people, not instruments

Here is a response from Karl Steel. Please take a moment and read it. I am only asking to be judged for what I actually believe and what I’ve actually said, and I have never said, suggested, or implied that race and gender are not wholly unique sites of oppression, or that solving those oppressions belongs anywhere below our highest priorities. I merely said that I don’t believe left-wing discourse, as currently constituted, ignores race and gender issues. Don’t confuse my claims about attention with claims about efficacy. Saying that there is a lot of attention focused on race and gender is a wholly different claim than saying that we’ve got them covered. Indeed: it’s precisely that tendency to mistake intention for effect that muddies these discussions.

And you guys… we have to stop arguing by telling others what the believe instead of arguing with what they actually believe. It’s useless and destructive. I spend so much time now articulating what I don’t believe and haven’t said that I have no time to articulate what I do believe and intended to say. Each of us is the sole determiner of what we believe. For the love of god, please stop trying to find convoluted ways to accuse others of saying things that are plainly wrong or offensive rather than rebutting what you find wrong about what they actually think. We can’t win that way. We can’t.

mural100401b003_lg

Above is a mural by Marela Zacarias, the gifted left-wing muralist. In the early to mid 2000s, Marela was a close comrade and friend of mine in the anti-war movement. Like many people I knew in my daily activism days, I’ve lost touch with her. And as with many of them I wish I hadn’t. I mention Marela because, while I have no right to define her politics for her now, not being in touch with her, at the time she was a Marxist. Not just a Marxist, but a far more educated and orthodox Marxist than I ever have been. In that, she was just one of many, many women and people of color who have taught me about socialism, communism, and Marxism. And yet I find people like Marela are written out of existence every day by those who suggest — as there are many who do — that socialist, communism, and Marxism are only the province of white men.

This is ugly for several reasons. The first is that it plays into a very disturbing trend I’ve noticed of white liberals and leftists essentializing and instrumentalizing people of color as a kind of rhetorical tool. So, so many political arguments on the left today devolve into white people attempting to assert who is a closer friend to people of color. I don’t think that this can possibly be a means to  achieve racial justice. Instrumentalizing human beings is ugly business. And in the zeal to assert that one is in closer solidarity with people of color very often prompts people to draw a narrowing vision of what people of color can be. At my old blog, I often fought with my commenters about the phenomenon of black conservatives. When they would instrumentalize blackness and talk about a default black political identity, I would point to black conservatives and ask why they didn’t count. And while the people arguing with me were too politic to come right out and say so, it was clear that what the ultimately thought was that black conservatives weren’t “really black.” In that way, a supposed stance of anti-racism became a way in which white people defined black political identity. That’s just a terrible way to behave.

Second, I think it just does a kind of intellectual and spiritual violence to people to deny that they exist for short-term political expediency. I have known hundreds (hundreds) of post- or anti-capitalists in my life who were people of color, women, transgender, or gender queer. I have known dozens of women of color who were Marxian or Marxist. I have known Indonesian socialists, Nigerian communists, and Peruvian Maoists. I have known people raised in inner city America who can cite chapter and verse from the Manifesto. None of this should be a surprise to anyone, not in the world of Che Guevara, Mao, and Alexandra Kollontai. Nobody who understands the history of radical black nationalism, South American independence movements, African anti-colonialism, or Southeast Asian history should make these mistakes.

None of which means you have to be any flavor of socialist or Marxist, and none of which means you have to believe that socialism or Marxism are best, or best for women or people of color specifically. Just argue what you think is best, for whatever groups and identities you think you have a responsibility to advocate for. But argue honestly, and if you’re white, give up on the temptation to treat people of color as a rhetorical bludgeon.

Now please stay tuned for a multi-part series from somebody or other, “deBoer declares white people most important, says socialism no place for people of color.”

