Descent into Liberalism

So far right did politics float that Richard Nixon is now a moderate and Pat Leahy looks like Che Guevara. The furthest-left there is to be is what conservatives call “radical liberal.” This should be an oxymoron, but given the span of the possible, it is not. With political possibility, language too is squeezed.

You’re rooting for Cold War II. The FBI is your BFF.

I find myself in a screaming fight with my partner about Democratic Party strategies. It doesn’t matter who says what. The horror is that I am screaming about Democratic Party strategies. I vote for Democrats, especially when the opponent is a white supremacist kleptocratic madman. But am I a Democrat? Please.

I’m the daughter of communists. I was an anarchist for a time. I felt the first stirring of political affiliation while lying on a waterbed in Oakland, California in 1971, reading a smudgily printed, stapled-together pamphlet about the French student-worker strikes of May 1968, illustrated with Situationist comics and maps of a barricaded Paris. Tucked inside the pamphlet was a mimeographed sheet of the movement’s famously utopian graffiti, slogans that rejected the sold-out Socialist Party, the moribund unions, consumerism, even work itself: Socialism without freedom is a barracks. It is painful to submit to our bosses, it is even more stupid to choose them. Boredom is counterrevolutionary. And, of course: Be realistic, demand the impossible. The pamphlet was called The Beginning of an Epoch.

On March 1, nearly fifty years after May 1968, I get an email from Katha Pollitt, who has attended a planning meeting for the March 8 International Women’s Strike. “We are not for the Resistance if resistance means the status quo ante Trump,” said the woman who opened the meeting, according to Katha. “My biggest fear is that the Resistance will end up reconstituting something like the so-called progressive neoliberalism we were living in before Trump.”

Comments Katha: “My biggest fear is that we never get back to where we were before Trump because we will be a police state engulfed in a full-blown war.”

I realize that returning to progressive neoliberalism isn’t even my second-biggest fear, after the police state. Fears both pedestrian and apocalyptic—from mass poisoning by uninspected food to the abolition of voting—are posting to my mental feed so quickly that erudite distinctions like “progressive neoliberalism” are pages and pages down, buried along with old hopes. These are the annals of the beginning of another epoch.

In 1968 Eugene McCarthy challenged Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination. McCarthy was the anti-Vietnam War candidate, the Bernie Sanders of that election. The hippies who canvassed for McCarthy cut their hair and their beards to “get clean for Gene.” I didn’t want to get clean. I wasn’t even particularly for Gene. I was too young to vote anyway, but even when I got old enough I didn’t vote. Voting just encouraged them, we believed.

McCarthy was a liberal. This did not move me. A couple of years earlier, as a 14-year-old, I was singing along with a Phil Ochs LP: “I vote for the Democratic Party / They want the UN to be strong / I go to the Pete Seeger concerts / He sure gets me singing those songs. / I’ll send all the money you ask for / But don’t ask me to come on along. / So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.” Liberal was an insult, the definition of a person committed to being noncommittal.

As establishment politics swam right and further right and even further right, I stood on the left bank and watched the pols paddle by together, the liberals bobbing along in the slipstream. All these years, I felt no danger of falling in. There was a firm place from which to observe, while facing in the other direction. That way the horizon was shooting with light. It was a vision intermittent and electric—I think of it in unnamable colors of green and silver, like the northern lights. The vision was hardly legible, but like the northern lights it was real. It was there.

So far right did politics float that Richard Nixon is now a moderate and Pat Leahy looks like Che Guevara. The furthest-left there is to be is what conservatives call “radical liberal.” This should be an oxymoron, but given the span of the possible, it is not. With political possibility, language too is squeezed. The signature Trumpian gesture is hyperbole. But understatement is equally pernicious. White nationalism that comes to power through the electoral process—like Nazism did—is now called “illiberal democracy.” This strikes me as an obscene euphemism, like “ethnic cleansing.”

This year a lot of white people woke up. But it is hard to stay woke. So many outrages are committed every day that outrage becomes a chore. So much violent hatred—the shooting of Indian engineers, the desecrated Jewish cemeteries—is ignored and excused that demands for condemnation feel like nagging. So regular are the deceptions that lying is a joke, so acute the anxiety that boredom would be a relief.

The distance stretches between that horizon and the place where you are standing—between what you desire and what is on offer. Radicalism turns to fatigue, fatigue to pain. To feel less pain, sooner or later you have to feel less. What you have to feel less of is desire.

Then, before you know it, the Wall Street Journal is an oracle of truth. You’re rooting for Cold War II. The FBI is your BFF. You’re a Democrat.

And hopes? At the moment my fantasy is Jeff Sessions blindfolded before a firing squad, about to be executed for treason. Then I remember I despise patriotism and oppose the death penalty.

“For most of my politically conscious life, the idea of social transformation has been the great taboo of American politics,” the late radical public intellectual Ellen Willis wrote in 2005.

From the smug 1950s to the post-Reagan era, in which a bloodied and cowed left has come to regard a kinder, gentler capitalism as its highest aspiration, this anti-utopian trend has been interrupted only by the brief but intense flare-up of visionary politics known as “the Sixties.” Yet that short-lived, anomalous upheaval has had a more profound effect on my thinking about the possibilities of politics than the following three decades of reaction. The reason is not . . . that I am stuck in a time warp, nursing a romantic attachment to my youth, and so determined to idealize a period that admittedly had its politically dicey moments. Rather, as I see it, the enduring interest of this piece of history lies precisely in its spectacular departure from the norm. It couldn’t happen, according to the reigning intellectual currents of the ’50s, but it did.

The Situationists wrote on the walls: Our hope can come only from the hopeless.

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