Why I Am No Longer A Radical
An air of anger and surprise rises up on the radical Left just about every time it discovers that some “prestigious” right-wing hack was formerly one of its own -- a fiery social activist or critic protesting every injustice under the sun. For my part, I never understood this melodramatic response. It seems to me, at the ripe old age of 22, that it’s awfully hard to resist the intense social, political, and family pressures piston-pumped into rebel minds. So what’s really remarkable is not when someone “sells out” -- that’s par for the course -- but rather when someone who starts out a radical stays a radical.
From that perspective, you could say I have good reason to try to be as unremarkable as possible. It’s not easy being a real leftist in America, but it doesn’t help if you’re also born into the religion of what the ascendant Right identifies as terrorist-lovin’, lamp-rubbin’, towel-wearin’ Muzzle’em(s) -- or Muslims, if you want to get all politically correct about it. Born into a Muslim family and committed to a democratic socialism (best summed up in Marx’s words as, “the condition for the development of each is the development of all”), I think I’d find myself in a less enviable position than most if the Right has its way in America from here on out.
Have you ever imagined what would happen to someone like me if, a few years (months?) from now, a modern-day HUAC started dragging scores of American Muslims into its chambers to charge them with some cooked-up links to terrorism? Well, I sure as hell have:
Emperor (George or Jeb, take your pick) Bush: “Says here on this index card Karl Rove sent me from prison that you’re some kinda terr-err-ist. That so?”
Myself: “Not at all! Heck, I’m not even religious. I’m a secular socialist, for God’s sake!”
Emperor Bush: “Say you’re a what now? Well, we’ll just have to double your sentence then. Make that two consecutive executions -- and no last meal in between.”
Putting such drastic scenarios aside, though, you know how the story goes. Once you tell folks you’re a radical leftist of some sort, they’ll either smile at you slightly like you’re trying to save the dinosaurs from extinction, or stare at you in deep puzzlement as if you’ve just announced that you applied for death row. The general consensus is that those who tout leftist beliefs and ideals are caught in a whirlwind of fantasies that’ll come to an abrupt halt once they smack into the brick wall of Reality: the need to make a living, support themselves without parental welfare, and pay off all those college loans they took out to graduate and avoid the dreaded fate of the proletariat they claim to represent.
Like most radicals my age, I see myself facing these kinds of decisions in the next couple years. My particular poison of choice is a Journalism major, with a couple of other toxins (History, Political Science) mixed in as minors for good measure. Being a radical journalist sure wouldn’t guarantee me a secure living, what with mainstream journalism’s emphasis on “objectivity” -- most succinctly defined as (a) strict adherence to AP style guidelines, which dictate important things like the placement of commas and periods, combined with (b), total disregard for tiny details like the class context and history behind what’s being reported.
But context and history don’t pay the bills, brother. Given this reality, it’s not too hard to understand why most radically-minded youth start to abandon their political outlook when they finish college; why they begin to pay very careful attention to where exactly they place those commas and periods, so that life does not place a big fat question mark over their financial security. And that’s usually where the slippery slope of disappearing radicalism begins.
No offense to the Great Sage, but I didn’t have to read Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent (and, of course, I haven’t) to understand how -- in ways both self-evident and subtle -- even the wildest ones can be corralled into the mainstream pen.
So the obvious question is: what decision did I come to about all this myself? After some careful consideration, I’ve decided that I am, from here on out, no longer a political radical. Now -- hold on a minute before you begin to brandish your pitchforks and light your torches.
How did I come to this position? Not by the unremarkable route -- the sell-out route. It’s not because I’ve stopped believing in the causes, and it’s not because the risks of taking them up are too high to bear, even though many Americans would brand me a “Communist” or a “terrorist” because they’ve been fed a steady diet of hyper-nationalism that blinds them to all but the skin color and supposed crimes of the enemy of the month.
What’s convinced me to discard the robes of political radicalism is not the fear of defending what’s right in a world where you’re rewarded for doing wrong, but the fear of living in such a world at all. For to let the Right claim the very mantle of “mainstream” for themselves, as they have increasingly tended to do, to let them spin off basic values like social equality, human rights, religious tolerance, and peace as the byproducts of a bygone era of amoral “radical” hippies, would be a total catastrophe.
The simple fact of the matter is that the causes and beliefs we advocate are not “radical” in the commonly understood sense of the word, but rather, moderate, sensible, and fair. Conversely, it is the political mainstream that is antithetical to basic human values, serving up indigestible rationalizations for all kinds of cruelties inflicted upon people on a daily basis, fostering cynicism and frustration.
So the way I see it, if we are to be real radicals, we need stop acting like our agenda is, well, radical. We need to focus on the fact that even though our aims have been depicted in such distorted ways that they are not even popular among our target audience -- ordinary people -- we are not just standing up for unpopular justice. Rather, we are standing up for justice that has been unpopularized, because the Right has popularized injustice.
The American Left is so used to getting its ass kicked around that it’s fallen in love with the “unpopular” in “unpopular justice.” We’ve built around ourselves a romanticized culture of defeat, content to strike angst-ridden heroic poses as radical martyrs, but unwilling and unable to rise to the occasion, lacking the confidence to insist that we are not the extremists; that the status quo is what’s extreme, and that we’re the moderates here to help turn it right-side up.
