This letter from listener Brian Bethel comes as a response to our recent episodes on politics and Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country, particularly to my criticisms of identity politics and the left (which Mark, Seth, and Dylan as far as I know generally do not share). I don’t have a response to this right now—I’m working on a systematic exposition on my views on all of this that I’ll publish soon. Also, PEL will be doing some episodes focused on white privilege and perhaps protest pretty shortly. But this letter is an eloquent expression of a point of view opposed in many respects to mine:
Hi PEL Gang—
First of all, I want to say that I love and deeply appreciate what you guys do at PEL. Your podcast encapsulates everything that I find exciting about public discourse, and I often find myself participating out loud in your conversations on long drives (I guess this could just as easily be a sign of mental collapse as appreciation, but I’ll choose to interpret it as the latter). As a PEL Citizen, I’m proud to support such an accessible and exciting intellectual conversation, and couldn’t resist the opportunity to be a part of this conversation, in however small a way.
I would argue that the communicating of the experiences of all of the aforementioned minorities has been essential to my deeper (and still ongoing) understanding of the ‘water’ that surrounds me every day.
The two recent Rorty episodes, as well as the post-election debrief episodes, left me with a LOT to think about, and a lot that I wanted to say. I was particularly appreciative of Wes’s advocacy for the art of real, genuine persuasion, and acknowledgement of its scarcity in general cultural-political discourse. As such, I thought I would attempt a genuine act of persuasion myself and voice some issues that came up for me in the recent episodes.
Specifically, I wanted to address:
1) Wes’s criticisms of identity politics. I know that you have already received feedback on this, but I believe it bears repeating: it is pretty difficult to hear a group of heterosexual (I’m making an assumption here, and if I’m off-base, I apologize), middle-class, white American males disparage the need for identity politics. I say this as a heterosexual, middle-class, white American male, one who for years shared similar feelings that I heard expressed on the show—e.g., “Why does racial/sexual identity matter so much? Aren’t we all individuals with complex backgrounds that shape us? Isn’t this causing more divisiveness than unification?”—and have also taken years to really understand how my own status as (let’s be real here) someone occupying just about the most privileged status you could possibly occupy in the United States could deeply affect my beliefs and day-to-day experience. And one of the most fundamental points that I hear espoused by the underrepresented in America—be it from people of color, alternative sexuality, physical disability, or, you know, like, women—is that it really takes someone who doesn’t experience a particular set of privileges to help you realize what that set of privileges truly is. I always think of David Foster Wallace’s speech/essay, “This Is Water,” in which he recounts the joke about a fish saying to another fish, “Water’s pretty nice today, eh?”, to which the other fish responds, “What’s water?” Just as Wallace’s essay goes on to define the millions of micro-assumptions, privileges, and experiences that we don’t realize are underlying our day-to-day lives as being that very water—well, I would argue that the communicating of the experiences of all of the aforementioned minorities has been essential to my deeper (and still ongoing) understanding of the “water” that surrounds me every day.
Which brings me back to the difficulty in accurately addressing and debating identity politics without a person of underrepresented identity there. To those of us who benefit from heteronormative white privilege (or whatever you want to call it), it’s hard to conceive of the importance of identity politics because, frankly, we already see our identity everywhere (generalization, I know, but bear with me), so it’s natural that it would appear to be a less important subject to us. I know that you guys have had guest speakers on before—one of my favorite episodes was the guest-assisted Existentialist analysis of No Country for Old Men—and I wonder if you would consider a further discussion of this topic with a guest speaker of a different background. Otherwise, in my eyes, a group of white, cis-gendered people discussing why racial/sexual identity does or doesn’t matter is the equivalent of a group of color-blind people discussing why colors do or don’t matter (oh god I already hate this comparison, but it worked for “Mary’s Room,” right???).
The very act of protest is an expression of a belief that the dominant system is broken, to state that the officially-recognized avenues of communication are being ignored.
2) Conflating rhetoric with an entire movement’s messages and goals. I would be the first to agree that there is a seemingly endless amount of hyperbolic, pig-headed, frothing-mouth clickbaity writing coming from those on the left. There is mountains of it. And as someone who went to a small, private liberal arts college, I have certainly gone through periods of time where I felt that I was drowning in a vitriolic pickety sea of PC soundbites that made me never, ever want to think about politics or race or class or gender or anything ever again. But I think it’s important to recognize that the issue in both cases is with the rhetoric being used, not with the ideas themselves. The awfulness of internet writing is omnipotent and highly equitable—it offers itself to people of all political persuasions and backgrounds. But to characterize identity politics as necessarily aggressive, or all those who attend protests as necessarily people with pickets shouting catchy slogans and then going home to their couches, or all of those on the left as being totally unwilling to hear the other side, is to allow the lowest common denominator to represent (and, as such, discredit) an entire movement. I fucking hate the Huffington Post, I fucking hate it when people get in my face with their personal problems, and I fucking hate picketing and chanting. I hate it when people tell me that the world would be a better place if I listened to more “world music” (whatever that is) or ask for soy milk with my coffee. But none of these things have anything to do with the infinite complexity of race, gender, and socioeconomic status, the exciting ongoing conversations on post-Marxist thought, or the numerous reasons you could use to conclude that our democracy is presently in a seriously dangerous state. They’re just bad expressions of it. And to portray the most obnoxious expressions of opinion as inherent to their corresponding ideas is just to continue with the proud American tradition of letting the shitheads frame the argument.
