Who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely, now
The hour is getting late.
–Bob Dylan, “All Along the Watchtower”
As close readers of my recent CounterPunch article defending “rogue” journalist Caitlin Johnstone are well aware, I always intended to write a follow-up piece. It’s right there, for every competent reader of English to see, in the words “In a second piece, I’ll show…” beginning the last sentence of the last paragraph of my “General Introduction” section. Why this seemingly trivial fact matters is that I explicitly told CP chief editor Jeffrey St. Clair by e-mail—before his hatchet piece on me and my article—that I intended to answer the chief charge CP writers Yoav Litvin and Joshua Frank were making against Johnstone in my Part 2 piece.
Apparently, to my surprise and delight, St. Clair’s “counterpunch” at me struck some folks (by no means lowbrow yahoos) as a blow below the belt. For example, The Greanville Post reran my CP piece with a sizable editorial comment taking St. Clair to task for his hatchet job. Just for starters, “Dripping venom, sarcasm and arrogant condescension, Jeffrey St Clair, the editor of Counterpunch, a publication that is apparently trying to demolish Caitlin Johnstone’s standing as a credible voice in anti-imperialist politics, recently trashed this piece by Patrick Walker in terms that he may live to rue as one of the lowest points in his career as a left journalist.”
Now, for anyone who groks that CP is a bastion of leftist intellectual snobbery (its greatest virtue and vice—more on this soon), St. Clair’s jibes at me weren’t off-the-charts offensive; it’s a standard CP quality control measure to keep out the riff-raff. And occasionally, I suspect, they publish some acceptably literate specimens of us “riff-raffers” just to make examples of us. But hey, that’s the risk one takes for publishing at CP. What’s a little dripping venom between friends?
So, let readers judge according to their taste, but it’s not for St. Clair’s predictably venomous verbiage that I task him with “dancing the limbo.” Rather, it’s for intellectual dishonesty—which should be utterly repugnant to all intellectual snobs wishing to maintain intellects worthy of snobbery. Nothing could be more dishonest than St. Clair’s claim I “didn’t even have the courage to address the topic at hand: Johnstone’s call for the Left to find common ground with the Alt-Right-Delete.” That’s what we less polished types call an outright lie: a direct contradiction of the fact (which St. Clair knew) that I intended to address that “topic at hand” in my second piece. How low can you go?
Needless to say, I did the manly thing: furiously called out St. Clair for having the cajones to publicly—and dishonestly—challenge the size of mine. His limp excuse was revealing—and both confirmed and refined my stated thesis for this article. St. Clair arrogantly usurped my writer’s prerogative of deciding how to handle my subject; he accused me of “burying my lead.” Against St. Clair, Litvin, and Frank, I apparently committed the commoner’s ultimate sin of lèse majesté; I dared to treat my own lead (Johnstone’s unique value for our times) as more important than theirs (her supposedly heinous crime of talking to the alt-right). As if pointing out Johnstone’s special value for our times (a task I still haven’t finished) weren’t a relevant and appropriate part of coming to her defense.
In subordinating others’ agenda to mine—in pooh-poohing a “crime” I don’t find specially weighty—I apparently perpetrated the worst act a commoner can commit against intellectual royalty: taking the intellectual “royals” less seriously than they take themselves. By exposing that rather pompous agenda, St. Clair has helped refine my thesis: helping me closely relate the besetting CP sin of intellectual and credential snobbery I analyzed in Part 1 to the other besetting CP sins of excessive suspicion and inadequate regard for grassroots activism I promised to analyze here.
CP’s “Intellectual Puritans” and the Sin of Earnestness
For sneering sophisticates, there’s nothing more suspect than earnestness. Or to be more precise, there’s nothing more suspect than amateur, uncredentialed earnestness. And to those of us who’ve “been through that” (to quote my on-point Bob Dylan epigraph), the underlying rationale is obvious: for intellectual sophisticates, the ultimate sin is to look stupid. And having to judge the arguments of the improperly credentialed on their own merits can really make you look stupid. Much safer to sit back and sneer.