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20 Responses to people, not instruments

  1. Pingback: Got called out. A response. | Medieval Karl

  2. scott says:

    By their works you shall know them is good advice whether it’s about religion, politics or anything else. All we can go by is what people say and what people do. I can’t see in anyone else’s heart, and he can’t see into mine. Speculating about how pure or corrupt someone else’s heart is can be diverting, but it’s rarely very enlightening. If indulged in for very long by too many people, it just degenerates into one vast encounter-group circle jerk that parodies itself. Avoid and keep it simple. What do people say (text/words in their accepted meanings) and what do they do (actions we can see and describe)? All the rest is horseshit.

  3. Roque Nuevo says:

    I believe that people of color deserve all the justice they deserve and some that maybe they don’t. I’ll that the extra because I’m a person of color myself. But how does all this concern play out? Changing the name of a football team? Meanwhile people of color have real problems with health care, education, etc etc. All this concern about people of color just looks self-serving & designed to make oneself feel good. Does the mural really show women (of color) looking wistfully at a horizon filled with the lost civilizations of the ancient people of color called the Aztecs? Has she seen too many Diego Rivera murals? Have you? Are you or Marela aware that no people of color alive today would ever think of the Aztecs as some lost paradise, as the mural suggests they do? Do you or Marela know that the Aztecs practiced cannibalistic rituals on people of color on a mass scale (the coronation of Moctezuma II featured 25 thousand victims of color at the Templo Mayor, who formed a line that was longer than today’s Metro and took days to reach the top of the temple?). Do you and Marela believe that the Spanish conquest of people of color thwarted a civilization that would have better for people of color?

    I’ll be honored to have you tell me what I believe now.

    • Freddie says:

      I’m confused: my entire argument is that we should get out of the business of defining a default political identity for people of color.

      • Roque Nuevo says:

        Now that you put it that way, I agree with you all the way. The people of color I know (maybe 100% of the total people I know) have political identities all over the map. But doesn’t the mural try to define such an identity? Like Diego Rivera, et al?

        I’m confused too. Have to admit that I don’t understand your entire argument because it’s too much deep thinking for me right now. I don’t understand why the mural you used to illustrate your entire argument does not define an identity in an ignorant and outdated way.

  4. Alan Jacobs says:

    So Karl apologized for misreading your post, which is good, yes?

  5. Karl Zimmerman says:

    Small world. <A HREF="https://fbcdn-sphotos-c-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-xfa1/t1.0-9/2184_1021515738479_3784_n.jpg"<I also knew Marela around ten years ago. More aptly, I used to work with her husband at SEIU. Periodically I’d help with antiwar events with them, along with attending some of their study groups. I actually wonder if we might have met during that time period.

    I was always like you, in awe of the level of dedication and study they had to the cause. I know at that time they were trying to set up a formal party in the region, but my deep misgivings about vanguardism (partially because I don’t want to personally be the revolutionary vanguard, but also because I am a strong believer in rank-and-file control) made me hesitant to commit. And I moved away from Connecticut for a new job, and we pretty soon thereafter fell out of touch.

    Anyway, sorry for that off-topic segue on an important issue. I agree with the main thrust of your essay 100%. I actually sort of wonder if I find myself in agreement with you so much because we actually had some of the same experiences which shaped our understanding of socialism.

    • Karl Zimmerman says:

      Crap, I totally mangled that link with a misplaced slash. =/ Oh well, you can figure it out I’m sure.

  6. LTL FTC says:

    Well, duh. You can’t claim to speak for, or take offense on behalf of, everyone in your group if you can’t remove people from said group specifically because they disagree with you.

    It’s a No True POC fallacy and it’s implicit in every conversation about “privilege.”

  7. Derek says:

    “The first is that it plays into a very disturbing trend I’ve noticed of white liberals and leftists essentializing and instrumentalizing people of color as a kind of rhetorical tool. So, so many political arguments on the left today devolve into white people attempting to assert who is a closer friend to people of color.”-Freddie

    “The great bulk of public discourse consists of whites arguing with each other over who are the Good White People and who are the Bad White People. Blacks such as Trayvon and Barack are valuable props in this white struggle over status.”-Freddie’s mystery soul mate

    • Freddie says:

      You’re right, I am just like a guy who’s most prominent views I have argued against repeatedly and at length. Remember the time Steve Sailer advocated for reparations? Remember the time Steve Sailer said we should open the borders without restriction?

