I imagine that for many people this year’s Oscars ceremony was the first opportunity to witness a land acknowledgment. The actor, screenwriter, and director Taika Waititi addressed the audience and announced the names of several indigenous peoples who once populated the land that is now called Los Angeles, and acknowledged that once upon a time the land was theirs. The land acknowledgement is a way to honor indigenous ways of life that are now largely gone, ground under the wheels of Manifest Destiny. This may seem like an odd undertaking to the uninitiated, but they are common at academic conferences and activist gatherings, and I have seen hundreds in my life. Some go so far as to post them in their email signatures or Twitter bios, which perhaps stretches the concept of land a bit far but otherwise demonstrates the commitment people have to the practice. Like so many other things progressives do these days, the practice is ritualistic. That is, it is performed to be performed rather than for any other purpose.
I am not, in any sense, opposed to land acknowledgements. At best, they insist that we remember always that this country is the product of a genocide, a vast historical crime for which almost no one ever paid a price and which continues to harm the descendants of its victims. At worst, land acknowledgments are harmless. Much like the people who make them.
I say that because despite all the acknowledging and all the honoring nothing appears to be getting much better for America’s indigenous peoples. Alcoholism and substance abuse are endemic problems on Indian reservations; some research suggests that more than 11% of all deaths of American Indian and Alaskan Native people are alcohol-related. Native Americans lives are on average 5.5 years shorter than the population writ large; in some states, it’s closer to 20. The real median household income of all Americans is greater than $63,000. For Native Americans writ large, it’s just above $40,000. For those on the reservations, it’s lower than $30,000. And so we are forced once again to wrestle with the gap between good intentions and good deeds.
The question that invites itself is not whether we should make land acknowledgements. By all means, make them. It’s the least we can do. But, also – it’s the least we can do. We cannot mistake the symbolic gesture for a real-world victory. The question is what it says about the American left-wing that so many of its practices are simply that, acknowledgements – symbolic, linguistic, semiotic, trapped in the realm of the incorporeal when what’s desperately needed is tangible change. The 21st century left lives in a world made up of pure discourse. Our preoccupations are with policing language and enforcing tone. The only tool we seem to know how to use is the voice. We can lift our voices in support of our indigenous peoples but can’t uplift their lives.
The conversation about diversity and the Oscars is related. Of course we should want a diverse set of Oscar nominees and winners, though where diversity in the arts matters most is in the beginnings of careers, not their culmination. But diversity in the Oscars specifically and in the arts generally has taken on a talismanic quality among the left, the suggestion that promoting diversity somehow results in material change in and of itself. The best we can offer is the notion that this diversity will inspire other people of color and women to rise above themselves – a neoliberal vision of change if I’ve ever seen one. Yes, by all means, diversify the Oscars, the Pulitzers, Harvard, Congress. But while you do, ask yourself why (unlike diversifying the Oscars) straightforward talk about black poverty never becomes a trending topic. Why do we fixate on those elements of our political beliefs that are least material? Why has the symbolic so captured our moral attention?
The simple psychological explanation seems compelling to me: we focus on the symbolic because that is all that we feel we control. Decade after decade of neoliberal advance, and the political effectiveness of the revanchist conservative movement, had people on the left feeling besieged. As is typical in such a condition, they responded by retreating, retreating into those few industries the left-hand side of the American political spectrum controls: the arts, the media, and the universities. (That none of these are actually left-wing in a robust sense is an argument for another day.)
What all of these spaces share is their fundamentally incorporeal concerns. They are industries where the basic currencies are ideas, language, aesthetics. They are spaces that thrive on the display of emotion and on analyzing said emotions. Their careers can usually be advanced simply by locking oneself in a room with pen and paper. They seek to analyze action but to take little. They are meta; they are introspective. Their fundamental claim to power is the notion that good ideas, well-expressed, can change minds, and that those who have had their minds changed will increase our power. The trouble begins when we realize how rare a changed mind really is and how much work must still be done even after you’ve converted someone. It is the left’s vanity to say that we speak truth to power. The problem is that speaking truth to power doesn’t do anything.
The epitome of this condition, of course, is found on Twitter. While there are all manner of subcultures on the platform, the popular discourse is dominated (that is, the discourse that is widely read and made up largely of users with large audiences and verified status) by progressives whose concerns fall much more on the cultural and social side of politics and much less on the structural and economic. To participate in media Twitter unscathed one must be in possession of a startlingly complex vocabulary of social justice, and to navigate a minefield where one false step can result in explosive consequences. It is little wonder that Twitter is a space of progressive discursive practices, given how well-represented publishing and the arts and activism are within it. Less clear is what all of that amounts to, beyond a space for the like-minded to congregate and flex their muscles.
