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Narcissism on the Left: the Cult of the Individual Leader

Photograph Source Daniel X. O’Neil | CC BY 2.0

“The evil that men [sic] do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Shakespeare (in Julius Caesar) couldn’t have known any leftists, but I wouldn’t have minded chatting with him to find out just how many of the so-called regular folk he communicated with in Elizabethan England. It wasn’t even called “Elizabethan England” back then, so we could have simply sat at a pub and chewed the fat, so to speak. He had to have known commoners because they were a part of his audiences, but then again he may not have, but his early financial situation may have made it necessary for his to communicate with lots of people, if only for the purpose of survival.

The point here is that hierarchies exist as substantially among what’s left of the left (and that doesn’t amount to very much, save for identity politics), as they do everywhere else in society, and human nature, in terms of intellectual, social, economic and political differences is highly stratified. It’s what, in part, keeps us atomized from one another.

When I read the mass media reports about the death of a fairly well-known leftist, my immediate reaction was one of grief. That person was one of my Facebook friends, which actually amounts to a proverbial hill of beans, but I wrote a tribute to the fellow and posted it on his timeline. By early evening I had taken it down. Why? He had chalked up some substantial achievements in his life and certainly had not done any of Shakespeare’s “evil.”

It turns out that this person, like many other notable people on the left, could have cared less about communicating with me. In fact, in the years that I had written to him, he never answered a single personal message that was in response to a position he had taken, or post that he had made. It was a one-sided affair, and I had been there and done that again and again over the past several decades. Whether it was through traditional slow mail, or responses to an article by way of a commentary or letter, the result has been universal: A 100% no response rate. Ralph Nader, who my Facebook friend castigated for not being sufficiently radical during an interview several years ago, recounts the exact same phenomenon in Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015 , Nader’s book about the near-total lack of response to his letters addressed to presidents about important issues.

Within a few days the talking heads of the left were on Democracy Now, a left news outlet that has never responded to any of my inquiries to them. They must be too busy. It goes on and on: Write about a topic as a journalist or writer, send it to others on the left who have covered the same issue and the result will be same. If they won’t respond to Ralph Nader, why should they respond to someone writing and toiling in the hinterlands?

Readers may say that this is all just a bunch of sour grapes, but this is the reality in which I find myself. Following the 2016 election cycle, I wrote to a Congressional candidate for whom I had worked in nearby New York state, making some observations about the past election. Of course, the candidate never bothered to respond, although I had spent weeks on the streets canvassing for that candidate and travelled significant distances to work in that campaign office. I also supported that campaign in a material way. Now, when that candidate sends me a constant stream of emails asking for support in yet another race for a different office, I ignore those communications.

I remember the case of a famous artist who was saved from capture by the Nazis during World War II and never bothered to say very much in the way of thanks to his saviors when the war was over. He had escaped by the skin of his teeth, but I suppose all of those empty canvasses in his future were too much for him, so he never bothered to thank those who took great pains to ensure his art would go on after the Holocaust.

Several years ago I worked at a high school as a counselor. The school was dysfunctional with high numbers of adolescents failing courses in core academic subjects year after year. The school accreditation agency was prepared to take the school’s accreditation away at the time (which it did a few years later). I was swamped with calls from concerned parents wanting to know how their son or daughter was performing academically. Some weeks the pile of callback messages was piled as high as my office telephone, but I managed to spend time each day calling and speaking with parents who were concerned about their child’s progress.

I guess that answering personal communications is just not all that important among those members of the political left who have become small-time celebrities.

During the Nuclear Freeze Movement, a friend appeared at my door one day and suggested that we trade phone numbers among the members of our group—landlines in those days—if Reagan decided to initiate a crackdown against political opponents. I sort of laughed the suggestion off thinking that the political climate probably would not get that bad in the early 1980s. I’m not quite as sanguine about repression these days, and what would communication matter now since the government has all of our personal information and those in leadership positions among us would be too busy to return a call or other communication. The resistance would collapse faster than the pushback in Europe did in 1939-1940 before the Nazi onslaught.

August marks the 50th anniversary of the protests in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic Convention, complete with police riots. The Guardian does a superb job recounting those events with an excellent photographic essay accompanying the article. Those were the days when protest was the great leveler of individuals! I was able to say hello, at least on a formal basis, to one of the leaders of the Chicago protests, Abbie Hoffman, since one of his lawyers and a lawyer I had back in those days worked in the same law office on Broadway in New York City.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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