On the Intolerant Left

As a leftist, I have been troubled in recent years by the growing pattern of intellectual and political intolerance I have witnessed within allegedly progressive circles. This brand of intolerance not only mirrors that of the far-right, but more frighteningly, it has established a relentless radicalization of public life and political debate whereby the subject, no matter where she stands on the political spectrum, is bullied into submission, lest she be dragged through the mud.

From the numerous campaigns which set out to malign the reputations of those with whom one disagrees, intellectual arguments today within parts of the left tend to spin the same half dozen phrases ranging from “hate speech” to a menu of now almost meaningless epithets such as “bigot”, “murderer”, “fascist”, and “white supremacist”.  Meaningless simply because stating a thought, making a critique, and engaging in disagreement is often the online fodder for those who respond with calling their interlocutor a “Nazi sympathizer”.  The number of reductio ad Hitlerum I cross weekly on social media would make great material for the “2018 Antifa Daily Affirmation” wall calendar as the messages that are espoused are uncannily similar to those which are being critiqued.

Free speech is at stake and the curtailing of free expression and thought is bizarrely being fomented in university campuses across North America, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.   What appears to be an anglophone obsession over the control of speech and thought, is as much a problem of the left’s desire to “stamp out” that which it views repressive. The problem is that the “stamping out” has abridged healthy debate and any sort of dialectic in places where free thought should be embraced.

Just two weeks ago, the University of Wisconsin approved a free speech policy which asks students to listen to all sides of arguments with the threat to suspend or expel should students who do not comply. While there are many critiques of this policy and good reason to worry about its implementation, there are even more reasons in recent years to worry about allowing the status quo to persist.

From the recent aggressions of social justice warriors at Evergreen State College to those this past Spring at Middlebury College, it is clear all that is needed to enrage Antifa (anti-fascist) adherents and social justice warriors  is the mere suggestion that both sides of a debate be allowed to speak. Dare one suggest an open forum or propose a dialectical approach, this will prompt verbal abuse, physical aggression, threats of further violence, and the instillment of fear, as both Brett Weinstein and Allison Stranger discovered.  Not only should these troubling practices within the ostensible safety of university campuses be cause for the left to rethink its allegiance to a monolith it has helped to create in terms of rendering sacred the notion of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and identity politics,  but I would also suggest that the events of Charlottesville, VA be viewed within this same scope of critique.

Without condoning or excusing the hatred of the right-wing manifestation this past August in Virginia, I think it is important that we understand this dynamic beyond mere reductio ad Hitlerum and attempt to knock off the mediatic veneer that has been shockingly sparse in actual reporting. Indeed, op-eds have dominated the news and I had to look high and low to find out the narrative of what actually transpired in Charlottesville. While major media would have everyone believe that everyone attending this march was a flaming racist, white supremacist, KKK member, and/or neo-Nazi,  And while this pretty much sums up the make-up of the “Unite the Right” rally, what is barely mentioned in the media is the violence that was also used by the counter-protestors in addition to the protestors such that the rhetorical engagement between these two groups becomes a veritable mirroring of the other.

Over the past few days, it has become clear to me why this war of outrage between the social justice warriors and the neo-white nationalists is so intense—and it isn’t because of ideological differences. It is the inverse.  Quite simply, these two groups have more in common that either side cares to admit, namely because both sides are obsessed with race and with a discursive competition for “who suffers more.”  Where the Antifa and social justice warriors command a politics of using whiteness as a badge of guilt, the alt-right response to race is to deflect this guilt by putting a focus upon “white pride”.   And where both groups are convinced they are oppressed, neither group actually cares to understand the suffering of the other.  And deep within this war of words, there is a perverse wrestling over who is the “most oppressed”—as if there were a trophy to be won—between the two groups. It is as if whites in Virginia could not possibly know of human suffering, marginalization, and impoverishment at the hands of rather wealthy (by comparison) north-easterners whose progressive rhetoric is at their expense.