3) The characterization of “social justice” movements as primarily concerned with kindness, compassion, charity, or righteousness. This is exactly the kind of deliberate mischaracterization of outspoken leftists as a bunch of bleeding-heart, touchy-feely, weepy, and easily offended liberals that right-wingers use to put down activists and leftist pundits. As someone who you could say is involved in “social justice” (a term I abhor—there’s a reason that “Social Justice Warrior” is the derogatory term of choice for a whole generation of GamerGaters) I will tell you right now: I (and those I associate with of a similar persuasion) do not call our senators, attend protests, sign petitions, spend our funds ethically, or donate money to Planned Parenthood or the ACLU out of a desire to be kind, or a feeling that really people just need to be nicer to each other, or because I think it’s anyone’s moral obligation to help the oppressed and give back to society. I fight for our civil liberties because I believe that when, say, a series of voter-suppression laws are passed that make it inordinately difficult for lower-class people of color to vote, or when corporations have far more of a political say than any individual ever could, or when our president states that a judge is potentially unfit to judge a case based on his Hispanic background—these are fundamental impediments to democracy, to the social contract that is the foundation of all our day-to-day lives.
For those of us who are highly unlikely to face deportation, voter suppression, or state-sanctioned religious discrimination, it’s easy to look down on overly zealous protestors … But that ignores the fact there we are benefiting from an inherent privilege that comes along with our race or gender or class or religious affiliation.
Thus the characterization of anyone involved in the realm of “social justice” is based on some basic belief in moral obligations and charitable obligations rings hollow to me. Fuck it, I don’t think anyone has a moral obligation to do anything. But if these core aspects of a political system don’t apply to everyone partaking in that system, well, then it’s hard not to conclude that some are just “more equal” than others.
4) The disparagement of the acts of mass protest of the past several years. I have to fundamentally disagree with Wes’s negative comparisons of any contemporary protests to those of fifty or a hundred years ago. First of all, to say that the current protests lack clear goals or messages is crazy. Yes, some people went to marches to hold up signs that read “#notmypresident” or made the inevitable tired Hitler comparisons. Those people are idiots. Again, they do not speak for all of us who are organizing and marching and protesting. If you need some clear, coherent goals and messages that motivated the three to four million people who marched the day after the inauguration, I’d be happy to provide a couple of examples:
A) The fact that we currently have a president whose family receives payments from foreign entities is explicitly unconstitutional;
B) An executive order that, by banning immigrants of select nationalities, plainly violates the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, is clearly illegal;
C) The Senate’s intentional year-long delay of a Supreme Court nomination for no other reason than to “get their guy in” is arguably fundamentally in opposition to congress’s constitutional duties (or at least an unprecedented dick move);
D) Many of us are intensely disturbed by the failure of any of our government’s top officials to address these concerns, and would like to express our belief that, without the addressing of these violations of the law and the constitution, we will be hard-pressed to recognize our acting government as legitimate, and will be forced to act accordingly.
To say that these protests are pointless because they don’t convince “the other side” of anything is to miss the point entirely. The very act of protest is an expression of a belief that the predominant system is broken, to state that the officially recognized avenues of communication are being ignored. My friends and I don’t just go to protests and then tell ourselves that we’ve “done our part” and go home; rather, the act of protesting is one single component of a complex network of actions that, for many of us, involves repeatedly contacting our elected officials, donating to causes we believe in, discussing and educating, spending our money consciously and ethically, and writing emails like this one. To write off these activities as politically ineffectual or, worse, not part of the “political process,” is intensely naive, as is the thought that what this “process” actually consists of is just buckling down and waiting two to four years to cast your next vote.
Again, I would urge you to not let the loudest or the shithead-iest define political action, and I do truly take offense to the notion that all of us thousands standing out there in the rain don’t know exactly what we’re doing or exactly why we’re doing it. MLK was certainly not the only one who recognized strategies in media attention, striking, and agitation (the last of which is, as far as I’m concerning, wholly succeeding in encouraging our president to continue alienating just about everyone).
5) The luxury of “political inactivity.” Finally, I want to loop back to that question of privilege, and acknowledge that to state that the best way to address the current turmoil in our country as by avoiding acts of protest or civil disobedience and instead focusing on long-term committee work or, like, poetry-writing, is frankly a luxury reserved for those not directly affected by the new legislation that seems to be getting passed every single day. For those who are living in the very real fear of unlawful deportation or obstruction to entrance, to those who have been targeted by the flurry of hate crimes that have arisen since the election, to those who face a giant oil pipeline threatening their homes, to those who are facing the impending attack on their reproductive rights, none of these are abstract concepts that can be poetically addressed over the course of many years. They are actions that, while blurry in their legality, are being nevertheless pushed forward by a government that has effectively overturned the system of checks and balances. For those of us who are highly unlikely to face deportation, voter suppression, or state-sanctioned religious discrimination, it’s easy to look down on overly zealous protestors, people who block highways, or the frantic hyperbole that defines much of our current leftist political writing. But that ignores the fact there we are benefiting from an inherent privilege that comes along with our race or gender or class or religious affiliation. And, while I haven’t yet read Rorty’s Achieving Our Country (I have ordered a copy after all the praise you guys had for it), it seems to me that to speak abstractly about experimentally progressing the American project fails to the very immediate, very real threats that face some of us. Again, I think this is an area that could really benefit from having guest philosophers of differing backgrounds from your own.
Okay, that’s it. I want to reiterate how much I love what you guys do, and thank you for (maybe) reading this long tirade. I would welcome your responses, and will keep listening to PEL with an eager mind and insane self-ramblings. Now, on to the great American project, comrades!
With love, respect, and appreciation,
Brian, writing from soggy California (never thought we’d see those two words together again)
Have something to share? We’ll take both praise and blame. Send us a Letter to the Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.