Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The alt-center has a bigotry problem, and it's in denial

The menace of a uniquely bigoted left has become such a truism in elite liberal discourse that it's easy to forget where this mythology came from. Just a year ago, it was still mostly taken for granted that American leftism was the direct legacy of our country's diverse emancipatory movements over the past several hundred years. Perhaps for good reasons, this understanding was so entrenched that when the "bigoted leftist!" rhetoric started rolling out, it was simply offered as a corrective to an image of leftists that had become too sanitized. Peter Daou and Tom Watson, a year ago this month:
Insensitivity on race and gender...isn’t isolated to the right...Exclusion and invisible bias exist everywhere...pretending that white male progressives are automatically immune from deeply-ingrained institutional and cultural biases hinders our progress on the path to true fairness and justice.  
Rebecca Traister, a year ago this month:
These lefty guys are reminding their feminist peers that misogyny and bitter gender resentments are not — as they have never been — the sole province of the American right. 
This frame appears time and time again, and like all good propaganda, it was wrapped around a kernel of truth: bigotry is everywhere. Ostensibly, the point was not to single out the left; it was to insist that every political faction is marred with racism, sexism, and so on. That was how this rhetoric had to be sold, simply because it was that implausible for centrist liberals to suggest that leftists are uniquely bigoted. Today, however, that's exactly what they're arguing:
...the Democratic Party's power vacuum is going to result in a massive power struggle. On one side, the traditional antiracist, antisexist, inclusive Democrats...On the other side, the white leftists...
Bigotry is no longer a ubiquitous problem that transcends ideology and faction; it's a unique affliction of "one side", and the "other side" can be summarily praised as the "antiracist, antisexist, inclusive" one. This is a much stronger argument than Traister dared to make in her first article, but today even she quite casually makes arguments like
the objects of vitriol from the left, dirtbag and otherwise, are...the Black Lives Matter activists...the women and men who provide reproductive health-access...the abortion rights and gay rights and criminal justice reform advocates...
These, of course, are the allies of "Hillary Clinton - who...emphasized themes of feminism and racial equality throughout her campaign". And of course, this is where their rhetoric was headed all along: the point was never to maintain a principled, across-the-board critique of oppression, and it was certainly never to engage in anything resembling self-criticism; it was always to co-opt emancipatory rhetoric in order to attack the left and whitewash the center.

The scumbag center

Still, anyone who's earnestly committed to the fight against oppression should still be willing to concede what all of these folks would admit just a year ago: bigotry is everywhere. It's even in the alt-center. To see it, one need look no further than the people I've already quoted: from Rebecca Traister's dogwhistle reference to Obama supporters as "dark and funky" to Marcus Johnson's odious history of misogyny, racism, and homophobia to Tom Watson's creepy anti-semitism to, well, this:
I'm taking the rare step of changing the headline. My original headline was, in retrospect, inflammatory and I regret the use of the word "lynching." Its use had...an unfortunate tendency to discount its historic - and literal - meaning in American history.
That's Watson apologizing once again, this time for his charming spin that it was Hillary Clinton who was being "lynched" - by the media! - in her 2008 primary against a black man. Incidentally, here are the sort of responses that article incited from the alt-center rank-and-file:



But as Watson has already demonstrated, one doesn't have to go back to 2008 to find rampant bigotry and oppressive rhetoric among the alt-center. Here's Kevin Drum, apologizing for his own problematic headline:
The original headline of this post was "Obama Finally Shows His Chicago Thug Side for Real." This was obviously a nod to the endless tea party invocations of Obama as a Chicago thug, but it's been taken by many as a racial dog whistle. I apologize for that, since it certainly wasn't my intent.
In the previous post, I called Marco Rubio the next human piƱata in the Republican primary. On Twitter I got called out for this: "I think we can all agree that describing Hispanics as 'pinatas' is offensive." ...We really need to stop this.
And just a few days ago he made another variation on this same argument in his Let's Please Kill Off the "White Supremacy" Fad:
I was listening in on a listserv conversation the other day, and someone asked how and when it became fashionable to use the term "white supremacy" as a substitute for ordinary racism...For what it's worth, this is a terrible fad. With the exception of actual neo-Nazis and a few others, there isn't anyone in America who's trying to promote the idea that whites are inherently superior to blacks or Latinos. 
This time, Drum just quietly changed the headline to the less strident "Let's Be Careful With the "White Supremacy" Label" - but what's more interesting here is his passing mention that this article came from an entire conversation on a listserv. 

Quietly problematic

Which touches on a crucial (though for most people, entirely obvious) point: the elite professional class that constitutes the most vocal and visible strata of the alt-center is fine with saying things in private that they would never say in public. In fact, read closely enough and you'll find them bragging about this:


Liberal elites routinely understand it, not as a point of basic decency, but as a matter of professional skill, that one should maintain a front of genteel civility. Too often, meanwhile, the alt-center treats bigotry not as a sin so much as a secret - it's the sort of thing you're allowed to indulge in after one too many microbrews, on the golf course or in private Slacks outside of "polite company". Or when you're really mad and you think you can get away with it:


Again, we shouldn't find any of this surprising or at all controversial if we just concede the obvious point that bigotry is everywhere. What is interesting is that one usually does not, for the alt-center, have to try to tease out secret subtextual bigotry as liberals so recently tried to do their bizarre parsing of Bernie Sanders' use of the word "but". Neither does one have to play the standard guilt-by-association games that are so often used to smear leftists who haven't personally said anything incriminating. Instead, one can often just pick out any given alt-centrist, no matter how prominent, and do a quick-and-easy word search through their writing for straight-up slurs and bigoted language. Or one can just talk to leftist women and people of color, and you'll immediately get stories about overt, unambiguous alt-center racism:


And alt-center sexism:


And even intersectional bigotry:


That last problem, incidentally, has been a particularly egregious and deliberate point of erasure among the alt-center over the past year, as multiple women have pointed out. If you want to see sexism in action, just look for a leftist woman trying to get a response from a liberal man. That alone makes the point clear: bigotry is everywhere. The so-called dirtbag left has always been pretty quick to admit this. Denial, in the endless media debates over this, isn't coming from them - it's coming from the pious, privileged alt-center.