      Yeah.

      You guys really are incorrigible, aren’t you? I mean you literally are incapable of arguing against what people actually believe instead of what you say they believe because it’s argumentatively convenient for you.

      • Derek says:

        Hey now, I don’t want you to develop a low opinion of the online left just because of an incorrect reading of my comment: those guys are blameless. I play for the other team, which is how I am able to find Steve Sailer quotes so rapidly.

        It may be a bit of unfair teasing to say that SS is your soul mate, but there are exactly two people (I have looked for others) in the entire blogosphere who have repeatedly characterized “new” leftism as a kind of fashion statement designed to distinguish its adherents from common, trailer park ‘Mericans. Think of it as an interesting example of political convergent evolution.

        • Stephen says:

          Really? Maybe you should get out of the blogosphere once in a while. A few conservatives from other perspectives who have made similar points: Charles Murray, R. R. Reno, Pat Buchanan. Also, maybe a majority of the U.S. socialist left today. Why? Because the posturing is blindingly obvious to anyone outside a university campus? Maybe?

  8. jcapan says:

    Going back to your original post:

    “Many or most of them grew up in economic security or affluence and went to elite colleges. In such environments, they had little or no opportunity to experience white poverty as a lived phenomenon.”

    I’m sure the consequences of a more radical, coordinated assault on wealth have never crossed their mind.

    As for more partisan democrats, a big reason for their stunning lack of empathy for poor whites is that, gasp, so many of them vote republican. Nothing is more unnerving than mucking up the tribalism.

  9. latinist says:

    para. 1: “For the love of god, please stop trying to find convoluted ways to accuse others of saying things that are plainly wrong or offensive rather than rebutting what you find wrong about what they actually think.”

    para. 4: “And while the people arguing with me were too politic to come right out and say so, it was clear that what the ultimately thought was that black conservatives weren’t ‘really black.’”

    So, I think a lot of what you say here is right. But Jesus, I wish you would apply this kind of criticism to yourself a little more.

  10. Dawn Kwicksoat says:

    And you guys… we have to stop arguing by telling others what the believe instead of arguing with what they actually believe. It’s useless and destructive.

    I guess when you use a different internet handle at other locales, this general prescription doen’t apply to you, eh Fred?

    But who can blame you? You have angst to release, and that’s so hard to do when you’re being an academic rhetorician writing convoluted, dry and boring jargon-laden essays. An academic has to avoid even passive aggression, and must stifle those nefarious urges to snark and ping and smack.

    Thankfully one can inhabit as many alternate personages as one can imagine and manage separately, and those devices allow a lot of room for releasing the pent-up feelings whose expression academia proscribes when speaking to fellow academicians.

    • Freddie says:

      I never– ever– write under other “handles,” anywhere. Absolutely everywhere I comment, I comment under my own name. I am, in fact, quite notorious for this practice. In other words, you’re a liar.

      • Dawn Kwicksoat says:

        Unreal.

        Your buddies know what handles you use when you’re trolling the interwebz for buddies.

        That’s a painful double life you have, eh? Why else be so categorical, if not due to embarrassment about being found out?

        You have chocolate chips all over your fingers, cookie crumbs at the corners of your mouth, and the cookie jar’s lid is only 3/4 of the way on. Your mother says, “Freddie, if you don’t tell me the truth about your stealing cookies between meals, I’ll have to hook you up to a defibrillator and then a polygraph.”

        Freddie just says “Mother, I have NEVER EVER eaten a cookie at any time. NEVER. These crumbs around my mouth were put there by gremlins who attacked me in my sleep. The brown goo on my fingers is not chocolate. Well, not literally anyway. I’m shocked you’d consider me a liar, Mother. Shocked. Now run along back to your hole, Mother. You troll.”

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