Recently I had the great misfortune of socializing with a few well-meaning liberals as they debated mass shootings and gun control. That this conversation happened is natural. You may have heard that we have something of a gun problem.
What I could not understand was the way the conversation kept circling back to Louis CK. Over and over again. Not background checks, not an assault weapons ban or the Second Amendment. Louis CK, who apparently made some jokes at the expense of the Parkland student activists. Well, that’s objectionable. But what on earth does it have to do with stopping gun violence in this country? People routinely pick up assault weapons and mow down crowds. And this is going to stop if you cancel Louis CK? Why? For what purpose and to what end? What the fuck are we doing here? What is the strategy?
But in fact this is perhaps an understandable impulse. Louie CK is a tangible target. He is susceptible, in some sense, to social shaming. He is a bite that people can chew. Canceling him feels good. It feels cathartic. The people who fixate on him are not doing so strategically. They’re doing so out of emotional need. You just can’t wrap your arms around the problem of real gun control. It’s too big, it’s too hard. Except that you can confront it. Other countries have, after all; New Zealand just did. And maybe if an American left cared more about making tangible change than in achieving emotional catharsis we could do it too. But we are, I will say again, too busy looking where the light is.
The standard rejoinder to this is “do both.” That’s the idea – you weigh the big and the small, say “do both!” and then you don’t do both. Both is hard.
You may have read about the anniversary protest in Charlottesville, where thousands of leftists took to the streets to protest a far right event that literally did not occur. People chanted, they marched, they carried signs. There was no opposition. And for awhile it felt good, it felt like power, even though there was no enemy to move against. Meanwhile the architecture of American oppression orbited around the protesters, lazy and indifferent.
Antifa tactics are sometimes necessary, but they are an extremely limited tool, only useful in a set of very specific circumstances. I respect them when used under those particular conditions. For my entire life as a member of the left, this was broadly understood. And yet now in the last several years an absolute obsession has developed around antifa tactics – particularly among those who can’t be bothered to do the unglamorous work of canvassing, phone banking, leafleting, tabling. Why has this obsession developed? Have antifa tactics suddenly become effective against investment banks, the militarized border, implicit racism? No. Capital remains as indifferent to antifa as it always has been. But antifa posturing feels good. It feels cool to put on a black hoodie. It feels empowering to punch someone – or, let’s be real, to imagine yourself punching someone.
There is obsessive focus, among the the chattering class, on regulating Facebook and YouTube. These sites, we are to believe, are the sewers in which fascism grows. Never mind that before these sites there was Stormfront, and before that there was The Turner Diaries, there were Nazi newspapers. Never mind that in the era of the internet it is literally impossible to stop the flow of extremist ideas, that Islamist extremist groups that are pursued by the most powerful military force on earth still effortlessly disseminate their information. Never mind. Yelling at executives from YouTube and Facebook is easy, and it feels good. They are a convenient target.
To listen to the average online leftist, the biggest villains in our world are Milo Y, Gavin McGinnes, Richard Spencer…. Their every setback is celebrated like some vast victory. Why? What power did any of these men ever hold, other than the power to infuriate leftists? Turn off the outrage sector of your brain and think. Does the combined power of these men at their peak meet that of a middle management hedge fund guy? Of a member of the local school board of a medium-sized city? Of a higher-up at a post office? Why do they occupy such a prominent place in the mind of the contemporary left, when there are entire industries of people to fight whose actions are literally life or death? The only reason I can think of is precisely because of their weakness. We only want to pick the fights we can win.
The greatest conflict in the history of the world was not sufficient to stop far-right extremism. Three percent of the world’s population was killed in World War II, and that was not sufficient to eradicate fascism. And you’re going to stop it by kicking Alex Jones off of YouTube? You cannot kill an idea. Not even with the biggest war in the history of mankind. They will always find leaders and they will always find forums. All you can do is craft a better alternative, a more human, more giving, more just alternative, and hope people pick the right path. You cannot save everyone from themselves. You just can’t. So you make your own side more attractive and you do the slow hard work of pulling people into your orbit.
This is the truth: the United States is the greatest force for evil and destruction in the world since the fall of the Third Reich. That was true long before Donald Trump showed up and will be true long after he’s gone. I don’t believe in countries so I am not interested in whether this country can be redeemed. But I do believe in people and I do believe that we are redeemable. I understand the work of that redemption to be the work of a lifetime, not a Twitter cycle.
The work of changing what we are and do will be the work of generations. No one alive today will live to see that work done. And if you’re going to be part of that effort you must be willing to live up to it, to look it in the face and grapple with it, directly and without distraction. To understand the opposition’s size, its power, its unique capacity for violence. Not to numb yourself to it or to tell yourself pleasant lies. If you think this is fatalism, you’re wrong. I do see progress. I see it every week in the IRL organizing I do. It’s never easy and it’s typically tedious but it’s real, it’s there. And that’s where the left could have gone in the Trump era. That it didn’t, that it collapsed into extremely online solipsism and the constant pursuit of easy and telegenic “victories,” is one of the great disappointments of my life.
There appears to be no one left to tell these tales.