During the election I got into one of these social media debates. The topic was violent resistance to Trump. Protesters had gotten into some scrapes with Trump crowds. I said then (and believe now) that protesters have a right to defend themselves physically if they have to. A friend of mine went further. She said that beyond merely defending themselves, activists should be actively obstructing Trump’s message – pulling up yard signs, shouting down people speaking out in support of him, hacking Trump-supporting websites. The stakes were so high, she said, that we couldn’t spend time worrying about bourgeois concerns like freedom of expression. Because Trump was a nativist demagogue, because we were in a moment of incipient fascism, we needed to obstruct his message.
I then asked her if she thought that we should be physically preventing his voters from going to the polls, attacking them if necessary, to stop his election. She scoffed at the idea. She said I sounded like a conservative conspiracy theorist. Of course she didn’t think we should stop Republicans from going to the polls. Where do I come up with this stuff?
As I said at the time… that doesn’t make sense. If we were looking at the rise of real-deal American fascism, if we were (and are) facing the possibility of an American Kristallnacht, then we couldn’t possibly do anything but try to stop them from voting. She had already said without reservations that basic rights should be abridged in the effort to fight Trump. So why should the right to vote be materially different? It’s OK to muddle along – we all do it sometimes. What gets to me, and what made this minor argument indicative of something far broader, was that the internal contradictions and lack of clear theoretical footing were packaged with the aggressive presumption that the conclusions were obvious.
This is a constant condition for me: interacting with liberals and leftists who affect a stance of bored impatience, who insist that the answers to moral and political questions are so obvious that every reasonable person already agrees, who then lack the ability to explain the thinking underlying their answers to those questions in a remotely compelling way. Everything is obvious; all the hard work is done; only an idiot couldn’t see what the right thing to do is. And then you poke a little bit at the foundation and it just collapses. I suppose the condescension and the fragility are related conditions, the bluster a product of the insecurity at the heart of it all. You act like everything is obvious precisely because you can’t articulate your position.
I’ve been asking my friends on the academic left what rights conservative students have, in an era of a university culture obsessed with trauma. Two things are broadly true: one, they think that it’s ridiculous to suggest that there’s any reason to worry about what conservative students can and can’t say – there’s no questions here, no conflicts, nothing even to discuss. Two, despite the mutuality of this dismissal, no two of them have the same idea about what answers are stunningly obvious, only that they are. I am told that of course students can support Trump and say so, but that “Make America Great Again” is hate speech, despite simply being the slogan of the campaign that they just said students have the right to support. They say that it’s not permissible for students to identify with the alt-right, which is a hate group, but it’s fine for them to be plain-vanilla conservatives, despite the fact that the latter group has indisputably done vastly more to harm marginalized people than the former.
What are the rules? I don’t know, and I’m ensconced firmly in these debates. I harp on civil liberties and free speech a lot because, yes, I think they’re worth defending and that the traditional association between leftist politics and support for them was substantively correct on political theory grounds. But also because they’re a perfect example of the holes in current left theory. When does someone’s trauma outweigh the right of another to speak? Who can say what, in which contexts, when? I have no idea what people think the answers are. I just know that they think the question is so obvious as to not be worth asking. It’s an inverse argument from incredulity, not “I can’t believe you could possibly think that” but “I can’t believe you don’t already.”
A half-dozen emailers rose to the challenge and answered the questions in my post on cultural appropriation. Most of them expressed precisely the attitude I’m talking about here: disdain for the idea that these questions have to be discussed at all, a sense that my asking them has to be just trolling, like I can’t possibly be actually confused. They then set about answering them in flatly contradictory ways. Their answers were comprehensively and fatally incompatible. How can both these things be true? How can different people who share the same basic outlook on a political question be so certain that the answers to questions about that outlook are obvious and then answer them themselves in such incompatible ways?
I would love to tell you that this is restricted to my usual antagonists – vanilla partisan Democrats, media progressives, the Twitterati, the whole social world of sneering smart-kid coastal liberalism. But sometimes I also find it in the groups I’m more likely to agree with, the radical left, the dirtbag left, the socialist left. It’s a widespread problem.
Few things are more deadly to a broad political tendency than a eye-rolling assumption that there is no work to be done. You combine that with the way challenging questions have come to be seen as themselves offensive, particularly in academia, and you have a left-of-center that cannot do the work of figuring out what it is and what it stands for at precisely the time its mission is most important. Our opposition’s taken control of everything, so how do we respond? Race OR class or race AND class? Neoliberalism or socialism? Identity or economics or both? Wonk autocrats or the grassroots? I know what I prefer. But I don’t know what broad movement will emerge when everyone is so busy being certain about the answers that they cannot articulate or justify. I don’t know how we settle these things. Liberalism is a social monoculture that is busily eliminating the internal division and intellectual insurgency that are a necessary part of any healthy politics. The left (update: as distinct from liberals!) is smart but fractured, vibrant but weak, and has no institutional support. I am fresh out of ideas; it all seems bleak.