against political Calvinism

As I’ve written in the recent past, I believe that the current political uprising has a chance at being an enormously positive development. I worry though that it will be limited by the power of political Calvinism.

I know I’ve heard the term used before, though I can’t remember from who. By political Calvinism I mean the tendency within the left to see the structural injustices of the world as inherent and immutable, so baked into the cake of the current context, history, the United States of America, etc., that they will always exist. The stain of injustice can never be rubbed out. This is most obvious when discussing racial dynamics. White people are inherently in possession of white privilege, as many will tell you – most insistently white liberals, in my experience. Well, yes, today all white people enjoy white privilege, though the valence of that advantage varies with other factors in their lives. But the degree and intensity and in fact existence of white privilege is mutable; if we had a real racial awakening and all people worked to end white privilege, it would end. And not only do I not think this is a crazy thing to believe, I think believing it is a necessary precondition to being an agent of positive change!

Of course white supremacy is entrenched and systemic; it is neither coincidental nor easily overcome. But there is a difference between seeing these things as systemic and seeing them as divinely ordained. In our racial dialogue (again particularly among white liberals) the tendency is always to fixate on the difficulty of change, to luxuriate in despair. At some point people made the mistake of viewing extreme pessimism as radical. But in fact pessimism is an inherently conservative force, as it makes change seem impossible and agitates against trying. Real radicals never stop defining the better world that they see as truly within our grasp, and available sooner than we think. Posers act as if pessimism is the outlook of the truly committed. Fuck that. A better world is possible.

I’ve never heard a coherent answer to this: if your average uncommitted white American is told that their white privilege is immutable, that they will oppress people of color simply through existing, what is the motivation to try and change? Consider this from the standpoint of basic psychology. If you are told that you are in some sense fallen, simply by nature of your birth, then why exert yourself trying to change that fact? For someone who is not converted, the insistence that they are stained with political sin from birth simply pushes them to remain apolitical, to give up on racial politics and go back to grilling. People need to feel that their efforts have some meaningful possibility of creating positive change. The message should not be “you have white privilege and nothing you do will ever change that” but “you have white privilege but you can meaningfully contribute to ending it.” The latter is a call to action. The former is theatrics.

I believe that white privilege can be erased and that we can achieve true racial equality, that the traditional inequities of race are mutable and in fact chosen. If I didn’t, why would I bother to try?

The alternative to political Calvinism is to believe that, in fact, despite the existence of white privilege the individual actions of individual white people matter, that they can be better or worse. It’s to believe that the vagaries of white privilege, as serious as they are, can be overcome with dedication and integrity. In other words, the alternative is to believe that our tendency to oppress others is not fixed but rather determined by our behavior, and that the goal of our political outreach is to convince others that their behavior matters and that they should behave in antiracist ways. That’s the alternative to political Calvinism.

Of course, many progressive people now believe that changing minds is a mug’s game, that rather than trying to change minds we should only ever rally the already-converted and that doing so will result in victory. How that jibes with our commitment to deeply unpopular policies like defunding the police (a policy I support), I’ve never understood. But this too is political Calvinism, the idea that outreach and education are impossible and that the proportions of the righteous and the wrong are already predetermined. It is directly contradicted, to pick an obvious example, by public opinion about multiracial marriage. Looking at the world around us should convince you that we don’t yet have the numbers to achieve a just society. And if you think convincing and educating is impossible, it leaves you with the question: then why bother?

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taking yes for an answer

Since I first started getting a little attention, as a blogger, I have had a reputation as a dissident leftist, that is, as someone who self-identifies with the left but who disagrees with a great deal of left practice. And this is fair.

One of the consequences of that has been that I have always attracted people who would like to complain about certain left practices or developments. And that too is fair. But it frequently leaves me in the position of being expected to reject certain aspects of the left that I just don’t. And lately this has been the BlackLivesMatter protests. Many of my regular correspondents want me to explain why these are actually bad for the left. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

We have a spontaneous outbreak of popular militancy dedicated to erasing the horrors of institutional racism, one that questions the authority of existing institutions and seeks to create new grassroots alternatives to the institutions of violent in establishment government. This movement has avoided the pitfalls of online organizing and expressed itself through real world, on-the-ground street protest, with thousands putting their bodies on the line to express their rejection of the state and its oppression of some of the most vulnerable people in our society. And when I talk with people who I know believe in the left-wing cause sincerely but who are looking for reasons to dismiss this movement, all I can think is… what more are you looking for?

Are there reasons to worry? Of course. Some people feel a reactionary backlash brewing, and I am worried about that. And there is the possibility of internal divisions that result in mutual recrimination, in factional war, in self-destruction, and I’m even more worried about that. The revolution eats its children, after all. Will this movement ultimately be a force for real positive change? Will it collapse into self-interest and professionalization? I have no idea. I can only look at the reality on the ground and recognize that if this moment is not good enough, I can’t imagine what moment could be.

I have marched with protesters five times since this all began, in part because nothing good has happened in my life in some time and I crave the feeling of being inspired. I recognize the confusion and hypocrisy of someone like me doing so. But I feel compelled by the passion of the movement, its righteousness, and the odiousness of its opponents. If it fails, fine. We will deal with that when it happens. In the meantime, I ask my fellow leftists: take yes for an answer. These are the moments you said you wanted. So try embracing them, at least as hard as you try to find fault. This doesn’t happen every day.