How Demonizing Foes Subverts Progressivism
Consciously or not, every pundit or blogger begins with a simple choice: do we address our converted, raring to raise consciousness and ignite protest while disregarding resistant challengers, even opponents? Or do we frame essays for the choir while embracing the less affiliated and the less informed – say, Democratic moderates – even the stray independent?
I have no delusion that words, brilliant or mundane, will overcome the profoundly alienated or cynical, nor those of fixed and polarized mindsets. Yet words are what we have, so I indulge my optimism: to articulate positions that inform an open mind, even alter a point of view. Online essays wander about, after all, often to strange venues. My BP critiques surfaced on oil and gas industry trade sites. I concede the “middle” is divided, split into 1) the more affluent, socially-tolerant yet distrustful of government (the Christie crowd); 2) working class voters, socially conservative yet economically populist; and 3) the young, uninformed and disengaged.
For the partisan scribe (my first group), anything goes, from direct attack and harangue, to name-calling, snark, ridicule, even we hope, pertinent character indictments. Open to conspiracy and salted with paranoia, the outcomes vary from admonition to ultimatums: “they” (in power) must do something or else we (out of power) will seize the barricades. Par for the course, whether right or left: nearly all foes are thuggish evil-doers whose perverse notions undermine America’s greatness, strike down working/middle classes, breed widespread immorality, plus worsen climate change, public education and income inequity.
Thus, we all encounter ceaseless calls to action, though essays tend towards three modes:
- Information-driven journalism that respects legitimate evidence, like “Christie’s bio reinforces bullying” or “Obama’s drones surpass Dubya’s” or “Commie welfare threatens America’s work ethnic” or “Doomed Obamacare will implode.” Shock and awe in this mode usually stays sub-textual.
- Rants that inveigh against deranged or malicious foes whose crusades and funding assail the author’s values, life conditions, or take on history (cyclical, Biblical, progressive, absurdist or end of times). Buoyed by emotions (passion, anger, disgust, scorn), forcefulness of expression implies that sincerity, even infallibility, reigns. Here, neither shock nor awe hide under bushels.
- Satire, humor, hyperbole and/or musings that employ irony, metaphor or stories to highlight what must be taken seriously – disregarded no doubt by lesser, well, less amusing lights. Tone varies, though usually more nuanced and bemused than roughshod, impassioned rants.
In all writing, form and tone should match objectives, platform, and audience. If you honor context, reason and research, you favor the logic of persuasion. If fiery pitchforks motivate your tracts, and the sooner the better, foster your soapbox cri de coeur that scorns inaction as the great sin of radicals or revolutionaries. If insight and entertainment, perhaps enlightenment, define your mission, leaving open the specific barricade that demands storming, the less strident, amused road concedes more human frailty. Each philosopher-king finds his own perfect pitch.
The ‘Outside’ Audience Matters
Yet I return to the bottom-line: why do we write? To sound off, show our cleverness, or work to change the outside world, even – miracle to behold – modify an inside mind somewhere? Instead of adoration I’ll take this: “thanks for widening what I now realize were narrow perspectives.” Few here write for money or fame, but all work hard because we are convinced words matter. Our words, alongside legends. Can good writers not sustain principles without inciting howls from skeptical moderates? For me, overwrought intonation drives away the most valued, however limited, audience: ordinary, non-ideologues who vote. Stridency reinforces their latent prejudices, making us vulnerable to dismissal as “one of them,” whether deranged liberal, right winger, fundamentalist or anarchist.
Thus, dishing out sweeping, misleading generalizations – that the end of America (or civilization) is near, all rich capitalists are vile exploiters, the monolithic corporate reign is fascist at heart, or all right wingers are dumb suckers, where do you go from there? If all in any one group are guilty, then none may be isolated or indicted. How many of our neighbors think being rich is a mortal sin or crime against humanity? If every politician gets button-holed as a self-absorbed psychopath (with election the confirmation), or all are dumb puppets of a covert, nefarious elite, forget having much positive impact on your next Congressional battleground.
If one asserts all fat cats who fund climate denial are scheming, low-life frauds, indeed conscious planet-destroyers, how many independents rush to the exits? Do not outlandish claims invite your critics to besmirch your future writing? Equate American CEOs with Nazis or fascist mass murderers, and I am not alone by scuttling towards the exit. Preposterous analogies warm the heart of partisans but leave critical, perhaps open minds offended.
Stereotypes, Tho Comforting, Distort
Thus, fiery name-calling, speculations on mental stability and shadowy intentions, drive “outsiders” away in droves. Without focusing on some common ground, we will not persuade the greater number we stand for their greater good. That’s why I avoid depicting even the most craven politicians as evil-doing, scum-sucking demons, especially since their careers are manifestly predictable, their ambitions routine. Why impugn a shark for being a predator, even if today’s gang are especially low-class.
Thus I favor logic and evidence not because I think them magical, mind-changing levers (and research testifies how well we shield biases), but because they assert civilized values and common ground. Instead of skewering phantoms (inner motivation, neuroses, private allegiances), I propose we focus on what we can talk about: gross incompetence, stupidity, failure, contradiction, and moral corruptions between campaign pledges and gaps in delivery. Decisions and behavior are fair game; deep psychology requires interpretation through a glass darkly.
No key American constituency will indict, let alone punish, rich people for being rich, readily criminalize “private enterprise” that hires them, or doubt favored belief systems (economic, democratic or religious) are utterly kaput. If the cocky Kochs menace the world, what will best immunize us: overwrought hyperbole or the constant drumbeat that proves bad big businesses are bad for the majority? High time, for the painful generational shortfall, is that progressive politics barely impact the great debates, let along the wave of mediocre legislation.
Want Change? Engage To Change Minds
Instead, shouldn’t we talk to those not in our camp, not already nodding, with relentless demonstrations that the great masses are abused, then penalized by a widely broken system? Let us consider focus on doable actions, like reinstating an estate tax potent enough to impede dynastic 1% reification. Let us ardently defend when government works, not cynically write it all off, especially alongside independent, progressive NGOs. The pragmatic among us even support progressive Democrats, not because we love the party, but in the absence of any other national default.
My decade of blogging has not dispelled a conviction in unity there is strength. The left is now too much a tower of babble. Let us recall Ben Franklin, not just “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately” but “our cause is the cause of all mankind, and that we are fighting for their liberty in defending our own.” To win our liberty, we must widen the scope of our audience, work to show the non-committed how we all must pull together to keep this errant experiment from going off the tracks. It ain’t over ’til it’s over. Talking to ourselves is another kind of bubble, fostering the delusion the world outside doesn’t factor in meaningful reforms and collective liberation.