just as the Right wing has an innate temptation to excuse authoritarianism, the Left wing has an innate temptation to excuse terrorism. 

You could never say with any certainty that, to take one of the most common accusations, Black Lives Matter endorses specifically targeted political violence, and that would be so completely outside the mainstream of what it stands for that it would almost be offensive to suggest it. Yet it wouldn't be completely offensive either. Black Lives Matter a much larger, perhaps unwieldy, political movement than itself. When people speak about BLM, they as often as not don't know to which organization they're speaking. They may not be speaking specifically about BLM but instead about The Movement for Black Lives which is the umbrella organization for the campaign for which all the groups under which BLM protests, they might be speaking of Campaign Zero - a movement for police reform, they might even be speaking about the National Anthem protests. Or 20 other more minor protest movements. All of these movements are related, but they're far from the same, and therein lies the spirit of our times when the wings of inclusion spread so wide that it's just assumed that anything noxious which inclusion picks up along the way will be so watered down by all the other elements that the noxiousness will simply dissolve. And that's a big and very risky wager not backed up by the trajectory of similarly inclusive movements in the past. All you have to do is take a quick glance at the trajectory of 19th century socialist movements to see where that ended up in the long term. 

Whether it's been Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, or Me Too, there is a deliberate looseness to all of these non-Presidential mass movements in the name of inclusion. But as a result of it, the flanks within them have to distinguish themselves to become noticed. Therefore, the more extreme the rhetoric of any flank within it, the more noticed it becomes, and the more widespread a chance the rhetoric has for adaptation. And when poisonous ideas get the cover of good intentions, it becomes still easier for people to adapt to concepts they would otherwise see as ideological poison. 

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