It has become the habit of online progressives to say that there is no such thing as “cancel culture.” Perhaps there is not; it’s an inherently ephemeral idea. But certainly there are many, many people on Twitter who try to cancel others – to shun them, to exile them from the digital community, to declare them Bad – every single day. You cannot step even lightly into that space without seeing attempted cancellation all around you. The question is, why? For what purpose and to what end? Vast amounts of digital ink are spilled in the pursuit of cancellation, yet the actual intended outcomes of these efforts remain mysterious. Think of what so many people putting out so much emotional energy could accomplish, were they to focus that energy in a productive direction.
What does it actually mean to cancel someone? What is the reference to the material world? Some, it’s true, have had their lives materially worsened through an online canceling. But most people, particularly powerful people, emerge from a canceling unharmed. Canceling does not change the material conditions of their lives. You can’t really call this a fault of the people who cancel, as it’s not even clear that they are trying to accomplish much of anything. It’s an entirely spiritual exercise, one designed to delineate ingroups and outgroups, an act of moral hygiene masquerading as politics.
If this sounds like a typical anti-“SJW” screed to you, it shouldn’t. Because while I am more aligned with the interests of the more materialist, economically-focused, Marxism-affiliated side of the left, I would be fooling myself if that tribe wasn’t just as trapped in symbols. Where the one side of the left cancels and polices language, the other tells jokes. Jokes for days. Jokes without end. Jokes in response to any development, good or bad. Stuck, as we are, with almost nothing resembling meaningful power, too many of the materialist left have collapsed into full-out comic nihilism. “Dunking” on people with bad politics is treated as a holy activity, and a competitive one. But all of the jokes add up to nothing; the make nothing happen. You might recall that no human being was ever the subject of more mean jokes than Donald Trump was in 2016. We sure showed him.
There are many other aspects of purely symbolic politics. We might consider the fixation of many Democrats on pointing out that Trump was impeached, a superficially correct statement that has absolutely no impact on the world. That is what we do, we name things. We attached words to them and expect the words to somehow magically change the meaning.
Also emblematic of the left’s current pathologies is the current role of anti-fascism, or antifa, within the broader left. Contrary to what many think, antifa is not an organization, much less an ideology. To call yourself antifa is to fundamentally misunderstand it. Antifa is a set of tactics, not a kind of person, and tactics are in and of themselves politically inert without the ideology of those who adopt them. The confusion among the self-identified antifa about the meaning of the term stems from the simple fact that the historical origins of these tactics lie in post-war Europe and typically have little relevance to 21st century America. (For one thing, we do not have literally uniformed fascists roaming the streets, organized into parties that have explicitly fascist agendas that are taking significant numbers of seats in our legislative bodies from the traditional left and right wing parties.)
I am not opposed to the use of antifa tactics; again, tactics are neither good nor bad. Sometimes antifa methods will be appropriate. The problem is that almost no one in the contemporary left has anything resembling a theory of when and why to use those methods. Instead some people self-identify as antifa (which is like saying “Hi, I’m phone banking”) and just sort of show up to things with absolutely no idea about what the specific material goal is of that action. Is it OK for antifa to beat people up at a protest? I don’t know, which people, which protest, and most importantly, for what specific and immediate material purpose? I can’t divine any particular strategy being employed in any of these dust ups, and so can’t adjudicate whether the behavior was justifiable or not. It’s highly emotionally charged wheel spinning. The problem with antifa tactics is not that they are dangerous. The problem is exactly that, in today’s worlds with today’s enemies, they are not dangerous.
The rare bouts of minor violence get the headlines, but the real indictment of contemporary antifa is when you see them at random lefty political events where there are no fascists to be against. They just sort of mill around looking lost. A more productive and sensible left would shun that sort of thing, not as a sop to polite society but out of an understanding that tactics must match event and intent. You don’t put on a wetsuit if you aren’t planning on going for a dive, after all. What’s left without this focused set of objectives is precisely the retreat into symbol that I am writing about today. Even the best of the antifa, I suspect, are motivated mostly by the catharsis they think they would feel if they got to punch somebody. The worst of them just want to be photographed wearing a cool black hoodie and face mask.
Ultimately antifa are looking for what most of the left is now looking for: a battle they think they can win. Why does the left, ostensibly the forward-looking vector in politics, constantly relitigate the Civil War and World War II? Because we won. Because those were epic conflicts in which our side, broadly defined, prevailed. The fixation on them, and the clumsy way every last political question of the day is shoehorned into their frames, are an effort to live in a more hopeful past. In general the gaze of the discourse is dictated not by recency or relevancy but by the ease with which the conversation will be divided into right and wrong. Progressives today crave nothing more than debates that present them with a clear sense of where to sit, of how to arrange yourself and preserve your position in the community of the righteous. If the political space has been drained of nuance and complication, it’s only because many people are terrified of a scenario where the right stance to take is unclear.