The reality on the ground is that identity politics has usurped the discussions of economic injustice and class inequality. If anything that Clinton’s loss last year has taught us is that you cannot pretend that identity politics is the greater social cause of the day. It’s not. It’s not that Mark Lila was saw identity “as a greater danger than capitalism unchained” as one Jim Sleeper maintains. It is that the left’s obsession with identity politics over capitalism is the greater danger. For while we might sit comfortably with images of gun-toting, toothless rednecks in our heads, the reality is that almost 18% of Virginians live in poverty, the fifth highest in the country. And 11.6% of Virginians relied on government food subsidies in 2012 through SNAP  (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) which was facing imminent cuts to its program due to the pending Farm Bill and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).  Now the SNAP faces being cut altogether which will affect 320,000 residents who will likely go hungry without these benefits.  Focussing on the tropes of racism rather than understanding why so many Virginians live in poverty is as useful as telling these people to collect food stampsdiscount coupons, or to work harder. The left is missing out on an opportunity to build bridges with those very much in need of class analysis despite which could easily be couched as their ignorance of history over, say, “Nazi”.

While article after article has blamed identity politics for the election of Donald Trump, there is a discrete absence of this sort of critique within the left.  There was a problem of trust during the protests in Charlottesville where only the identity politics of the right was discussed—never in relation to the identity politics of the left.  Understanding the links between both groups’ radical fortification of identity is, I believe, a core challenge here.  Likewise we must demand more fairness in journalism where the events of Charlottesville were sketchily reported while what was reported came in the passive voice—people were injured, individuals were repressed, etc.  One thing is clear, however: the white, tobacco-chewing redneck who is spinning his unique brand of identitarian politics has become the scapegoat for everything that is wrong with the United States.  Oddly, few on the left are looking further afield from this convenient symbol (also a stereotype).

Who are the people behind this mediatized representation of the neo-white nationalists that even the Guardian loves to hate (while racism in the UK is virtually invisible from the tabloid)?  Might it be that the more current and mainstream absolutism of identity politics has offered only one reading of American culture, leaving behind those who—even if white and/or right-wing—are at odds with the dominant ideology which clings to its own form of regressive, self-styled identity politics?

I view part of our task as leftists must be to critique the structural injustices that led to the events in Charlottesville for certain.  However, this critique cannot exclude the lives of the very people that so many view as the “un-American”—the racists.  If anything, what happened in Charlottesville was not only very typically American, it seems that the “might makes right” reaction to the protest by the left is also very engrained within the tradition of the political left and equally fraught with its own logic that intolerance should not be tolerated. If we really were to follow through on this logic, then the left would not be tolerated.

Certainly (and need I say this?), I find neo-Nazi and white supremacist rhetoric abhorrent.  Despite this fact, I must wonder why so much of major media has reacted with shock to this rally—a fact about which nobody of color is that surprised.  And moreso, why have so many people gone off about the ills of racism, a truism at this point, instead of looking at the underlying narratives where race is part of a far greater problem where those oppressed are collectively oppressed by the capitalist system which conveniently exploits both the “Nazis” in Charlottesville and the many immigrants they would like to see gone.  Is it not time that we move beyond the demonstration of our wounds and begin to listen to each other in order to create dialogue, and not recite a mouthed soliloquy for the sake of a one-off PR stunt.  We can continue to compile a “who is victimized worse” or we can stop the rhetorical blackmail and begin to engage in actual discussion with the “enemy”.

This sort of exchange is very reminiscent of the types of hyperbole that erupted when Blood Diamond was released and suddenly every leftist in the west suddenly started dropping conversational tidbits about how their diamonds were the ethical sort of diamonds, “not blood diamonds.” Very little discussion took place around the issue of survival that these miners face, the exploitative practices across the board of capitalism and how the underlying practices went far beyond mining community in Sierra Leone, Angola, and the Ivory Coast or diamond traders in Surat, India.  The root problem is fundamentally that of the inequalities that capitalism and war breed.

August’s events reveal how close the alt-right and alt-left really are when both scapegoat the other for the ills of the country when neither group is capable of seeing how capitalism and commodity fetishism is what is destroying a society which would otherwise engage these two groups in, at the very least, healthy debate.  One must wonder if the media is not part of a larger political machinery that diverts everyone’s attention from the ills of capitalism as everyone navel gazes, wondering why nobody sees their pain.  And we must begin to concede as leftists that we are just as guilty as the right in mass-marketing the clichés of pain and suffering as part of this larger incrimination of those with whom we disagree.  It is as if the rhetoric precedes any guilty act of actual Nazism or racism.