CounterPunch, Goddess bless it, is a bastion of leftist intellectual snobbery. And to “grok” that is to understand both its unique value and its limitations. See, the point of any snobbery is to maintain standards. And in a nation as lowbrow and marginalizing of the political left as ours, leftist intellectual standards are eminently worth maintaining. And in maintaining high standards, whether in fashion or intellectual leftism, snobbery is admittedly an incredible labor savor. Instead of the incredibly hard intellectual work (and often drudgery) of making detailed, rigorous arguments, one defiinitively silences one’s standard-threatening opponents with a precision-polished sneer. Or with a few beautifully chosen words that are the snidest sneer’s verbal equivalent.
I submit to all objective observers of my current quarrel with CP on behalf of Caitlin Johnstone that Jeffrey St. Clair’s summary dismissal of my article defending her is nothing more—and nothing less—than 38th degree black belt mastery of the art of the snobbish sneer. By highlighting the words “nothing less,” I intend to pay St. Clair a high compliment—while simultaneously underlining the limitations of his approach. St. Clair—like his avatar CounterPunch—has developed ultra-sophisticated snobbish mastery at warding off the barbarians at the gate. Without, however, having perfected the infinitely more difficult art of discerning who the barbarians are.
An especially useful contract with CP’s leftist intellectual snobs is fellow intellectual snob and avant-garde poet Ezra Pound. In my humble view, Pound’s greatest service to literature was not his own work (or his propaganda for Mussolini), but his sheer genius as a literary talent scout: he almost singlehandedly discovered such diverse literary greats as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Robert Frost; he also contributed considerably to the early recognition of Ernest Hemingway. The relevant point is that Pound discovered them when they were literary nobodies—and in the cases of Eliot, Joyce, and Hemingway at least, literary nobodies doing avant-garde things there was almost no precedent (in English, anyway) for writers doing. Snob that he was, Pound didn’t apply his snobbery to barring the door to uncredentialed talents doing off-the-wall things; he applied it (in generous doses) to those who failed to appreciate their value.
Lest anybody draw the wrong conclusion, I am not saying that Caitlin Johnstone and I, as writers or activists, approach the greatness of Eliot, Joyce, Frost, or Hemingway. What I am saying is that leftist intellectuals, in approaching grassroots writers and activists, need an eye for uncredentialed talent similar to Pound’s. Perhaps even more so, because the on-the-ground talent in grassroots writing and organizing is even likelier than literary talent to be uncredentialed. And, except for quantity of snobbery, the sneering head honchos at CounterPunch are no Ezra Pound.
The Importance of Being Earnest
Sneering is easy and pleasurable, and when practiced with the finesse of a Jeffrey St. Clair, it can even give pleasure. When applied to the right targets, it can even make the barbarians very hesitant about approaching the gates. But what it can’t do—what it has zero hope of ever doing—is to organize a social movement or launch a political revolution. That requires earnestness: a constant readiness to explain—everywhere, often, sincerely, and with many words if necessary—just what you want people to do and why. And while the best scientists and academics—above all, those who choose to be public intellectuals—require earnestness too, their educational responsibilities and roles (the same ones they usually need extensive credentials to occupy) usually provide them neither the time nor the needed habits to serve as activist awakeners and organizers.
So guess what: activist awakening and organizing roles usually fall to earnest people who are comparatively uncredentialed. As great a journalist as Chris Hedges even thinks our troubled times cry out for a class of professional revolutionaries. But the beyond the issue of who’d pay them, what school would conceivably train them or give them credentials? However they arrived at their paid roles, it’s obvious they’d spent most of their (likely uncredentialed) days earnestly explaining. And, one imagines, taking sneering potshots from the cynical snobs at CounterPunch for doing so. Meet HR Huff-n-Puff, professional revolutionary.
The one problem for St. Clair and his ilk is the consensus, even among the credentialed left, that our world now desperately needs something (even if peaceful) meriting the name of “revolution.” So much so that even the most exquisitely cultivated sneer starts to look—in an “All Along the Watchtower” world in the last trimester of birthing apocalypse—like so much fiddling while Rome burns. And though “There are many here among us/ Who feel that life is but a joke,” those earnest souls among us who still sense hope in revolution are apt to whisper, “So let us not talk falsely now/ The hour is getting late.” Only to hear, from CP’s head honchos, Nero’s minutes-to-midnight fiddling.
