Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Why the Left Lacks Fortitude II: Misplaced Conflict Aversion

Aside from directionless pragmatism, I think there has also been a paucity of political fortitude on the Left because it goes against our side’s “natural” aversion to conflict. There are many reasons for this, and I’m sure I can’t catalog them all. Some on the center-Left naively believe that if we are just decent to the fanatical Right and try to get along, then they will join us in mutual understanding and we can happily solve all our problems. Others seem conflict-averse as a matter of temperament. Still others come out of the peace movement with its ethic of non-violent civil disobedience, or are informed by a pacifist outlook. And many so-called centrist pundits, activists, and lobbyists (who are nowhere near America’s center) make avoiding confrontation a professional occupation. Many will not want to hear that conflict aversion is an unhealthy disfunction, or that learning how to "do" conflict and confrontation in a healthy way is a positive thing and a skill that all grown-up adults should have. 

Civility and decency are fine values to aspire to, and fine values to want to build into society. But our political culture is currently not governed by them, and it will take decades to restore them. The Right has, since McCarthy in the 1950s, uncivilly and indecently portrayed their political opponents as traitors, aliens, and enemies of all that is good in America. By the 1990s daily doses of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News were spreading hatred and lies destructive enough to lead to the impeachment of a president over a trumped-up sexual scandal. Then, after 9/11, criticism of liberals too often turned into the violent rhetoric of liberal eliminationism. In short, the Right thinks of the Left as the enemy, not as political opponents. Civility and decency have to be mutual in order to work, and when one side never follows those values, then norms of decency are not operative in our political culture. One side cannot be decent alone. If it is not reciprocal, decency doesn’t exist, only capitulation. Indeed, it is part of this dynamic that the Right will always take advantage of the Left’s naive faith in civility to win political battles.

When you have enemies, you have to recognize them for what they are. When someone else has already decided to think of you as an enemy, then in reality you already have an enemy, whether you want one or not. No matter how decent and gentle you would like to be with them, one side cannot create civility alone. Because the Right has far too few decent, civil, fair-minded people, as a whole it cannot be compromised with. It can only defeated, politically. It must be confronted with courage, strength, and determination, not pragmatism or pacifism.
Our side’s leaders usually act like they are negotiating with cooperative partners and arriving at compromises in good faith. On the contrary, they are dealing with political bullies and con artists who play to win: conservatives seek to take all the benefits of society, all the fruits of the cooperative labors of all, and monopolize them to themselves and their plutocrat masters. They do not treat others respectfully as equals, but rather as weaklings to be taken advantage of. They will continue to do this as long as the DC capitulation machine continues to act like weaklings, making us all vulnerable to such exploitation. Conservatives repeatedly and consistently use every negotiating trick in the book to outmaneuver the Left, and they have proven willing to renege on promises when it suits them. Can anything be more indecent and uncivil than reneging on a promise?  False faith in their decency means that our DC representatives can’t negotiate from a position of strength and can’t effectively fight, maneuver, and outflank their opponents, because they can’t even see the need to do so. Thus conservatives routinely walk all over liberals, to the misery of us all.
Let me add that I stand with those who are committed to peaceful resolution of political conflict. When tyranny is naked, actual revolution is necessary, but we have not yet reached that point, and just to be crystal clear, everything I have said is a reference to verbal political conflict, not physical violence. Non-violent protest requires time, but works when its practitioners have the fortitude to persist in it, and it prevents downward cycles of violence. But the most important reason to practice peace is the negative effect of violence on one’s character and outlook: to quote Nietzsche, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into the abyss, the abyss looks into you.” But commitment to non-violence and a healthy adult ability to conduct confrontation are not mutually exclusive -- indeed, verbal confrontation is often necessary to prevent actual war and violence, and pacifism in the wrong place turns into a paralyzing passivity. 
As crackdowns on the various Occupy demonstrations proceed, I hope that it is becoming clearer to more people on the Left, especially the center-Left, that the time for appeasement and compromise is over and a more confrontational politics is in order. The political spirit of the demonstrators has shifted the debate in ways unimaginable a few months ago, spreading identity between more people in the middle and poor economic classes than we’ve seen since the 1970s. On the other hand, many on the center-left will probably buy into the corporate media campaign to portray the Occupiers as dirty, irrational, unstable, lazy fringe elements (see Digby’s update to this posting), discontented outsiders who are disrupting the quiet, comfortable bubble of civil, decent society. And that will only show how those who are too conflict averse enable current injustices, not only though their own inaction, but even by opposing those who are willing to confront the machine directly.

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