Friday, July 15, 2016

The purity politics of radical liberalism

Kevin Baker, in a Wednesday column for The New York Times, rehearsed a familiar critique of the American left:
With Bernie out of the battle, what remains is the left’s odd, outmoded doctrine of purity, of revolutionary posturing. This is a philosophy alien to the long legacy of pragmatic American liberalism.
This is a common refrain among liberals: Charles Pierce, for example, positions Jill Stein "at the intersection of Purity Street and Fantasy Boulevard", and this week's hilariously failed Open Letter...to, and from, the Left warned of attempts "to establish a 'pure,' exclusively class-based, left." The recurring theme - voiced quite explicitly in that last quote - is that leftists have become too radicalized, too dogmatic, and too absolutist and uncompromising in their priorities.

The standard rebuttal to this line of criticism, of course, is that far from demanding ideological purity, the left is simply taking minimal, compromise positions. Thus when Allen Clifton criticizes Bernie Sanders' advocacy of "single-payer health care, free public college and a $15 an hour minimum wage" as an attempt to "run on ideological purity", one can reply that these proposals actually fall short of what radical leftists actually want; no Democratic candidate actually called for things like the abolition of private property, which is miles and miles further down the road of the leftist agenda. The Sanders platform, meanwhile, is not only modest but eminently attainable, as proven by the fact that so many countries all over the world have already implemented it.

This is a fair reply, but I think leftists might do better to challenge another premise of the critique: the idea that leftists are afflicted by absolutist and counterproductive purity politics while liberals are not. Consider for example this classic line from liberal Twitter luminary Arthur Chu:

It's perfectly clear what's going on here: Arthur Chu (correctly) thinks that putting women in office is important. But perversely, he decides to express the purity of that commitment by proving that it even holds with the most reactionary woman he can possibly imagine. It is precisely this radical will to purity, in all of its uncompromising myopia, that drives him: the narrow goal of putting a woman in office is so paramount that it should be highlighted and celebrated even when it leads to the most apocalyptic outcomes. 

Or consider, to pick a more subtle example, a tweet today from Imani Gandy:


Without judging Gandy's priorities, one may simply ask: why is she talking about drones, of all things? Why is drone warfare the issue that she chooses to weigh against the reproductive rights of American women (RRAW)? The answer is the same as it was with Chu: Gandy is making a grand show of the purity of her commitment by prioritizing it over one of the most horrific and urgent issues that she can think of. The entire point of this tweet is to demonstrate that her position on RRAW is absolute and uncompromising, and she does this by insisting that she even values it more than ending one the deadliest and unforgivable foreign policy crimes in recent history.

None of this is even to say that Chu and Gandy's priorities are wrong (though I believe that they are). Here, I'm simply pointing out that liberals are setting their priorities, and arguing for them, using a logic and tenor of ideological purity that leftists are consistently denied and attacked for. They are quite obviously zealots for their causes in precisely the same way that leftists are, advocating for them with the same rhetoric that, when wielded by the left, is decried as rigid and absolutist. To paraphrase Goldwater, extremism in defense of liberalism is no vice; and above, we see that it is often even thought of as a virtue, which is why so many liberal partisans hunt for ways to assert their wokeness in the most extreme terms they possibly can.