Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Self-righteous indignation on the Left redux

 Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

At Teen Vogue, there is a poem titled “Where were you?” penned “by civil rights activist and the co-founder of Campaign Zero, Johnetta Elzie,” only parts of which I will quote from below: 

Where were you when your ancestors set out to steal my ancestors from our homes?
When they raped African women then refused to acknowledge their own children, who were born as a result?
When Harriet was on the run, fighting for freedom?
Where were you? 

Where were you when Claudette decided not to get up out of her seat on that bus? 
When Rosa did the same?
When they told us to sit in the “Colored” section, and beat us when we disobeyed?
Where were you?

Where were you when we wanted the right to vote, too? 
When we had to care for our families AND yours? Serving you dinner, while struggling to put food on our own tables? 
When your “Women’s Movement” came around, and our needs were ignored?
Where were you? [….] 

The poem ends, predictably enough as follows: “If you can answer at least one of the questions here, answer me this: We’ve been marching for years — where the hell have all of you been?”

Alas, we’ve seen this sort of self-righteous indignation all too many times on the Left before, and it’s self-defeating or, in the words Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor below, “This isn’t leadership, it’s infantile and amateurish. It’s also a recipe for how to keep your movement irrelevant, marginal and tiny.” I read a FB thread in which Kahlil Chaar-Pérez made a reference to this post by her and I share it in full as it well articulates my own thoughts and feelings on the matter: 

“The United States has just experienced a corporate hijacking. If Trump’s inaugural speech did not alert you to the fact that they intend to come after all of us then you are not paying attention. The scale of this attack is deep as it is wide and it means that we need a mass movement. In order to build and organize that movement necessarily means that it will involve the previously uninitiated, those who are new to activism and organizing. We have to welcome those people and stop with this arrogant and moralistic chastising of people who are apparently not nearly as ‘woke’ as everyone else seems to be in the social media world. Yesterday’s marches around this country were stunning, inspiring and the first of a million steps needed to build the resistance to Trump. The denunciations of the character of the marches are a sign of the persistence of political immaturity that continues to stunt the growth of the American left. Were liberals on the march? Yes! And thank god. Mass movements aren’t homogeneous, they are heterogeneous. There is not a single radical or revolutionary on earth who did not begin their political journey holding liberal ideas. Liberals become radicals through their own frustrating experiences with the system but also through engagement with radicals. So when radicals and those who have already come to some conclusions about the shortcomings of the existing system mock, deride or just dismiss those who have not achieved your level of consciousness then you are helping no one. This isn’t leadership, it’s infantile and amateurish. It’s also a recipe for how to keep your movement irrelevant, marginal and tiny. If you want a movement of the politically pure and already committed then you and your twelve friends go right ahead and be the resistance to Trump. [emphasis added] Should the marches have been more multiracial and working class? Yes! But you are not a serious organizer if that’s where your answer ends. The issue for the left is how do we get from where we are today to where we want to be in terms of making our marches blacker, browner and more working class. That is truly the work, but simply complaining about it changes nothing. Yesterday was the beginning, not the end. What happens in between will be decided by what we do. Movements do not come to us from heaven fully formed and organized. They are built by regular people. We must do a better job at facilitating debate, discussion and argument so that we talk about how to build he kind of movement we want, but the endless critiques with no commitment to diving into organizing to struggle for the kind of movement we want is not a serious approach. There are literally millions of people in this country who are now questioning everything. We need to open up our organizations, planning meetings, marches and other actions to them. [emphasis added] Let’s engage people and stop writing people off before we’ve even gotten started.”

Update: Taylor’s post has been published at both the Socialist Worker and now Jacobin


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