One instance that comes to mind is Allison Stanger’s New York Times Op-Ed response to an attack she sustained at  Middlebury College earlier this year.  Stanger notes that the fundamental problem of how the violence against her and guest speaker, Charles Murray, was formulated was that it preceded the actual event of Murray’s alleged “hate speech”.  Not only did students, but even her own colleagues, had participated in the campus uproar over Charles Murray’s visit “without ever having read anything he has written.”  Stanger underscores how students were buttressed in their misconceptions by fellow faculty members and she evaluates the massive contradictions between the information disseminated and the actual truth behind these misrepresentations:

Intelligent members of the Middlebury community — including some of my own students and advisees — concluded that Charles Murray was an anti-gay white nationalist from what they were hearing from one another, and what they read on the Southern Poverty Law Center website. Never mind that Dr. Murray supports same-sex marriage and is a member of the courageous “never Trump” wing of the Republican Party.

Students are in college in part to learn how to evaluate sources and follow up on ideas with their own research. The Southern Poverty Law Center incorrectly labels Dr. Murray a “white nationalist,” but if we have learned nothing in this election, it is that such claims must be fact-checked, analyzed and assessed. Faulty information became the catalyst for shutting off the free exchange of ideas at Middlebury. We must all be more rigorous in evaluating and investigating anger, or this pattern of miscommunication will continue on other college campuses.

To read both Stanger and Brett Weinstein’s accounts of being accused of bigotry, racism, and white nationalism hits a chord with me for various reasons. First, as someone who has spent years teaching university students how to approach texts with an open mind and who has encouraged dialogue in the classroom, I am more than aware that most of these debates are happening in real life and online between individuals who have, for the most part, not even taken the time or effort read the very material they are opposing.  A quick reference to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s brandishing X person as guilty of “hate speech” has become this cudgel that people use in shouting down their opponent, regardless of how inaccurate the information on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s actually website is.  One must question, why the rush to denigrate an individual reaching for the one-off insult without being equipped with facts to substantiate this claim.  One can claim offense as obviously racism and Nazism are offensive discourses. But when someone wishes to lay claim to this moniker for another, you sort of do need to bring proof to the table to justify such an elaborate title.

Secondly, as someone who is active online, I am all too aware as to how the policing of ideas functions both from the business end of the Internet where digital marketing techniques command much of the content provided online all the way through the social communities formed around this content which more often than not become echo chambers of political discourse.  It is particularly the latter which interests me here: how social forces have been constructed online to amass communities that set out to police their own, calling out any wrong move, turn, or thought.  But isn’t how we grow as thinkers, as humans, through this engagement with others’ thoughts so that we might debate our thoughts, develop insights, listen to different strategies, and so forth?

Recently, I was called a “white supremacist” because in a discussion over the Identitarian movement and the   Several anarchist types were ranting about Laura Southern being a “white supremacist” and I pointed to the many critiques by leftists in Italy and by the UN itself regarding the problematic situation of NGOs which are unwittingly aiding human traffickers, all of course couched as “rescue missions”.  And while the division in Italy’s Democratic Party over this issue is quite fierce with the likes of Gad Lerner, longtime Democratic Party member and journalist, to leave the party over the problems of how the left is approaching the subject of immigrants from North Africa being transported to Italy.  At the other end of the spectrum is Matteo Renzi who is worried about the continuing influx of immigrants to Italy.

What amazes me about this particular debate is that “white supremacy” is not even a subtext for Italians, nor is Italian nationalism. It’s not for the Italians on the left who fight for the NGOs to continue to bring immigrants from the coast of Africa to Italy, not for those Italians of the left who critique these missions.  Nor is “white supremacy” the ethos behind the alleged Alt-Right group, Defend Europe, which even if I might not agree with any of its arguments, still raises critical questions about why NGOs are sending boats primarily on missions to pick up migrants who have just left the North African coast by12 nautical miles.

Goodness forbid, however, that anyone speak outside of the strict Manichaean terms of  good versus evil.  I quickly found in my online foray to have a dialogue with this specific group of (ahem) “Marxists”, that any issues raised which fell outside of “socially aware and just lefty dude” angry Anarchist rhetoric left only on the other position to be held. Or, as I was told: “You piece of shit racist pig–why don’t you drop dead?”  Certainly if the Italian Democratic Party can manage discussions that touch upon the nuance of underlying issues—housing and fiscal support for these immigrants, lack of jobs for those already in Italy, and the reality of economic effects of immigration in Italy today, why can’t a bro-dude in his pajamas in Brooklyn, NY?