Ironically, the idea that what we call “radical” views are pretty much common-sense occurred to me just when I was considering the idea of temporarily putting down my “radical” pen in order to better focus on corralling myself into the mainstream pen. Trouble was, I just couldn’t do it. Every time I drank from the everlasting fountain of the sensible mainstream, it left a horrible taste of radicalism in my mouth.
Take The New York Times, celebrated as the pinnacle of American journalism. As a student of the field, I read it most every day, and often times find pieces that are well written. But the politics?
Just look at the paper’s most prized and Pulitzer-winning columnist, Thomas Friedman. Friedman is the kind of fellow who cloaks his ideas in fancy and superficially seductive prose. He’s the one who came up with such charmed phrases as “Globalization 3.0” and the following romantic homage to capitalism, “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist…. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas.” His prose is so gimmicky you feel you can’t read his columns without first making the hand motions necessary to rip off plastic wrapping.
The latest unwrapping of note came after the London bombings, when Friedman’s prized McDonnell Douglas bombers failed to stop the suicide bombers from attacking the gateway to McDonald’s and other wonders of the hidden hand. But not to worry -- our sage had an explanation prepared, in the form of a column christened, “A Muslim Problem.” Now right there, you start thinking something’s not right. Can anyone in the press get away with addressing any issue as “A Jewish Problem”? How about “A Christian Problem”? Fat chance: that, you see, would be too radical.
If a group of “radical Muslims” kill a few dozen people, then it’s time to pontificate about some kind of grandiose Muslim problem, because, in Friedman’s words, Muslims tend to spawn “jihadist death cults” and they damn better well find a way to stop it -- or else. Meanwhile, if a group of “radical Christians” and “radical Jews” start a massive war based on lies that kills tens of thousands of civilians and plunges a country of 24 million into the depths of Dante’s inferno, there’s neither a Christian problem nor a Jewish problem -- in fact, there’s no problem at all. Instead, this type of mass murder is exalted as civilized and democratic.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I really wish Islamist terrorist groups would stop blowing things up, first, because killing innocent people is wrong, and second, because I think the world should, if nothing else, at least be spared Friedman’s inane and invariable finger-wagging lectures. But the larger point is unmistakable: it’s not “objectivity”, but being objectively aligned with the American-Israeli targeting reticle, that constitutes the “mainstream” view.
This fact is made plainly obvious by the other main role accorded to Friedman: high priest of official opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the Arab world in general. Before this role was recently accorded solely to Friedman, it was co-chaired with the more crudely right-wing William Safire, who boasted of his close ties with Israeli PM Ariel Sharon. So for a region containing about 300 million Arabs and maybe 5 million Jews, America’s paper of record offers the commentary of two white pro-Israeli Jews, zero Arabs, zero Muslims, and zero non-partisans. Talk about objective!
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if people like Friedman and papers like the NYT are supposed to represent the “liberal” wing of the mainstream spectrum, the conservative wing must have an even more insidious perception of reality. Indeed, the very tendency of liberals to take centrist (at best) stances emboldens the Right to adopt more brazenly fanatical positions: the poison produced by O’Reilly and company is well known and needs no repeating here.
And contrary to Friedman’s fantasies, it also doesn’t take a genius to see that you can’t bomb a country to pieces and then feign ignorance about the real causes if there’s retaliation. The Islamists’ views on the length of women’s skirts, the amount of grease in McNuggets, or other fine points of “our way of life” have nothing to do with terrorism. The fact that certain Western countries have invaded, occupied, bombed, and tortured Muslims, supported dictators in Muslim countries, and funded a brutally colonialist Israel in the heart of the Arab world, is just a tad bit more likely to be the real cause. It’s revenge, plain and simple. That’s just common sense.
Which is precisely what the real extremists want all of us to forget: common sense. A War on Terror that’s based on massively terrorizing millions, a Culture of Life that anguishes over the death of one brain-dead woman while celebrating the bombardment of many more women and children, a Healthy Forest Initiative that aims to cut down trees, a Clean Skies Act that enables pollution of the air -- these are the ideas common to the “mainstream” we’ve all been bamboozled into accepting as gospel.
The mainstream has become the extreme. And here we were all this time thinking we were the radicals. It’s not radical to think that to stop terror, you have to stop participating it; that to understand a people, you can’t just hire their haters to “explain” their motives to you; that to preserve the environment that keeps us alive, you have to remove from power those who profit from pollution; and that to have a culture of life, you have to respect those who are living.
We’re no more radical than two plus two equals four. We just happen to live in a political atmosphere in which two plus two equals five.
So to those who say that the cause of the real Left is too radical, too extreme, too dreamy, I respond: your view of what is radical has been shaped by radicals; your view of what is extreme has been shaped by extremists; and your view of dreamers has been shaped by schemers.
Answering the invocation to be “objective” issued by those who think social reality is a football game and not a struggle between the powerful and the weak, Howard Zinn reminds us, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Perhaps more to the point, you can be neutralized on a moving train: just ask those who tried to board the train of American-led policy the past few years at the following stops: New York City, Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Madrid, and London.
Are we still to remain mere passengers?
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