So you have a culture where, to pick one example, slavery is discussed in media and the academy vastly more often than the current and ongoing poisoning of black children with lead. Slavery is of course one of the most crucially important aspects of the American condition. But every soldier who fought to end slavery and every emancipated slave is long dead, and right now there are black children, very much alive, who are suffering in a way that the strategic application of a few hundred billion dollars could solve. Of course the legacy of slavery is at play in the intersection of race, poverty, and housing, and thus in the lead issue, that’s not the problem. My question is whether we need yet another dissertation titled “How the Legacy of Slavery Shapes This Issue.” What is the purpose of such documents? We have traced and retraced these connections over and over again, and yet nothing seems to change. Why not try focusing on the thing itself, for once? Why not use our writing to address the material issue that exists now rather than writing yet another thinkpiece about the issue’s origins? Why continue to focus on issues in the past when, due to the nature of reality, they can’t be changed? Why not trend the topic of lead abatement in poor communities of color?
Well, the answer to “why not?” is because we can’t actually do anything about it. We can’t get the billions we’d need to clean this country of lead. We don’t have the political juice to compel the federal government to undertake such a problem. And we don’t live in the kind of society where everyone has the means to ensure that their environment is lead-free themselves. That is why we turn our attention back to those times where we fought and won in world-altering ways. Because it’s comforting and allows us to avoid looking at the grim realities of the current world.
Do both, is always the refrain. Do both! “We can care about diversifying the Oscars and about ending child poverty at the same time,” you might exclaim. Of course I think we should do both. The problem is that we are manifestly not doing both. We are making slow but real inroads in the symbolic fields we control, seeing more diversity in who gets to make movies, who gets tenured at a university, and who ends up with a column in the big newspapers. This is a real, tangible achievement and worthy of celebrating. But the black-white wealth gap remains as stubborn as ever, the black-white incarceration gap is a national scandal, and the Senate and electoral college still effectively disenfranchise millions of voters of color. No one is saying we should not consider the Civil War when debating the wealth gap; the origins of the gap lie there, after all. But the left has become so beholden to history we risk turning our attention completely backwards and away from a world that is hard to look at with open eyes.
I am asking, in other words, for some consideration of priority and proportion in how we address the world of injustice. I am suggesting that there is something deeply dysfunctional about a media that produces endless thinkpieces about the racial semiotics of comic book movies and almost nothing about the relationship between lead and race. I am asking for a world where the audience at the Oscars spends less time politely clapping when diversity is brought up on stage and instead using their immense wealth and influence to ensure that fledgling filmmakers of color have all the opportunities they need. I am asking for a left that recognizes that there is no such thing as moral progress through language, that the world is made of up matter and ideas can’t change it on their own. A world where people invested half as much of the psychic energy they put into language policing into creating the flesh-and-blood change that is made manifest in statistics about wealth and health. A world where no one maintains the lie that there is such a thing as political organizing waged on Twitter.
There is, however, organizing in the real world. And here lies hope. There are innumerable groups, even in smaller cities, where you can invest some of your time – a little or a lot, either is fine – in ways that are tangible in the best sense. For the past four years I’ve been active in a New York City housing justice group. I chose housing because I wanted to avoid general leftist politics, which exhausts me, but also because I felt that housing is an area where one can witness real change firsthand. And I have witnessed it. In 2019 the New York state legislature passed one of the most sweeping pro-tenant pieces of housing legislation in the state’s history. I was able to witness hundreds of activists who helped make that happen, through the power of real-world organizing. The result will be more empowered, more confident tenants who will enjoy greater housing security than ever before. It literally means fewer people sleeping in the streets, and that is as material as it gets.
Legislative change is far from the only way that activists can wield power, but it is an important tool. And any kind of activism helps to defeat the profound malaise so many people of a leftward bent currently feel. When you feel politically hopeless, the hole will not be healed by writing a blog post. (Trust me.) No, relief will come from doing something. Every minute not spent on your phone represents progress. If your interest lies in partisan politics, fine; volunteer for a campaign. If you take your politics in a more radical flavor, find a good left-wing group to organize with. Even getting involved in your kid’s PTA can scratch the itch and have tangible outcomes, can in some tiny way improve the world. Whatever you do, be absolutely austere in how you define success. Accept no linguistic or social or symbolic victories. Define yourself in relation to the material world, always.
Many say that we are in a particularly pregnant moment in our country’s history, that the coming years will define our future. I’m not so sure about that. History is long and everyone feels that their time on earth is special. But I can’t deny that there appears to be a real movement for real change, bubbling up from below, fighting to live against the relentless power of the establishment. This movement will matter precisely to the degree that its actions transcend the world of the voice and enter the world of things. I happen to be optimistic. For if what I’m saying is correct and the left is overly consumed with symbolic issues, then it means that we have enormous untapped potential. It means that if we can rouse people to stop venting and complaining and coping and get them to start taking action, we can truly change the world. No more looking for comfort and catharsis. Our pursuit is power, not the feeling of power but of power itself, for only power is power.
And then we get to decide how to use it.