It is troubling today that in the spaces that one would most expect tolerance for diverse points of views (ie. within academic circles), that these are the very spaces where difference of opinion is least tolerated.  Nuanced ideas on many social and political issues today are being more competently undertaken by journalists, than seasoned academics.  For instance, I find the situation of the fight against NGO’s boats in Italy this past summer very closely mirrors the ethos behind Brexit.  As Mike Carter’s Guardian article reveals, immigration was the pretext for Brexit with the symptoms being  poverty, ill-health, joblessness, and hopelessness. The reasons behind Brexit has been firmly laid at the government’s ill-handling of the economy since Thatcher and there is no evidence to show any differently even today.

There are even arguments to make about mainstream media’s hyperbolic coverage on the “immigrant crisis”, which has created widespread panic in many European countries which are the first port of call for migrants. Such reporting has also helped to incite xenophobia while conveniently assisting to raise funds/donations for many UN agencies and NGOs.  When you start to study the numbers of immigrants coming to Europe, at least according to Patrick Taran of Global Migration Policy Associates (GMPA), you see that the numbers are not any higher today than throughout recent history:

The narrative…thrown around is that by 2015 1m immigrants will be coming into Italy with 4,8m immigrants entering a EU country of which 800,000 to 1m would be 20% of the total (those coming in irregular circumstances), but not unprecedented from 1989 1990 collapse of USSR and not unprecedented by the space of a few years after the collapse of the Serbian state and warfare in the Balkans. When the current situation is described as unprecedented or a “crisis” this is ignoring the fact that immigration is a normal feature for Europe. When you are talking about 4.8m migration you are talking about net migration of 2m into EU countries in a region of 560m total population.

Taking stock of these figures, we need to question the media focus on the alleged increased number of immigrants which is fanning the flames of the right.

We also need to examine why the misrepresentation of immigration numbers is persistent within major media and the left in order to look pragmatically at the necessity of immigration, according to Taran who told me that “in the next 15 years, the German born workforce will decline by 6m and in Italy by 3m” or that 52% of Vienna is either foreign born or descendent of one parent who is foreign-born.  Taran links the need for immigration back to the neoliberal order of labor, noting:

Immigrants have almost nothing to do with unemployment.  Structural changes combined with austerity as the system’s way out at the expense of maintaining productive economies is the reason, but advertising and the elites and the powers that be, the media corporations, that spin the story of immigrants.  At the same time there is an objective need for immigrant labour and skills and for lowering the wages across the board.  There are two specific aspects that are worthy of note: the availability of an undocumented migrant population provides a labour pool that can be employed below legal wages and is not subject to decent work conditions (ie construction, agriculture) and so it is easy to find jobs in these sectors without competition; and where the system tolerates them because it has retained lower wages in construction in health, domestic care, and farming.  

If we step back from this equation, it might appear that the pro-immigrant forces are merely neoliberal agents looking to expand their economic interests for a fraction of domestic-born labor. When Taran informed me that in Germany, “Deutsche Bank and Merkel allowed 800,000 men over to train them to fill 300,000 jobs a year,” the pattern of lefty pro-immigration politics did not seem to carry through to economic equality.

Skip back to my online encounter over the subject of immigration and NGO rescue missions in the Mediterranean where I tried to lend a human perspective to the discussion, breaking down some of the media smoke and mirrors, to include the façade of good will on the part of many NGOs and UN agencies. My own research and writing on the subject of UN and NGO interventions which often create deeper humanitarian crises has opened my eyes to what are well-known abuses within the very organizations that play a large role in fomenting the narratives of disaster politics. And this includes what was happening in the Mediterranean over the summer to include an undercover journalist who demonstrated the links between one NGO and human traffickers the debates that anglophone media was conveniently ignoring (ie. debates over human trafficking). In short, issues that should be of concern to the left.