And in that fateful hour, Aussie activist awakener Caitlin Johnstone seems vastly more helpful than not only the jokers, but than even the earnest analysts at CounterPunch.
Mockers’ Pound of Flesh: Be Careful What You Ask For
So let’s now give Litvin, Frank, and St. Clair their “pound of flesh”: I respond with contemptuous delay to charges against Johnstone in which they self-righteously sense globe-shaking urgency. And quite honestly, that contempt is simply payback with interest—not merely for their shabby handling of Johnstone and me, but for their neglect and contempt toward the on-the-ground activists Johnstone and I both represent and appeal to.
Seriously, the brain trust at CounterPunch need to get out more—if not out into the real physical world, at least into the social media one where much of today’s activism, now banned by the police state from “occupying” the streets, is forced to take place. If CP brain trusters did, they might have taken a much less jaundiced attitude toward the Bernie or Bust movement (see the third paragraph of St. Clair’s hit piece), which, despite its origins as “two guys with a Facebook page,” became a hot topic for celebrities like Paul Krugman, Bill Maher, and Susan Sarandon. If Bernie or Bust achieved such mainstream media impact without the help of influential highbrows like the CP folks, imagine what we could have achieved with their help. (Caitlin Johnstone, by contrast, was a proud supporter of Bernie or Bust.)
But CP’s neglect and contempt for grassroots activism extend far beyond Bernie or Bust. When, for example, do they report on the major progressive social media groups and figures, many of them with followings of over 50,000 people and, moreover, in alliances that could multiply their potential impact? When do we ever hear from CP about Real Progressives, the Draft Bernie for a People’s Party movement, the Progressive Independent Party, or “Sane Progressive” Debbie Lusignan? But here, the neglect is seriously laced with contempt, for such far-more-leftist-than-Democrats groups constitute a sizable portion of Johnstone’s fan base. St. Clair’s insinuation that Johnstone would like to hoodwink her progressive “cult” into burning black churches grievously insults these hundreds of thousands of principled progressives by assuming they’d let her. While nothing in her writings substantiates such an intention, the fact is that her audience would drop her like the hottest rock of the Aussie desert if she tried. And psychologist Litvin’s insane assertion on Facebook that Johnstone is a fascist almost seems an attempt to prove my Part 1 thesis that credentialed meritocracy hardly guarantees competence. But this is the kind of idiocy you get when leftist eggheads lose touch with the grassroots.
A habit of self-righteous snobbish sneering, if too long indulged in, can kill the intellect that originally justified the snobbery. And CP’s attempt to poison Johnstone’s well’s seems such a case: intellectually lazy reliance on guilt by association—itself a logical fallacy—rather than the needed close examination of her writings and audience (or even a willingness to talk with her and ask her questions). Johnstone’s willingness to seek common ground with Mike Cernovich does not in any sense make her Mike Cernovich; rightly or wrongly, she feels that nuclear war is a sufficient danger that she must seek collaboration with alt-right figures who oppose U.S. military interventionism. If we look at CP stalwarts like Norman Solomon, David Swanson, or Andrew Levine, there are certainly well respected CP writers deeply attuned to the current dangers of nuclear escalation. And the careful research of another CP fixture, Anthony DiMaggio, suggests the political left will be forced at some point to talk to the undesirably racist right about common problems; for if we look (as DiMaggio has) at Trump voters, there’s really no other political right to talk to. Even if one senses (as I do) that Johnstone has picked some of the wrong right-wingers to seek common ground with, her recognition that we must seek some common ground with racists (while by no means condoning their racism) makes her a realist rather than a racist.
Whatever her outreach to the right, Caitlin Johnstone’s special appeal is to progressives generally left of Democrats, since her most persistent theme is calling out the bullshit of the Democratic Party. Lest anyone think she’s abandoned that theme—the theme that has won her most of her audience—to push alt-right agendas, consider this, her most recent piece. I’m especially pleased that it targets Chuck Schumer, someone I as a New York resident consider “my” Senator only in sense German Jews were forced to acknowledge Adolph Hitler as “their” Führer.
If all U.S. citizens were like Caitlin Johnstone, the staffers of a Wall Street and AIPAC toyboy like Schumer would face such relentless hostility that he’d simply have to give up for failure to keep staff. In her lack of servility and revolutionary belligerence lie her special value to today’s left.