So back to my discussion on social media with self-declared Marxist and anarchists, who instead of listening to my points, these individuals could not help but to lash out, calling me a “racist,” “fascist”, “bigot”, and more uncreative methods of derailing a deeper analysis of the situation of refuggees.  All because I call into question the accuracy of calling people “fascists”, “Nazis”, or “white nationalists” based on flimsy to no evidence.   And therein lies the Achilles heel of the left: the need to create these straw boogey men over reverting to rational and respectful debate.

Similarly, in the weeks following the events of Charlottesville, leftists set out to punish those who attended the right-wing rally by going to Twitter and outing everyone they could identify, even if some who attended the rally were simply curious to hear what this was “all about”.  The doxxing has also resulted in one individual being fired, thus far.  And reading one’s astrological chart is not going to enable anyone to understand what is going on any more than assuming that calls to “push out racists” from our communities is the answer.  At the end of the day, it seems quite clear that racism, despite being a tragic reality and massive social ill, has sadly been hijacked and utilized as a rhetorical device by the left, to shut down methodically what otherwise might be constructive debate.

Intellectual nuance is dying as quick a death as is that long-held tradition of reading what one critiques.  Stanger’s experiences at Middlebury College experienced this rejection of rejection and calim, warnign:  “People from both sides of the aisle reject calm logic, eager to embrace the alternative news that supports their prejudices.”

What resonates to me, as someone who was raised in the Deep South and who experienced racism regularly, is that a country like the United States has much a problem with blackness as it does whiteness.  The screaming from the top of the flagpole “white power” is met with its antidote in identitarian circles of the left, the derogatory silencing device of  “Nazi”. And if you happen to be a feminist, “white feminism” is the tailor-made misogynist epithet par excellence.

From the historical mire of slavery to the messy Jim Crow era that has slowly been pushed away since the country’s Civil Rights era, what is clear to me is how race has become this obligatory talisman to which every American is expected to nod: either in praise of one’s blackness or embarrassment for one’s whiteness.  And while I have written reams on the historical and cultural legacy of slavery in the United States, I do question to what degree recycling the same historical tropes that, although linked to a terrible and entirely destructive reality, ends up recreating this heritage. It is as if the the language of race on the left is becoming part of exercising a modern-day rosary, an ave Maria to our collective guilt.  It is a debtors’ prison in perpetuity from which no “white” person can escape.  Still racism perpetuates and is forever booming and nobody dares touch the sacred space of whiteness.

Where the Civil Rights struggles brought us to understand that skin colour does not make the person, that we must look beyond historical constructions of  race, the left today tells us that we are nothing if not race.  It is as if we have swapped Martin Luther King for Cesare Lombroso, and called the latter progressive.

If anyone wonders why what many are calling “white nationalism” is exploding in Europe and North America, one need not look very far.  For it is beside the point to label Laura Southern a “white nationalist” and “racist” when the mechanisms of the left have created a cultural discourse where race is not only omnipresent, but everyone is obliged  tohave a race, and to embrace it. All this despite the fact that race has been disproven since Darwin.

So, how can the left resolve to to discuss race as problematic when race is configured as conterminously good and bad:  race is a positive and identity-affirming gesture when x group over there embraces “their race” yet when w group over here does the very same identity-affirming gesture, this is suddenly framed as negative.

Brendan O’Neill noted this sort of hypocrisy and queried on Facebook, just days after the rally and violence in Charlottesville this August:

And people wonder why white nationalism is growing. It would be amazing if it wasn’t. Over and over the cultural elite says, “You are white, you are a white man, everything you think and do is an expression of whiteness, your identity is white, that is your race and your history, admit it, own it”, and some people have turned around and said: “Okay.”

The left must address its hand in creating a seemingly liberatory rhetoric which is weighed down by all the sociopolitical devices that have been established through postmodern theories and leftist actions which rely entirely upon the essentialism of race as a real.  Theories which remain almost entirely linguistically rooted with zero translation into Realpolitik.

Moreso, the left needs to reflect upon how we arrived at this moment where disagreement is anything but fascist: it’s an invitation to break open a bottle of spirits or put on a kettle to prepare a pot of tea.  Intellectual exchange should simply not be framed as a call to arms and worse, a call to defame, denigrate, and harass.  In a most perplexing way, many on the left have merely invoked George W. Bush’s infamous rhetoric of division: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com